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On Thursday evenings, Harry went to the building three streets over for dinner.

Normally, he went straight home to his one-bedroom unit, where he cooked himself dinner and ate it at his desk while he did extra work and then collapsed in his bed, just a foot away. Sometimes he went to the pub for a beer and to use their phone to call a friend from uni. A couple times a week the old ladies that lived down the hall would bring him some dessert and a friendly smile, permanently worried he was going to die alone and omega-less. He didn’t need their help with cooking, but it never hurt to have a little company to break up the rest of his week.

But Thursdays, he never had to worry about being alone.

He had stayed at work as late as he could manage that day, finishing up grading the tests his students had taken that day since he knew he wouldn’t have much time in the evening to work on them. He rubbed his eyes and sighed before moving up to rub his temple as he walked, trying to ease the headache from his day. It was the end of an Indian summer now, the heat just starting to fade from the air and the wind rushing into replace it, cool on his cheeks as he walked.

It wasn’t his favorite kind of weather, but he tried to enjoy it. Ever since Saturday, it had a very long, hard week, and he knew he would only have a few hours before it would go back to being hard.

He was approaching a flat unit in a neighborhood reserved for people with mating papers or better jobs or both; big windows and little communal gardens and lots of window boxes blooming with carefully tended flowers.

When he finally arrived in front of the right flat unit, he slipped in the front door and then went up the empty set of stairs near the front of the entrance. The metal echoed under his work loafers as he climbed, and he only stopped when he got to the floor he wanted. He turned down the hall, past several identical doors, until he spotted the right worn-looking metal number and a wooden wreath decorated with autumn leaves hanging below it. Harry knocked on the familiar door, stepping back and shoving his hands into his pockets as he waited.

The door clicked a few moments later, and he lifted his head to watch as the door opened. He smiled when it opened fully, and he could finally see his own face looking back at him.

“Hi, Alex,” he said.

“Harry,” his brother returned, opening the door fully. “You’re a little early. The bread’s not even done yet.”

“That’s alright. I got out of school late, so I figured I would come straight here rather than go all the way home,” he said, “Is that okay?”

“Of course it’s okay, come in, Christ,” Alex laughed and reached out a hand, pulling Harry inside. Harry’s vision flared with the ache in his head and he sighed, rubbing at his temple once more.

“I’ll take your jacket,” Alex said. Harry nodded and shrugged off his coat before offering it to Alex, who hung it on the hook near the door. Once he was done he glanced behind him, into the back of the flat towards the kitchen.

 “Louis, darling, Harry’s here.”

“I can hear you two, I know,” another voice called from the kitchen. “Give me a minute.”

There was a loud clink from the other room, followed by the smell of something hot and a bit sweet. Then there were footsteps, and Harry and Alex lifted their heads at the same moment, although Harry forced himself to cast his eyes to the side after he realized how quickly he’d lifted his gaze.

“Hello, Harry,” that same voice said again a moment later, and Harry allowed himself to look back this time.

Harry had known his brother’s fiancé for five years now. Actually, Harry had been one of the first people to meet Louis after Alex started courting him, even if it was an accident. He had taken a train one day to see Alex at university and opened the door of his brother’s flat to see Alex sitting on the common room sofa with an omega boy in his lap and his arms securely around his waist. Alex had glanced at the door, and just smiled as he kissed the omega’s temple.

“Harry, this is Louis,” he had said then, “Darling, this is my brother.”

Louis had glanced up and blinked at Harry, his mouth lazy and his eyes bright, and he had laughed.

“You weren’t lying when you said you had a twin,” he’d said.

Now, Louis was still smiling at Harry, but he had quietly moved into Alex’s side, and the other man had an arm around him. Louis was dressed in a blue jumper that looked new, with a pure white collar poking over the top, probably both things Alex had picked up for him. He looked nice, and even though he wasn’t really that much shorter than Alex or Harry, he looked so small and sweet under Alex’s arm.

“Hi, Louis,” Harry said, now, and Louis smiled at him again.

“The vegetables need two more minutes to cook,” Louis said, “I think. And then we can eat.”

“You think,” Alex repeated fondly, and then kissed the top of Louis’s head. “Does that mean we’ll be eating the memories of vegetables again, darling?”

Louis rolled his eyes and pushed hard on Alex’s side, slipping out from under his arm.

“Leave me be. You could help me if you wanted decent dinner so bad.”

Louis still kissed Alex’s shoulder quickly before slipping out of the room, back to the kitchen to rescue their food. Their kisses were always quick, especially in front of Harry. But every time Louis’s lips came close to him it always made the briefest of smiles flash across Alex’s face. It was a rare sight.

Harry followed his brother to the kitchen, and when they came inside Louis was lifting a pot off the stove, draining hot water and sliced vegetables into a bowl in the sink. The radio was on, a deep, plain voice speaking in the midst of all the static. Harry could make out “Germany” and “Italy” enough times to tell it was war coverage.

Louis reached over to adjust the signal of the radio, the static crackling and changing as he did, and Alex reached out for the radio a moment later.

“Turn that off,” Alex said softly, putting his hand over Louis’s. The omega looked up at him, his eyes narrowing.

“I want to know what’s happening.”

“You can turn it on later,” Alex said gently, “Not while we have dinner.” 

Louis chewed on his bottom lip, and then glanced at Harry, smiling.

“Ask Harry if he wants to listen to it,” Louis said as he picked up the the drained vegetables, “I’ll turn it off if he doesn’t want to hear it.”

Alex gave Harry a glance as Louis said it, and Harry just kept his mouth slightly open as he tried to figure out what to say.

He heard enough war coverage on a day to day basis, in the mornings papers and in break room chatter. He could use a break from the news. But he knew that most establishments liked to turn off their radios and turn over their newspapers when omegas came around, like the mere mention of war would make them faint. Louis was probably hungry for basic information the rest of the world was sick of.

“Louis is allowed to listen to the radio, isn’t he?” Harry said, which made Louis scoff.

“Louis is allowed to do whatever he wants,” Louis said.

“Right. Um. You can leave it on,” Harry said, “I don’t mind.”

Louis smiled at him, his bright white teeth flashing, and then he turned to the bowl of vegetables, bringing it over to the dining table and setting it in the middle of the table along with the strips of half-dried beef, the baked potatoes, and the bread.

“Can you fix me a plate, love?” Alex asked.

“You have two hands,” Louis said with a laugh. He reached out for Alex, clinging to his fingers for a moment and then bringing himself closer, kissing his alpha’s arm before he sat down.

They had this exchange every week, and every time, without fail, it brought them straight into their own world, where Harry was an optional addition.

Which was fine. This was his brother’s house, and Harry was having dinner out of nothing but a generous repeated invitation. Louis didn’t owe him any attention.

“Is school going well for you, Harry?”

Harry snapped back to attention by Louis’s own voice, light and pleasant. Louis was picking up a bowl in the middle of the table filled with blackberry sauce for the bread, and not even looking at Harry, but still smiling as he went about his task and waited for Harry’s answer.

“About as well as it was last week,” Harry said, and Louis laughed.

“Anything exciting happen?”

“Harry teaches math to teenagers,” Alex said, “He has the least exciting job in the world.”

“And you sell motor oil for a living, hush,” Louis sighed, “Harry?”

“Um,” Harry said, “No, nothing exciting.”

“See, I told you,” Alex said, “Pass the bread, darling?”

Louis rolled his eyes but still picked up the basket and handed it to Alex, a hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth when Alex’s fingers brushed their own.

These dinners were the same. They were domestic and monotonous, which was to be expected when each of them had lives that didn’t change. But Harry still went every week, because it was a nice break from his empty apartment in the unmated side of town. And he saw his brother, and he saw Louis, with his pretty, bright eyes and a sweet smile.

But still, every time Louis gave Harry attention only to retract it and turn back to Alex, the person who deserved Louis’s attention, it made Harry’s heart ache a little.

Because, the thing was, he had also been a little in love with his brother’s fiancé for five years.

When Harry had first met Louis, he had thought he was beautiful, of course. There was nothing wrong with finding an omega beautiful. But then he had seen Louis more and more, the boy constantly by Alex’s side. He was funny, with a sharp mouth and a wicked mind, and Harry was drawn in instantly with each word he heard the omega say.

And then he had agreed to move in with Alex, and to mate with him, and then later Alex had come to Harry one night and said “I’m going to ask Louis to marry me” and he had looked happier than Harry had ever seen him. Harry had hugged him for ten minutes straight and told him how happy he was for him.

Because he had been, and still was. Harry wasn’t jealous. He liked watching Louis and Alex together and how blissfully happy they were; a perfect pairing who would one day make a perfect family. Even in his lowest moments when he dreamed about the taste of Louis’s mouth on his, he would never want to live in a world where Louis broke Alex’s heart and left him for Harry. But maybe he did want to come over one day, and have Louis kiss him in a greeting when he came over for dinner, for Alex to pick a tipsy Louis up to take him to bed and to glance over at Harry and say “you can stay, you know” and he wouldn’t just mean for the night but forever. Forever in a warm house filled with a sweet scent and people he loved.

He knew that wasn’t possible. And he also knew there was a good reason he didn’t have a mate of his own, even if he was getting too old not to have one. He had stayed in school longer than Alex had so he could get all the requirements he needed to become a teacher. He had his job and his students, and Alex had a boy he was going to mate and marry by the end of the month. They had done separate things and gotten according results.

But sometimes Louis looked over at Alex a certain way, and it was hard for Harry to remember why he had made the decisions he had.

*******

“Well,” Louis said, “I have four here.”

He set down part of his hand, an even set of spades. Alex nodded, and then glanced at his hand.

“I have three,” he said, and then set down three cards in an uneven series of suits.

They’d been playing Rummy for an hour and a half, and at this point the only thing keeping Harry interested was the beer in front of him and the blatantly bad plays Alex kept dishing out.

“Alex,” Louis said, “You can’t play different suits, baby. That’s the point of the game.”

“Oh,” Alex laughed, “Right, of course.”

He picked up the cards and then shrugged.

“Guess I don’t have anything,” he said. “Harry, it’s your turn.”

Harry cut a glance to his brother’s hand, which he wasn’t bothering to hide, and saw that he had a six-series of hearts. He shook his head, but still looked at his own hand and set down all four cards, diamonds in a row. He leaned back, and then picked up his drink.

“I believe that’s all for me.”

“Alright,” Alex sighed, as he set down his hand “Harry, you win again. Darling, you’re second. And I guess I lose.”

“Mm. Alex let me win,” Louis said, “I would anyways, but it helps his ego when he knows he’s losing on purpose.”

Louis looked at Alex while he said it, but Harry almost liked it when he talked about Alex in the third person, addressing him but not quite. Like he was actually talking to Harry, one on one, a real conversation in which he was the focus of the omega’s attention.

“And I didn’t,” Harry said, making Louis turn and then smirk at him. He picked up his beer, taking a sip. Alex, to his credit, just laughed and then reached over, putting an arm around Louis and bringing him in to kiss his cheek.

“Another game, then?” he asked.

“Oh, not for me,” Louis sighed, “I’m tired, I’m going to take a bath.”

He stood up, swallowing the last bit of his beer, and then let it clink firmly on the table. He wandered around the table, his movements a bit wobbly from the alcohol, and smiled softly as he came over to Alex. He settled both hands on his shoulders and leaned in, kissing him on the neck, under his jaw.

“Goodnight, alpha,” he sighed, his voice laced with a drunken giggle. He lifted his head, his cheeks still pink and his eyes still glimmering, that soft smile on his face as he looked over at Harry. His eyes still flashed and shifted for a moment in recognition, like he had briefly forgotten Harry was there.

“Goodnight, Harry,” he said.

“Goodnight, Louis,” Harry said, almost the same moment Alex said, “Goodnight, my darling.”

The combination of their voices made Louis laugh, and then lowered his head again, pressing his mouth briefly into Alex’s curls.

“Twins,” he mumbled softly, and then Alex lifted his hand, fondly squeezing Louis’s side.

“Do I need to help you with your bath again, love?”

“Once. You had to help me once,” Louis sighed, “I’m okay. I’m not drunk. Just happy.”

“Okay then,” Alex said, then squeezed him again, “Call if you need me.”

“I don’t need help,” Louis said, “But okay.”

He kissed Alex’s head again, and then wandered off into the next room. Alex watched him, still encased entirely in Louis’s world, and Harry picked up his beer and drank as he just looked at Alex looking towards the other room. His brother only looked away when he heard water running in the next room, and then the soft splashing of Louis climbing into the water.

Alex smiled at Harry when he looked back, like he hadn’t completely forgotten about him for a few moments as he had once more been caught up in Louis’s spell.

“Another game, then, for the two of us?” he asked, already picking up the cards and shuffling them again.

Harry swallowed. He wanted to play again, even if he didn’t even like this game. He wanted to play until it was two in the morning and get drunk and stay here.

But he couldn’t. Especially not this week, when he had something he couldn’t leave here without doing.

“Actually,” Harry said, his mouth a bit dry, “Can we go outside? I think I need a fag.”

“Sure,” Alex shrugged, dropping the cards again. He pushed against the table, the chair scraping the floor as he stood up, “Just let me get Louis a glass of water for when he gets out of the tub.”

As Alex went to the kitchen, Harry got up and went outside to the back balcony of the flat, taking out his own pack and his matches. He lit up, drawing in the smoke and waiting for Alex to come back. He was prepared for Alex to be back in fifteen minutes, his hair wet and his mouth grinning, a sign he gave in and joined Louis in the bath, forgetting about Harry for a few moments.

But soon enough the door opened again, and Alex came out to stand next to him, his own lit fag in his hand a moment later. He took a drag, coming over to the edge of the railing so he could lean one arm against it. Then he glanced over at Harry, his eyes narrowing.

“Something’s wrong with you,” Alex said. Harry gave him a glance and scoffed.

“Nothing’s wrong with me.”

“Yes, there is,” he said, “Could tell the minute you got here, something’s off with you.”

“Fine, maybe there is,” Harry agreed, lifting his own cigarette to his mouth. He looked out to the alleyway below, nothing but darkened windows and smoke-scarred brick, “But I’m telling you later.”

“Later,” Alex repeated drily, “Why not now?”

“Because we had a nice evening,” Harry said, “That’s why.”

Alex looked at him, and blinked once, his eyes narrowing.

“Are your hips acting up again?” he asked, “Your back?”

“Aren’t they always,” Harry sighed, and rubbed the sharp bones of his right hip, a phantom pain rolling through at just the mention of how thoroughly fucked it was, “But they’re fine. It’s not that.”

“Your job?”

“That’s fine.”

“You need money?”

“I make more money than you.”

“Yeah, well, don’t remind me,” Alex said tightly, and then stared at Harry for a longer moment, no more guesses coming. After a few minutes, he started to drum his fingers on the balcony railing, the bright red ashes of the end of his cigarette crumbling and falling over the edge as he did.

“You got recruited,” he finally said.

Harry just looked at him, fighting the urge to curse. He should have told him first, instead of letting him guess. There were about two things Harry could tell Alex that would make him this nervous. One was telling him that Harry found a mate. The other, at the moment, was him getting recruited. And the latter was far more likely, anyways. It wasn’t exactly a wild guess.

Still, he didn’t reply. He just lifted the fag to his mouth, breathed in and then exhaled.

“You did, didn’t you,” Alex pushed, moving closer, “Harry.”

“Christ, yes,” he sighed, spitting out the last of the smoke as he exhaled, examining the glowing cherry in the falling darkness, “I got my letter on Saturday. I ship out in three weeks.”

“And you decided to wait to tell me now?”

“You would’ve known something was wrong if I stopped by another night,” Harry said weakly, “I wanted to have one good night before I told you. Isn’t that a good enough reason for you?”

“No.”

Harry scoffed, looked away. He leaned both arms hard against the railing.

“You always do this,” he said, “You stress me out with your worrying. You’re lucky I told you at all and didn’t up and disappear on you, send you a card from Berlin in a month.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Then I guess it was a bad joke,” Harry sighed.

Alex just stared at him for another moment, and then took a step forward, jabbing his cigarette against the railing, the sparks and ash flying from the end.

“What are you going to do?”

“What the hell do you mean, ‘what am I going to do’?” Harry scoffed, “I’m going to file a leave of absence at work and I’m going to go. Not much else I can.”

He lifted his own cigarette back to his mouth, trying to inhale before it burned down completely, but he felt Alex grip his wrist hard before he could. He looked over, his brother so close, his eyes wide and smoke still streaming from his mouth.

“I,” Alex started, then licked his lips, “I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault.”

“I know,” Alex managed, “I’m still sorry it’s happening.”

Harry looked away, but Alex caught his shoulder.

“Hey,” he said, “C’mere.”

“To do what?”

“Let me hug you, you damn son of a bitch,” Alex huffed, “You’re my little brother and you’re going to war. Can I do that?”

“You have four minutes on me, good Christ,” Harry glanced at him, and then shrugged, finally stubbing out his fag on the balcony railing.

“Okay,” he said, “Sure you can.”

“There. Thank you,” Alex laughed weakly. He lifted his arms, wrapping them around Harry and squeezing tightly. Harry just sighed and let it happen, then lifted his hand, patting the back of Alex’s wrist.

“Hey, it’s alright,” he said, “You have three more weeks of me.”

“Still,” he huffed into Harry’s shoulder.

Harry stayed still for another moment, and nudged Alex in the side.

“You done with your hug yet?”

“You have to go?”

“Not really.”

“Then, no, fuck off.”

Harry laughed weakly, and then let his brother hold him, their bodies in a bitter, smoke-laden cloud, neither of them talking.

Finally, Alex spoke up.

“Three weeks.”

“Three weeks,” Harry agreed.

They didn’t say much else. They just stayed there until Harry pulled away and insisted he needed to go home, and Alex just followed him back into the flat, not even going to the front door with him as he shuffled back to his room, mumbling that he would need to have a bath so Louis wouldn’t smell the smoke in his hair.

Harry waited until his fag had burned down, and then tiptoed back through the living room and to the front door, trying to make no noise so he wouldn’t disturb either of them on his way out.  

******

“Okay,” Harry sighed, dragging his last decent piece of chalk across the board, “Since you all seem to be giving me glazed eyes, I’m going to save our cross multiples for another day. I’m going to give you all a few long division equations, nice and simple, and then you all can go home.”

He finished scribbling out the last number in the equation, and then glanced over his shoulder.

“Everyone remembers long division from year three, yes?”

He got several sleepy, confused stares from his students, and just shook his head. He wasn’t surprised, not when it was so early in the school year and it was the last section of the day on a Friday.

“Fine, then I suppose I’ll walk through it again,” he said, “So in the last place here, we have a five, so – “

The metallic sound of the school bell cut through his last word, and he sighed as the room dissolved into shuffling papers, chattering voices, and squeaking shoes as his students finished packing up for the afternoon. He dropped his chalk back onto the ledge of the board and brushed his hands together to banish the chalk dust from his palms as he turned around.

“Okay, I expect you all to have your tables ready for me tomorrow,” Harry called over the scurry of activity as the students packed up their rucksacks, “Can I get at least one, ‘Yes, Mr. Styles’ please?”

“Yes, Mr. Styles,” several voices echoed, and he nodded, a smile creeping onto his lips.

“Okay, I’ll see you all on Monday. Have a good weekend.”

He watched the students file out of the room, a few of them hanging back for additional help with the previous night’s assignment. He smiled and answered their questions, settling their homework on his desk and running his finger over the places they had corrected their own mistakes in blue and red ink.

“See, darling, you just need to make sure you do the parentheses first, and then everything else. Then you’ll be at the top of the class,” he told Sarah, one of his sweetest, quietest students that seemed permanently afraid to ask questions in class but usually sought him out afterwards.

“Make sure you look over your tables tonight, okay? You’re making mistakes with your multiplications but it’s nothing a little revision can’t fix,” he said to Thomas, a boy who Harry knew from hearing some student gossip was probably going to present as an omega. He struggled with class as much as the other students did, but Harry found it a lot harder to encourage him to keep trying.

“Maybe we can set up a time to talk during lunch period, do you think that would help you?” Harry smiled as gently as he could with Maggie, who he knew struggled to focus but seemed so smart and genuinely remorseful for her mistakes.

He finished up with his students, giving them all a wave goodbye and one last smile as they went. Once the last one was filed out of the door, he stretched his arms over his head and looked out his classroom window at the early autumn sunshine, at the students that were rushing out over the school path, holding hands with their friends or their sweethearts, eager to go home for the day.

He would miss this classroom, and his kids, when he left. He was going to file his official leave of absence at the beginning of next week with the headmaster and tell his kids the following Monday that he would be leaving for the front. He hoped at the very least they would get a good substitute, someone who gave a shit about them, unlike too many of the other teachers who were still bitter they had to teach fourteen year olds, bristling with energy and unbloomed pheromones.

Harry let his arms drop and shook his head, and then picked up his bag, packing away his papers and closing up the fraying clasp. He swung it over his shoulder, ready to head out of the room, and then paused when he saw someone standing in the doorway.

“Oh,” he said as he looked at his brother, “Hi.”

Alex grinned, rocking on the balls on his as he stood in the doorway. He was fresh off work, still in the work shirt that had his name stitched over the breast pocket in cursive and the name of the petrol distributor he worked for on the other side of the chest. Usually Alex worked right until 5, a full hour and a half later than Harry did, and when he had free time in the middle of the day the first thing he usually did race home to see Louis. Harry just looked at him, frowning as he tried to figure out what he was doing here.

“Are you…is everything okay?” Harry asked, and Alex laughed.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said, “I wanted to ask you to come over tonight for dinner.”

“I just came to dinner yesterday,” Harry said, his eyes narrowing.

“Well, come again.”

Harry just stared at him for a moment, and then glanced away and readjusted his bag on his shoulder.

“Do you feel sorry for me?” Harry sighed, “Is that why you left off work early? Just to come here and invite me over?”

“Of course not,” Alex said, a bit too quickly. Harry lifted his brows and Alex sighed.

“Look. Let me make you dinner. Please,” Alex said, “I got a half day today because I made a good sale this morning. I thought it’d be nice to have a full afternoon with you.”

“You could have a full afternoon with your fiancé,” Harry said, “Besides, I need to go home and grade my papers.”

“You have a full weekend to do that, don’t you?” Alex asked.

“Well, yeah, but – “

“Good. You can grade your papers tomorrow.”

Harry just blinked at him, and then groaned.

“If Louis is mad that I am over at four in the afternoon when you had a half day at work, it is not my fault.”

“Okay, that’s fair,” Alex laughed, then reached out, grasping Harry by the shoulder, “Now come on, let me take you home.”

*******

As soon as he was through the door, Harry could hear music playing through the entire flat. Every single window was thrown open, warm sunlight spilling over every bit of the floors and furniture, the gauzy curtains shifting slightly with the breeze outside. Alex smiled softly as he took off his jacket in the front hall, gazing out to the rest of the flat.

“Darling,” Alex called, “Where are you, sweetheart?”

Harry unzipped his own jacket and hung it up along with his work bag one of the coat hooks as he heard the sound of bare footsteps emerging from the short hallway. He glanced over a moment before the smell of wild flowers and honey fully hit him, and he saw Louis coming down the hall, wearing a loose white house robe and holding a sweating glass of cola, the sunshine around the room reflecting off the omega’s hair.

Of course he looked fucking beautiful, and clearly he was dressed only for Alex to come home to, and this really wasn’t what Harry needed, not when he was already being pulled into a pity dinner.

Louis smiled when he first walked into the hallway, his feet smoothly moving towards Alex, and then he looked over to Harry and his face shifted, his eyes widening a bit. His hand went up to his chest, gathering the loose material of his robe to cover more of his upper half.

“Harry,” he said, nearly breathing it out, “Hello.”

“Hi,” Harry managed, “Um, I’m – “

He wanted to stutter out that he was sorry, that this was a surprise for him too, that he hadn’t meant to barge in on a space he was usually only welcomed into once a week and taken Louis by surprise.

But before he could say anything, Alex cut in.

“I thought we could have Harry over again,” he said with a shrug, “Is that okay, my love?”

Harry expected Louis to say no and to send him out, but instead he saw Louis settle his glass on the closest table and then the omega rushed forward, tossing his arms around Harry’s middle and settling his head against his shoulder.

“Oh, Harry,” he sighed, squeezing him, “I’m sorry.”

Harry blinked, his feet shaking a bit against the floor.

Louis had never hugged him before. He had no reason to, and Harry had never even entertained the idea. But now he could feel the full press of Louis’s barely covered body against him, his scent sweet and so close to Harry’s nose.

“I – “ Harry said, “Did Alex tell you?”

Louis just nodded, his cheek rubbing against Harry’s shoulder.

He really was going to die.

“It’s alright,” Harry finally managed, “It is what it is.”

He cringed at his own words, but when Louis pulled away, his eyes were wide and nearly wet, and his hands clung to Harry’s shoulders.

“You can come over anytime you want before you go, okay?” Louis said, “You don’t have to be by yourself.”

“Oh,” Harry said, “Um, thank you.”

He was now very aware of Alex looking at the two of them, but when Harry glanced over at his brother, he was just smiling softly at Louis.

“It’s okay, darling,” Alex said, “He’s with us now, yes?”

He reached out to pet Louis’s head, and Louis just nodded, and then finally let go of Harry and moved away. He went over to Alex, giving him a precursory greeting kiss and then a quick nuzzle into his neck, and then he was moving back again and looking at Harry.

“I’m sorry I didn’t know you were here at first,” Louis said as he went back to retrieve his drink from the kitchen table, “I thought it was just Alex. You two…you smell alike. I guess I never noticed.”

“Twins,” Harry said, too quickly, and cringed again.

Louis in that pretty white robe was fucking with his brain.

Still, Louis smiled at him and nodded, then pulled at his robe again.

“I’m…I guess I’ll go change,” he managed, then glanced at Alex again, “Do you want a drink, alpha? I can make one before I go.”

“That’s alright,” Alex smiled, and reached out, thumbing at Louis’s chin, “Can you just set a fresh shirt out for me when you’re in the bedroom?”

Louis nodded, and then he was gone, disappearing back down the hallway and into his and Alex’s room just as quickly as he had appeared. Alex laughed lightly after he had gone.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I think any talk of the war upsets him.”

“Never seemed to upset him before,” Harry managed, thinking about all the times he had watched Louis sit at the table, enchanted by the news coverage on the radio.

“Still, it’s close to home for us,” Alex shrugged, then moved into the kitchen, “That boy is smart as a damn whip and wants to read all he can but he’s still an omega, you know? He’s soft to this stuff when it comes too close. Don’t tell him I told you that, though. He’ll never forgive me.”

He crossed the floor, going into the kitchen and opening the ice box up.

“Do you want a beer?” Alex asked, “Or – looks like Louis made lemonade. Lucky us, it’ the only thing the boy can make.”

“Um,” Harry said, slowly going back into the kitchen to join his brother, “I’ll take a lemonade, sure.”

Alex looked up and smiled at him, and then reached over, clapping him on the shoulder and keeping his hand there as he got the lemonade pitcher out.

“I’m happy you’re here, you know,” Alex said, “You – “

Alex paused, long enough to Harry look over at him.

“You’re welcome over any time, like Louis said. Not just on dinner night. You know?”

“Thanks for the invitation. It’s a little late.”

“Yeah, well,” Alex said, and then set the pitcher down firmly, “You have it now.”

He poured out the lemonade and Harry took it when Alex offered it to him, and Alex still kept his hand on Harry’s shoulder as he drank some of it.

“Are you alright,” Harry asked flatly, barely making it a question, and Alex seemed to jolt and nod.

“I’m great,” he said, then repeated “I’m great.”

Harry just drank his lemonade and didn’t ask another question until Louis swept back into the room, the smell of sugar and daises wafting behind him.

*******

They played Monopoly after dinner, and Harry stayed relatively sober as Alex broke into a bottle of wine that Louis nearly finished. They stayed up late, and he watched Louis get drunker and try to curl up in Alex’s lap, until he stood, his lips stained red and wobbling a little on his feet, and kissed Alex with a soft smile and went off to bed, lingering a little longer than usual to say “good night, Harry.”

“Can we go smoke?” Alex asked as soon as Louis was out of the room, and Harry cut his eyes to his brother, lifting his head.

“I mean, sure we can,” he said.

“Okay, great,” Alex said, and then got up quickly, going to one of the kitchen drawers to retrieve his matches and smokes, “Balcony?”

“I’m not going to fill your living room with smoke,” Harry said, “Your fiancé would kill us both.”

“Right, right,” Alex said, shaking his head, “Of course.”

Harry just stared at him but still stood up, picking up his warm glass, and took it outside to the balcony. The heat was hanging on tightly, oppressive against his skin, making his arms feel sticky and tight as soon as he came outside.

Alex came out a moment later, already smelling like smoke, one hand clamping on a half-burned down fag and the other in his hair.

“It’s your funeral in the morning for lighting up inside,” Harry said, but Alex spoke before he was through the second syllable of the last word.

“I’ve been thinking since last night,” Alex said, and Harry rolled his eyes as he reached into his pocket for his lighter.

“Oh, yeah?” Harry scoffed, “About what? About how many dinners you’re going to invite me to before you stop feeling sorry for me?”

“Christ,” Alex sighed, “I’m trying to do something nice for you, you know.”

“I know,” Harry said, “I’m sorry.”

“Good,” Alex said, lifting his cigarette to his mouth again, “Because I’m going to do something even nicer for you.”

“Oh yeah?” Harry said, lifting his warmed glass to his mouth, washing down the taste of smoke with liquor, “What’s that.”

Alex took a long pull and exhaled slowly, looking out into the alley. When they were in secondary school and had first started stealing cigarettes from their mother’s dresser drawer, Alex used to smoke right in out in the open on the school grounds, not even hiding it from teachers. The girls used to tell Harry that his brother looked like a movie star when he did that, and it always made Harry feel a little inferior, even if they had the same face.

He nearly felt that way now as Harry exhaled hard and then turned to him, his eyes flashing a bit as he did.

“You’re not going to go to war,” Alex said, smoking still pouring from his lips, “I am.”

Harry set his glass down on the railing before he could take another drink, and just stared at Alex.

“That’s fucking hilarious,” he said flatly, “Did you grab wrong kind of cigarettes from the corner store?”

“No, I am,” Alex said, “I’m going to go instead of you.”

“You can’t volunteer for me, you’re bonded,” Harry said, “Besides, if you went, they wouldn’t forfeit me. It would just be more the fucking merrier.”

Harry ducked his head to cup the light of his fag as he drew it back to his mouth, and then he picked his head back up, he saw Alex honest-to-god glaring at him.

“You’re real fucking dense sometimes, you know that?” Alex said, “I’m going to go and I’m going to pretend I’m you. And you’re going to stay here and be me.”

“That makes no sense.”

“Yes, it does,” Alex said, “We’re twins. It’s so fucking easy, Harry, I just give them your name and your ID and I don’t even get questioned.”

“No, no, that part makes sense,” Harry said. He was getting closer to his brother now, waving his hand. The liquor was heavy and warm in his veins, “I’d just like to know what the hell you’re thinking, and why you think this is something that is a logical fucking thing to do.”

“I can survive out there,” Alex said, like it was the most logical thing in the world. He lifted himself up as he said it, but he couldn’t feel rise much taller than Harry and his identical height, “You can’t.”

“For fuck’s sake, what makes you think that?” Harry said, “Because I stayed in uni longer? Because you always did better on the fitness tests than me? That doesn’t mean anything, Alex.”

“Maybe it does!”

“Okay, okay, fine,” Harry sighed, “I’ll entertain you for a minute. You ran in school. You were bigger than me until we were maybe eighteen. I sit at a desk all day and you get to walk around. But none of those things make you fucking bulletproof, and they don’t make either of us free from the law if you get caught.”

Alex stared at him, and then reached out and held Harry’s shoulder.

“Don’t tease me,” he growled, “I’m serious about this.”

Harry just stared at his brother, at the ways his lips were pulled back. He could nearly hear the vibration of his voice hanging in the air, could feel it in his chest.

His brother didn’t growl. Not in front of Louis, not in front of anybody. But he was now, and his eyes were were and glassy, his jaw set.

“You’re serious,” Harry repeated, and he wanted the way his voice wavered a bit. Alex had growled at him. He wanted him to pay attention.

“I am,” Alex said. His voice was still deep, rumbling, but the growl had left his voice, and Harry sighed, letting his shoulders lower. He lifted his cigarette with an unsteady hand, regarding his brother. Afraid and yet determined. And so, so stupid.

Alex closed his eyes and then opened them again, the dark green of his eyes shifting and settling as he did.

“Look,” Alex said, “I wished I could have done something like this for you, before, with Dad – “

“Oh no. Don’t,” Harry cut him off, “Please don’t bring that up.”

“Harry, your hips are bad.”

“My hips are fine.”

“They’re fucked up and you know why,” Alex snapped, then sighed, “I’m sorry.”

Harry just stared at his brother, and looked away.

“Don’t talk to me about Dad.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine, just don’t do it again,” Harry said, and looked back, “Have you thought about this when you weren’t drunk?”

“I’m not drunk,” Alex insisted, “I haven’t been drunk all day, not since last night. I’ve thought about this.”

“One day isn’t enough to think about giving your life over for nothing.”

“You are not nothing,” Alex snapped, “You are my little brother.”

“Okay, then what about Louis, huh?” Harry said, “You’re getting married soon. In weeks. Are you going to leave him?”

“We’ll get married when I get back,” Alex said, although his voice faltered a bit as he said it.

“But you might not, can’t you understand that?” Harry said, “You have a good life here. You’re mated, you have a job that’s decent, you’re happy.”

“And you’re happy, too, don’t just go to war and throw it away!”

“I’m happy with my own life!” Harry retorted, “But I’m not fucking yours up just so I can maybe go back it to someday. I’m not letting you bloody die for me.”

“I’m not going to die!” Alex snapped, “Do you think I would go if I thought I would die?”

“You don’t know that!” Harry burst out. It was a bit too loud, he realized, and winced as he heard his own voice echo off the hollow walls of the alley next to them. But Alex rose to meet him, and Harry took a step back. He could smell the pheromones starting to clutter the air on the balcony; a natural reaction to two alphas near-yelling at each other.

“Why won’t you just listen to me?”

“Because you’re being – “

There was a soft sound of a clicking lock before Harry could finish, and they both turned at the same moment.

Louis was standing in the doorway, in his dressing gown, his hair ruffled and sticking up. He squinted at the two of them, his eyes dark.

“You two woke me up with your incessant alpha screaming.” 

“I’m sorry, baby,” Alex said immediately, his voice quieting instantly, “We’ll be quiet.”

Louis looked unconvinced, and just glanced between the two of them, lifting a hand to cover his yawning mouth.

“Why are you two still awake?”

Harry glanced between the two of them.

“Why don’t you tell him what we’re talking about, Alex.”

“Harry – “

“You’re not going to tell him? Fine,” Harry snapped, then turned to Louis, “Your fiancé wants us to switch. He wants to take my draft for me.”

Louis blinked at both of them, his expression blank. Then he sighed, tightening the front of his robe, and came forward. He settled against Alex’s side, reaching a hand up to squeeze the other man’s bare forearm.

“My alpha,” he sighed tiredly, “Always so reckless.”

He kissed Alex’s cheek and rubbed his arm.

“What’s this, then? You have too much to drink? Saying silly things to scare your poor brother?”

Alex shook his head, turning to Louis with weary eyes.

“Louis, please, go back to sleep, darling.”

Louis blinked at him, frowning. Harry could nearly feel his mood shift, that too-sweet smell going a bit brittle around the edges, like burned sugar.

“You’re serious,” he said flatly, “Alex? Alex.”

“Please,” Alex said, “You should sleep, baby, you had a lot of wine.”

“Not until you tell me why you want to leave me to go fight in a war where alphas are dropping like flies, my love,” Louis said, his voice cloying sweet. Harry just stared at him, at his easy smile that seemed like it could go hard at any moment.

“He’s not going,” Harry cut in, “He’s being dumb.”

“Mm,” Louis hummed, not turning around to look at Harry, “Is that right, sweetheart? Are you just joking around?”

He reached his arms up, looping them around Alex’s neck and swaying back at forth, pulling Alex closer to him.

“Baby,” Alex murmured, “I – go back to bed, I was going to talk to you about this later.”

“Oh, were you?” Louis said, still swaying, still pulling on Alex’s neck.

“Yes,” Alex said, “Can you go to bed, now, darling? I’ll only be with Harry a few moments longer.”

“Can’t I stay?” Louis asked, “I can’t sleep. And now I want a cigarette.”

“Sweetheart, please.”

“Just for a few – “

Louis,” Alex snapped, and Harry had to take a step back at his voice.

He was growling again, and for the first time Harry could remember, it was at Louis.

That didn’t happen. That never, ever happened.

Louis’s eyes shifted, the wine-filled haze clearing from them as he dropped his arms from Alex’s neck.

“Don’t fucking growl at me,” Louis snapped back. Alex blinked at him, and then shook his head, his eyes wide like he could barely believe what he had just done.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I’m so sorry, please, just go inside, I’ll talk to you about this in a second, it’s important – “

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Louis said, his voice rising, “You don’t get to snap at me and tell me to go away. What are you even talking about? Your stupid draft-dodging joke?”

Alex blinked at his fiancé, and then lowered his eyes, his shoulders loosening.

“It’s not a joke,” he murmured, and Louis lifted his brows.

“Not a joke,” he repeated, and then leaned in, his voice firming, “Alex, look at me. What do you mean it’s not a joke?”

Harry stood quickly, then, clearing his throat.

“I’ll go,” he said, “I – you two can talk.”

                     

“No, no,” Louis said, waving his hand in Harry’s direction, “You can stay. We’ll go inside, and then Alex can tell me all about how this isn’t a joke.”

Louis grabbed the other man’s hand, reaching out for the balcony door handle with the other hand.

“Just for a few minutes,” Louis murmured, and Harry wasn’t sure if Louis was talking to Harry, Alex, or himself.

They disappeared inside, and Harry leaned back, grabbing the railing of the balcony. He considered slipping back inside and then leaving, abandoning this entire scheme. Surely they had gone into their bedroom to hash this out.

And then the screaming started, right from the other side of the sliding door.

“—fucking reckless, stupid, irresponsible – “ Louis’s voice was high and near-shrieking, in a way Harry had never heard it before, and Alex’s voice trying to rise desperately above it.

“Louis, Louis please – “

“Don’t fucking – “ Louis started, and then there was a shuffling sound, and hard breath, before the omega spoke again, “You cannot leave me, Alex.”

“It will only be a little while.”

“This isn’t one of your business trips!” Louis said, shrieking once more, “You won’t be gone for three days and bring me back a bloody souvenir.”

“It will only be for a while,” Alex repeated, his voice cloying, like he was calming an animal, “Chamberlain is in the midst of peace talks, my love. We’ll be settled and out in two months, I’ll bet.”

“I hate Chamberlain. Why are you bringing up Chamberlain? This is your fault!” Louis shouted.

Heavy breathing, near panting. Shuffling feet. Harry considered climbing down the side of the building.

“You can’t leave me,” Louis said, “I bought my wedding suit.”

“It can wait. You’ll look just as beautiful a few months later.”

“My heat is in another month.”

“We’ll work that out.”

“I’m pregnant.”

“You are not pregnant,” Alex said firmly, and then his voice quieted, nearly so Harry couldn’t hear. He strained to listen, in spite of himself, and then to press a hand high on his chest, under his throat, when he heard it.

Louis was crying. And over it, he could hear Alex’s voice, soft, sweet, and repetitive.

“Omega,” he said softly, “Omega, you’re alright. It’s alright.”

Harry backed away from the door and instead went to sit in the chair that stayed on the balcony, and barely listened to the rest of a conversation he shouldn’t be listening to.

“You’re stupid.”

“I know, my love.”

“We will talk about this.”

“Yes, darling.”

“We will talk only because you want to. You can’t go.”

“I – “ Alex murmured, “We’ll talk about this.”

Before Louis could say anything else, the sliding door was being pulled back, and Alex stuck his head out, his gaze finding Harry’s quickly.

“Why don’t you head out,” he said softly, “I’ll ring you in the morning, maybe.”

“Maybe,” Harry returned. He stood up so quickly he nearly wobbled and went to the door, “Thanks for dinner. And, um, thanks for dinner, yeah.”

“You’re welcome,” Alex said, and let his brother slip past inside, “Louis, Harry is going, say goodnight.”

Harry glanced over at Louis soon enough to see him leveling a truly terrifying glare at his alpha, and he didn’t even look over at Harry before he said, “Good night” crisply. He tugged his dressing gown tightly around himself, then turned, disappearing back down the hall in a flurry of pale blue silk.

“Please don’t ring me tomorrow,” Harry got out, “Just – work this out. I’ll see you later.”

He covered his hand with his face and shook his head as he walked quickly to the door, gathering his coat as quickly as he could. He could hear Alex behind him, but he moved quickly, slipping out the door and into the hallway. To the stairway. Down. Lobby. Out into the hot air.

He shouldn’t have come, he thought as he pulled on his jacket, He shouldn’t have accepted this invitation.

He wished he had never heard this idea, he thought as he turned up his collar against the humid wind.

But it didn’t matter. Because now he was going to forget about it all.

*******

It was a beautiful Tuesday, and Harry had opened the windows in his classroom and rolled his shirtsleeves up because it was so hot. The students were listless, sweating and glancing at the beautiful weather outside, and sprung up particularly fast when the bell rang. Harry just smiled and let them, and took his normal line of students waiting for his attention.

He had filed his leave of absence at the headmaster’s office yesterday. His last day at school would be the day before he left, and he didn’t know if the same job would be there when and if he got back. The students didn’t know; he would tell them later. Much later. At the last possible second, so he didn’t double think things. Foolish things like something proposed after dinner and drinks and cigarettes.

Harry had to prop his hands behind his head and shake his head free of his thoughts at the last student came forward with his workbook.

“Hi, Maple,” he smiled, “What can I do for you today?”

Maple smiled at him, big, uneven front teeth flashing as her lips nervously parted.

“Mr. Styles, I’m really sorry my tests haven’t been good lately,” Maple started, “I just can’t – um, I can’t focus.”

“That’s alright, love,” Harry nodded. He had heard from another teacher than Maple’s father had left her mother, and she was currently moving out of her childhood home to an unmated flat across town. He could understand if her grades were slipping, bright as she was.

“I just think I need things said twice now,” she said with a shake of her head, “Like, I can’t understand them the first time anymore.”

“I understand completely,” Harry said, “Math isn’t easy to understand the first time. The only reason it’s so easy for me is because every time I do a problem it’s my five-thousandth time.”

That made the girl smile a bit, and Harry reached out for a pad on his desk to write out an appointment for the next day.

 “How about you come talk to me during my free period tomorrow? We can eat our lunch outside tomorrow, too, if you like. Might as well enjoy the sunshine while we still have it.”

“That would be wonderful,” Maple nodded, smiling, “Thank you, Mr. Styles.”

“Of course, that’s why I’m here,” Harry smiled. He ripped off the piece of paper and then handed it to her with a smile, “Anything else?”

“No, no, I’m alright,” Maple shook her head quickly, ducking her eyes down.

Damn it, why did all these kids have to break his heart and make it so hard for him to leave.

“Well, I’m here if you ever need me, for algebra or anything else,” Harry said, “Here, I’ll walk you out.”

Harry stood up from his desk, the same as he always did, but in an instant he knew the movement was too fast. He felt a sharp zip of pain go through his hips and his back, making him wince and grab his desk. He gripped onto the bottom of his spine, his hand wrinkling the fabric of his work shirt.

“Mr. Styles?” Maple said immediately, “Are you alright?”

Harry looked up, meeting her frightened eyes, and nodded.

“I’m fine, love,” Harry smiled weakly, “My hips are a bit bad. But that shouldn’t surprise you, I’m ancient.”

He was still smiling, but she wasn’t, and Harry eventually sighed and looked away.

“Don’t worry about an old man like me, alright? Just worry about doing your work and being on time for our meeting tomorrow.”

“Okay, then,” she nodded, “Um, I hope you feel better.”

“Thank you,” Harry said.

He walked her to the door, as he had promised, and watched her leave and head down the hall. Once he closed the door, his hips protested once more, and he gasped weakly and slid down, until he was on his knees, on the cold tile of his classroom, his forehead shoved into the door. His hand immediately went to his hip, and he breathed in hard through his mouth.

His hips only bothered him every now and again. Sudden, sharp movements. Long hikes and runs, although he tried to keep up with exercising as much as he could. His hips were uneven and had healed wrong from too many fractures during his childhood, all blamed on clumsiness because he could never admit the real cause out loud.

He had spent the last decade being fine with his body, and its slight brokenness at the hands of something he could not control when he was a child. He could do most things; run and swim and box and walk around parks and neighborhoods and his own flat.

But, a voice in his head said, he could not collapse to the ground gasping for pain in a war and survive very long.

Harry remained on the floor, his head to the cool wood of the door, long after the pain in his hips had subsided. He could stand up and get his briefcase and walk home without much difficult now; maybe a slight twinge in his joints as he went. But it wasn’t the pain in his hips pinning him to the floor.

Harry was fucking scared. He was scared shitless. He had been from the moment the draft letters went out, and he had stayed scared when one arrived on his doorstep. He knew it was coming, but acceptance didn’t take away the fact he was horribly, desperately afraid.

Because he knew he would die. He knew if his hips didn’t give out first his mind would. He would go crazy, he would snap, he would become violent and ugly, or he would cower and die trampled and curled in a ball. Wake up in the worst way or shut down entirely. But he knew he would die, and die a horrible version of himself.

That wasn’t a bad thing, was it? To be afraid of dying?

Yes, it was, he thought as he slowly rose to his feet. It was a bad thing because it made him want to give the fear away. And real soldiers didn’t give the fear away. They leapt at it. They wanted it. Even if they had more to give up.

Harry’s hands shook as he locked up his briefcase and grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair. He made his way to the door of his classroom and out into the empty hall.

He was a coward, he thought as he walked through the echoing tile hall and down to the main office, and cowards die first in war.

He came into the office, and leaned over the sectary’s desk, offering her a small smile.

“Hi, love,” he said. His scrambled brain couldn’t remember if her name was Margaret or Madge, “Can you dial a number for me?”

“Sure thing, Harry,” she said softly. She knew he was leaving, she was the one who had filed the paperwork, “What number should I get for you?”

Harry swallowed tightly and heard himself say the name of the company Alex worked for, watched the sectary’s long pink nails work the dial.

                                                    

Maybe, he though, a part of cowards died before they even went to war.

*******

Harry stood patiently outside the flat complex, not daring to move closer.

He would not go inside tonight, would not knock on the door. He had called and said he would be here at six, and it was a few minutes after that, and he knew a few minutes more wouldn’t hurt.

So he waited. And eventually, the door opened and his brother emerged, his eyes flickering back and forth down the street before he approached Harry fully.

“Hey,” Alex said softly, “What’s going on?”

“Is Louis home?” Harry asked immediately.

“No, it’s…it’s book club night. He won’t be home until 8.”

“I thought so,” Harry nodded, “Can we talk?”

Alex looked at him, and his eyes shifted, his entire face with it. Flickering like moving pictures in a projector, too fast for Harry to even catch the changes before his face was back to how it had just been.

“You want…you want to do it,” Alex said, and Harry just looked at him.

He nodded. He hated himself for doing it.

“I don’t want you to force you to do it,” Harry said, “I know you might have thought about it – “

“I have thought about it,” Alex cut in, “I’ve been thinking about it every day since you left, Jesus. And I’d still be willing to do it.”

Harry just blinked at him, and shook his head.

“But why?”

“Because I worry about you, you raving idiot,” Alex said, “I’m not saying you’re weak or can’t handle it. You’re strong, you’re smart, you could do anything you wanted, include survive over there.”

“But what you said my hips,” Harry cut in, touching the body part as if to make a point, “And my back. You’re right. They bloody acted up today, that’s why -- ”

“It’s not just that,” Alex said, “It’s – well. You got in one fist fight when you were eighteen. You’re not a violent person.”

“And you are?”

“I – I can try to be,” Alex swallowed, “I can shoot a gun if I wanted. I don’t know if – could you? Do you think you could do it?”

“I wouldn’t like it,” Harry admitted, “But. I guess I’m just…I’m scared. I’m fucking scared. Why aren’t you scared?”

“I – Harry, I have a reason to come home,” Alex said, “And I mean, you do, too. You have an entire life to come home to, but I don’t think you realize that. I know I have a mate and a family and a reason to come home. Fuck, do you even realize all you have?”

“I mean. I like my job.”

“But I want you to stay alive long enough to have a family. I know you want that. A really safe, happy life, Haz,” Alex said, “I mean, you haven’t courted anyone since you were nineteen, and I wouldn’t even call that courting – “

“I have my reasons for not doing that,” Harry sighed, “I – I’m figuring things out.”

“Then you should be given the time to figure that out,” Alex insisted, “Please, Harry, let me do this for you. Tell me yes.”

Harry closed his eyes for a moment, and thought. He had tried so hard not to think about this since Friday, but of course he had. For the first sixteen years of his life, Alex was all he had; two scared boys kicking and screaming in the darkness together. He wondered what it would be like, to let him go, to know every day that his brother was willing to die for him. What Alex’s letters would look like, what Harry would write back to him in turn. He kept imagining his brother would be taller when he came home, even though they had been the same height for nine years now. Maybe with a beard. His voice deeper. Making Harry feel smaller once more.

But he also thought about what it would be like to become Alex. Harry would leave his flat where everything he needed was steps away from each other. He would leave his students, his elderly neighbors, the bartender that took his beer orders every few times at the pub down the street. Maybe it wasn’t much, but it was his life. He wouldn’t be Harry anymore. He would go to a different job, go out with different friends, be engaged to a beautiful boy.

Harry had once known everything about his brother. But now he only knew enough to fill in the basics, and it made him ashamed down to his core, especially when Alex was willing to toss everything away for Harry in turn.

Finally, Harry opening his eyes, blinking against the strong yet fading sunlight.

“Louis doesn’t want you to do it,” he finally said.

“No.”

“And you would still go.”

“Louis is the love of my life,” Alex said, “But he doesn’t decide things for me.”

Harry just stared at his brother, who stared back in equal turn.

This was not a conversation he wanted to have a late summer evening with the sky above them still blue. He didn’t know where or when he wanted to have this conversation instead. Never sounded just fine, if it weren’t for that folded draft paper still on Harry’s desk.

“You gotta promise you’ll come back,” Harry said firmly, “This will be temporary. You’ll get early leave. Fuck, pretend to be me and say you knocked someone up on accident and need to go back home – “

“I’ll figure it out,” Alex laughed weakly, “I promise, it won’t be long. Maybe a couple months. Maybe a year.”

“That’s longer than I think you think it is.”

“It’ll go quick. I’ll do my best for come home early.”

Harry nodded, and then his brother held out a hand. He thought he was going for a handshake, but instead he grabbed Harry by the shoulder and pulled him close, into his side.

“Come on,” Alex said, “Let’s go inside.”

“To do what?” Harry asked weakly, his feet already following Alex’s.

“To talk,” Alex said, “We have a lot to talk about.”

*******

Harry came over to Alex and Louis’s flat nearly every night for the next few weeks, but not for dinner anymore. Instead he came over with bread in a brown bag, still hot from the local bakery, or a fresh pack of beer, and he and Alex sat at the kitchen table and talked until it was nearly midnight and Harry had to force himself to go home.

“Hey,” Alex greeted him softly as he opened the front door one night. It was Friday; Harry could stay over later than usual, and he had brought a bag of day-old biscuits from the bakery with him in preparation.

“Hi,” Harry said as he slipped inside, tucking the bag of pastries to his chest as he pressed himself against the hallway wall so that Alex could move past him and latch the door.

“Is Louis still awake?” Harry asked as Alex finished with the door.

“No,” Alex shook his head, “He went to bed about an hour ago, should be fast asleep now.”

Harry nodded. It was the usual answer he got now. When he had first come to talk to Alex, to confirm this was really going to happen, he had stayed too late and as he was leaving had accidentally run straight into Louis just as he was coming through the door, back from his book club. The omega had blankly blinked up at Harry, still wearing his jacket and cradling his big leather handbag in his arms, and then had looked at Alex, crisply said “Alpha” and then two had hurried off down the hall and into their room. Harry had left before he could hear the screaming start.

He barely saw Louis anymore now. A couple times he had seen him in the living room or wandering through the main hallway when he had first arrived, but the omega usually just nodded at Harry and kissed Alex good night and then he was gone.

“Is he okay?” Harry asked once after Louis had plodded down the hall after one soft “Good night, alpha” and barely a glance at Harry.

“He’s accepted it, I think, but most days he’s still upset,” Alex had answered softly, “I try to talk to him as much as I can, but sometimes he doesn’t want to hear it.”

His brother had been quiet, shuffling papers on the table. There was probably more to that statement, but Harry didn’t want to pry.

“I understand, I do,” Alex had said after a moment, “I’ll be gone a while.”

“Are – are you the two of you going to be okay?” Harry asked, and Alex’s eyes had snapped up hard to meet his.

“Louis is my mate,” Alex said firmly, “Of course we’re going to be okay.”

Now, Harry didn’t ask about Louis anymore, and the other man barely came out during his visits. So now, he let Alex tell him that Louis was asleep, even when he could see the light on under their bedroom door.

“Okay,” Harry said, then pulled the bag away from his chest and held it out, “I brought biscuits.”

“Apple cinnamon?” Alex asked as he took the bag, already unrolling the top so he could sniff the contents.

“A few, probably.”

“You’re the best,” Alex smiled, “Okay, let’s go over today’s files.”

Harry followed him to the kitchen table, and he sat down across from Alex as his brother pushed a short stack of papers towards him, all marked with his company’s name at the top. It was another round of client information, accounts that Alex regularly managed, so Harry could know how to handle them and how particular quirks the clients had that he would need to pay attention to. Most of it was straight forward work; send out the petrol and parts to the companies on the days they needed it, keep track of their supplies, call new clients for cold calls a couple times a week. Alex had always been a bit more outgoing, could fit more easily into selling things to strangers, but Harry had a good memory, and he figured as long as he didn’t lose Alex any clients, it would be fine.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Alex said once he had finished running through the last page of his most recent sales, “Goldwater is going to need a small increase in their petrol supplies to their main facility and all their sister companies. I forgot to bring that stuff but I can show you that tomorrow.”

“Okay, that’s fine,” Harry nodded, sorting together the papers, “Is that it for tonight?”

Alex paused, tapping his fingers on the back of the last stack of papers.

“I mean,” Alex said, “Not quite.”

“Oh?” Harry lifted a brow and reached for the bakery bag, pulling out another day-old biscuit piece, “Have you gotten promoted? Is everything you’ve taught me irrelevant now?”

“No, no,” Alex shook his head, a light smile briefly on his face before it fell away, “There’s something else I should probably tell you about.”

Harry paused, letting his biscuit drop back to the table. He had an idea of where this would go. There were only a few things Alex needed to tell him about before he went, and one in particular they had barely touched.

 “So,” Alex said, “Louis.”

Harry nodded and just looked at Alex, waiting for him to talk. He just looked out to the street below for a while, his eyes a little unfocused, and slowly, he drew back, his eyes snapping back to focus as he looked at Harry.

“So. First things first. You can’t go in our room. Not even to get something. If you want my clothes Louis can get them for you but – that’s our place. You can stay in the guest room, and my – your – army wages will go to paying for your flat so you won’t lose it. You can go back there if you really need to.”

“Okay,” Harry nodded.

“When he’s in heat, you need to stay in your room and only get him water and food. He has my old clothes and – I bought him this thing awhile ago, this toy, that he used once when I had to go on a trip without him. He can use those, he’ll be okay, just make sure he’s okay with everything else,” Alex said, and then swallowed harshly, “You aren’t to touch him. Ever. When you’re in rut, you need to leave, that’s not an option. I love you but if I find out you touched him or hurt him I swear to God I will have your knot on a platter.’

“I’m not going to fuck your fiancé while you’re at war, Alex, good Christ,” Harry sighed.

He wouldn’t. He would never. No matter what kind of fruitless crush he had on Louis.

“Okay,” Alex nodded, running a hand over his face, “Okay, I’m sorry. I know you won’t, I just needed to say it.”

Harry just picked up his abandoned glass of water, forced himself to drink something while Alex’s eyes got that far-off look again.  

“Make sure he has three meals a day,” Alex continued, “Sometimes he forgets so make sure he has all his food. I usually come home for lunch so you can come spend that time with him so he doesn’t get too bored or lonely. He likes bread and honey, and chicken stew, and potatoes. Just any kind of potatoes. And I usually wake up before him and make sure he has a cup of tea when he wakes up.”

He was rambling now, and Harry just let him, so Alex could get out whatever he wanted to say.

“We go to the market on Saturdays, and the park on Sunday. And dinner out once every couple weeks. He likes to get out of the house. And he likes books. If he wants a new one, just buy it for him, I buy him about two new books a week. Actually, if he wants anything, just buy it. He can listen to whatever he wants on the radio, but if he seems upset by the war stuff, try to draw him away from it. And make sure he goes outside, and he sees his friends, and – “

“I’m sure he can take care of himself,” Harry said carefully. It took Alex out of his half-aware state, and slowly, he looked back at Harry and nodded.

“I know,” Alex said, “Just make sure it’s normal for him. As normal as it can be.”

Harry just blinked, and Alex sighed and drew away, looking down at his own glass, the melted ice inside.

“I – remember when we were kids? And that one man who lived next door got his legs blown off in a factory accident?”

Harry knew where Alex was going with this, and he swallowed.

“Yes, I remember.”

“And how we could hear his wife screaming herself to sleep every night for a year afterwards?”

“Yes.”

Alex closed his eyes and twisted his glass in his hands.

“Make sure that doesn’t happen to him,” Alex said, “Please.”

Harry just looked at him, the way Alex’s shoulders were drawn tight, his hands white and red with how tight he was holding the glass.

Harry was a bad, selfish person with a stupid brother and bad hips and bad luck. None of this should’ve happened, but there was static on the radio inside with war coverage in between, and he and Alex had the same face, and air tasted sweet in his lungs and he was afraid.

Finally, he reached over and held the inside of Alex’s arm, and Alex didn’t open his eyes or look up but Harry still spoke.

“I will,” he said, “I’ll take care of him.”

Alex finally nodded, and then slowly let go of his glass and set it on the table, standing up stiffly.

“I’m going to bed,” he said, “Louis is probably still awake. I – shit, sometimes he has trouble sleeping. Will you -- ?”

“I’ll make sure he sleeps,” Harry said, “He’ll be okay, Alex, I promise.”

Alex nodded, and then reached out, setting a hand on Harry’s shoulder. Then he leaned forward, just pressing his nose into Harry’s hair.

“I love you,” Alex said, “You know that, right? And that I’d do anything for you?”

Harry refused to fucking cry. Not here, not now. Instead he reached out and shoved Alex’s shoulder weakly.

“I know, you fucking punk,” he huffed, “Go to bed, go be with your boy.”

Alex huffed weakly, a trace of a laugh in the noise, and then he stood up fully, moving back to the main hallway so he could go to bed.

“Good night, little brother,” Alex said, and Harry didn’t have the energy to laugh.

“Good night, Alex.” 

Harry watched his brother go, watching into the dark hallway and disappearing into the for-once completely dark master bedroom.

Harry didn’t stick around too long. He just left the biscuit bag on the table, shoved the papers Alex had given him into his work bag, and headed out the flat door.

Alex would leave in ten days. He didn’t need to eat up any more of his time.

Any more of theirs.

*******

On the day Alex finally had to leave, Louis dressed up to say goodbye.

Louis stood beside Harry in a pair of shiny shoes and a cashmere sweater that has probably cost Alex an entire paycheck. Harry was holding him loosely by the shoulders, to keep up appearances more than anything, but Louis was restless, bouncing on his toes and only paying attention to Alex as he stood in front of him.

The day printed on Harry’s papers as his mandatory ship out date had never felt entirely real, but it felt even less so now that it was his brother standing in front of him, in a dark green uniform and a felt pack, his hair freshly cut and shaved, Harry’s ID and papers in his back pocket.

They had somehow managed to get everything done. Harry had gotten his uniform and pack in the mail and immediately taken it to Alex’s flat. They had each gotten haircuts under each other’s names, Alex with a military cut and Harry with Alex’s exact regular style. Harry’s closet slowly filled with Alex’s clothes, and his sales were now stamped into Harry’s memory. Harry’s rent was paid for the next month, and would be covered with army stipends until Alex came home and Harry could safely grovel to get his job back.

And he would come home. Alex said it a million times. All of this, the pretending and the act, would end soon. Harry wouldn’t have to worry about what would happen if his brother died under his name. If suddenly his old life wasn’t possible anymore, if he had to just stay Alex for the rest of his life.

Harry really hoped he wouldn’t have to worry, because Alex had never even told him what to do if that happened. What would happen to Alex’s job, his flat, and the quivering omega standing next to Harry on the platform.

“Will you write to me?” Louis asked, and Alex smiled at him, although the action looked near-painful.

“Yes, of course I will,” Alex said softly, “Every day if I can.”

“And you’ll call the house if you can? And come visit me when they give you leave?”

“Of course,” Alex repeated, “You’ll hear from me so often you’ll forget I’m even gone.”

Louis bit his lip, and Harry could’ve sworn he saw his bottom lip quiver before he did so.

Alex clearly seemed to notice, too, because he opened his arms and stepped forward.

“Love, can you come here?”

Louis immediately moved forward, breaking away from Harry’s weak hold on his shoulders and instead surging towards Alex and ticking himself against the alpha’s chest, Alex’s arms closing in to squeeze him.

Harry was a bit worried people would stop, look, and question them as to why Louis was supposedly just getting emotional over his alpha’s brother leaving. But no one seemed to notice; probably because they assumed Louis was just highly sensitive and would cry over anything related to the war, like omegas were supposed to do.

But he eventually pulled away from Alex, and as Alex took Louis’s face in his hands. Harry saw that Louis’s expression had steeled, his mouth hard even when his eyes were wet.

Alex released Louis from his hold for a few moments, and then turned to Harry.

“You’ll take care of him,” he said, not even bothering to make it a question.

“Yes,” Harry said, “As long as you don’t do anything stupid.”

Alex laughed and shook his head, “Well, I’m pretending I’m you, I’ll try to act like it.”

There was a sharp whistle from across the platform, and then Alex frowned, looking at Louis and reaching out to touch his shoulder.

“Be sweet for Harry, my love,” he murmured.

“Is the train leaving?” Louis asked, his voice quaking again. People were pouring onto the locomotive behind them, and steam was starting to pour out from the engines, so he probably knew the answer already.

“Yes, precious,” Alex said, “I’ll write you a letter on the train and mail it as soon as I can. Okay?”

Louis squirmed again, and then lifted his head.

“Alpha,” he whispered so softly harry could barely hear it. He sort of wished he hadn’t heard it.

Alex glanced around them, and then risked pulling Louis tightly to him and kissing the top of his head.

Harry couldn’t quite hear what Alex whispered to Louis as he pulled away. He could maybe hear “darling” and “omega” and “I love you.”

There was a last call warning whistle across the platform, and finally Alex pulled away.

“Go with Harry, sweetheart,” he said, his voice tinged with enough alpha firmness that Louis didn’t protest, just backed away until Harry could loosely hold him again.

Alex clapped Harry on the shoulder, nodding to him in one silent goodbye, and then he was turning and rushing to get on the train with a ticket that had Harry’s name on it, while Harry held his brother’s quivering fiancé by his waist.

********

The car ride home was deathly quiet.

Harry drove Alex’s car with as much confidence as he could, and didn’t dare look over to where Louis was sniffling into his handkerchief in the passenger seat, or even reach out or to touch his shoulder or his hand. He just drove quietly, and then parked the car in their allotted garage when they finally came up on the right street. Harry opened the door on Louis’s side, and then silently walked with the omega back to the flat building. Louis had put his handkerchief away, and walked with his head down, his arms tucked tightly into his sides. He didn’t reach out for Harry or ask him to hold his arm or wrap an arm around his shoulders. There was no one out to pretend for, so Harry just shoved his hands into the pockets of his – his brother’s – trousers and kept up with Louis.

As soon as they had made it up to Alex and Louis’s unit, Harry stayed in the doorway as Louis took off his jumper and his shoes, his shoulders tense and his face turned away from Harry. Harry just watched him, and only spoke when Louis stood up, the silence between them thick and oppressive.

“So, um,” Harry started, the first words he had said in front of Louis in over a week. But before he could get in anything, Louis whirled around, his eyes narrowed.

“I’m angry with you,” Louis said flatly.

“Um,” Harry blinked, “Okay.”

“My alpha is going to get himself killed because of you,” Louis continued. His lips were curled, his voice hard and bristling.

“You don’t know that,” Harry said uselessly.

“He could. And you let him,” Louis said. He stared at Harry a bit longer and then turned, striding down the front hallway.

“I don’t have to listen to you, you know,” Louis said, “I’ll be nice to you if we have to go out. I’ll play along. But when we’re here, in my home, I don’t have to do anything for you.”

Harry swallowed, his throat desert dry.  He had expected Louis to be upset. Crying, maybe, staying in his room, making a nest of Alex’s shirts, blaming his alpha for leaving him. Something Harry could fix with a little iced water and some personal space.

But maybe he hadn’t bothered to imagine what would happen if Louis was angry with him.

“I don’t expect you to,” he eventually got out, and it made Louis scoff.

“Good,” Louis said, finally taking a step back, “Then you can sleep on the couch.”

“Alex said I could stay in the second bedroom,” Harry said, and immediately knew it was a mistake as he watched Louis’s nostrils flare.

“Well Alex isn’t here, in case you forgot, and I don’t want you in there,” Louis snapped, and then lifted his chin and rested a hand on his belly, “That room is for my child someday. I don’t want your smell in there.”

Harry glanced at the living room couch, and then at Louis, and then at his hand.

“Are you – “ he started, and then Louis glanced over at him, glaring, and dropped his hand.

“No,” he said, “I’m not. And I won’t be for a very long time now.”

Louis turned once more, this time striding over to the master bedroom. He paused and ran his hand on the outside frame, the bright sun blazing around his silhouette as he stood there for a moment.

“I’m going to be in here for a while,” Louis said, “You can’t come in.”

“I won’t,” Harry promised.

“I’ll bring you all your clothes later,” Louis said, his voice softening for a brief moment, “And, um, Alex’s work shirts and everything.”

“Okay,” Harry said, “Thank you.”

Louis didn’t look at him. Instead he gripped the doorway frame so hard his hand looked white.

“I’m not cooking for you,” Louis said. His voice was hard again, “Alex said you’re a good cook. Make me something. I’m hungry.”

“I – “ Harry stuttered, and then pressed his lips together and breathed out. He spoke again and tried to make his voice more even. He could cook. That was easy, and he had agreed to do that anyways, “Okay. Sure.”

Louis nodded, and then turned to go back into the room. He had nearly slipped inside until Harry took a step forward, his foot echoing uncomfortable loud on the hardwood. Louis paused, just enough, and Harry called out to him.  

“Louis,” he said, “I – I know you’re angry with me.”

The omega’s back muscles shifted and tightened under his shirt, the tension bristling through his small body.

“Really,” he said drily, “Aren’t you perceptive.”

Harry shook his head and forced himself to speak again.

“But I hope…I hope this can work out.”

Louis’s body was frozen, and Harry expected him to silently close the door and leave Harry alone to cook him a meal.

But then the omega spoke.

“Sure,” he said weakly, “We can work something out.”

He brought up his hand to the door the hinges squeaking as he moved to close it. And then turned slowly, and when he did, the boy Harry had loved distantly and fruitlessly for five years looked at him with icy eyes, all the warmth drained out of the beautiful, warm blue.

“But you are not my alpha, Harry,” Louis said firmly, “And I’m never going to treat you like you are.”

Chapter Text

The next morning, Harry woke up early.

He officially started his first day being Alex today, without any room to breathe, and he wanted a chance to think about everything.

He dressed in his own clothes and took a long walk around the neighborhood and into the nearby park. Nearly no one was awake, except for a few secondary school students who were starting to make the walk to school. Harry did his best to avoid them, lest he accidentally run into some of his own students and have to pretend to look the other way.

When he got back to the flat, he scrubbed his face in the guest bathroom and then dressed in Alex’s trousers, shoes, work shirt and tie. It was still early, and there was no sound of movement from the master bedroom, so he didn’t bother to knock and check on Louis.  

They hadn’t spoken at all the previous day after Louis had gone to his room. Harry had set out some dinner outside his door, and the dishes had disappeared at one point, so he assumed Louis had eaten the food. But he didn’t hear anything from the other man, except light footsteps and then running water from the master bathroom late into the night. He didn’t know if Louis was still furious with him today, or had slept off some of the anger.

Either way, he tried to catch the door, making it near-silent as he went back into the flat after his walk. Alex’s work shirt was folded on the living room table where he had left them, and he buttoned it over his undershirt and then went to the kitchen. He fixed himself two hard boiled eggs and some coffee, and retrieved the morning paper from outside the flat door so he could read as he ate. This kitchen didn’t have a view of the street like his own did, but so he focused on the newsprint in front of him, giving his eyes something to focus on.

He finished his eggs and drained his cup of coffee, then stood up, gathering his plates into his arms so he could go wash them. There was still a pot of un-poured coffee on the counter, and he got himself another cup, preparing to polish it off while he did his dishes.

But he had only just finished pouring the cup when he heard shuffling just outside the kitchen.

Harry turned at the noise and saw Louis in the doorway of the kitchen. His hair was fluffy and tousled from sleep, and while he had been clean shaven at the station yesterday, he already had a dusting of dark hair. He was wearing a long dress blue shirt -- certainly Alex’s -- that went half way down his thighs, the powerful muscles of his legs twitching and jiggling just under the hem as he walked. The first few buttons of the shirt were underdone and slid over to the side of the omega’s chest, revealing a slice of sharp collarbone and the faint pink scar from his bond mark at the left juncture of his neck.

“Oh. Louis. Good morning,” Harry said, “Did you, um, sleep okay?”

Louis just cut him a glance and then looked away as he went to the kitchen table and sat down heavily in one of the chairs.

“I made you some tea,” Harry said. Louis looked back at the table to look at the cup, and then picked it up and held it, not saying anything.

“Would you like some breakfast?” Harry asked, “I can make eggs.”

Louis said nothing in return.  

“Um, oatmeal?”

Louis wrinkled his nose.

“Toast? With honey and jam? Alex said you liked that.”

Louis sipped his tea and then glanced at Harry.

“I’ll make my own breakfast,” he said. His voice was surprisingly crisp, barely rough from sleep, “You’ve eaten?”

“Well. Yes,” Harry said, “Before you woke up.”

“Then go to work.”

Harry frowned, and then glanced at the kitchen clock, which still displayed an early hour.

“I’ll be pretty early.”

“Go to work, Harry,” Louis said pointedly, and then primly picked up his cup, “I’m busy today. I’d like to get on with my day.”

The omega took a sip of his tea, gazing over at Harry as he did. When he set his cup down, he smiled, his sharp, white canine teeth on display.

“Please,” he said, his voice firm.

Harry just looked at him for a while longer, and then back at the clock, and then back at Louis, with his firm gaze.

“You’re still angry at me,” Harry managed, and Louis just stared and then set his cup down so hard it clacked loudly against the table.

“Go to work,” he said again, and Harry just shook his head.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “Can I maybe – “

“Just go, Harry,” Louis snapped. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, his fingertips swallowed completely by the fabric of his shirt, “I want you to go to work, and keep Alex’s job, and then at 5 you can come back and make me dinner. Okay? That’s what you can do. That’s what I want.”

He picked up his drink again, and then just looked at Harry with even, cold eyes. Harry didn’t know Louis’s eyes could look like that.

“Um,” he said, “Okay. I’ll leave you alone, then.”

He glanced at the kitchen door, and Louis just stared at him until he started walking towards it.

“I’ll be home at 5,” he said, even though he knew Louis already knew that, “Um, have a good day, Louis.”

“I’ll try,” Louis said dryly. He flicked his tea cup with his fingernail, making the china click.

Harry gave him another long look, and then finally slipped out the kitchen door and went to the front hall to get his jacket, his shoes, and Alex’s work bag. He tried to let his mind race to much as he put on the coat and tied his loafers. Louis was still upset, and glaring at him in a way Harry had never imagined he could look at him, but it would be fine. He would go for a drive, and then go to work, and would focus on not getting Alex fired. And then he would go home and make Louis dinner and try to make him as happy as he could, just like he had promised his brother.

Louis would warm up to him, he told himself as he slipped out the door, trying to make the door close quietly.

Soon, they would learn to get along.

*******

In Harry’s earliest memories, he had once lived in a pretty, two story house, with a little back garden and a front door that was pressed up against the sidewalk. He and Alex shared a room on the top floor with robin egg blue curtains, and they had a big oak chest in the corner with all their shared toys. They spent their days tugging the toys out of each other’s hands and bickering, and then playing together peacefully a moment later. It was always summer in those memories, afternoons laying on the grass looking at clouds and money pressed into their hands for ice cream. If he could think hard enough, he could remember snow, and their mother bundling them both up in coats and gloves and scarves so they could try to make a short, stubby snowman in the garden. But mostly, he remembered summer.

 

In Harry’s earliest memories, he and Alex were four years old, and Harry was chasing a rabbit.

 

He stumbled around in the grass of the back garden, wandering away from where Alex was kneeling on the ground playing with their shared toy lorry and fake wooden tools. There was a little grey and white rabbit in the grass, its nose twitching and ears pulled back, and Harry stopped as soon as he saw it. He stared at the animal, and its glassy, brown eyes stared out into empty space. He dropped to his knees, the grass and dirt digging into his skin, and leaned closer.

 

“Alex,” he called, “Alex, look.”

 

He crawled towards the animal, ducking his head. The rabbit watched him, its soft nose twitching, his dark eyes regarding him carefully.

 

“Hello,” he said, “My name is Harry.”

 

The rabbit didn’t answer, and Harry sighed again.

 

“Alex, come look!” he called, and then held out a hand to the rabbit. Its nose twitched faster.

 

“What is it?” Alex called from across the garden. He was still sitting playing with their lorry.

 

“It’s a bunny,” Harry said, “Come see.”

 

“I don’t want to look at a bunny,” Alex said, “Come back, I don’t want to play lorries alone.”

 

“Just come look,” Harry whined, and then reached out to touch the rabbit’s soft head. The animal jerked and immediately hopped away, and Harry squealed, standing up.

 

“Come back!” he called, and chased after it, but the animal only ran faster, and then disappeared under a thick bush that bordered the fence of the garden.

 

Harry fell to the garden, pressing his stomach to the dirt and trying to look under the bush.

 

“Come back!” he called again, and then sat up, his eyes already filling with frustrated tears.

 

“Harry?” Alex called, and then in a moment he heard his brother’s bare feet pounding over to him, and then he leaned down next to him, “What happened?”

 

“The bunny ran away,” Harry said, sniffling, “I can’t find him. I just wanted to say hello.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Alex said, “Maybe we can look for another bunny.”

 

His brother reached out and rubbed at his wet cheeks with chubby fingers, and then wrapped Harry into a hug.

 

“It’s okay!” he said, “We’ll find a new one, come on.”

 

He reached for Harry’s hand and pulled him up, and then keep his hand in Harry’s as they wandered to the fence. Alex glanced into the bushes, and started calling for bunnies, and Harry giggled, telling him he was doing it wrong, and yet still joined him in looking.

 

There were leaves in their head, and grass stains on the knees of their overalls after a little while, as they searched for another elusive animal.

 

But the memory was always interrupted at some point.

 

“Boys,” a deep voice called out in the midst of their search. They both turned, looking at the back door, where another person was now standing.

 

Harry and Alex had never looked like their father. Their father was short, and had pale hair and dark eyes and a thin, stern mouth, but in Harry’s memories he was always seven feet tall, dark and brooding.

 

Or maybe he only saw him that way later. Maybe when he was four years old it was different.

 

“Daddy!” Harry called, and stood up.

 

“What are you doing out here?” their father called, still not coming down the back steps to greet them. He was still dressed in his work clothes, his sport jacket slung over one arm.

 

“Harry found a bunny!” Alex said, “I’m helping him look for one because the first one ran away.”

 

“I see,” his father said, his eyes scanning the garden, “Harry, why don’t you go instead and help your mother with dinner.”

 

“But we want to look more,” Harry said, and their father held up a hand.

 

“Go inside,” he said, and this time it was so firm Harry could just blink up at the older man.

 

“Does Mummy need a lot of help?” he asked, and their father sighed.

 

“Maybe,” he said, “Just go help her.”

 

“Okay!” Harry said, and then reached out for Alex’s hand, pulling his brother along with him as he went towards the back stairs.

 

“Alex can stay outside,” their father said as soon as Harry set a foot on the first stair, “He can play a little longer.”

 

“But Mummy needs help,” Harry insisted.

 

“And you can help. Alex can stay and play.”

 

“But I want to help too!” Alex said, “And I don’t want to play without Harry!”

 

“There are other boys in the neighborhood you can play with,” the older man said, “Now come on, Harry, come inside.”

 

Harry just glanced helplessly but at their father, and then over at Alex, who just smiled at him.

 

“It’s okay,” he said, “I’ll look for another bunny for you while you’re gone.”

 

Harry nodded, and then let go of his twin’s hand, the loss of the weight in his palm making him frown as he climbed the stairs. When he reached the top stop, his father reached down and patted his hair, just starting to go dark and curl at the edges.

 

“That’s a good lad,” he murmured. Harry shook his head and reached for the door handle, pulling his way inside before his father could say anything else. The house smelled like butter-laden potatoes and cinnamon, and he just wanted to find his mother, and help her, even if he didn’t know why.

 

In Harry’s earliest memories, nothing had gone wrong yet.

******

Louis was not warming up to Harry.

Harry barely saw him, actually. When he came home from Alex’s job every day, he saw the light on in Louis’s room, but the omega never came outside or called in greeting. Harry came home for lunch as he had promised Alex, but Louis didn’t come out to eat with him. Instead, Harry cooked him lunch and left it outside his door. He did it for a week until Louis finally emerged, glaring, and shook his head as he picked up his plate.

“Just don’t come home for lunch,” he said, “I don’t care. I’ll make my food.”

He had crisply closed the door, and Harry had just blinked at the closed door and then went back to the kitchen to wrap up his own lunch and go back to the office.

He still cooked him dinner at night, and sometimes asked if Louis wanted to sit out in the living room with him and read a book. Usually, he said no. Sometimes he could a few words out of him at dinner, but that was about all he got out of their first week together.

So when he saw Louis had come to sit out in the living room on their first Sunday, he immediately went to properly get dressed.

He emerged from the bathroom, tugging at the bottom of Alex’s shirt as he wandered back into the mouth of the living room.

“Louis?” Harry asked carefully. The omega was sitting on the sofa with a pair of knitting needles in his hands and a mass of yarn in his lap, and seemed to be ripping more holes into the yarn than he was knitting them together. He slowly lifted his head, and squinted when he saw Harry was dressed.

“What?” he asked in turn. His needles clacked in his hands, tangling more yarn.

“I was just wondering if you’d like to go to the market?” Harry said, his voice pitching up in a question, “It’s Sunday.”

Louis blinked.

“Oh,” he said, “I didn’t realize.”

His voice was blank, and Harry could only guess that he did know it was Sunday, and that he and Alex always went to the market then, but he just didn’t particularly care.

“Well,” Harry still said, “Would you like to go?” He paused, and then tacked on, “With me?”

Louis just stared at him, and then glanced at the kitchen and tilted his head. He lifted a knitting needle up, tapping it against his pouted lips.

“You know, yes,” he finally said, “Yes, we need vegetables. Maybe some bread.”

He opened his lips, and bit down on the end of the needle.

“Maybe some honey,” he mumbled around the needle, still not looking at Harry. The alpha just looked at him, shifting his weight between his feet.

“Do you want to go now?” he asked carefully.

Louis’s eyes snapped to him, and then he let the needle slip out of his mouth. He settled it carefully in his lap, and then lifted the needles and yarn and set it next to him on the couch before he stood.

“Yes, let me just get my purse,” Louis said, “And my shoes. Wait here”

He breezed past Harry easily, the fabric of his shirt barely brushing Harry’s own arm, and he had to breath in carefully to resist himself from reacting too much at his sweet scent, and how close it was.

Now wasn’t the time, he reminded himself firmly. It would never be the time.

*******

Harry hadn’t been to the Sunday market in a few years. It was the kind of place where couples held hands or groups of omegas roamed around and chatted with their friends; it wasn’t exactly a place for an unmated alpha to wander around and pick up fresh apples, no much how much better they were than those in the corner store. But it was a beautiful Sunday, and there were plenty of people out, and he had a full wallet to get whatever he or Louis wanted.

It would be better if he couldn’t feel Louis’s tensed muscle with every step he took.

Louis stayed closer to him than they had been all week. He held Harry’s hand, and managed to keep a small, if not practiced, smile as his face as he wondered through the stalls, glancing over the various goods from the different vendors. Even though Louis had his own money with him, he still turned to Harry and with a careful smile asked, “Alpha, may I go buy this?” before he went to each stall and got what he wanted.

It made Harry’s heart ache. Louis’s hand was soft, and carefully slotted into his own palm, rough from the days he had spent repairing roofs and working on local farms when he was younger. Louis’s smile was sweet, and his voice was gentle when he spoke to Harry. Because that was how he spoke to Alex.

Or at the very least, it was a decent act of how he spoke to Alex.

Louis seemed happy to be out in the sun and among other people. Harry knew they would have more outings like this, if not for Louis’s health than just if his friends got curious why he was suddenly holed up so often. So he kept up holding Louis’s hand and smiled softly when Louis spoke to him, even though he could see a firmness in his eyes as he did.

Their act only came to a halt when they stopped so Louis could buy some oranges, and a loud voice broke across the market.

“Louis!” the voice called, and Louis lifted his head and blinked, another practiced smile coming over his face.

“Trevor,” he returned, “Hello.”

A moment later he was being hugged by a petite, blond omega man, who smiled at Louis as he shifted around the heavy bags in his arms.

“It’s been a little while, hasn’t it?” the other omega – Trevor -- said, “How are things?”

“Oh, they’re just fine,” Louis chuckled and shrugged, his face remaining impressively unaffected.

“Okay, good,” Trevor said, “I was so worried, you know, after I heard about your wedding being cancelled, I thought something had happened between you two. It’s so lovely to see you both out and about together.”

Trevor glanced at Harry and smiled, and Harry tried to return a slight smile before he looked over at Louis, trying to search his face for any clues for who this man was, and why he was speaking to them.

Louis’s face shifted, and he laughed weakly.

“And where did you hear that?”

“Oh, it gets around, you know,” Trevor smiled, “You nearly invited the whole village, darling, I kept thinking Ben and I’s invitation got lost in the mail.”

“Mm,” Louis hummed, worrying his bottom lip, “Must have slipped my mind.”

He shrugged a bit too hard, and swung his and Harry’s joined hand’s together, even as his grip started to crush Harry’s hand.

“Anyways,” Louis said, “We didn’t cancel anything. Alex’s brother just shipped out last week, and we really wanted him there. We thought it better to push things off rather than to rush them.”

“Oh,” Trevor frowned, and then looked over, directly at Harry again, “I’m very sorry to hear that.”

“It’s alright,” Harry said quickly, and tried not to wince as Louis’s hand crushed his once more.

“But are you sure you had to call things off?” Trevor asked, “I mean, the war could go on for so long.”

“Well, maybe not,” Louis said quickly, his voice clipped, “You know. The news seems promising, maybe, that this will be quick.”

Louis’s smile was faltering, and Harry squeezed his hand, only to feel the muscles in his entire arm tense.

“Maybe,” Trevor said, “But wasn’t everything nearly ready?”

“Yes, well,” Louis shrugged very fast, “The things you do, you know, for family.”

“Oh,” Trevor drawled, and then looked over at Harry and smiled, “You and your brother must be very close, Alex.”

“Very close,” Harry echoed.

“Alex and Harry are twins,” Louis suddenly said, “They’re very close. Alex said he had to be there. But, you know, I could have it either way. What does it matter to me, you know, if my brother in law is there.”

He laughed dryly, and Harry looked over at him, trying not to open his mouth.

“Darling,” he said weakly, and the word felt heavy and wrong in his mouth.

“Oh, I’m kidding,” Louis chuckled, and then reached up to rub and pat Harry’s arm, “Anyways, we really must be going. Nice to see you again, Trevor.”

He pulled Harry away, until they were ducking into the crowd, away from the other man. Louis kept his eyes to the ground, and was grumbling to himself as he walked.

“Fucking Trevor,” he huffed, “I haven’t seen him in months, and today? I run into him fucking today?”

He shook his head, and pulled his hand away from Harry to rub it over his face.

“We went to uni together, you know. I went on one fucking date with his husband, most boring person I’ve ever met. He tried to court Alex once and I think he’s still bitter, that’s why I have to hear about his perfect life and his fucking kids every time I see him, I swear – “

“Louis,” Harry interrupted, and the only man turned into narrowed eyes.

“What?” he whispered sharply. They were at the end of the market stalls, where the crowds were thin and there were less people around to look at them, to overhear them.

“Why did you say that?” Harry said, keeping his voice low, “About the wedding. And me.”

Louis blinked at him, his eyes shifting.

“It was just a joke,” Louis said, “It didn’t mean anything.”

Harry just looked at him, and then shook his head.

“Still,” he said weakly, “You don’t have to say in front of my face that you don’t want me at your wedding.”

“Of course I wanted you there,” Louis scoffed, “It didn’t mean anything, Harry, Christ.”

He slammed his lips together as soon as he said the alpha’s name, and then glanced around him, only exhaling when he saw no one was looking at him.

“Then why did you say it?” Harry asked quietly. It only earned him another sharp glance.

He didn’t need an answer. Louis was angry, and lashing out, and didn’t want him here. Maybe he had wanted him in his wedding, but that didn’t matter now. Now, he didn’t want Harry anywhere near his life.

“I – “ Harry managed, licking his lips, “I’m really trying, Louis.”

“Well you didn’t have to try,” Louis said immediately, “I can go to the market by myself, you know. I just let you go because I go with Alex, and I didn’t feel like explaining why he wasn’t here today. “

Harry opened his mouth to say something else, but before he could, Louis shifted close to him, his eyes growing bigger and his mouth friendlier, less firm.

Any chance of talking to Louis was over, and Harry just watched as his act fell back into place.

“Now,” Louis said, straightening up, “May I go buy my parsnips, Alpha?”

Harry swallowed weakly, and then smiled.

“Yes you may, my darling,” he said as lightly as he could, and then leaned forward and kissed his forehead for good measure.

Louis just blinked at him, keeping his smile bright.

“Don’t do that again,” Louis said through his teeth, as he pulled his shopping bags close to his chest, “Don’t you dare kiss me.”

*******

Harry and Alex got their doctor’s appointments every four months, in a cheery little clinic with yellow walls and omega nurses in starched white uniforms who were always smiling. Harry didn’t like going to the doctor, because the doctor meant shots and getting his knees banged with a mallet that he hated, but Alex liked to sit with him and hold his hand while it happened, even though he was supposed to sit with their mother in the chair in the corner. Afterwards, their mother would kiss the bandage on both of their arms where their shots had gone it, and then they would go for ice cream, their mother pressing a finger to her lips and giggling “Don’t tell your father, darlings.”

 

But one day, when they were eight years, their mother was in the middle of securing their matching coats to take to them when their father walked into the room.

 

“Emily,” he said, “I’ll take them today.”

 

“Oh,” she glanced up at her husband, her eyes a bit wide, “Are you sure?”

 

“Yes,” he said firmly, “I’d like to ask the doctor a few questions. Stay home, read a magazine or something.”

 

She just looked at him for another long moment, and then glanced back at the boys, her smile appearing once more.

 

“Well, boys,” she said, “It looks like you’ll get to have a day with your father today. Isn’t that nice?”

 

Harry frowned, and opened his mouth, ready to say something. He didn’t know if he wanted a whole afternoon with his father. He had been at work so late all the time, and the days he was home, and he just seemed…angry. Especially with Harry, even though he couldn’t remember doing anything wrong.

 

But before he could speak, their mother smiled at him and tucked a finger underside his chin, silently telling him it would be alright. He stood, brushing her hands over her skirt, and glanced at their father.

 

“I’ll see you all in maybe an hour.”

 

“Alright,” he replied, and then came over to the doorway, pressing a hand to both of their backs as he guided them towards the door.

 

The walk to the clinic was rather quiet, and Harry didn’t like not being able to hold hands with their mother as they walked across the street. At one point, he reached out to hold hands with Alex, but their father gave them a look.

 

“You two are eight years old now,” he said, “Don’t you think it’s time to stop holding your brother’s hand?”

 

So they stopped, even though Alex still gave Harry a sad look as their fingers separated.

 

Inside the clinic, a few of the other children waiting in the reception area gave them odd looks, tucking themselves into their omega mothers’ legs as they looked at the two of them, sitting quietly next to their alpha father, the only other alpha in the waiting room.

 

“Are we going for ice cream after this?” Harry asked quietly, and their father gave him a sharp look.

 

“Does your mother take you to get ice cream after your appointments?”

 

“No,” Harry said immediately, remembering how his mother shushed them with a single as they walked out with their cups of chocolate and vanilla each time.

 

“Hm,” he said, and leaned back into his chair.

 

“You didn’t say if we could get ice cream,” Alex said, and their father answered him, but looked at Harry as he said it.

 

“No ice cream,” he said, then lifted his head as a nurse came into the reception room and called out Harry and Alex’s names, “Come on, let’s go.”

 

They hurried back to the room, and went through their normal check up, a nurse coaxing them to breath in deep, to open their mouth wide, to relax as their knees were tapped. Alex stayed firmly by their father’s side while Harry got his check up done, the older man’s eyes fixated on him the whole time, like he could sense Alex wanted to stand up and help.

 

Finally, their doctor came in, and did more of what the nurses had done, pressing their abdomens, listening to their heartbeats, and then writing it all down on a chart.

 

“You have two very healthy boys here, Franklin,” he smiled at the two of them, “I think they’re all set.”

 

“Mm,” their father hummed, recrossing his legs, “I have a question for you, if you don’t mind.”

 

“Of course,” the doctor nodded.

 

“In your experience,” Franklin said, “Is it….particularly uncommon for twins to have two different genders when they present?”

 

The doctor frowned, and then glanced at Harry and Alex, sitting next to their father in the corner, and then back to Franklin.

 

“I mean, yes, it is rather uncommon,” he said, “Espeically with identical twins. Not particularly impossible, I suppose but – “

 

“So,” their father cut in, “It wouldn’t be unheard of if one of my sons was an alpha, and one was an omega.”

 

Both of the twins glanced at their father in confusion, at the same moment their doctor did the same.

 

“Not unheard of,” he cut in, “But I don’t really think – “

 

“One of my children likes football and cars,” Franklin cut in, “The other likes chasing butterflies and baking biscuits and hides under the bed during thunderstorms. I would think one of those is not an alpha child, wouldn’t you?”

 

Harry frowned. He knew which of the two he was talking about. He loved chasing butterflies. He loved helping their mum with dinner and baking, but their father usually suggested that. He liked to play football, even though he wasn’t very good at it. And he didn’t like loud noises, but neither did Alex. They hid under the bed together, but Alex always lied and said he was just helping Harry.

 

But…he wasn’t an omega.

 

He didn’t feel like one. And he knew he had years before he presented, but…he could feel he wasn’t an omega. There was a part of him he couldn’t explain that said to him “I’m an alpha” and he knew one day that’s what he would become.

 

And yet their father was saying, for the first time, that he thought the exact opposite.

 

“With all due respect,” the doctor said slowly, “I don’t think any of those things are a gender diagnosis. I think that’s just children being children.”

 

“I see,” their father straightened his jaw, “Is there any way I can know for sure? A blood test or something?”

 

“Medicine has its limits,” the doctor replied, “They’ll find out when they’re about sixteen or seventeen. That’s the only way you can know for sure, a mature presentation.”

 

Their father didn’t say anything, just glanced at the two of them.

 

“I guess I’ll have to wait,” he said flatly, “To find out if I’ve had…an omega son.”

 

He stared at Harry as he said it, and it made the boy want to hide behind his brother. The words…they were angry. It made their father angry, the idea of one of them being an omega.

 

Of Harry being an omega.

 

“Well, that’s all I wanted to ask,” Franklin said as he stood up, “Boys, let’s go home, alright?”

 

They both nodded and stood, and their father tersely thanked the doctor, and then crowded them out the door.

 

“Useless,” he mumbled, under his breath, “You’d think they’d have a blood test by now, it’s 1924.”

 

“Dad?” Alex asked quietly, and he glanced over, “Why did you ask the doctor that? About one of us being an omega?”

 

“Because I’d like to think I know my own children,” he replied, “And I wanted a second opinion.”

 

“But we aren’t omegas,” Alex said.

 

“You’re not,” their father said, “I know that. You’re just like me and my friends, when I was a boy.”

 

He looked over at Harry, and his smile turned tight, “The boys who spent their days chasing rabbits ending up marrying boys like my friends.”

 

Harry frowned, and then tried to blink hard, his eyes feeling wet. He didn’t like his father’s voice like this, or what he was saying.

 

“Are you mad at me?” he said, “Because you think I’m an omega?”

 

“I didn’t plan to have an omega son,” their father said instead, and then looked away, “But I would rather have an omega son than an alpha son that acted the way you do.”

 

Harry shook his head, not understanding, their father reached out, patting both of their heads as he sighed.

 

“It’s alright,” he said, “It’s a good thing I know what to do to raise a proper omega. You two will be just fine.”

*******

It had been three weeks since Alex had left when Harry picked up the mail and saw two envelopes with French stamps and his brother’s handwriting sitting on top of the stack of letters.

He stood outside the flat complex for a moment, looking down at the envelopes in his hands, mixed in with the paper and a few bills. Alex’s own name was written neatly onto the front of one, but Harry knew it was meant for himself. He breathed in sharply, the cooling air around him biting the inside of his mouth as he did.

His brother had survived for three weeks, and he had written home, inserting himself into Harry’s thoughts even more than usual.

Harry finally picked up his own letter from the stack and tucked it into his jacket before he went into the complex and up the stairs to the flat. Louis wasn’t in the living room or kitchen when he came in, and he sighed and brought most of the mail to the kitchen table, leaving Louis’s letter in his hand as he approached the bedroom door.

His foot hit the hardwood hard enough to make the floors squeak as he walked, and before he was even halfway to the door, Louis’s voice floated out, tired and thick from a day of disuse.

“What do you want, Harry?” he called, and Harry sighed and stayed still, rocking a bit on his feet.

“I just wanted to tell you you have mail,” he said, turning the letter over in his hands.

“Mail?” Louis asked, and then, softly, “Mail…”  

A moment later, the door was cracking open, just enough for half of Louis’s face to appear in the doorway.

“From Alex?” he asked, and then his eyes flickered down to the envelope in Harry’s hand, “It’s – it’s from Alex, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes – “ Harry said, and then before he could finish, Louis had shot an arm out from the crack in the door, batting his hand in Harry’s direction until finally, Harry stepped forward and offered it to him. It was ripped from Harry’s hand a moment later, and then, Louis’s arm and his face had disappeared, the door closing once more, sealing Louis away in his own world again.

Harry stared at the door, and then shook his head and walked back to the kitchen. He set the kettle on the stove, heating up some tea for himself, and then sat down at the kitchen table and started to unfold his own letter. His brother’s handwriting stared out at him, solid and neat and dark, and he had to settle his cheek in his hand as he read it.

Hello Harry,

 

I hope with all that is in me that this letter is finding you well. I hope you still have a roof over your head and you haven’t ruined my career in a few short weeks. (If you have, don’t tell me.)

 

War is incredibly boring, maybe it was suited for you after all. It’s a lot of drills and cleaning equipment and staring out at beautiful French towns we can’t even get a drink in. And following orders, of course. You certainly would be better at that than me. I’m making a horrible mess of your name – to the British Army, Harry Styles is a private incapable of following directions.

 

I’m teasing you, of course. I want you to know I don’t regret my choice. I am meeting new people, I am traveling, I am surviving and I know that the only family I have is safe. I want you to remember what is most important to me. My temporary boredom and discomfort is worth keeping you two safe – and I do plan on this to be temporary.

 

Now. I don’t want to make you think I don’t care about how you are, because I do. And I want ten pages from you about how you are when you write to me. But please tell me -- how is Louis? I trust you are an excellent companion for him, but if he is unhappy, I know he will not tell me. I know he will tell me he misses me, but he will just as easily tell me not to worry and will leave out things I want him to tell me. My precious boy is so stubborn, and when I am face to face with him, I can see how upset he becomes, and can comfort him in turn. But for now you must be my eyes, my ears, my nose. Tell me if he is okay, please.

 

The time I have to write to you is flying away from me, so I will have to make sure I write your next letter with greater haste. But please, if you can remember anything in the time it takes me to write again, know that you two are all I think about when I am here. I don’t know what the rest of these men are fighting for, but I will be fighting for you.

 

Alex

Harry stared at the paper, turning it over and over again as if the motion would make more words appear. But that was it. Some lighthearted words written in his brother’s scrawl. Harry would have to take greater care to copy his brother’s handwriting in the feature. Harry wrote carefully, his letters practiced to be neat enough that students would see them clearly on a chalkboard or on a returned test. Alex’s letters were looped and thin, written in a hurry and pressed around enough into the paper to make the stationary buckle and dent. The dots over his “I’s” bled.

His brother was somewhere in France, and he was okay. He wasn’t scared. He was bored. He just wanted Harry and Louis to be safe. His words didn’t speak of the fear of bullets or explosions, or Germany or Italy, or blinking once and then never getting to open his eyes again.

Alex was braver than Harry. He knew that from the second he offered to go in the first place. But Harry knew now wouldn’t be writing his brother a letter like this if he was over there. He would tell him he was afraid to fall asleep, and that he was cold and tired of sleeping in the dirt, that he hated firing rifles, that he was so lonely and that he had no one to come home to, except maybe his students and Thursday night dinners.

He folded up the paper quickly and shook his head, tucking the paper into his jacket.

It was 5:30, and he had dinner to make. Best to busy his hands with rolling out bread dough and boiling green beans, rather than doing something reckless, like write out all his thoughts on paper and stick it in the post box to send off to an army base in France.

*******

Harry came home one afternoon to hear laughter and clinking China in the flat, two noises he hadn’t heard in about a month.

He paused in the doorway, straining to hear, to separate all the sounds – that was Louis’s laugh, coming from the kitchen. He hadn’t heard it in a while but he still recognized it. But with it, there was another laugh and voice, one he hadn’t heard before. Slowly, he took off his jacket his shoes as usual, then started padding back down the hall, only stopping when he reached the kitchen.

Louis was out of his room and sitting at the kitchen table, wearing one of Alex’s jumpers, the white sleeves pouring over his hands as he held his tea. Across the table from him was a blonde omega woman, both her hands cradled her swollen, pregnant belly. They had a full tea set out in front of them, biscuits and little sandwiches split up between their plates. Louis still hadn’t noticed Harry was here.

Then he paused, his nostrils flaring a bit, probably just now catching onto Harry’s scent. He turned to look at him in the doorway, and cleared his throat. 

“Oh,” Louis said, “Hello...dear. You’re home early.”

“Hi, love. Short day,” Harry said in turn, then glanced at the woman at the table, “And, hello to you.”

“Hello, Alex,” the other omega said, smoothing a hand over her rounded stomach, “It’s nice to see you again.”

Harry nodded and smiled, hoping he looked like he even remotely knew who Louis’s companion was.

“You as well.”

Louis glanced at Harry with a sharp look that was so quick he barely caught it, and then the omega picked up his teacup and glanced back across the table.

“Elizabeth was just telling me about the new nursery she and Amelia are making,” Louis said, nodding to the woman when he said her name, “Isn’t that nice?”

“Oh, yes,” Harry said, still trying to smile. He went to the kitchen and set down the mail and his work bag. He tried to busy his hands: reaching for the kettle, feeling its weight, going to fill it with more water for his own tea when he felt how light it was, “When is the baby due again?”

“Next month,” Elizabeth said, “My mother has been in town every other day, trying to help me with everything, but every day it feels like there’s something I’m missing.”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” Louis said.

“Hopefully,” Elizabeth laughed, “I mean, I’m sure you knew, when you were planning the wedding.”

Harry paused as he fiddled with the kettle, waiting for Louis’s reaction. They hadn’t talked about the state of Louis and Alex’s wedding since the market, and he wasn’t sure he wanted it brought up now, in front of another person yet again.

“Yes, that was…stressful,” Louis chuckled, “Maybe I did need a little rest, you know. Besides, September, what a time time to get married. It’s so cold.”

“Oh,” she said, “I thought Alex wanted an autumn wedding. Alex, did you change your mind?”

Harry paused, and then turned around, trying to smile once again. 

“Sure I did,” Harry said, “But, you know, Louis was talking about spring, anyways. And whatever Louis wants, Louis will have.”

He saw the muscles in Louis’s back tense and ripple as he picked up his cup with precise actions.

“And everything with your brother, of course,” Elizabeth said carefully, “I’m sure that put a wrench into things.”

“Small hiccup, really,” Louis murmured.

“It was important for us for him to be there,” Harry said quickly, “Harry was going to be my best man, and all.”

He knew this for certain, because Alex had asked him back in February, when they had been tipsy on the balcony, sharing a cigar that Louis had gotten Alex for his birthday.

“You’ll be my best man, right?” he had asked, and Harry had laughed sharply and shoved his shoulder.

“I’d sure fucking hope I would be,” he’d replied, and Alex had laughed in turn and set in his a tipsy headlock, making Harry laugh until his sides seized up.

That day seemed very far away now.

“Hm, I thought your friend David from uni was your best man. I must have gotten mixed up. Silly me,” Louis said, setting his teacup down quickly. A moment later, the kettle whistled sharply behind Harry and Louis sighed.

“Darling, do you not like the way I make tea anymore? You wanted to make your own?” Louis said, his voice light and straining.

“Oh,” Harry said, glancing at the pretty yellow teapot on the table, the neatly arranged biscuits on the plate in front of them, “I didn’t know if you had any left.”

“Of course we do, we have plenty,” Louis chirped, picking up his tea cup again, “Why don’t you take that kettle off and come sit down.”

“I – “

“Please sit down,” Louis said quickly, and then glanced behind him and batted his eyes twice, his smile strained, “Alpha.”

“Ah,” Harry said. He fumbled behind him, reaching for the kettle, and then pulled it off the heat, the whistle sharply dying, “Alright.”

“Lovely,” Louis said as Harry sat down, “Here, let me get your cup.”

The omega picked up the kettle, and then took a spare cup that was sitting on the table and started to pour some tea out.

“Elizabeth thinks she’s having a girl,” Louis said as he poured the tea, “Liz, love, isn’t that right?”

“Oh, yes,” Elizabeth smiled again, and then pet her belly once more, keeping her hand on the bright blue fabric, “Amelia thinks it’s a boy. I don’t know if she really believes that or if she just wants one. She had four brothers, so she’s used to boys.”

“But your mum thinks it’s a girl, and so does Amelia’s mum,” Louis said, “Mums are always right, aren’t they? Alex, darling, would you like your usual three sugars?”

Harry hadn’t taken sugar in his tea since he was twelve years old. And Louis knew that because the omega had served tea countless times when he had been over, humming to himself as he set the cups in front of them and recited, “Three sugars for Alex, half milk for Harry” and given them both sweet, genuine smiles as he sat down with his own cup. Each time, Harry shook his head and asked Alex when he was going to stop taking three sugars like he was still a child, and it always made Louis laugh and stroke his arm.

Louis knew Harry didn’t take sugar. But Harry had to swallow and smile as say “Yes, darling” as Louis dropped three cubes into his cup and gave it to him.

He picked the cup up and tried not to choke and spit up his tea as the sweetness hit his tongue, and as he swallowed hard to get it down, Louis put a hand on Harry’s arm.

Harry slowly surfaced back to Elizabeth’s words, and how much she was babbling.

“I don’t know, maybe we will have a boy, since there are so many boys on Amy’s side,” she shook her head, “Don’t you always say you’ll just have a dozen little girls, Lou?”

Louis blinked and smiled, still holding Harry’s arm.

“Yes,” he said, his voice still light, “Because of my sisters and all.”

“Maybe we’ll balance each other out, then,” Elizabeth smiled, “But I am a little sad you two will have to wait to have your own now, too. I thought for certain you two would start having some babies right after the wedding, and then ours could have been two little playmates.”

“Oh, yes,” Louis smiled. The expression was thin now, and Louis was pressing hard on Harry’s arm, “Maybe. But in due time. I’m sure you’ll have lots more, and they’ll be great chums with ours eventually. Alex, love, biscuit?”

He picked up a rather misshapen and burnt looking sugar biscuit off the plate in front of him and held it up to Harry, pressing it right to his lips.

Harry hated sugar biscuits almost as much as he hated tea with three sugars.

Still, he opened his mouth and let Louis push the treat into his mouth, and tried to keep his expression neutral as he tried to choke the thing down and listen to Louis talk about having babies.

“Well that’s new,” Elizabeth said, “I thought you wanted pups right away.”

“Oh. Well. Maybe. Have I said that before?” Louis said, picking up his cup again.

“Nearly every day,” she laughed, “You two nearly tried to have babies over the summer, before the wedding. You could barely wait, you talked to me about it every day.”

Harry forced himself to swallow hard, despite the biscuit being half-chewed, and then reached desperately for his tea and choked some of the cold, sweet liquid down.

This was news to Harry. He had been over to Louis and Alex’s flat nearly every week over the summer, sometimes more since he wasn’t working, for more card games and dinners and nights sitting around talking and listening to the radio. Not once had Alex mentioned they were considering having a baby, and not only that, a baby before they were married. His traditional brother having a baby before marriage had never even been a topic of conversation Alex thought to bring up.

“Well. Maybe it was for the best,” Harry said, his mouth now empty even though his teeth still smarted from the sugar clinging to them, “This way we can start things properly.”

“Yes. Properly,” Louis said quickly, and patted Harry’s arm before withdrawing it entirely, “Liz, precious, it’s nearly 5, won’t Amy be home soon?”

“Oh!” Elizabeth said, and then glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall, “Yes, I didn’t even realize. Time always goes so fast when I’m here.”

“It’s no trouble. Just don’t want you to be late, I’m sure Amelia would miss her girl if I kept her for too long,” Louis said, “Let me walk you out.”

“Thank you, darling,” she smiled, and then pressed both hands onto the table, hoisting herself up and cradling both her belly and her back as soon as she was up. Louis came over and caught her arm, giving her a gentle smile as he held her back and helped her as she waddled to the kitchen door. As she was about to walk outside, she glanced over her shoulder and smiled at Harry.

“It was nice to see you again, Alex,” she said, “Won’t you two come over for dinner sometime? I’ll cook so Louis doesn’t have to fuss over me for once.”

“I love fussing over you, petal,” Louis said, rubbing her shoulder, “And yes, we’ll try to come over soon, alright? Here, let me walk you down and make sure you get a cab alright.”

Louis disappeared from view then, the door opening and closing behind him. Harry just stood and waited in the doorway, staring uselessly at the space from where he had disappeared. A few minutes later, the door opened again and Louis was back, only now his expression was thoroughly sour as he looked at Harry.

“You should have called if you were going to be home early,” he said as he strolled into the kitchen and started to pick up the half-empty tea cups from the table.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said weakly, “I didn’t know you had company. I will next time.”

Louis just huffed and shook his head, bringing the tea cups over to the sink to pour them out.

“Why are you home so early, anyways?” he said, “Did you fuck up and get my fiancé fired?”

“No,” Harry managed, “I actually got him a big new client earlier and the manager sent me home early as a reward.”

Louis paused at that.

“Ah,” he said, “Well, good.”

Louis left the teacups in the sink and then went over the table again, picking up the plate of biscuits and carrying them over to the bin to toss them.

“Who was that?” Harry asked, and Louis scoffed once more.

“Elizabeth,” Louis said, “Did you not catch her name the twenty times I said it?”

“How do you know her, I meant.”

“She’s my best friend,” Louis said, “She used to live in the flat next door before her and her alpha got another house across town. But she still comes over.”

“That’s nice,” Harry said, and winced at his response even when Louis glared at him.

“I just, um, mean I’m glad you have company,” Harry said, “Aside from your book club.”

“I’m not friends with anybody in book club,” Louis said, “I just go because Alex wanted me to have a hobby that got me out of the house, and I might as well pick something that lets me stay home and read most of the week.”

The omega picked up a cleaning brush from the edge of the sink and turned on the tap, scrubbing furiously at the plates in the sink. Harry just watched him, the muscles in his back twitching, steam rising from the sink as he scrubbed. His throat felt dry the longer he looked.

“I didn’t know Alex wanted children,” Harry blurted out.

Louis stopped as soon as he said it, and stayed perfectly still. The steam kept rising from the sink.

“That’s none of your business,” Louis said after a moment, but didn’t move to scrub again.  

“I know it’s not,” Harry said, “But I asked before and he never told me you wanted them. Or that you were trying, during the summer.”

Louis didn’t react to that, just stayed still again. The water was beating so hard into the sink that the sound nearly echoed against the walls.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said, “I just thought it was odd he never told me.”

“And he told you everything else?” Louis said, his voice strained.

“I – “ Harry started, and then stopped, the words he wanted to say already sounding so futile in his head. But he pushed them out anyways, “I used to think he did.”

Louis didn’t say anything, but he reached out, turning off the tap. He shook his hands out, wet and bright pink from the hot stream.

“Well I hope you’re happy,” he said, “Now that you know that we wanted pups.”

The omega crossed his arms and tucked his hands into his elbows, then started towards the door of the kitchen.

“I want fish for dinner,” Louis said, “Go buy some.”

He brushed past Harry, his arm slamming into Harry’s side as he moved past in a burst of bittersweet smelling citrus that still made Harry’s knees treacherously buckle.

*******

Harry didn’t remember when he and Alex started fighting.

 

He was pretty sure it was when they were around eleven, and they moved from the pretty townhouse to a bigger but scrappier house across town, with dark, rain-wood wood paneling and a thin front garden. They had bickered over what side of the room he wanted, and Alex had yanked his hair and yelled.

 

Maybe it was when they were twelve, and their father had made Harry quit the football team and instead join the school’s Domestics Club, where he spent every afternoon pricking his clumsy fingers on sewing needles while his brother made friends and ran outside in the sunshine.

 

Maybe they had always fought, like brothers did, but it got much worse when one of them started getting shoved around by their father and the other went unmarked.

 

He didn’t remember how it started. But he knew that at some point, they fought every day, screaming at each other, pushing each other. Bickering over desserts and who got to walk on what side of the sidewalk on the way to school and who was taller and anything else they could think of. They had no reason to fight other than that one of them was adored and one wasn’t, and that seemed like a good enough reason to fight.

 

But he also knew that one day, he was fifteen, and it was the start of the school year, and he was fuming.

 

His back ached from when he ad kneeled on the kitchen floor and scrubbed the surface spotless the night behind, orders from their father, who still thought Harry wasn’t ready to be an omega anyone wanted. He felt weak and dizzy, his lunch too small, because despite the fact that he was matchstick thin, far smaller than his brother, his father still insisted he was too big, too ugly for any decent alpha wouldn’t want him.

 

He was angry, and exhausted, and then he was sitting on the school yard when his brother walked by.

 

Well. Not walked by. His foot collided with Harry’s shin, hard, and his head snapped, staring at him. His twin looked back, and he just smiled weakly, glancing back at his friends.

 

“Sorry, Harry,” he said, “I didn’t see you.”

 

“You should have,” Harry snapped, “Don’t you look anywhere?”

Alex just blinked at him, and frowned.

 

“What?”

 

“I said,” Harry said as he got his feet, “Don’t you fucking look anywhere?”

 

He stood right in front of his brother, trying to square his narrow, bony shoulders, like Alex just stared at him.

 

“Jesus, Harry, why don’t you calm down?” he laughed.

 

He laughed. He fucking laughed.

 

Harry remembered when he liked to hear his brother laugh. When they did it together. When they were two alphas who had the same friends and nothing was between them.

 

“Don’t laugh at me,” Harry snapped, “Don’t fucking laugh.”

 

“Jesus, mate,” one of Alex’s friends laughed behind him, “Is this your brother?”

 

“Yeah,” Alex said passively, just looking at Harry, “I’m not laughing at you, little brother, Christ.”

 

“You two barely look alike,” one of Alex’s other friends, “You sure you’re twins?”

 

“Yeah, I’m sure,” he said. He swallowed, and glanced at Harry, “We’re…we’re just different.”

 

“I’ll bloody say,” one of the friends laughed sharply, “Come on, let’s get out of here, don’t want you two to fight. Save that for the dinner table.”

 

“We’re not going to fight,” Alex said. Then swallowed, and looked at Harry. And then he opened his mouth again.

 

“My brother is an omega,” he said, “He doesn’t fight anyone.”

 

Harry blinked. Once. Twice.

 

Alex didn’t call him an omega. That’s what his father called him. He and Alex fought, but not because of whatever Harry’s gender was. They fought because their father smacked around one of them, and they were angry, and needed something to do.

 

Because they were best friends, and the next logical step was for them to be enemies.

Harry took a step forward, his fist balling up.

 

“Don’t call me that,” he hissed. Alex just stared back at him, putting his hands up.

 

“Harry, I didn’t mean it,” he said, but Harry brought a fist forward nonetheless. He missed, but Alex shuffled back, his mouth gaping up.

 

“Don’t call me an omega!” he shouted, “I’m not an omega!”

 

“Harry,” Alex shouted back, “Stop it!”

 

But Harry swung again, and this time, Alex caught his wrist in his hand and squeezed, hard.

 

“Don’t fucking hit me,” he said, but Harry brought his other hand forward. His brother caught it just as easily, his eyes flashing.

 

“Harry, please,” he begged, “Stop. It.”

 

Harry’s nostrils flared, and he just stared at his brother. He tried to buck his head forward, going to knock his head into Alex’s, but before he could his brother shoved him so hard that his wrists broke free of Alex’s hands and he tumbled to the ground.

 

“Jesus, mate,” one of the boys behind Alex hissed, and Alex was soon lowering himself to the ground, reaching out for Harry.

 

“Harry, I’m sorry, fuck, I’m sorry – “

 

But before he could say anything, Harry thrashed forward, trying to hit him again. He needed to hit something. Someone. He wanted to hurt someone. He didn’t want to hurt Alex, but he felt like he needed to.

 

But before he could do anything, he saw a hand coming forward, and then his nose exploded in pain. He screamed, and reached a hand up, holding his nose. He could feel it bleeding, and he could hear himself screaming.

 

“You hit me!” he shouted, “You fucking hit me!”

 

“Oh, Jesus,” Alex mumbled, “Harry, I’m so sorry, I didn’t – I wasn’t thinking. Harry – “

 

He was rambling, but before he could finish, there were pounding footsteps, and then a tall, alpha teacher was over both of them, yanking them both to their feet.

 

“You two! Break it the fuck up, what’s wrong with you!” he was shouting, “Come on. Headmaster’s office, now.”

 

“I didn’t – I didn’t,” Alex was still saying, thrashing against the teacher’s grip.

 

“Be quiet,” the teacher gritted out, “Come on.”

 

“No, he needs know. I didn’t mean to hit him. Harry, I didn’t mean to hit you. I’m sorry we fight. I don’t hate you. I love you. Harry, please, I’m sorry, look at me. Harry, look at me. Harry!”

 

Harry didn’t even turn. He just kept his eyes forward on the ground as he was tugged back inside, thinking about the sight of his brother’s fist coming towards him, the sound of “omega” coming out of his brother’s mouth.

 

He swallowed. He tasted blood on his tongue.

*******

Alex and Louis were supposed to be married on the third Saturday in September.  

He knew that, because he had been the first one to get an invitation to the event, and had kept it pinned to the wall next to his desk for months, the date staring back at him each day as he graded, got dressed, get in and out of bed. He helped Alex go to a tailor and talk to a priest who would handle the ceremony.

Harry had known for days that it was almost the day of their wedding.

And he also he knew couldn’t let Louis sit in his stuffy room all day, crying and shaking and staring at walls.

Alex had written another letter that had arrived a few days ago, just for Louis this time. A wedding letter, probably. Harry had heard Louis gasping for air, his voice wet, on the day the letter had arrived, and he hadn’t emerged until the next time for dinner.

So on the actual day of the wedding, Harry got up early and made a call. And then he took Alex’s car and drove to his own flat, picking up the suit that was still pressed and unwrinkled in a paper clothes bag in his closet. He came back to the flat and cleaned and cooked Louis lunch, letting the omega stay in his room for a little while.

And then, as the sky started to darken, he changed his groomsman suit and knocked on the master bedroom door.

It took Louis a moment to open the door, and when he did, only one big blue eye gazed out at Alex on the other side.

“What?” he murmured, his voice cracked and dry.

“I thought we’d go to dinner,” Harry said, “I got reservations at Gerro’s.”

Louis still just stared at him, his eyebrow creasing.

“Why?”

“Because I thought you might want to get out,” Harry said, “You’ve been inside a lot lately. And I can’t can’t make steak nearly as well as they can.”

“I don’t like steak,” Louis immediately said.

“Then you can order something else,” Harry said, “Can I take you to get some dinner, Louis? Please? I don’t want you sitting in here.”

“I’m fine in here,” Louis said immediately. The door creaked, closing a bit more, and Harry reached out, only to draw his hand back.

“Are you sure?” Harry said, “There’s not much food here. I need to take you to the market tomorrow to get more.”

Louis still just stared at Harry, his eyes flashing a bit.

“You want to take me out,” Louis said.

“I know Alex used to take you to dinner,” he said, “But I don’t want to replace Alex. I just want to give you a nice day.”

He didn’t know how much longer he could stay here, with the omega looking at him like this, just a single, beautiful, angry eye gazing at him.

“I want some wine,” he said, “When we go.”

“Of course.”

“And you’re going to let me order whatever I want, because my alpha is paying for it.”

“You can get whatever you want,” Harry said, “Anything else?”

“No,” Louis said sharply, but still paused for a moment before he spoke again.

“I’ll be ready in twenty minutes,” he said, and then slammed the door hard enough to make the doorframe shake.

*******

Gerro’s was one of the only nice restaurants in town, a place where Harry generally had no business being. It was set firmly in the mated part of town for a good reason; as he looked around, all he saw was mated couples out for a nice, quiet dinner. A few omegas dining with their alphas glanced over at the pair of them and smiled and waved, particularly at Louis. He smiled tightly and waved back in turn as they went to their table.

Louis had emerged from his room in twice the amount of time he had promised, dressed in another jumper that belonged to Alex, although at least this one looked vaguely clean. He kept rolling the sleeves up past his hands and rolling them back down again as a server took them to a table on the edge of the restaurant. Harry kept a hand on his back, and pulled out his chair for him, and Louis tried to keep a smile on his face as he did, but his shoulders were still drawn incredibly tight the whole time.

The omega remained relatively quiet, only telling Harry what he wanted so the alpha could relay it to the waiter, as if Louis’s tongue didn’t work on its own. The other man tucked into his red wine and later, his chicken dish, his hand barely touching his melting glass of ice water. Harry didn’t ask him too many questions, just let him eat and stay quiet. When he felt eyes on them, he would reach out and pat Louis’s hand, and the omega pulled away hard once people had lost interest in looking at the supposed couple who was trying to celebrate their cancelled wedding.

After a little while, Louis had stopped eating his food, instead drinking quietly and steadily from the wine glass in front of him, one in a long series of drinks he had asked Harry to order for him.

“Is your food okay?” Harry asked, gazing at the half-filled plate in front of Louis, “Or are you not hungry? We can probably get them to wrap it up for you.”

It took Louis a moment to answer, his wine-stained lips pursing as he stared at some point in the white cloth tablecloth.

“You’re wearing your suit for wedding,” Louis said after a moment, “I remember the day you went to the tailor. Alex came back so annoyed with you and how you wanted a blue suit while everyone else was wearing black.”

“I thought black was boring,” Harry managed.

“Black is what alphas wear to weddings.”

“Black is what grooms wear,” Harry said, “Besides, blue is my color.”

Louis just gave him a long look, and then picked up his glass, staring down at the shallow slice of wine left in it.

“Why did you take me here, Harry?” he asked quietly.

“I thought you might want to get out of the house.”

“Today? Really?” Louis said sharply, “You thought I needed to go out to a dinner with you on the day of my wedding. That’s what you thought was best for me.”

“I thought it would be nice,” he said weakly, and Louis’s eyes narrowed.

“Are you doing this because you care about me getting out of the house, or do you just want to make sure we keep up appearances?” he said, “Because all I wanted tonight was to stay in my nest and look at university pictures, not go out just so everyone can see me with you.” 

He tipped the glass to his mouth, draining the alcohol down, and then swallowed a bit too hard.

“Fuck. Forget what I said. Don’t ask about my nest.”

Harry managed a weak “Okay” as he looked across at Louis. Just hearing the word slip from Louis’s mouth had made his throat tight. Omegas didn’t talk about a nest with anyone. Not their alphas, not their friends, not their families. Harry didn’t even know Louis had one.

It made sense he did, but it was something he wasn’t supposed to know for sure.

Louis picked up his fork and shoved it around his plate, moving around the chicken and sauce. His fingers were twitching a bit, and he kept setting it down and picking it up again, spearing food and then not putting it to his mouth.

“I know this may shock you,” Louis eventually said, “But I agreed to marry your brother because I’m in love with him, and I wanted a life with him.”

“I know,” Harry said weakly. He couldn’t even lift his hand to finish his steak, he could just stare at Louis, with his shaking hands and hard mouth.

“Do you?” Louis said, “Or do you think that Alex found the first pretty thing that caught his eye and I just go along with it because I have nothing better to do?”

Harry blinked at him, and Louis stared back. 

“I was courted by a lot of alphas in school, you know,” Louis shrugged, “Most of the omegas were, it wasn’t really uncommon to have five or six alphas courting someone at once. And most of those alphas courted multiple people as well. Spread out their chances and all that.”

“I remember that,” Harry said. He had gone on a few formal courting dates in university, but none had stuck, and he had eventually given up on the whole thing.

“Well. Alex didn’t court anyone else. Just me. I thought that was kind of ridiculous that he was putting all his eggs in one basket, but, I let him do what he wanted,” Louis said, “That wasn’t the only reason I picked him. It wasn’t because he treated me as special, even though he did.”

Harry was silent, and Louis arched a brow at him.

“Would you like to know why I picked him?”

Harry did. He really did. He had known why Alex had chosen Louis has his mate. He had told him stories countless times of courting time, buying him gifts, working up the money to buy them an apartment so they could move in and be a proper pairing. He had done all of it because Louis made him deliriously happy, and he was funny, and beautiful. He chose Louis because he was electric, and overwhelmed him.

His brother had fallen very hard and very fast in love with Louis. He knew that. But he didn’t know why Louis looked at his brother the way he did, why he had chosen a life with him.

Maybe there was a horrible, selfish part of him that wanted to know what it took to get Louis to look at him with anything close to affection again.

“I have a feeling you’re just going to tell me,” was what he ended up saying, and Louis scoffed.

“Good. You’re catching on,” Louis nodded. He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, gazing at his picked-apart plate before he spoke again, “He was the only one who asked about my day.”

Harry frowned, and leaned forward.

“What?”

“He was the only one who would come over and ask me how my day was, and what I had been doing. The others would just tell me I was pretty for an hour and then go home. And that was nice and all, and Alex would do that a little bit too. But he would also just ask how I had been doing, and what I liked to do in my free time. And he actually cared, too. I told him I liked to read and he asked me what kind of books I liked, and then he would bring me some new things to read the next time he saw me. I told him about the tea shop I liked to go to to study, and he would go there with me. If I told him I was busy or had a test, he would just be quiet and help me study and go get me tea if I asked for it. He actually wanted to get to know me, and he wanted me to get to know him, so I could tell if I would be happy with him. He – he actually wanted me to be happy. I never really thought any of the others cared about that.”

Louis shrugged, the movement too stiff.

“Your brother is very good to me,” he said, “He’s my best friend.”

Harry just looked at the slope of Louis’s neck, tight and long and marked with moles and a bond mark, and then swallowed, tightening his hands in his lap so he didn’t do something stupid like reach out and touch him.

“Alex loves you,” he said, “He loves you more than anything.”

“I know he loves me,” Louis said, his voice choked in the promise of a laugh, “Don’t tell me something stupid like that, I know.”

“I,” Harry started, and then stopped, pressing his lips together and gazing down into his lap, “I just wanted to help.”

“Well, you’re not helping,” Louis snapped, “You never help.”

Harry glanced across the restaurant, at the other couples that were enjoying a meal and a couple drinks. They weren’t listening, which was good, but he also knew they would snap to look at their table in a second if Louis snapped too loudly.

“Louis, please,” he murmured.

“Please, what.”

“Please don’t make a scene.”

Louis just blinked at him, his teeth grinding so hard his jaw twitched.

“Harry,” he gritted out between his teeth, “It is my wedding day today.”

“I know.”

“And my fiancé is in a mud trench in France for all I know. And he is still my fiancé. He was supposed to be my husband today. I waited four years for him to marry me after we got mated. And I was patient, and never bothered him, even though I wanted to get married and have children right away. And so I waited four bloody years to finally get a wedding and for him to tell me he was ready to have a family. And now he is not here.”  

“I’m sorry,” Harry said immediately. It was weak, but he didn’t know what else to say. What else could he do for Louis to show him he was sorry? He couldn’t touch him, buy him a gift. He could only say he was sorry until the words lost their meaning, and then try desperately to come up with new ways to tell him.

“Don’t be sorry. We’re done with that now, we sorted it out,” Louis said flatly, “When Alex comes home, we’re going to get married, and we’re going to have the three children we talked about.”

“Okay,” Harry said. Stupid. He was so stupid and shouldn’t have come here.

“I just wanted to tell you, so you know what I’m waiting for,” Louis said, then reached out and flicked the rim of his glass, “I’m done talking about this. Now order me another glass of wine.”

Harry just stared at him, and thought back to the three glasses he had watched Louis swallowed down throughout the meal, and how he really should tell him to slow down. Fuck, if they were even friends, he would tell Louis to stop, support him as they walked out to the car, tucked Louis into bed and left him some water.

But he couldn’t say no to Louis. Not today.

Slowly, he lifted his hand, and a server came over within a few moments.

“Can my omega have another glass of wine?” he asked, still gazing at Louis evenly as the server said “of course” and went to fetch them another bottle. When he returned, Louis kept his eyes on Harry as the alpha server handed the bottle to Harry, letting him pour out the drink for Louis. The omega’s expression hard and unreadable as he lifted his glass easily, and smiled tightly as he lifted the filled glass back to his lips.

“Thank you, alpha.”

*******

Harry could always tell at least a couple days ahead of time that his rut was coming.

He kept a leather book with a calendar tapped to the cover in his pocket next to his wallet, the pattern of his ruts marked out so he could figure out when to expect them again. But even without the calendar, he could still tell that the cycle was approaching again. He felt irritated, and tired, and he was staring at Louis for too long. Louis, who was quiet more than anything else days, and would occasionally offer Harry a few sentences about his day. Usually along the lines of “I visited Elizabeth today. She and the baby are doing well. It’s a girl, did I tell you that?” and “I fucking hate book club. And now David keeps trying to get us to read these underground bodice rippers he gets from France. It’s not everyone else’s fault that he and his alpha haven’t fucked since they had their third baby.”

Harry savored every word he got out of Louis, and hoped that maybe he was finally warming up to him, that they would be okay. But Louis still locked himself in his room for days at a time sometimes, especially on days letters from Alex came, and more often than often he glared at Harry with a gaze that nearly made his skin feel cold. Harry still smiled, still made him all his meals and gave him paper-wrapped packages from the bookstore once a week.

The leaves were darkening and falling, the air was thoroughly cold. It was about the time of year that Harry would start bringing fat thermoses of hot cider and hot chocolate in for his students to drink during class if he still had his old life. Harry read his letters from Alex over and over again, trying to find clues in the words to whether or not this brother was really upset. He spoke about being tired, and bored, and that they kept traveling through France and sometimes back to the borders of England, sometimes kissing the borders of Germany. Alex asked lots of questions, wanting to know what was happening in their lives.

Harry wrote back with his answers and well wishes, and held back the words he desperately wanted to put down.

Why didn’t you tell me you wanted children?

 

What did you do, the day you and Louis were supposed to get married?

 

Are you angry at me?

 

Sometimes I’m angry at you, almost as much as I’m angry at myself.

 

I’ve been thinking about Dad, and when we were kids.

 

When will you visit? Will you get leave soon? Maybe for Christmas?

 

I miss you.

He didn’t let the words out, and he spoke to no one about them. He couldn’t talk to Louis, he couldn’t talk to Alex’s co-workers or the bartenders at the pubs where he went for drinks sometimes, who were always curious why Alex was suddenly showing up without his omega attached at his hip. It was November now, and he had been holding it together for nearly ten weeks. He could keep going.

Only now he was prickling under the skin, and staring at his brother’s omega, and his hand keep slipping between his legs far more often during his evenings in the guest room bathtub. For a little while, he couldn’t pretend everything was fine.

He told Louis on a Monday night, as the omega pushed potatoes feebly around his plate. He knew Louis liked potatoes, and he had tried to give him more lately. His bones looked so sharp under his skin lately, and if he could anything, it was making sure his brother’s mate didn’t waste away.

“My rut is soon,” Harry said, the words breaking the silence around them. Louis’s flicked up, and he just looked at him evenly, his eyebrows crushing down.

“How do you know?”

“I have a calendar,” Harry said, choosing to omit the heat in his blood and the stiffness in his trousers he had to push down a lot more lately, “I keep track of the days.”

Still, Louis just stared, and then scoffed, stabbing on his potatoes.

“You should teach Alex how to do that,” Louis said, “He never gives me any notice.”

Harry wanted to laugh at that, because God, of course, that sounded just like his brother. But he kept it held down.

“So I’m going to leave for a few days,” Harry said, “Maybe go out of town, get a hotel, so no one in town sees me and wanders why I’m not staying with you. I already told work that I feel like I’m coming down with something, so I’m using Alex’s sick days. Didn’t want to use his rut days.”

“That’s good,” Louis said, “I don’t think his is until next month. It’ll be close to mine, that’s when his work should be expecting to have him call out.”

Louis popped a potato in his mouth and chewed slowly, and Harry tapped the table.

“So. Um. I just wanted you to know that’s what’s happening. I’m going to leave tomorrow night, I think, just to be safe.”

“Fine,” Louis said.

“I can make you some food ahead of time. Put them in the freezer.”

Louis swallowed and nodded, “Thank you. That would be nice.”

He picked up his plate and pushed back his chair, the sound scraping hard on the floor.

“I’m done,” he said, “I’m going to read in my room for a little while.”

“Oh – okay,” Harry said, turning to watch the other man go to the sink and dump his half-full plate inside, “Is everything okay?”

“Everything is fine,” he said, “I’m just done eating.”

Louis wrapped his arms around himself and plodded out of the kitchen and to the hallway, and Harry just watched him go. Had he said something? Was Louis upset about his rut? Why would he be, he usually acted like he would be thrilled if Harry left.

He knew he wouldn’t get a real answer out of Louis even if he asked. So he just turned back to the table and forced himself to finish the rest of his dinner until he lost his appetite.

*******

Harry hadn’t gone out before his rut in a very long time.

In the last few years, he’d spent the days before it started buying extra food for himself and making sure his work leave was properly filed, and then just handling everything himself. He hadn’t spent his rut with anyone since he graduated university, and he’d learned how to get through it on his own, especially in a small town where an unmated omega was very unlikely to be interested in a no-strings-attached rut.

But yesterday, he had taken the train into the nearest city, and gotten a hotel for an undecided amount of days. He was surrounded, for the first time since he had moved back to a small town to teach, by unmated pairs that kissed openly on the streets, bars and pubs that reeked of pheromones even from the outside, and plenty of people whose necks were unmarked by bonds.

And tonight, he…he needed something. The need of having a smaller, softer pair of hands touch him, pleasure him, calm down the raging heat boiling through his veins…he hadn’t felt a real need for that in years, and he made him swallow dryly each time he thought of it.

He wasn’t supposed to feel shame in that. He was a young, unmated alpha. He was supposed to take and conquer without shame. And he used to, when he was in the midst of a big city and had open minded friends and was young and not interested in mating and courting. Only sex, only touch and then forgetting it.

But now, it felt empty, wrong.

Louis was asleep at home, and even though he didn’t belong to Harry and didn’t want him there, it still felt wrong to leave him.

He wrapped his jacket tighter around him, despite the heat of his skin, and pushed at the door of the nearest pub he could find. It seemed clean, with big windows, the kind of place that people his age would go and not just older men getting off a factory shift.

The moment Harry entered, a few heads lifted, the scent of him probably strong enough to make people notice. He ignored the glances and just went to the bar, sitting down on one of the padded stools.

“Whiskey?” he asked weakly, and the beta bartender just gave him a bored glance and went to fix it. This probably happened in here at least once a week.

The drink was settled in front of Harry a moment later, and he picked it up, the drink still warm despite the ice in the glass. He could hear people walking down the street outside, loud laughter and voices, and didn’t feel like turning to look to see if they were young and if they were unmated.

“Am I in the right part of town?” he asked the bartender, and the man scoffed. Harry knew that he knew what he meant. The omega-laden part of town. The young, unmated part of town. Somewhere he could find what he was looking for.

“Oh, you sure are, mate,” the bartender chuckled, glancing at something behind Harry.

Before he could follow the other man’s gaze, he suddenly felt a presence next to him. The scent hit him before anything else. It was sweet, like new laundry drying on a spring day, muted, unthreatening. He was so used to Louis’s sweet now, rich and demanding, but this – this wasn’t bad. Just different.  

He turned his head, and looked at the woman who was front of him. She was probably around his age, with dark, nearly brown auburn hair. She had pale eyes and freckles on her arms, exposed by her short-sleeved blue dress. She had a soft smile, as sweet and non-threatening as her scent.

“Hello,” she said. Her voice was surprisingly deep, with a Northern accent that made his lips shape the word in an odd way.

“Hi,” Harry managed, and the woman just smiled, and motioned to a stool next to him.

“May I sit down?”

“Of course,” Harry heard himself say.

The omega woman smiled and sat down, smoothing her hands over his skirt as she sat.

“Would you like something to drink?” Harry asked, and she just shook her head.

“I don’t come here to drink,” she said, and Harry just stared back at her. It had been a few years since he had heard an omega say something that bold in public.

Well. He could maybe think of one person.

“What do you come here to do, then?” Harry asked, and she just smiled again.

“What’s your name?” she said instead.

“Harry,” he answered. He was out of town. It was fine. He could be himself tonight

“I’m Lucy,” the omega smiled, “You’re not from town, are you?”

“Brief holiday,” he said with a small smile, tapping his glass as he thought of something safe to tack on, “I’m on leave from the army.”

A pale, well-groomed hand came up and stroked his arm as Lucy tilted her head and looked at him, “How brave.”

Harry reached forward to grip his glass again and lift it to his mouth.

“It’s a lot of mud,” he said, “And following directions.”

Lucy still just smiled and nodded. Her hand was still on his arm.

“How long will you be in town, then?” she asked.

As if she didn’t know. As if she couldn’t smell him like everyone else in this pub that was probably watching them right now even though they all knew exactly how this was going to end.

“Not sure,” Harry said, “Three days, maybe. Maybe four.”

“Is that how long your holidays usually are?” she asked, her lips forming a small smirk, “Long holidays.”

Her eyes were a pale shade of blue he wasn’t sure he liked. Her accent was close but wrong.

But she smelled sweet, and her name reminded him of something else.

It was only three days.

“Maybe longer than most,” Harry said, and then picked up his glass and drained it in one long swallow. When he was done, he set his glass down a bit hard and just looked at her.

“I have a hotel,” he said, “You doing anything for the next few days?”

She grinned, and shrugged like he had asked her something subtle.

“Not really,” she said, “Nothing I can’t get out of for an army man.”

“Wonderful,” he said, already getting off his stool and searching for his wallet for some loose bills. It was Alex’s wallet. There was a loose picture of Louis inside, taken in a studio, his face young and full and a white Windsor wrapped around his throat. Harry had seen it nearly every day for months.

Stop it. Stop it.

He reached out, and Lucy quickly took his arm, looping her hands into his crook and settling her head on his shoulder as he went to the door. He could feel a few stares aimed at his back, but in a few moments, they had fallen away, and then they were outside and walking to the hotel, blending in with nearly every other person strolling around the streets.

Like they could disappear.

*******

On the day Harry and Alex had their schoolyard fight, they ended up in the headmaster’s office, as promised. Harry was given a cold rag for his swollen, bloody nose, and they sat silently as they waited for the headmaster to come in.

 

And when he did, he brought their father with him.

 

The older man was dressed for work, and shot them a sharp glance as he came inside, sitting down heavily in the chair next to Harry.

 

“Thank you for being able to come, Mr. Styles,” the headmaster said as he took his place behind the place, “I rang your house, but there was no answer, and the only other number we have is for your office.”

 

“My omega is sick and must not have wanted to get out of bed,” the older man said dryly, “Hopefully this will be quick, I’d hate to be away from my work for very long.”

 

“Of course,” the headmaster said, “Well, I’m sorry I couldn’t explain it well over the phone, but, your boys had a little fight today. Traded a few punches, it would seem, out in the schoolyard. Luckily one of our staff members stepped in before anything serious happened.”

 

“I see,” Franklin said, and then cut a glance to Harry, stared at the bloody rag in his lap.

 

“Honestly, I’m not too concerned with this,” the headmaster said calmly, “They didn’t hurt any other students, so as far as I’m concerned, one day of suspensions should be sufficient. I don’t see much need to do anything further for something that happens all the time. Alpha boys, they just have so much pent up energy, we have little scuffles all the time.”

 

“Harry isn’t an alpha,” their father cut in, making Harry’s shoulder curl in tightly.

 

The headmaster frowned at their father, then glanced at the two boys.

 

“I’m sorry?”

 

“Harry is an omega,” their father said calmly, “Alex is the only alpha.”

 

 Harry folded his shirt sleeve down and lifted his hand to his nose, pressing it into the nostril as he felt a bit more blood dribble down. He could feel three sets of eyes on him, and he eventually dropped his hand, the fresh red stain on his shirt staring back at him.

 

“Neither of them have presented yet,” the headmaster pointed out, “But I would assume they’re both alphas. Generally, there are enough signs before they present, and from everything I’ve seen – “

 

“Harry is not an alpha,” their father repeated sharply, “You think an alpha would take this much of a beating from his own fucking brother?”

 

Harry ducked his head again, trying to avoid the headmaster’s eyes.

 

“Please don’t curse in my office, Mr. Styles,” the headmaster said.

 

“I don’t take orders from a fucking beta,” the other man said, “Is that you wanted to tell me? That they have suspension tomorrow?”

 

The headmaster just looked at him evenly, and then slowly said, “Well, we also have health professionals in the town, if they boys need to talk to anyone. Doctors, psychologists, it might help – “

 

“Not interested,” the alpha man said roughly, and then stood, “They’ll be back after tomorrow. Boys, come on, we’re going home.”

 

Harry stood up so fast his knees wobbled, clutching his hands together. He felt Alex rise more slowly next to him, and he tried not to sniffle as he felt more blood trickle from his nose. The two of them fell into step behind to their father, wandering out into the hallway and then outside of the school building. It wasn’t until they were outside the school building that Harry felt a hand grab at his hair, tugging hard on his curls. He cried out sharply, and he looked over to his father, who was glaring at him as he held his hair.

 

“Do you think it’s funny to embarrass me like that?” he snapped, “Did you even throw in one punch?”

 

He let go of Harry’s curls, but his scalp smarted as he let go. Their father snapped a finger over to Alex, who was just standing, watching.

 

“I don’t see a single bruise on your brother. Do you think you could do anything? Your brother is a fucking alpha.”

 

“I – “ Harry started, “I’m sorry.”

 

“Don’t apologize to me,” their father snapped, “I’m not surprised, anyways. And I don’t want you to get into another fight again. It’s unbecoming for an omega, anyways.”

 

He stared down the sidewalk, and scoffed.

 

“I’m going back to work,” he said, “Someone has to put a roof over our heads. Walk home.”

“Dad – “ Alex started, but the older man held up a hand.

 

“Walk. Home,” he snapped, and then set off to where his car was parked on the curb. He got in quickly, the car starting with an angry roar, and then sped off, until the car disappeared down the street.

 

As soon as he was gone, Alex crumbled to his knees. And for the first time in years, Harry saw his brother cry.

 

“I’m sorry,” he choked out, “I’m so fucking sorry. I fucked up. I fucked up.”

 

He was sobbing hard, and grabbing onto Harry’s school uniform trousers.

 

“I didn’t mean to hurt you. I never want to hurt you. I’m sorry I’m mean to you. I’m sorry Dad doesn’t like you. Harry, please, forgive me. I can’t have you hate me. I can’t have it.”

 

He was crying hard, the water slipping over his face, and Harry’s knees buckled.

 

“I know you didn’t mean to hurt me,” Harry said, “You’re my brother.”

 

“I’m a shitty brother.”

 

“Yeah. Sometimes. But you’re my brother. Hey.”

 

Harry slid down onto his knees, and reached our for Alex, holding his shoulders.

 

“I forgive you,” he said, “I forgive you. I’m tired. I don’t want to fight you and him. Let’s stop. Let’s just stop.”

 

Alex hiccupped and nodded, and then reached up, rubbing under his eye roughly.

 

“Fuck Dad,” he choked out, “Fuck Dad.”

 

“Yeah,” Harry nodded, “Fuck Dad. Fuck him.”

 

Alex laughed weakly, and then reached out, grabbing onto Harry’s bloodied shirt.

 

“I’m going to do better,” he said, “I’m going to take care of you, not hurt you. Never again.”

 

He gripped his shirt hard, and Harry let him cry, even though they were kneeling on a sidewalk out in the open and anyone could see them. He held his brother, and listened to him sob, and when he was down, he rubbed his back until he was ready to lift his head.

 

“I know you won’t hurt me,” he said, “And I won’t hurt you. We’ll protect each other. Okay?”

 

He didn’t know where the words were coming from, but it felt right. It felt right he would stand by his brother and protect him. No matter what their gender, or who got more attention, more love. No matter what happened.

 

Alex hiccupped weakly and nodded, then wiped his eyes hard.

 

“Come on,” Harry said, “We gotta walk home now.”

 

“Oh fuck that,” Alex scoffed, “We’re getting ice cream. And then we’re getting a cab. And we’re going to have a good day.”

 

He grabbed his brother’s hand, and tugged, and slowly, they stood up together.

 

“A good day,” Harry echoed, and Alex nodded and slung an arm around his shoulders, tugging him forward.

 

“And we’ll have an even better day tomorrow,” he promised, “I’ll give us nothing but good days from now.”

 

*******

Harry returned home late.

It was three days later, and he had gotten the last train out. His shirt was rumpled, and he had just managed to comb out his hair as he had walked to the station. There was a bruise on his neck and two more on his collarbone and under his right nipple, and he smelled. He knew he fucking smelled, even though he had taken a long shower, so hard he turned his skin pink and bright white.

But he could still smell himself, and someone who wasn’t him, wasn’t Louis, wasn’t even someone he knew.

He had never slept with someone he didn’t know. He only slept with friends, or at the very least acquaintances. He didn’t sleep people and then toss them aside. He didn’t abandon people he cared for.

What was he doing?

The train ride eventually ended, and none of his questions had answers. His skin still itched, despite a rather satisfying last three days, and his feet felt heavy as he walked back down the empty streets and into the familiar neighborhood. Cold air nipped at the back of his neck, and he had to close his eyes as he walked up the stairs.

Never again, he thought to himself, we’re not going to do this again. Something else, next time. Anything else.

When he finally got up to the flat, Harry tried to close the door softly behind him, wincing a little bit at the faint click the door still made. He turned into the dark hall, trying to catch his hands against the walls so he could shuffle back to his blanket-covered place on the couch without turning any lights on. He wanted a bath, but he also just wanted to sleep, and right now the latter was winning out.

But before he could even start to take his shoes off, light still turned out from the end of the hall. He lifted his head and blinked, looking across the living room and into the doorway on the other side. He could see Louis’s body illuminated in the harsh yellow light of the main bedroom, and as he blinked his eyes, the omega came more into focus. He was dressed in a night slip, plain white cotton with thin straps and a little pink bow under his collarbones. He had his arms tightly crossed over his chest.

And when Harry looked at him closer, he could see that Louis looked fucking pissed.

“Where the fuck have you been?” he snapped. His eyes looked too bright, his cheeks too red, and harry wasn’t sure if it was the light or just how angry he was.

Harry blinked at him, and then drew his arm away from the nearest wall, letting it drop uselessly to his side.

“I’ve been away,” Harry said, “That’s where I’m supposed to be when I’m in rut.”

“You didn’t tell me.”

“Yeah, well, you were pissed at me before I left,” Harry said, “And I figured you would catch on.”

Louis swallowed tightly, his fingers tapping against his bare arm.

“And where exactly did you go?”

“Next town over,” Harry said, forcing his voice to stay calm, “I got a hotel.”

“And weren’t there alone,” Louis said, his nostrils flaring a bit, “I see.”

Don’t you mean you smell, Harry wanted to counter, but Louis looked even less in the mood to take a joke than usual.

“So?” Harry said, his voice coming out a little more harshly than he wanted it to, “You think I spend all my ruts alone?”

He actually did, most of the time. It wasn’t his favorite thing to do, to be alone with just his hand and a mattress and to have to scrub out his sheets three times after it was all over. But he had done it for over half his ruts in the last four years, he had gotten used to that.

But right now, he didn’t want to give Louis the satisfaction of knowing that. He hadn’t done that this time and that was what mattered.

Louis was still glaring at him, his arms still crossed tightly over his chest as he glared.

“You don’t think before you do anything, do you?” he said, and Harry just stared at him.

“What are you even talking about?”

“What if you had run into someone from the neighborhood as you were coming back, reeking of someone else, with a fucking hickey on your neck?” Louis said, “How would that look on Alex? On me?”

Harry lifted his hand to his neck, just a for a moment, and oh, shit, he had forgotten about that.

“I – I didn’t see anyone you know on my way in,” he managed, and Louis scoffed.

“That’s not the point. You could have,” Louis shook his head, “No one would care if Alex fucked around with someone else, you know. Whatever fills his natural urges is fucking fine. But people would talk about me, Harry. They would talk about how Alex Styles’s loud, shitty omega can’t even satisfy him in bed anymore. Do you understand that?”

Louis dropped his arms, letting them hang next to his sides, his fingers curling and uncurling.

“I thought you didn’t care what your knitting circle friends have to say about you,” Harry eventually said.

“They’re not my friends!” Louis snapped, “And that’s the bloody point. I have to learn to live with them, to look good in front of them. You think an alpha has never cheated on an omega I know? Do you know the shit they say about them? I would have to keep my head down for months just to get through the market without someone saying something to me, and then, shit, what if Alex came back and people thought it was okay to start flirting with him in front of me, and  – “

“Louis, calm down,” Harry cut in.

“Don’t tell me to calm down!” Louis snapped, “I – you fucked up, don’t tell me what to do!”

“Okay, fine. Fine.” Harry lifted his hands in surrender and sighed, “I won’t fuck anyone else, does that make you happy? I’ll just get a hotel room and pull off for three days like I’m fucking sixteen.”

Louis just stared at him, and then turned away.

“Were they pretty, at least?”

“I’m sorry?”

“The omega you fucked,” Louis said flatly, “Were they pretty?”

“What does that matter?”

“Fuck, I don’t know,” Louis said, swinging his arms out aimlessly, “Maybe I want to know if it was worth it to you to almost jeopardize my reputation.”

Harry just stared back at him, and then sighed, thinking about Lucy. She had been fine. Sweet. Submissive. Incredibly quiet no matter how hard Harry had fucked her. But her eyes that were the wrong shade of blue.

He took a moment to think before looking back at Louis.

“She – yeah,” Harry swallowed weakly, “She was pretty.”

Louis shook his head, rubbing a hand over his eyes.

“What, do you still have a problem with that?” Harry said, “Just because my brother was a virgin before he mated you doesn’t mean I have to be.”

He didn’t want to pick a fight. Not really. But he was still snapping, because his skin itched and he was tired, and frustrated, and shit, did Louis never run out of pretty things to wear?

“Don’t talk about my alpha like that,” Louis snapped, “Like that’s a fucking bad thing.”

“You’re right,” Harry said, “It’s not a bad thing. It’s a fucking great thing, that you two did that. It’s great you have someone so fucking in love with you. And I’m sorry I can’t be my brother, I really am, because he’s a better person than me, and I fucking miss him too, okay? And the only thing I told him I would do is make you happy, and I’m trying to make this work, and you know what? I don’t know how long you’re just going to have me. Maybe you’re going to fucking have me forever, maybe we’ll have to do this for the rest of our fucking lives, because I’m stupid, and my brother is stupid, and I don’t know when he’s coming home Louis, I fucking don’t, and I’m sorry.”

He was panting when he stopped, his cheeks blazing and his skin hot again. He wanted a cool shower. Fuck, he wanted to scream. He wanted to go get his sport trainers and run ten miles on the closest university track until he collapsed. His rut was done, and all that remained was the frustration and the hating himself for everything. For leaving, for Lucy, for being here in the first place.

He stared at Louis as he forced himself to breath, and the omega looked back, his entire face was flushed electric pink in anger, and his mouth was hard and his eyes –

Fuck. His eyes were damp.

“You’re such a fucking prick,” Louis sighed, his voice weak.

“I’m – “

Harry started, but Louis just shook his head, already starting to back up. 

“Please just don’t do that again, Harry,” Louis said, “Don’t talk about my alpha. Don’t yell at me. And don’t leave me and then drag yourself home with a bite on your neck like some kind of fucking whore. Don’t do that to me again.”

He stumbled as he walked back, his hand reaching out to catch the doorway of his bedroom to balance himself. He reached up, rubbing at his eyes with the sleeve of his robe.

“And take a fucking bath. I don’t want you stinking up my house with another omega.”

His eyes were blazing now, wet and red, and his lips quivered as he grabbed hold of the door.

Damn it. God damn it, Harry had really just dragged himself home and told Louis that he wasn’t sure if his alpha would ever come home.

Jesus fuck, what had he done?

“Louis – “ Harry called out weakly, and shit, he didn’t even have a decent apology ready, not when he was so tired and confused and still half-hazy from a freshly finished rut.

But it didn’t matter. Louis firmly shut the door behind him, leaving Harry alone in the dark once more.

*******

The next morning, Harry woke up early, when the sunlight was still pale and tinted with the orange of the sunrise.

He went down the hall, to the linen closet where Louis kept the spare sheets and the mops, and removed his suitcase from the back, where he had stowed it so it would be out of sight for guests.

He had one pair of his own clothes still folded into the corner of the suitcase, and he took it out and put it on, sighing weakly at the feeling of his own shirt, trousers, even his socks on his skin. His, and not his brother’s. His life, not someone else’s.

He slowly took the clothes that were tucked away around the living room and the linen closet, refolded them, and put them away. He wouldn’t need them for a little while. He just needed his cosmetic bag from the guest washroom, and it only took five minutes to pack away.

Harry had planned on slipping out as early as he could, leaving a note by the door. But before he could even reach for a pad and pen, he heard the squeak of a door opening behind him.

“You woke me up,” he heard Louis grumble, and Harry’s shoulders tensed a bit at his bristling tone, and he snapped the closures of his suitcase up.

“Sorry,” Harry said, “I’m getting out of your way anyways.”

“What does that mean?” Louis said, “Why do you have your suitcase out? You were just away. Or did you find another broad to fuck? Didn’t get your fill the first time?”

Harry closed his eyes and picked up the handle of his suitcase. He couldn’t even feel sad, or angry anymore at Louis’s words. He was exhausted, and he couldn’t even work up the energy to open his eyes until he turned around. Louis was standing a few feet away from him, grabbed in white cotton and glaring, and Harry could only just shake his head.

“I’m going to go home,” Harry said weakly.

“What do you mean you’re going home?” Louis said. His arms were still wrapped tightly around him, he was frowning, his entire body was drawn like a bowstring, tight enough to either snap or attack. That’s how he always looked, and Harry was too exhausted to try to fix it anymore.

“I’m going to my flat,” he said.

“You can’t do that,” Louis said immediately, “Someone will see you.”

“Yeah, I’ll tell my neighbors I’m home for leave or something,” Harry said, “I think that’ll be good, to be myself for a little while.”

“Oh,” Louis said weakly.

“I won’t be here for a while,” Harry said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this. I need a break.”

Louis narrowed his eyes, his eyebrows crushing down.

“What is ‘this’?” he asked, and Harry groaned.

“Louis,” he said firmly, “Please. Can we not fight? Can there be one thing you don’t fight me on?”

The omega just stared at him, and Harry pushed on the lid of the suitcase and turned down the latches, locking it.

“It’s not easy for me to be here,” he said, forcing the words out, “I miss my brother, Louis. And I miss my life. And I spend every second getting yelled or given the cold shoulder and it’s exhausting. So I need to leave.”

He grabbed his suitcase handle and held it firmly, hoisting it up off the couch.

“I just…I just wanted to stay alive. And maybe that’s selfish but that’s why I’m here, and I’m trying to fix my bad decision in any way I can. And I’m fucking sorry that I’m so bad at it and I’m making you so unhappy because that’s not what I wanted to happen.”

Harry’s eyes burned now, and Louis was just staring at him, but he kept going.

“Listen, if Alex gets leave and comes back home, I’m going to ask him to switch again. I’ll leave that time, and he’ll get to stay. And then everything will be right again.”

Louis’s eyebrows quirked up, and his mouth opening, his bottom lip shaking a bit before he managed to speak.

“You – you would do that?”

“I think that’s what I have to do,” Harry said, “I’m scared fucking shitless, Louis, but it’s not right to just stay here when you’re so fucking miserable and my brother is risking his hide for me.”

He shook his head, just looking at Louis stare at him.

“Thought you’d be thrilled,” he mumbled, and then winced, “I’m sorry. Shit. I’m sorry. I’ll just go, okay? I’ll go before I say something else I’m going to regret.”

He transferred to suitcase to just one hand, and then started to walk towards the hallway. But he barely made it two steps before Louis spoke.

“So when will you be back?” Louis asked.

“Does it matter to you?” Harry said, and then groaned again at how harsh it sounded. He was unraveling the longer he was here, and he fucking hated it, “I don’t know, Louis. A few days. I’ll call you, maybe, when I want to come back.”

Louis stared at him for a little while longer, and Harry could have sworn he say his lips and eyebrows twitch, and then he turned away, crossed his arms and stepped back.

“Okay, fine,” he said, “Whatever you want. I’ll be fine on my own.”

“I know,” Harry said. He knew Louis wouldn’t wither and fade away like an untended house plant if he left for a little while. But it still tugged at his chest to leave him. Louis still deserved company, didn’t he?

But he didn’t want Harry. Maybe it would be easier if he left for a little while after while.

*******

On one July morning when he was sixteen, Harry woke up immediately and knew something was wrong.

 

He was drenched in sweat, and he could tell immediately it was more than just heat from outside. This seemed to be coming from deep inside himself. His entire body felt swollen, his joints too big and his muscles tight under his skin.

 

And he could smell himself. He had never smelled like anything, and now he could smell himself, something dark and heavy.

 

He blinked his glassy eyes at the ceiling, and swallowed dryly as his mind raced. Or, it raced as fast as it could. He thought like his thoughts were caught in honey.

 

I’m presenting, he thought, his inner voice surprisingly calm, I’m an alpha. And I’m presenting.

 

One of his legs was hanging off the bed, and then he kicked it weakly, trying to flex his toes. Something to make him know for sure he was awake and inside his own body.

 

He was.

 

Oh, shit, he was.

 

He brought a hand up, rubbing it over his chest, over his rabbiting heart, and he thought.

 

He was an alpha. He had always been alpha, and now he knew for sure. Alex had presented last month, and they had had a big dinner for him, and their father had been grinning all night.

 

Harry had a feeling this would not be the same treatment. Not when his father wanted him to be an omega, didn’t think he was worthy of being an alpha.

 

He could hear water running in the hall bathroom, and he remembered Alex was the only one upstairs. He had to tell him. Alex could help him.

 

“Alex,” Harry called out weakly, wincing at the sound of his own rough voice. He coughed and tried again, “Alex?”

 

“What?” Alex called, his voice sounding far away.

 

“Come here,” Harry said, “Please.”

 

He heard his brother sigh, and then the water shut off in the bathroom and footsteps started down the hall.

 

“What do you – “ Alex started as the door creaked open, and then his voice cut off. Harry took a sharp breath in and closed his eyes.

 

“Harry?” Alex said softly, “Harry, oh my God.”

 

“Help me,” Harry said weakly, “Please, Alex, help me.”

 

“You’re – “ Alex got out, “Oh, fuck, um – shit, here.”

 

Harry could hear his feet moving again, and a moment later, his brother was leaning over him with a glass of water in his hand.

 

“Drink this,” he said, “And then get dressed. We’ll go to the doctor. We’ll figure something out.”

 

“I’m presenting,” Harry said weakly, “Alex, I’m presenting.”

 

“Jesus, yeah, I can smell you,” Alex said, “Harry, please, drink your water. We have to get you out of here, Dad’s downstairs.”

 

“Dad wants me to be an omega,” he said weakly, “Alex, please, help me, Dad wants me to be an omega.”

 

“Well you’re not,” Alex said, “And we have to get you out. I don’t know what we’ll do after that but we have to get you out. Now come on.”

 

He helped Harry stand, and then managed to shove pieces of clothing at Harry until he was dressed. He was sweating through his shirt right away, and he pulled at it, trying to feel better.

 

“You’re going to stay hot,” Alex said, “Trust me, I know. Now come on. Quick, quick.”

 

Alex took his hand and pulled him down the hall, and Harry briefly thought of when they were children, how they would do this all the time.

 

Quick, quick.

 

They slipped down the steps, trying to make their footsteps light on the stairs. It was a straight shot to the back door, and then they could hop the fence and leave.

 

“Boys?” Harry heard their mother calm, “Boys, are you up? Do you want something to eat?”

 

“Fuck,” Alex mumbled, “Don’t say anything, fuck – “

 

“Alex,” their father’s voice called, and Harry felt Alex squeeze his hand so hard it smarted, “Is that you? You smell like a rut.”

 

“Damn it,” Alex whispered, “Damn it, damn it – “

 

He reached out for the door, his fingers just touching the doorknob as the footsteps started, heavy and slow.

 

Not slow enough.

 

“What – “ their father’s voice said, and then, he heard a sharp intake of breath, and Alex froze.

 

Harry didn’t want to turn around. He knew he would have to, but he didn’t want to. He would be fine living in this moment forever if it meant never having to shift to the next one.

 

“Harry,” their father said, and in the next moment, there was a rough hand on Harry’s shoulder, yanking him back. His fingers fell from Alex’s grip, and he yelped in protest as his father gripped his shoulder and dragged a hand over his neck, bringing it to his nose afterwards. The older man’s nostrils flared, and he glared at Harry, his teeth tightening.

 

“You,” he whispered.

 

“Dad,” Alex said softly behind Harry, but it did nothing to curb him.

 

“Come here,” Franklin said, and pulled Harry hard by the shirt, dragging him back into the living room.

 

“Emily,” he shouted, “Emily, come here.”

 

Harry closed his eyes, and tried to keep his balance as his father let go of his shirt, shoving him back. He could feel his mother’s footsteps, the way they slowed when they came closer. The sharp intake of breath.

 

“We have two alpha boys, it seems,” their father said tightly, “And only one proper one.”

 

Harry opened his eyes, and stared at the older man, who was coiled in front of him, fuming.

 

He knew this would be bad. All the years he knew he was alpha, he knew it would be bad on the day that became apparent. But he had never planned for how to deal with how bad it would be.

 

“Dad,” he said, but was quickly interrupted.

 

“You have the nerve,” he snapped, “To be an alpha that acts this way?”

 

Harry opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, he saw his father’s fist swinging forward. He barely was able to duck out of the way, his hands flying up over his hand as he winced.

 

“You can’t even fucking fight,” his father barked, “You’re fucking weak.”

 

Because you made me stay inside, Harry thought, You wouldn’t let me play sports. You wouldn’t let me do anything. Because you thought I was an omega.

 

“Stand up,” his father barked, “For fuck’s sake, stand up!”

 

Harry glanced at him, and above him, his father’s face was red, his eyes flashing.

 

“Why don’t you stand up and fight me,” his father snapped, “Why don’t you show me you’re a strong fucking alpha, after all I did for you, to make sure you had a decent life.”

 

Harry blinked, and then slowly, he straightened his knees. His mouth felt dry, but he still swallowed forced words to emerge.

 

“I did not have a decent life,” he gritted out. Their father stared back at him at Harry straightened his spine out, the bones snapping. He had stayed hunched over for so long it had been awhile since he had stood to his full height. He was taller than his father now, and had to look down at him.

 

“What the fuck did you just say to me?” the other alpha countered, and Harry set his jaw.

 

“Do you think you did me a favor, raising me the way you did?” Harry said, “Reminding me every second I was helpless, and had to sit down, be quiet, or you’d smack me around? Telling me every second Alex was better? Why do you think we fought for so long? You fucking did that to us. You fucked us up.”

 

“I did everything I could for you!”

 

“You didn’t do anything!” Harry shouted. The sound made his body shake, and out of the corner of his eye, he could see his mother take a step back.

 

“Harry,” Alex said softly, but Harry wasn’t looking away from their father.

 

“You told me I was weak,” Harry said, “My whole life. But I’m not weak. You are, you fucking bastard.”

 

“Don’t talk to me like that, you little brat,” Franklin snapped, his eyes blazing.

 

“You wanted to fucking fight me,” Harry shouted, “So fight me, if that’s what you think an alpha is supposed to do.”

 

“Harry!” Alex shouted, but before Harry could reply, their father lunged forward, his hands up, and Harry brought up his fist, balling it together tightly and bringing it forward. His fist collided with skin, and bone, and he could hear it, and he closed his eyes when he heard a thud hit the floor. It took him a moment to open his eyes, and when he did, his father was sprawled out on the floor in front of him, bleeding, and staring up at him with wide eyes.

 

Harry’s knuckles smarted, and his thumb was screaming in pain, but he didn’t even touch his hand. Instead, he looked to his brother and mother.

 

“I’m leaving,” he got out, and then ran out of the room and down the hall. He went to his room, and grabbed his rucksack from school. He picked up the schools he had left on the floor, shoving them in, and then took his wallet from the dresser and stuffed it in as well. He slung it over his shoulder and then ran back to the living room. His father was still on the ground, struggling to catch his breath, and Alex was still staring at him.

 

“I’m leaving,” he repeated.

 

“Where – what do you mean?” Alex asked, and Harry shook his head.

 

“I don’t know,” he said, “But I have to go. I’ve had to go for a while. I’m sorry.”

 

He grabbed his brother by the shoulders and pulled him, crushing him in his arms and patting his back hard.

 

“Take care of Mum,” he murmured, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

 

“Harry,” Alex choked out, but Harry was already pulling away and going over to his mother, pulling her into a hug.

 

“I’m sorry, Mummy,” he mumbled into his shoulder, “But I have to go.”

 

He felt his mother nod against his temple, and reached up and patted his back.

 

“I love you,” she whispered, “I love you. I’m so sorry.”

 

“It’s okay,” Harry said quickly, “It’s okay. Everything is okay.”

 

He felt sick to his stomach, and he could hear his father standing up, and God, where would he even go after this? He had no damn idea. He just knew he was going, and it had to be now.

 

Harry pulled himself away from his mother, and just gazed his father, barely sat up on the carpet.

His father stared back as Harry set his jaw.

He wouldn’t say goodbye.  

 

“Harry,” his father croaked out, but Harry just grabbed tighter onto his rucksack straps and started forward, grabbing onto the front doorknob when he got there.

 

He opened the door, and the summer heat hit him immediately. Blocking out the voices behind him, the thoughts wondering if he would see his mother again. If he would see Alex again.

 

He just stepped forward, squinting against the sun.

 

Keep going, he though, Keep walking.

 

Then he would be free.

*******

When Harry finally arrived back at the flat a week later, he was greeted with the smell of flowers and fresh food. He looked around the flat, and it took him a few moments to realize what looked different. The blinds were turned up, the late autumn sunshine cold and pale but still covering the living room and hallway in light. He hadn’t seen the blinds open in a long time, the sun shuttered out as if to match Louis’s mood. There were fresh flowers in nearly vase in the house, winter-pale winters and dark red blooms. He had to sniff a few times to figure out what the smell from the kitchen was. Bread, beef stew, rich, bitter chocolate.

“Harry?” he heard Louis’s voice, and he blinked. Louis never greeted him, and even if he did, it always sounded bitter and reluctant. But this sounded…hopeful, almost.

Harry didn’t even get the chance to answer before Louis’s head had popped out from the kitchen door, and in a moment he emerged fully.

He wasn’t, for once, in one of Alex’s dark jumpers, drowning in fabric that had slowly lost the scent of his alpha. Instead, he was wearing a pale pink shirt, a few buttons undone, over his dark trousers, and he had a pale apron tied around his waist, one that Harry had seen hanging up several times but that been left untouched. The omega came over to Harry immediately, and – he smiled.

He actually smiled.

“Hi!” Louis practically breathed out, and Harry just blinked at him.

“Um, hi, Louis.”

“Let me take your coat,” Louis said, reaching forward, “I’ll hang it up.”

“Oh, I was – I was just going to do that, but thank you,” Harry said, but just as he was pulling his arms out of his jacket sleeves, Louis scurried behind him and grabbed onto the fabric of the coat, pulling it off all the way.

“No, no, I wanted to,” Louis said as he hung the coat up on an empty hook by the door. After he was done he swiped his hands on his apron and then motioned to the living room, “Sit, I’ll get you some ice water.”

“I’m not really – “ Harry started, and then when Louis scurried out of the room, back to the kitchen, he just sighed and muttered “Okay” to himself.

He was still wondering what on Earth Louis was doing, if he was pulling a trick on him or something else, but he still went over to the sofa, still covered in his sheets and blankets, and sat down, picking up the newspaper from where it had been folded up on the table. He opened it up and scanned a few articles, but before he could fully dive into any of them, Louis wandered back into the room. He padded over to where Harry sat, and then settled a glass of water on the table in front of him and smiled.

“I made stew for dinner,” Louis said, “And chocolate cake for dessert. Do you like chocolate cake?”

“Yes?” Harry said, and Louis seemed to brighten at that.

“Good! That’s all done but the stew will be ready to eat in about twenty minutes. I hope that’s okay.”

“That sounds great,” Harry said, “You, um, didn’t have to make me dinner.”

“I wanted to,” Louis insisted, his eyes still a little wide, “I mean, you cooked for me for almost three months, you know?”

“It wasn’t a problem,” Harry said, “But thank you for making me dinner. That’s very nice of you.”

“You’re welcome,” Louis smiled, and then straightened up “So, how was work today?”

“Oh,” Harry said, and then looked up at the man that still wasn’t retreating, “Fine.”

“Good, that’s good,” Louis nodded, and then glanced down at Harry’s feet, “Do you want me to go get your some slippers do you can take your shoes off?”

“Louis,” Harry interrupted, and sighed as he set his newspaper down, “What are you doing?”

Louis blinked, and then frowned.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured immediately, “It’s too much, isn’t it? I tried to – fuck, never mind, I’m sorry, I’ll leave you alone.”

“You don’t have to leave,” Harry said quickly, “I’m just curious what you’re doing.”

He motioned vaguely to the water in front of him, and then in the direction of the kitchen, the coat rack by the door.

“We haven’t even been on speaking terms for three months, Louis,” he said carefully, “And now I come home and you – you’re doing all this. And it’s very nice but I’m just wondering why.”

Louis looked at him for a long moment, and then brought a thumb to his mouth, twisting and chewing a hangnail.

“I don’t like being alone,” he said softly, and Harry inclined his head. Louis dropped his thumb from his mouth and huffed, setting his hands by his hips

“I grew up in a big family, you know that?” Louis said, “Seven siblings. My mum had three different alphas. Not all at once, but we kept in touch with all of them, they came over for dinner sometimes. And then I went to uni, and had a roommate, and then two years later I had to drop out of school when I got mated but I had Alex.”

Harry just looked at him again, and Louis looked back and then kept going.

“I don’t even stay here when Alex has to go on business trips or something, you know that? I stay with Elizabeth. Or with the neighbors. I don’t – I don’t like being alone, Harry.”

“Oh,” Harry managed, and then swallowed dryly, cringing at how useless the word sounded, “I’m sorry for leaving you, then. You could have – “

“It’s fine. You didn’t know, and I didn’t say anything,” Louis said, “I don’t blame you for leaving. I was horrible to you.”

“You weren’t – “

“I was. Don’t deny it,” Louis sighed, “I’m not a mean person, you know. I’m loud and I don’t listen well and sometimes I snap at people when they make me angry but I’m not mean.”

“I never thought you were,” Harry said.

Louis had been nothing but funny and charming and sweet when he had seen them, and he knew enough from Alex’s stories to know that wasn’t an act to put on in front of guests. Louis was kind to the people he loved. Harry had just amused he wasn’t in that category. After all, he had no reason to be.

“You made me angry, Harry. But so did Alex. So does this war and the people who run it that I can’t yell at it person. So I was cruel to you, because you’re the only one here. And – fuck, Harry, I’m fucking sorry for that. Okay?”

Harry just looked at Louis, and then the omega dropped onto his knees, and brought a curled fist onto the edge of the couch, blinking up at him.

“I’m done being mean, okay? I don’t want to scream and cry and be petty anymore. I just – I do like you, Harry. You’re a good brother, and you’re kind, and – I want to try living together. Can we just try that? I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Louis’s lip was quivering now, and Harry wanted so badly to get down on the floor with him, or to cup his face in his hands, run his fingers through his hair.

Harry wanted to damn the hormones in him that made his stomach shift at the sight of his brother’s beautiful omega on his knees for him.

“Louis,” he finally said, his mouth dry despite the water right in front him, “You don’t have to apologize again. I accept your apology. And I’m sorry again. Um, for everything.”

“You don’t have to – “ Louis started.

“Yes, I do,” Harry said, “Please, Louis, let me apologize to you.”

The omega blinked up at him, and Harry wanted to tell him to stand up, but he wasn’t sure if that was out of line. Fuck, he wasn’t sure if it was out of line for Louis to be in his knees right now. He didn’t know.

“I’m sorry for snapping at you, and leaving you, and fighting with you. I’m sorry for taking your life away,” harry said, the words coming out so quickly he wasn’t sure if he had even said what he had meant to get out. But Louis was looking at him with those wide eyes and quaking mouth, and then he glanced down at the hand that was still on the couch, slowly retracting it to instead put it in his lap.

“You didn’t take my life away,” Louis said, “My alpha left. But I still love him, and he’s going to come back. You didn’t take anything.”

They just looked at each other for a little longer, and then Louis dropped his gaze and huff.

“And to answer your original question, I’m doing all this for you because I felt…off balance, I guess. Alone. And I just…sometimes, um.”

Louis licked his lips.

“This usually happens around my heats. I’m sorry if it was odd for you to come back to.”

“Oh,” Harry said softly. He knew Louis had instincts. He shouldn’t be this surprised that sometimes Louis just wanted to be domestic and to have someone to care for. But he somehow couldn’t combine this version of the man with the version of Louis he knew, flirty and loud and sharp.

Maybe he hadn’t given Louis as much thought as he deserved.

“It’s not odd. It’s lovely,” Harry said, “But…you didn’t know I was coming back today, why did you do all this now?”

Louis swallowed, not answering right away, and Harry leaned forward.

“Louis,” he said, “Have you done this every day this week?”

“Maybe!” Louis threw his hands up, “I don’t know! Okay, yes! I did! I’m sorry, I needed something to do. And thank god you came back when you did. I nearly ran out of ways to redecorate this and I can cook three meals and I don’t even like beef stew, I just know how to make it because it’s Alex’s favorite and if I had to eat it all by myself again – “

“Louis,” Harry laughed weakly, and forced himself to press his lips together when Louis glared at him, “I’m not laughing at you. Thank you. I appreciate it, really. And um,” he slowly leaned forward, pressing his crossed arms to his knees so he could look at Louis more closely, “I’m glad we can maybe start to be friends.”

Louis frowned at bit at that.

“We weren’t friends before?” he asked, and his voice wasn’t teasing. It was serious, like he was worried Harry would say no.

Harry hadn’t considered himself Louis’s friend. He didn’t think he deserved even that from the other man.

But…had Louis thought of him as a friend? Back when Harry came over once a week and played cards and drank wine with him, even with his brother in the room?

If that was how Louis had seen, he wasn’t going to throw that away.

“Friends again,” Harry amended, and this time Louis smiled, and then closed his eyes, and nodded, once.

Louis stayed still for a while, kneeling with his knees closed, and then his eyes flew open and he frowned.

“Do you smell – fuck!” he sprang up, “I’m going to burn that fucking stew again!”

He raced out of the room, and Harry tried to not laugh as he heard Louis curse again from inside the kitchen.

“Do you need help?” he called.

“No!” Louis shouted back, and then after a pause, he murmured, “Yes, actually, can you come look?”

Harry shook his head and stood up, and couldn’t help but to smile a bit to himself as he did.

Friends.

 

He could do friends.

Chapter Text

“Can I get some of the oatmeal bread today, Nicholas?”

Louis walked in front of the glass-paneled case at the front of the bakery, looking at the neatly stacked bread loaves and the smaller glass display of pastries. He tapped his fingers across the leather strap of his handbag, letting it hang down near the floor as he leaned over.

“And can I get a muffin? The cranberry one?” he said, “And a cherry tart, please.”

He looked up and flashed a smile at the beta baker behind the counter, who just nodded and went to go pick up all the things Louis named. He licked his lips as he watched the silver tongs pick up his muffin, and then the tart. He hadn’t had lunch yet, the the dusted sugar and congealed frosting looked especially appealing.

“Can I get you anything else, Louis?” Nicholas asked, and Louis smiled and shook his head.

“That’s fine, thank you,” he said, already digging in his purse for his wallet as he walked back over, “How much?”

“Fifty pence,” Nicholas said, pushing all Louis’s packages to the end of the counter, “Ask Alex how he likes the new tarts. We’re getting the cherries from a different farm, trying them out.”

“I’ll ask him,” Louis smiled as he handed over his coins.

“Good,” Nicolas smiled, “I’d hate to lose Alex Styles’ business. When you stopped picking up his tarts for a little while I got worried.”

“He was trying to cut back on sweets,” he said as he picked up his bags, “Didn’t last long, apparently.”

“I would guess not,” Nicholas smiled, “Have a good day, Louis.”

“Thank you,” Louis chirped, and picked up all his bags, leaving his muffin in his hand to unwrap it.

The cold, late autumn sun hit his face as soon as he walked out, and he squinted his eyes against the glare, taking another bite. There were a few people out, mostly other omegas, some beta women, and small children too young for school, all circling around the merchant streets.

Louis smiled to a few people as he walked, and kept track of the places he’d have to go back to later; the butcher and the grocer and the pharmacist for extra bandages and aspirin. And then soon the merchant street gave way to the business district, the place where they housed printing presses and the lawyer’s office and the doctor who lived alone in a third floor office and helped men who had come back from the first war screaming and disoriented. There were less people here, because nearly everyone who visited this street was an alpha, and they were all inside, working.

But Louis had made this walk nearly every other day for a month, and before that, every week for five years. He easily strode into the building with the petrol sales logo, sandwiched between the company that sold automobile insurance and the neat little building where the children’s doctor practiced. The area inside the sales office always smelled like varnish and ink and cleaner, and Louis smiled at the scent of it as he walked in and up to the front desk.

“Hi, Louis,” the omega secretary smiled at him, “How are you today?”

“Not bad,” he returned, “Is Alex at his desk?”

“Should be, yes.”

“Perfect,” Louis said, digging around in his handbag and then holding up the paper he had been looking for, “Just wanted to drop something off.”

“Go right ahead, then.”

Louis smiled again, and then started back down the rows of neat desks. He had been here enough times that none of the alphas working at their typewriters looked up at him as he wandered over to the familiar desk near the left hand wall.

Harry was sitting there among a spread of papers, marking things with his pen and gnawing on the edge of his thumb as he glanced over everything in concentration. Louis had just washed and ironed down a fresh work shirt for him, and the garment fit comfortably over his body, the fabric of one of his short sleeves pushing against his arm muscle as he reached to set down his pen. His arms were a little wider than Alex’s and Louis had forgotten how to undo seams and sew them up looser, so he just left them alone and Harry had yet to complain about their tightness.

Harry’s head lifted and he gazed up at Louis, blinking at him and smiling. The first time Louis had stopped by the office a month prior, Harry had stood up with wide eyes, nearly knocking over his chair and making everyone glance over in confusion.

“Is Alex okay?” Harry had whispered to Louis when he excused them both outside to share a cigarette, “Did you get a letter.”

“He’s absolutely fine,” Louis huffed and thrust the paper bag into Harry’s hand, “I’m bringing you lunch. I always bring Alex lunch in person at least a few times a week, I’m surprised no one asked you about it.”

“Oh,” Harry had said, turning the paper bag over and over in his hands and then looking back up to Louis, “I – one of the others – he said something, maybe. About you and Alex having problems. I didn’t know what he meant. I’m sorry if – “

“It’s fine,” Louis said, “I was the one who decided to stop coming by with lunch. But I’m here now.”

“Yeah,” Harry had nodded and opened the bag, looking in, studying its content as if it were something far more interesting than a paper-wrapped sandwich and a couple pieces of fruit, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Louis smiled, and then bounced on his toes, “Is it okay if I come by again another day?”

Harry’s head snapped up, and he smiled, the brightness of it immediately lighting up his whole face.

“Yeah,” he said, “I’d really like that.”

Now, Louis came over and leaned down, pressing a well-practiced kiss to the crown of Harry’s head. Alex didn’t like to be kissed in public that often; it made him frown and squirm more often that not, but he allowed some small pecks, especially when Louis delivered his food. So he gave Harry the same. 

“Hello, darling,” Louis said as he pulled away. The words were easier for him to say now, twisted up his gut less than they had a few months ago. He deposited the paper bag on the desk, and then settled the wax paper next to it, “I got you a cherry tart to go with your lunch.”

“Oh,” Harry said, and then glanced up and smile, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” he said, and then leaned down and kissed Harry on the cheek. Alex didn’t normally let him give more than two kisses when he was at work. But he’d always wanted to, and Harry didn’t complain, “I’m going to go pick up some pork for dinner, is that okay?”

Harry would be the one cooking it, and had asked for it, but he still smiled.

“Sounds wonderful,” he said, “Can you get the golden potatoes, too?”

“Of course,” Louis straightened the strap of his bag on his shoulder and leaned against Harry’s desk, tapping his fingers, “Is your day going okay?”

“Ah,” Harry said, the sound a bit caught off guard. Louis winced internally, remembering all the times Harry had tried to talk to him about his day and he had snapped at Harry.

“It’s fine,” Harry said, “I’m doing some cold calls to a couple new clients this afternoon, this morning was mostly keeping up with old accounts.”

Louis nodded, and shifted his hands over top of each other.

Harry really was doing well with Alex’s job. He was making the same consistent sales and a few bonuses, and his monthly paycheck was overall the same. But he always wondered if Harry missed his job at the school. Sometimes when Harry got up early he would look at the window while he drank his morning tea and ate breakfast, and Louis would look out too just to see some students walking down the street outside their building, rucksacks slung over their shoulders as they headed to school.

He wanted to ask now, but they were still out on the open sales floor and surrounded by other salesmen. So instead he just pulled his bag further up his shoulder and smiled.

“Well, good,” he smiled, “I should, um, let you get back to work now, but I’ll see you at five, okay?”

“Oh. Sure, yeah, I’ll see you then,” Harry said. He swallowed, his throat bobbing hard, and then he tilted his head forward and softly said, “Baby.”

Louis’s mouth twitched a little as he said it. He knew why Harry was saying it; it was something Alex said. That was the reason Harry held his hand or accepted pecks on the cheek in the public, and called him pet names, which still sounded a bit wrong both on Harry’s tongue and in Louis’s ears.

It was fine, now. Louis’s anger had boiled away, leaving only a soft ache for his alpha he could push away if he wanted to, at least long enough to get through the day. And he was fine with Harry being there. He had grown used to his sounds and movements in the flat, his voice, the meals he cooked and the ways he tried to fill in the gaps of Louis’s day. And he was happy he was here with him, he was, even when Harry sat at Alex’s desk, eating his normal lunch, calling him the things Alex called him.

Back at the flat, Harry wasn’t Alex. They both knew that, and they could breathe, away from everyone, and it was enough for Louis to be okay with a kiss that didn’t mean anything out in the open.

“I’ll see you at home,” Louis said, and then leaned forward and kissed Harry on the cheek one more time, swallowed hard as he finished with, “Love.”

He always said “alpha” when he said goodbye to Alex, but he couldn’t. Not now.

Harry gave him one more smile, and then reached for his lunch bag, giving Louis an excuse to turn and leave the office, already fumbling to get his grocery list out of his handbag as he walked.

*******

Alex had been gone for four months, and his smell was starting to wane.  

It had been gone from the kitchen and the spare bathroom and the love seat, Louis’s favorite place to sit and read, for months now. But Alex had rarely been in those places anyways, and a long weekend away could make his smell faint before he came back in to freshen it up.

But even the living room and their room had started to fade.

Not a lot. The armchair still sported a dent of Alex’s body, smelled like his musk and his tobacco shavings and cologne. Louis would press his nose to it and inhale when he was washing the floor next to the chair, and he always felt warm and safe when he could get a noseful of it. But lately he had to breath in hard, nose and mouth, and stay there for at least a minute before he got the full strength of it. The same went for the spot on the sofa where his mate usually sat, and the place on the rug where Alex set his feet every day after work.

Louis knew it was probably because Harry was in the living room a lot now, and that was fine. He had slept on the sofa until Louis relented and told him he could go sleep in the guest room to spare his back a few weeks ago. But the months of Harry’s scent being pressed there every night had chased out of bit of Alex’s own smell, and Louis had to rub his cheek hard to the fabric to get to it.

At least Harry didn’t sit in the armchair. Louis hadn’t said anything about it, but Harry must have known. Alex nearly lived in it, of course Harry had seen his brother sit in that chair. Had probably seen Louis curled up in Alex’s lap on that chair when he got too tipsy. He knew not to sit in the chair. So the chair was safe.

And their room, for now, was safe too.

The smell was fading slower there, since it was so thoroughly pressed into every blanket and shirt and piece of furniture. Louis was still finding Alex’s permanent fingerprints etched into the dust that gathered on his dresser. He was always there, the scent lingering in the edges of their quilts and in their closets and even in the porcelain edges of their bathtub. Louis would sit and inhale for hours, drifting off from whatever else he was doing, to get a lungful of the scent.

And one days he feared the scent would fade entirely, he made a nest.

Louis already had a regular nest, one that grew and shrank with his heat cycle. Louis usually kept his nest in the corner of their room, huddled in the corner between his closet and dresser, where Alex couldn’t see. But now, he’d moved it to the bed, although there were still bits of the nest scattered all over the floor – in his old corner, in his closet, in Alex’s closet, on the floorboards in front of the door, as if he was afraid Harry’s near-identical scent would creep under the door and confuse him.

Nearly every afternoon he climbed onto the bed, his hands working over the pile he had built up over months, finding something new he needed to fix. He pulled apart the layers and picked up every piece, pressing them to his nose and inhaling sharply, trying to catch anything remaining of Alex. And then he started putting everything down again. First his thinnest blankets, then a big quilt, and then his old sheets, wrapped in a tight pile around the head of the bed. He always kept the softest layers on top, the biggest blankets and the fuzzy sheets they slept under during the winter. He kept nearly all the pillows from their bed, both the decorative and the normal ones, in his room now, with Alex’s pillow pressed right behind him so he could nestle into it.

He always took great care to pick up the pieces of Alex’s clothes he wanted to weave in the final layer. He knew he had to give Harry some of his clothes, but he still kept his most used work shirt, his favorite dress shirts, and on bad days, a few of his pants. He dug through his old nest, and then through Alex’s drawers and closet, looking for more.

Then he started to build up the last blankets and jumpers around himself, encasing his body inside, and then grabbed one last piece from its place on top of the pile. It was a little fuzzy rabbit stitched out of cloth and cheap velvet, a prize Alex had won him at a pop up carnival on one of their courting dates and he had kept ever since and asked Alex to scent a few times. He held the thing to his chest, and just stayed tucked away with his eyes closed, his skin pressing to the soft things, until the sound of Harry’s footsteps and voice pulled him out of his trance.

And even then, he stayed curled up in his nest, pressing his nose and skin to everything as he took a moment before he emerged to see Harry once more and let his scent overtake Alex’s once more.

*******

It had just started snowing outside, but Louis was hot.

His heat was starting slowly, like it always did. He stopped wearing jumpers around the house, and slowly started wearing his short-sleeved undershirts that he usually only wore by themselves in summer. Then he cracked open the windows, letting in the frigid air until Harry came closed and asking through shuddering teeth if he could close them again. Then Louis started to fold up little paper fans for himself out of pages from Alex’s old notebooks, and then he was settling bags of ice on his temples and forehead.

And he was jittery, too, always re-folding clothes and trying to knit until the yarn knotted, reading half of books only to go right back to the first page when he realized he hadn’t taken in any of it.

He knew he would have to bring it up soon, and when he found himself sitting at the dinner table, unable to choke down anything on his plate, he finally spit it out.

“My heat is soon,” Louis said. He twisted his hands in his lap, not quite looking up to the other side of the table, where Harry was still eating.

“Oh. Okay,” Harry said, “I figured.”

“You figured?”

“Well. Um. My – Alex’s manager asked me the other day if I still wanted a week off next week. And I figured that was because Alex was penciling in time off for your heats.”

“Ah,” Louis said, swallowing and tugging on the collar of his shirt.

“I was going to maybe get a hotel, or make an excuse to go to my flat,” Harry said, “I can leave some food in the icebox for you to eat.”

Louis frowned, swallowing weakly as he looked at Harry.

It made sense that he would go, so he was out of the way and not exposed to a heat-wrought, mated omega. Louis could take care of himself, get himself food and water and force himself to go to sleep in the evenings. But he thought back to the few days Harry had been gone during his rut, after their fight. The loneliness that set in so quickly that sent him to rebuilding his nest and reorganizing the kitchen, gnawing his nails and trying to figure out what to do with himself.

Even if he didn’t like to admit it, maybe he needed another person nearby.   

“You don’t have to, though,” Louis said. He twisted his hands hard in lap and pushed forward, “I don’t want to make you go again.”

Harry’s eyebrows lifted, and then crushed back down, his mouth turning down as well.

“But – “

“Harry, I’ll be okay if you’re here,” Louis cut in, “You can – you can stay here, and cook, and give me water and things. And you don’t have to stay out.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Harry said softly, “You’ll be – “

“I know,” Louis cut in, “I know how I’ll be. But I’ll take care of myself, and I’ll lock the door, even if I trust you not to do anything. And if you get bothered you can go outside for awhile or get a hotel, that’s fine. But I would like it if you stayed.”

He had to look back down at this plate and pick up his fork, avoiding Harry’s eyes as he finished speaking.

“Well, um,” Harry said, “I’m here to take care of you. So if you think that would help you – “

“It would,” Louis cut in, “Please. Just so I’m not alone.”

He kept his eyes down once more, letting Harry be quiet and think, and holding his breath close to his chest.

“Okay,” Harry said quietly as Louis stabbed through his egg hard enough to make the china click, “I’ll stay.”

*******

The day Louis’s heat was starting to break, he got a package.

Harry was still had work, since Louis had asked him to go, and now a few hours later he could feel his neck prickling and his legs shaking and he was glad he would have at least a few hours alone, before Harry would have to move around him for nearly four days straight.

Louis just got up the energy to go outside and check the mailbox, earning a couple looks from omega neighbors who were carrying shopping bags around the sidewalk outside. He knew he was starting to smell, but when he saw the thick, soft package wrapped in brown paper in their mailbox, he couldn’t be bothered to care. He pressed it close to his sweating chest and rushed back into the complex and upstairs, so he could tear into it immediately.

It was from France; he could tell that much from the stamps on it and the familiar slant of Alex’s handwriting printing out Louis’s name and their address on the top. Louis ripped right through his handwriting without care, trying desperately to get to what was inside, and when he finally got rid of the paper, he let out a soft squeak, nearly stumbling back as he looked inside.

Alex had sent him a shirt. It was a neatly folded pale green army shirt, a few faded mud stains on the front and the collar. And it reeked of Alex. Louis’s eyes pricked with tears as he smelled it, the sharp scent of chocolate and burnt sugar and fresh leather and Alex’s musk, and he had to push aside the rest of the ripped-up paper to pull it out and unfold it. It was even more stained now that he was looking at it, and ripped at the left elbow and at the hem. It had been worn for a very long time, sweat in and lived in, far more than anything in this flat at seen for months.

Louis pressed the shirt to his face and gasped weakly, his eyes folding with tears. His knees felt weak and locked as he tried to stay upright, his shaking hands holding the fabric as tightly as he could to keep it from slipping. The scent flushed through his entire body, warming him, making him feel like for a moment, he actually had his nose buried in Alex’s chest; like there was a solid chest and hard stomach and strong arms filling out the shirt. Hands on the back of his neck and in his hair, stroking his feverish neck and damp hair. Lips on his forehead, cooing into his skin.

He had to pull away from the shirt with a wet gasp and toss it onto the table, scrubbing his hands over his face. He hadn’t taken a full breath with the shirt over his face, and now he was gasping for air again.

Once his breathing was back to somewhat normal – even though his chest still felt like it was heaving and shaking – he looked back down to the ripped paper on the counter and saw a slender flash of white amongst the brown. He reached for it and pulled out a folded up piece of paper, his own name written in sloping, careful letters on the front. His fingers started quaking again, and he eventually got it unfolded and smoothed the paper out, blinking at the letter Alex had written for him this time.

Hello my sweet boy,

 

I believe your heat is soon. I would not forget anyways, but I feel like my body is already reacting to your current state, even if we are so far away. I am so sorry I will not be with you now, to care for you in a way I feel in every part of my body I must.

 

If I can not be there, I thought at the very least I owed you a present. We have gotten some fresh clothes, and instead of carrying my old shirt in my pack I wanted to send it to you. I’m sorry it’s not washed; I did not want to rid it of its scent too badly. Hopefully you will forgive me for the smell of salt and mud along with it.

 

I realize that shirt might not solve everything. So, please, remember me, my love. Remember how my hands feel on your thighs, how I love to explore your legs. Think of my mouth on your shoulder and chest -- your beautiful, sensitive chest, flushed with heat. My tongue and hands on you where you need it. Think of me. Think of me until it feels like I am there.

 

I love you so dearly, my darling. I am missing you greatly. Perhaps I will see you again soon, for Christmas if they let me. For now, remember me. I love you.

 

Dearly,

Alex

Louis’s eyes were filling again, and he lifted his arm and swiped hard at his eyes, trying to breath hard through his mouth. He folded up the letter again and then the shirt, and slowly, he brought himself on shaking legs to his bedroom.

He closed the door and locked it behind him, just in case Harry came home early. He went to his bed, which was now overflowing with things for his nest, the blankets and clothes spilling down onto the floor. He picked up a few of the pieces and tucked them carefully back into the nest, trying to get his hands and mind busy for a least a few more minutes. Then he undid the buttons on his shirt and his trousers, stripping himself down to just his drawers. He could feel wetness on his legs, sweat on the back of his legs and slick starting to pour, wetting his cheeks and his thighs. He took the last piece of material off with shaking hands, until he was bare, and then sighed in relief, feeling the cool air fully on his skin. He grabbed Alex’s shirt from its spot on the bed and crushed it to his face once more and he climbed into bed, trying to bury himself in the nest as best he could. He rolled back and forth in the pillows, towels, Alex’s jumpers and old work shirts and pants. But the strongest scent came from the shirt, and he kept sniffing it, rubbing in on his face and his hair.

He could feel his body react to his alpha’s fresh scent, and he whined and crushed his thighs together as he felt himself slick up again, the wetness seeping down into the nest, wetting the material under him. He was sweating hard, his underarms and chest and face damp with it. He knew he smelled, when this was all over he would probably smell himself on the sheets for days until he washed them out. But for now, he didn’t worry about it. Just squirmed and scented the shirt, pressing it to his own body, imagined Alex filling out the shirt once more. His big hands holding Louis’s face, rubbing his cheeks with careful thumbs.

It’s okay, my darling, Alex would say, as he tried to kiss Louis’s whining mouth, You’re okay, my sweet omega.

Just thinking about Alex’s voice made Louis gasp weakly, rubbing himself weakly against the shirt even harder. He heard Harry’s voice every day, and it was close enough to Alex’s to help him remember every detail, both the similarities and differences. Alex’s was rougher in place, his accent a bit thicker from going to uni up north while Harry had apparently gone to the south. Tighter, while Harry’s tongue felt more relaxed. But they had the same deep, rolling timbre underneath it all. And the same laugh. The same horrible, barking laugh that made Louis crinkle his nose every time.

He gasped, and his hips stilled as he brought his hand down, and whined weakly at what he felt. His cock, hard and warm between his thighs, was leaking, and staining the hem of Alex’s shirt. Damn it. He would have to scrub that one spot to get himself out, so it wouldn’t leak into the rest of the fabric. He would have to write Alex a full letter after it was all over about all the things he had dreamed up while he was buried in his nest with Alex’s shirt stuffed into his mouth, make Alex blush as he settled in his tent at night.

He took a deep breath and rolled over, struggling to get to his bedside table and the drawer underneath it. His hand brushed over books he had finished months ago, his reading glasses from university, his one tube of good lipstick. Finally, his head settled on the thin metal tin of Vaseline, and next to it, the long rod with a plastic handle and a thick metal end, its cord wrapped around the handle tightly, he pulled both out, and then sat up, struggling to find the electric outlet next to the bed.

The thing in his hand jumped with a surge of electric power, and Louis shook his head as he watched the thick metal head bounce and surge.

Alex had gotten this vibrator for him for emergencies and business trips. He had shown Louis a newspaper ad for it and offered to buy, his cheeks coloring a bit. They had been twenty, and newly mated, and Alex only wanted to make Louis happy. And he had.

And for a few days, Louis would give himself a rest from his loneliness, the games he played outside.

He would think of nothing but Alex now.

*******

There was a soft knock on the door, and Louis jolted at the noise like it was firecracker. He looked around the room, the details blurring around him. His skin was still burning and his face and hair are slick, and when he sat up, a pair of Alex’s pants fell off his head and into the rest of the nest around him.

And there was another knock.

“Louis?”

Harry’s voice filtered through the wood, reedy and soft, and Louis shook his head and rubbed his face. His skin burned under his hands.

For God’s sake.

He’s lucid, now, at least, but God knows how long that’ll last. He’s also very naked, and Harry is still at his door.

Louis coughed, trying to clear his throat, and managed to call out “What?”

“I have, um, I have breakfast for you.”

Louis frowned and narrowed his eyes at the door.

“Breakfast?”

“Yeah, um,” Harry paused, “It’s nine in the morning.”

“What?” Louis croaked, “I – fuck. Oh, fuck.”

He must have blacked out last night. Gone into heat so intensely he lost track of hours and then woke up to daylight. It happened sometimes, but usually Alex was there to coax him away and try to keep his sleep schedule normal and get him to eat something. But Harry had apparently just let him rest.

Slowly, lifted his naked, sticky body away from the covers, and then searched amongst the nest until he found a jumper and a pair of Alex’s pants. He pulled them on quickly, and then tangled his fingers in his hair, pulling on it a bit hard as he wandered to the door.

He only opened the door a little bit, enough to glance out with one eye. Harry was standing there, and he was holding a small tray, the same one Alex usually brought Louis meals on during heat.

He looked tired, with dark eyes, and his hair looked damp and a little more curled than it usually was. His long grey sleeves covered everything but his twitching fingers against the tray, and his eyes wide as he looked at Louis carefully.

“Um,” Louis said, refusing to look at Harry anymore. He instead looked at the white and blue printed dishes on the tray; the bowl full of porridge and fruit, the dark brown bread, the tea with the little saucer of milk. He hadn’t put any sugar on the tray. He must have remembered that Louis didn’t like sugar.

“Are you, um, feeling okay?” Harry asked. His big hands shifted on the tray, making the plates and dishes rattle a bit.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Louis said. It was a dumb question. God, it really was. He felt off kilter and too hot, exhausted and buzzing with energy at the same moment. But Harry was asking him so carefully, so he held himself back from snapping at him.

“Do you want to eat anything?” Harry asked.  

“Yeah, I really do, actually,” Louis said. His hand went to his belly, rubbing over the soft wool, “I’m hungry.”

“Okay, good. Um,” Harry shifted his hands again, and then pushed the tray towards Louis, making the dishes rattle even more. Some of the tea pushed over the edge of the cup and splashed onto the wood below.

“Oh, fuck, sorry,” Harry rushed out, and Louis shook his head.

“It’s fine. I’ll clean it up later,” Louis said.

Slowly, he opened the door, enough that he could reach through the opening. He saw Harry in Alex’s worn trousers, the ones he worn to fix the pipes under the sink or the loose window hinges, the knees patched over in fabric just a bit lighter than the rest of the pants. He saw his bare feet, and the rest of Harry’s chest and his long arms in his oversized sleeves. A wave of scent hit him, sweet and heady and only slightly doused in bitterness, the kind of scent that meant worry and something off-kilter.

Louis reached out and grabbed onto the edges of the tray, away from where Harry’s long fingers were still holding onto it. The alpha only left go once Louis had full grip of it, and even then, he just stared at the tray once Louis pressed it flushed it to his chest.

“If you don’t like anything – I’ll make something else,” he said, and Louis nodded quickly.

“Okay,” he said. His knees felt weak, and he tried to lock them. A flash of fever was breaking out underneath the skin of his forehead. He would be back in heat soon, and he would prefer to have some food in his belly before then.

“Do you need anything else?” Harry asked carefully, and Louis swallowed weakly.

He was very aware of the smell, right in front of Louis, and radiating out from the rest of the flat, so strong, so dark and thick, mingling with Alex’s so easily.

Louis’s knees buckled again and the tray quaked in his hands as he tried to lock them again. The saucer tipped, sending the milk sprawling over the tray and a bit onto the floor. Harry lurched forward, but then froze before shifting back, into the doorway.

“I’m fine,” Louis squeaked, “Thanks!”

He lifted his foot and weakly kicked at the door, making it swing shut. He kicked it again, making the lock click.

As soon as the door was shut, Louis set the tray down on Alex’s dresser and then pulled off his sweater. He ran his hands over his feverish skin and whined, pressing his palms to the side of his neck. His knees weakened again and he brought himself down to the floor again, until he was sitting up, rocking, hands on his temples.

The smell was still in the room. It was seeping through the crack under the door, it was here, mingling with the smell of Alex’s pheromones and his aftershave and the cedar smell of their drawers. Not blanketing it, not covering. Mixing. Mingling.

Louis cried out, sharply, and rocked forward again, pressing his head between his knees. He tried to cover his nose and mouth with a hand, but then his lungs burned, and he had to release again, gasping out in great, gulping breaths.

“Louis?” he heard a voice call out, and he lifted his head.

“Alex,” he said, without thinking.

“Louis – I – are you okay?”

It was Harry’s voice. He knew that. If only because if it had been Alex on the other side, he would have burst in by now and scooped Louis up in his strong arms, pressed his face to Louis’s gland, licked him and nuzzled at his skin.

“Louis,” Harry called again, and Louis cried out sharply and slapped the hardwood floor in frustration. His nest, and Alex’s shirt, and his vibrator, were all on the bed, and his food was right above him, but he couldn’t move.

“I’m fine!” Louis shouted, his voice breaking sharply, “I – I’m fine.”

“Are you breathing?” Harry asked, and Louis laughed weakly.

“Trying to.”

His voice turned to a wheeze as he said it, and he tried to inhale again. His bare feet shifted on the floor.

“Well, um – “ Harry said, “Look, I’m sorry, I should go, I’m just worried.”

Louis didn’t respond, his chest too tight and the back of his neck hot and slick.

He was so alone, and couldn’t even pick himself off the floor.

“Harry?” he croaked out.

“Yes?”

Harry’s voice was cautious and far away, and Louis could smell his scent, hot and thick.

“Can you…talk to me?” Louis asked, “Just for a little while longer?”

Harry was silent, and Louis whined a bit, turned over to his side. His cock was hard and wet between his legs, and he had started to get sweat and slick all over the floor.

“How should I talk to you?” Harry finally asked, and Louis gasped weakly.

“Just – “ he searched for what he wanted to hear.

Alex would say a lot of things to him, of course. Dirty things, the things an alpha is supposed to say to their mate in heat, and that only heat or rut would bring out of his tender, quiet alpha. But in between that, he would comfort Louis, hold his hands, pet his hair, kiss his forehead and cheeks. Bring him down to solid ground before Louis slipped away again and needed something else.

“Just tell me it’ll be okay,” Louis said, his voice barely strong enough to make it out the door, “Please.”

He was met with another wave of silence, and then, Harry began speaking. It was soft, coming out in gentle, rumbling waves. He sounded closer, somehow. Maybe he had squatted down outside the door, closer to the floor.

“Louis,” he said, “You’ve gotten through this before, haven’t you? Maybe not like this, but you’ve been okay. You know what you need, you can take care of yourself. Just have some food, drink something, take deep breaths, in through your nose, out through your mouth.”

Louis nodded as he listened to Harry, even though the other man couldn’t see. He flexed his toes, pushed up on the floor. His head swam, but he shook his head hard, pushed himself vertical. He breathed, the way Harry had told him to, with a sharp inhale through his nose and then gasping it all out through his mouth. The floor was wet beneath him, and he whined weakly, his entire body flushing.  He brought a hand down, cupping his own swelling balls in one hand, squeezing them. His cock gave a little blurt of come, his slick flowed a bit, back down his thighs.

“Maybe close your eyes too?” Harry’s voice was still saying, “Is the light on? The light might be too bright, could be bothering you.”

“Light’s off,” Louis managed He pressed a hand to his mouth, hiding a whine. His thighs shook as he tried to right himself, “Curtains are – fuck, curtains are open, though.”

“Can you close them?”

“Maybe.”

He managed to get to his feet, even as his feet felt weak, his body too heavy to be supported. He wished he had another set of arms behind him, gripping his chest, squeezing his hip and reminding his legs how to work. 

“Do you, um,” Harry said, “Have anything to help you?”

Louis stopped, right in the middle of the bedroom, half way to his bed, his tray cold and forgotten behind him.

He didn’t get a chance to reply before Harry cursed.

“Fuck, I’m sorry, that – “

“No, it’s okay,” Louis murmured, “I do.”

He meant to mumble it, but his voice must have carried, because Harry went dead silent behind the door. Louis kept moving, shifting his feet. He could see his tangled nest, now, his toy nestled in the blankets.

“Okay,” Harry eventually got out, “That’s good, use that.”

“Yeah,” Louis echoed. His legs were still weak, and his cock was hard and leaking, slick still coming everywhere. He was hot enough that ice could probably melt on his skin.

He reached out, gripping onto the edges of the blankets, and tried to reach for the vibrator, but instead just brought himself forward, pushing his hips hard against the end of the mattress, digging his hard length into the rough edges of the quilt. He mewled loudly, thrusting again, his sensitive prick leaking out all over the sheets.

“Louis?” Harry called, “Are you okay?”

Louis whimpered weakly, gripped the blankets harder and pressed his nose into the quilt, letting Alex’s smell fill him. He could hear Harry’s voice in his head, the same timbre and deepness as Alex’s, filling every cavity in his skull, spilling into his limbs and his belly. His body still felt tight and feverish, and his hips moved on their own. He reached back behind him, his fingers prodding at his entrance, feeling the slickness.

“Louis?” Harry called again, and Louis realized that oh, he was crying, now, tears slipping painlessly from his eyes, sharp noises coming from his throat. He probably sounded hurt, or upset, but he couldn’t tell Harry he was fine, wonderful, even, soaring high, fabric bunching around his prick, two fingers now stuffed inside himself, giving him something to fuck, something to feel, even if it wasn’t the palm of his alpha, it was something, anything –

Louis pushed his hips forward, and his face and chest blazed, and he shouted, loudly, the sound tapering into a sharp mewl as he pressed his face to the blankets. Slick pounded down the back of thighs, droplets hitting the floor, his release spilled and stained the blankets around him while he whimpered and bit at the blankets. He wriggled his fingers, pressed into him, until he was spent through. He felt his skin drain of heat, his body give in as it went back to being lucid for a little while.

Louis lifted his head, blinking into the room, and smiled to himself and he pulled out his slick fingers and fisted them in his blanket, drying them off. He pressed a cheek to the mattress, humming, nearly ready to doze off, with his body half bent over the bed.

And then, he heard a soft shuffling at the door, and his head shot up, looking over with wide eyes.

Harry.

Fuck, Harry had stayed for that. Listened to him, worried, and then heard Louis come. And he hadn’t moved. Why hadn’t he moved? Surely he could smell Louis, hear him, understand –

“Harry?” he called softly, and strained to listen for any reply.

Instead, all he heard were soft, hurried footsteps leaving back down the hallway, not giving him any answer at all.

*******

Louis spent the rest of his heat without seeing Harry again.

The food and water and wet towels appeared quietly at his door with a quiet knock and quick, retreating footsteps, and even when Louis smelled him through the door, it was fainter now, with Harry far away form his door.

He stayed under his blankets, wrapped in Alex’s shirt, with his toy in his hand, his fingers cramping and his throat growing sore from whimpers. He slept in short, hot bursts and woke up confused and sweating once more, and then tried to make the feeling go away before he could even figure out what hour it was now.

And then after a few days of the waking, sleeping, and trying to fuck himself, Louis woke up sprawled on his back, his body bare and still covered in sweat and his own releases. His vibrator was jammed into his lower back, and there was a pillow covering half his face, and Alex’s shirt was tangled around his legs.

The sun was bright in his eyes, but warm and comforting on his skin, and Louis took a long breath. He no longer felt jittery or feverish; he felt fine, maybe just a bit sore and tired.

His heat had passed, a full day sooner than he had expected it to.

He rose off the mattress, the pillow on his face falling uselessly down onto his lap. His nest was in shambles all around him, and he winced a bit, a little jolt of pain zipping through his skull. It was a Thursday, maybe. There was probably no food in the house, and laundry was overdue. Louis rubbed his scalp with his fingertips as he pulled himself out of bed, sending more blankets tumbling to the floor.

He hadn’t planned to be out of bed so soon. He thought he had another full day.

He went to the bathroom and poured himself a hot bath, adding the soaps and oils he kept in little metal tins, gifts from out of town business trips. He climbed into the tub and watched the water fill up around him, and then plugged the tub with his toes and just sat with his eyes closed, the tips of his hair wet, his skin hot and soaking. He dipped his head under once, twice, his head protesting as he did. When he was done he took his toes out of the plug, letting the water flow down, then wrapped himself in Alex’s dressing gown, ran a razor over his cheeks to get rid of the hair that had built up over the last few days, swallowed an aspirin from the medicine cabinet and began picking his way back through his haphazard room and out to the rest of the flat.

The hallway smelled like peppers and eggs, and he heard music playing, some crooning and trumpets; jazz from America that they only played every now and again. Louis held the opening of the dressing gown closed as he padded into the living room, and then into the kitchen, where Harry was sitting at the table with a hot mug and a book, his curls fisted in one hand as he leaned into his palm while he read.

Louis didn’t even have to open his mouth. As soon as he came into the room, Harry sputtered against the rim of his mug and looked up at Louis, his eyes wide. Louis blushed, tucking a piece of hair behind his ear. He probably reeked, still, despite the rose-perfumed oils he had put into the bath.

“Hi,” he offered a smile, “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” Harry parroted, closing the book in front of him, “How – you okay?”

“I’m great,” Louis nodded, smiling more, “I slept really well. And I think everything’s passed.”

“Good. That’s great,” Harry nodded, “You didn’t have any other problems?”

“No,” Louis shook his head, his tangled, wet hair shaking with it. He rubbed his stomach over his robe, glancing at the dirty dishes and pots in the kitchen, “Um, do we have any – “

“Oh! Food, you need food,” Harry said, standing up, “Sorry, I didn’t think you’d be up so soon. But yes, I can have something in just a second. Would you like eggs? Toast and preserves?”

“Yes, all of that,” Louis smiled, “And tea, please.”

“Tea, of course,” Harry nodded, then grabbed the back of one of the kitchen chair and pulled it out, “Here, sit down. Do you want the papers?”

“Papers?” Louis asked as he sat down, drawing the chair closer to the table.

“Yes, I saved all the papers from this week for you, in case you wanted to read them,” Harry said. He shuffled around the kitchen, lifting up a pile of his work papers, and then a stack of bills, “Right, here.”

In another moment, the alpha was over at the table and setting down the heap of papers in front of Louis. Four newspapers, with descending dates, all of them sporting various headlines about war and the government’s most recent turmoil. He picked the stack up carefully, feeling the soft, pulpy paper under his thumbs.

“Thank you, Harry,” he said softly, “I didn’t – you didn’t have to do that.”

“It’s no trouble,” Harry said, already back to the stove, “How many eggs can I get you?”

“Two.”

“Fried?”

“Yes please.”

Louis unfolded the first paper in the stack, and heard Harry start cooking behind him, the oil popping gently in the pan. He thought of Harry’s footsteps softly retreating from his room, the soft, unsure sound of his voice through the door.

His cheeks burned a bit as he remembered when Harry had left in a panic, and he lifted his head, looking behind him.

“Harry?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you for staying,” he got out, despite the tightness in his throat, “It was nice to have someone here, to help me with everything.”

“Of course,” Harry said quickly, “That’s what I’m here for.”

The oil popped again, and Harry kept his back turned to the table.

“I’m sorry if I bothered you at all,” Louis said, “Or, um, made you uncomfortable.”

That finally made Harry pause, and Louis straightened up a bit when Harry turned and glanced over his shoulder, blinking his bright, big eyes slowly.

“I – you were fine,” Harry said, “You couldn’t help it, you were fine.”

“Are you sure?”

Harry smiled, and turned back to the stove, shifting the pan on the stove.

“When I was in university, I used to help my friends with their heats,” he said, “I’ve done things like this before.”

“Okay,” Louis said, “You brought them food and everything? Back then?”

“Yes,” Harry said. He paused, the silence stretching out before he said, “And other things. Sometimes.”

“Oh,” Louis got out.

Right. Alex had said a few times that Harry didn’t court anyone in university. He’d gone to school in the south, in a city. He followed different rules. Did different things. Of course he’d been with other people.

Louis sort of wanted to ask about Harry’s friends. The things he had done when he was younger, while Alex and Louis were miles away, going on planned dates that always ended before Louis’s university curfew. He hadn’t known anyone else that didn’t go straight into a mating, and then a marriage, and then pups. Didn’t know there were any other options.

But Harry cut in before he could say anything.

“I like to help people. I liked helping you. And it was…it was nothing I wasn’t expecting. So don’t worry about me. I’m just glad you’re okay.”

Harry’s voice was even and light, and when he was done he glanced back at Louis and smiled again, lifting his brows a bit as if to say “okay?”

Louis just nodded and smiled back, and smoothed his newspaper out in front of him. Harry looked over at him for a moment longer, and then went back to his cooking, and reached over to turn up the radio, letting the music fill in the quiet.

*******

Louis was curled up on the sofa, reading the first pages of the book his club had decided they were going to read for the upcoming month and nursing an exhaustion-rooted headache when Harry came in, lugging a long, tall evergreen tree wrapped in wire behind him.

The smell of the tree hit Louis before he heard the door bang open or saw Harry taking in the thing, but still, that didn’t give him any less of a start when he looked up to see the alpha dragging the tree through the front entrance and into the living room. Harry glanced up, his face red and sweaty overtop of Alex’s scarf, and he smiled.

“Hi,” he said, his voice panting and out of breath. Louis just stared at him and then firmly closed his book.

“What in the damn hell is that?” Louis asked.

“It’s a Christmas tree.”

“Why?”

Harry let go of the end of the tree, letting it fall onto the floor, the wrapped branches bouncing feebly. He just shrugged.

“Because it’s the middle of December.”

Louis was still looking at the trees, and the impressive amount of shedding it had started to lose.

“That thing is getting pine needles on my carpet.”

“You and Alex always have a tree.”

“Yes, and he does a better job of getting it inside.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” Harry sighed, “The lot was nearly out of the good ones, I figured I would get one before it was too late.”

He pulled off his gloves, shaking them out and making a bigger mess of needles on the floor. Louis frowned a bit, and then kicked his feet out, the pads brushing on the carpet.

“I forgot to say anything about a tree,” Louis said, “Alex and I usually go buy one the first week of December, but I was in heat, and I must’ve forgotten – “

“It’s okay. I should’ve asked you if you wanted to come with me and get one, actually, but – “

“That’s fine, it really is,” Louis said. He went to stand up, and wandered around behind Harry, looking at the tree, “What kind is that?”

“Fir.”

“Mm,” Louis hummed, “I forget what we usually get. But that one’s pretty.”

He shifted his weight, his bare feet digging into the mess of needles.

“Thank you for the tree, Harry, really,” he sighed, “That’s very...thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Harry smiled, “We can decorate it tonight. I can make cider, we can see if the radios are playing any carols yet.”

“Oh,” Louis said, “I – okay.”

“You’d like that?”

“Yeah,” Louis nodded.

He remembered going to Harry’s tiny flat once for dinner one December, and having cider with cinnamon and orange slices swirling on top. Harry had gotten a sad, skinny tree from himself that year and was decorating it with chains of stale popcorn, and there was news on in the background because Harry had wanted music but the local stations were all blasting some ground-breaking headline Louis couldn’t remember.

Louis had watched while settled under a blanket on Harry’s sofa with Alex, drinking his cider while he watched Alex picked at the uneven edges of the blanket.

“Harry probably made this thing himself,” he had whispered into Louis’s ear, “Too proud to just buy one so he buys a fortune in yarn instead.”

Louis had giggled, having to press his mouth into Alex’s shoulder. Harry had asked them both what was so funny, and Louis giggled louder while Alex told him. Harry had just shaken his head, told them that one day he’d make them a blanket, too, and would refuse to take it back no matter how much they hated it.

Louis shook his head. That had been a good night.

“With oranges?” he eventually asked, and Harry’s brows furrowed in confusion.

“Will you make the cider with oranges?” Louis added.

Harry’s face smoothed, and he nodded.

“I can try,” Harry said, “Maybe not tonight, but some other time. Not sure how many markets will have them, they’re on tight rations. But I’ll look for one.”

“Okay,” Louis said, “I don’t need it. I just — I remember you making cider with oranges, once.”

Harry nodded, “That’s how our mum used to make it. I would be the only one who drank it, though, just me and her. Alex doesn’t like oranges.”

“I know he doesn’t,” Louis said, “I do, though.”

“Then we can both have some if I can find any,” Harry said.

Louis offered him a smile, and then, he surged forward, wrapping his arms around Harry quickly. He barely got his arms around the alpha before he was pulling back and bouncing on his toes, his hands clasped in front of him. Harry’s jacket was stiff and cold from the outside, wet snow pricking Louis’s arms as he touched Harry. The other man was solid and broad under the coat, and Louis couldn’t remember the last time he had given Harry a hug. Maybe when he had first gotten drafted. But he hadn’t felt so good to touch then.

But in an instant it was over, and Louis was back to just standing next to Harry.

“Thank you,” he said again, “Thank you, thank you.”

He ran off then, out of the room, shouting behind him that he was going to go get the metal stand that Alex kept in the guest room closet specifically for their Christmas trees, and then a broom for the needles.

He bounced as he ran, and his blood felt warm. It was nearly Christmas, and he had a tree, and he had someone to spend it with.

*******

December usually went by fast.

Christmas always meant traveling, and shopping, and trying to cook and make plans, and then there was Alex and his friends asking what Louis wanted to do for his birthday, and at some point it blurred together enough that Louis only got to come back to the surface on Christmas morning, with his head in Alex’s lap and his feet hanging off the sofa, into a pile of wrapping paper.

But this December was going by slowly.

It was cold, turning bitter with each gust of wind, and Louis tried to stay in on all the days he could. He still went shopping, and tried to plan a Christmas dinner, and bought a new pair of leather boots that he could package up and send to Alex. He wrote his mate letters every other day, the papers coming in constantly, and with little good news.

There would be no Christmas leave for the army this year, not with the constant pressure on both sides, and the fear that the moment one side let their guard down, the other would push in.

Alex apologized in every letter, promised he’d call the house if he could get to a phone, and left little postscripts saying he had rubbed his wrists and neck on the paper before he sent it and he hoped Louis would smell it and think of him.

So between the lack of distractions and the cabin fever that wracked his mind as he shielded himself from the cold, the month was slipping by slowly.

Harry at least was doing his best, taking up most of the shopping and errands so Louis wouldn’t have to. He always came in with snow on his shoes, tracking it on Louis’s clean floors, but at the very least he brought hot bread and melting chocolate with him to make up for it.

“I just cleaned,” Louis called without looking up when he came in one day. Harry’s footsteps were quieter than Alex’s, but he could still hear the hard press of the boots on the floor.

“Sorry!” Harry called back with a laugh. Louis just shook his head, offering a quick glance to the doorway so he could see Harry’s dark coat and the white paper of his grocery packages tucked into one arm.

Louis huffed in annoyance, and went back to the stitching in his lap, trying to untangle the knot his thread at left in the hem of his own trousers.

The phone rang loudly from the other room, and Louis listened to the sound of Harry setting the grocery bags down heavily, and then shuffling across the floor, until the phone clicked off the wall and Harry’s soft “Hello?” followed.

There was a moment of pause as Harry listened to whoever was on the other end, and Louis kept up with his project.

He only stopped when he heard Harry stutter out a breath and say “Oh, hi, Mum.”

He listened quietly, frowning a little at Harry’s newly tightened voice.

Alex and Harry’s parents hadn’t called the house in a little while. They didn’t call very much, except for holidays and anniversaries and birthdays. Far less than his own parents did, anyways.

“I’m alright, I’m good. Louis? Louis’s great, Mum, thank you.”

There was a longer stretch of silence, and Louis pierced the hem hard with his needle, tugging firmly to get it through.

“Next week? What do you mean?” Harry’s voice said from the kitchen, “Oh. Oh, dinner. Right.”

Louis paused, pulling his thread straight and cursing silently.

He’d forgotten to tell Harry about Christmas dinner next week. Of course he had, he’d nearly forgotten himself. He’d have to get a gift, and make food to bring, and God, he’d have to make sure Harry was okay with all this, and being Alex for an entire evening in front of his parents, and –

Before he could think any further, Harry’s voice drifted in from the kitchen again, coming in a rush.

“Um, actually, I don’t think we’ll be making it this year,” Harry said, “No, no. Right, well, I think Louis’s parents really wanted to instead – no, no, I don’t think I can change the day, not with work. Right, yes, maybe after. God, I’m sorry, Mum, I forgot – right, right, that’s alright. Okay. I’ll call you again soon, alright? Get this all worked out. Sorry again. All right. All right, yes, I love you. Goodbye.”

Louis heard the click of the phone, and then the footsteps into the living room. When he looked up, Harry had appeared again, and now he rocking carefully in the doorway, just staring at him.

“I – “ he said, “You didn’t tell me that you and Alex were going to have dinner with my parents for Christmas.”

Louis held his needle tightly between his fingers.  

“Oh,” he got out, “Shit, you’re right, I didn’t.”

“It’s fine, it is, I just – “ Harry shook his head, “I didn’t know.”

“We don’t go every year,” Louis said, “Just every other. We saw my parents last year, so it was your parents’ turn this year.”

Harry nodded. He was twisting his hands together, and Louis looked at them, and then back up to Harry’s face.

“Well, um,” he said, “I told my mum we couldn’t go this year.”

“I overheard,” Louis said.

“I’m really sorry,” Harry got out, “I just didn’t know, I wasn’t prepared for that, and – “

“It’s okay, really,” Louis cut in, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. It’s probably too much right now, to ask you to be Alex in front of your family.”

Harry nodded, looking at the floor.

“Maybe we should see your parents instead, then, if you can be with your family – “ Harry said, before Louis cut in once more.

“My parents are going to London this year for the holidays, getting a hotel and some time to themselves,” Louis shrugged, “I’ll call my mum for my birthday and see her in the new year. It’s okay, really.”

“Right,” Harry said softly.

Louis just looked at him, and how he still seemed so stiff and uncomfortable in the doorway.

“Don’t worry about it Harry, really,” Louis said, “Maybe you can work? I can make dinner.”

“No, I kind of want to cook,” Harry said. He turned a bit too quickly, “I’ll let you know when it’s ready, okay?”

“I – okay,” Louis said, but Harry had already gone out of the room.

Louis kept his eyes on the kitchen until he heard the kiss of the stove turning on, and then forced himself to go back to his work.

*******

On the morning of Louis’s birthday, he woke up to the smell of caramel in the kitchen, and Harry standing barefoot next to the stove, in Alex’s favorite sweater, a wide smile on his face and his hands tucked behind his back.

“Happy birthday,” he said when Louis slipped into the kitchen, his hair still rumpled and his hands tucked into the sleeves of his fleece night slip. He hadn’t slept well last night, tossing and turning until he managed to slip away for only a few hours before the sun woke him again.

“Thank you,” Louis smiled, then took out his hands enough to motion to where Harry was hiding his hands, “What have you got here?”

“A surprise,” Harry said, and then put his hands out in front of him, showing a plain brown package, “I won’t make you guess what it is. Here.”

Louis jumped forward right away, snatching the package fast enough to make Harry laugh. He ripped the paper as he went to the table, tearing right through Alex’s beautiful, sloping handwriting to get to the interior. There was a little, cream-colored card on stiff paper, the letters sloped and rushed, and yet he still bit his lips when he read them.

To my beautiful china doll on his twenty fifth birthday.

 

For Christmas, you get my entire heart.

 

I miss you, precious. I’ll see you soon. -A

Louis lifted the paper to his nose and mouth, trying to smell Alex through the scent of ink, kissing the paper like he would kiss Alex’s mouth. Then he dropped the card and picked up the plain black box at the bottom of the package, undoing the twine holding it closed.

The lid clattered off as soon as the twine was drawn away, and a sharp line of gold fell onto the table. Louis picked it up and held it to the light, watching the light reflect off the soft gold chains, the little pearls fused into the ends of the bracelet.

He stared at it until he was brought out of his thoughts by a plate of hot caramel and potatoes being set in front of him, a cup of plain cider and a mug of tea right next to it. He looked up, and Harry was smiling gently, nodding to the bracelet.

“Do you need help putting it on?”

“Yes please,” Louis said, immediately offering Harry the bracelet and then his wrist. Harry laughed and shook his head, buckling the chain carefully around Louis’s left wrist.

“I wonder where he got this,” Harry sighed, “Can’t be easy to find a new present in a war zone.”

“He’s in France,” Louis said quickly, “France is a nice place to buy something.”

“Mm,” Harry nodded, “Well, he did a nice job.”

He finished hooking the bracelet’s clasps together, and pulled away, going back to the tea kettle to get his own drink.

“What do you want to do today?” he asked, and Louis shrugged, playing with his chain.

“I dunno,” he shrugged, “Sometimes we go to lunch, or dinner, and we go to the winter market in town.”

“Do you want to do that, then?”

“Sure,” Louis said, “I – that’s usually something Alex and I do, but – “

“We don’t have to do it,” Harry assured him, “If that’s something you want to save for him.”

“But I want to do it again this year,” Louis said, “I’d rather do that then stay here for the whole day.”

Harry nodded, his eyes going a bit soft.

“Only if you want to.”

“I want to.”

“Okay,” Harry nodded.

Louis smiled, and then pulled his plate towards himself, picking up a fork.

“I did want to ask, though,” Harry said, making Louis flick his eyes up, “Is it okay if I – go to Mass tonight?”

Louis frowned and tilted his head.

“Like, church?”

“Well, yes.”

Louis nodded, picking at a potato on his plate. He hadn’t exactly pegged Harry for the kind to go to church, even for the holidays. Alex never went, and he had never mentioned his brother being interested in anything like that.

“You can, if you want,” Louis said, “Sorry, I didn’t think about that. Alex and I don’t really go. But yeah, if you want.”

“Okay,” Harry nodded, “I just – I haven’t ever missed a Christmas Mass. It feels odd, not going, but if Alex doesn’t go, maybe I shouldn’t, so people don’t talk – “

“Oh, just go,” Louis sighed, “I’ll probably fall asleep, so I’ll just stay behind. But you can just tell anyone that asks that I was tired and tipsy and wanted to stay home, and that you wanted to fit in some prayers for your poor brother overseas.”

“They won’t find that odd? That I’m there without you?”

“Alex and I go different places, Harry, it’s okay,” Louis laughed, “Really, go. We can even go to dinner early so you can make it in time.”

Harry nodded once more, and then his face broke, his smile carving deep into his cheeks, his dimple pressing hard into his cheek, his eyes sparking.

“Thank you, Louis,” he said, his voice so soft, quivering a bit.

Louis kept his hand clasped tightly around his wrist, feeling the chain that Alex had picked up and packaged so carefully for him, and smiled across the table at Harry, still so soft and happy and wrapped in Alex’s clothes.

“Merry Christmas, Harry,” he said, and then picked up his fork once more.

*******

Harry left for Mass after Louis’s birthday dinner, dressed in Alex’s favorite business trip suit, and didn’t come back home until late.

Louis sat home and listened to the Christmas programs on the radio, the music and the readings of The Night Before Christmas and the well wishes to the troops across the ocean. He finished reading the book Harry had brought him last next, and then sat and fingered the little pearls on his wrist, smiling to himself as he settled his cheek into the side of the sofa, letting his eyes flutter closed as he tried to catch up on some of the sleep he had been losing lately.

He was woken up an hour later to the door opening, and a short burst of cold from the unheated hallway. He shivered, pulling his blanket tighter around himself, and lifted his head. Harry was shutting the door, stomping his snow-coated boots on the carpet as he locked the door behind him.

“Was Mass nice?” Louis asked, and Harry lifted his head and grinned, his eyes sparkling and his smile bright.

“Yes,” he said, “I – look, I got something.”

Louis lifted his brows as Harry came towards him, snow still in his hair and lining the collar of Alex’s coat. His cheeks and nose were bright red, his ears were flushed against his dark hair. He was holding something between his mitten-covered hands, hiding it from Louis, even as he held out his hands.

“Harry,” Louis sighed, “What are you doing?”

Harry just smiled, shaking his head.

“Look,” he said, and opened up his hands, holding them out to Louis once more so he could see what was inside. Louis blinked at his hands, and then lifted a hand to his mouth.  

An orange was nestled in Harry’s mittens. A little dull, small, a bruise blooming on one side. But an orange.

“There was a market open next to the church. Last in the whole town, probably,” Harry was grinning, shaking his head, “Had to bargain for it.”

Louis still hadn’t spoken, and Harry looked at him, frowning a little as he leaned his head forward.

“For your cider, like you asked for,” he explained, and Louis nodded quickly.

“I remember,” he got out out, “Thank you,”

“You’re welcome.” Harry said, “Happy birthday, Louis.”

Louis’s eyes suddenly burned, and he forced himself to look at the fruit, not Harry. Slowly, he reached out and took it from the alpha, holding the soft ball in his own palms.

Alex had gotten him so many gifts over the years. Flowers, jumpers, rogue and lipstick in little golden cases, silver chains, little pearl earrings with clips so he could wear them in his unpierced lobes. Of course he had. That was Alex’s job, to get him things.

The most Harry had gotten him until now was a book, or a glass vase for the living room, or a ball of pale pink yarn for Louis’s knitting patterns. Simple birthday gifts between people that were loosely connected. And now, he set out newspapers for Louis and brought him book on Alex’s tab at the bookstore. And that was fine, because it was Harry. Louis didn’t mean anything to Harry.

But this year, he had gotten Louis an orange. Something he had asked for, and something he had remembered.

“Here,” Harry said gently, putting a hand over the fruit, “I’ll slice it up for you, put it in your cider. Do you still want cider?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Okay, good. And do you want biscuits?” Harry asked, “The ginger ones? The chocolate?”

“Both, please,” Louis managed, “Both sound really good.”

“Of course. It’s your birthday,” Harry smiled. Always smiling tonight, “I’ll be right back.”

He took the orange carefully from Louis’s hands, leaving them open, and he just blinked and stared after Harry before finally letting his hands drop, instead settling them in his lap.

Louis sat and waited until Harry returned with a steaming mug, delivered right into Louis’s hands. The cider was heavy with spice, and there were two orange slices floating in it, making it taste sweet and ripe. Harry went back to the kitchen to get him a plate of biscuits, and then to the hall closet to get Louis another blanket, and then lit a candle on the table before he settled into the sofa, across from where Louis was huddled tightly into Alex’s armchair. Louis watched him, the alpha’s form blurred in the steam rising in front of Louis’s vision.

“I forgot to get you a gift,” Louis said quietly, “For Christmas.”

“That’s okay,” Harry said, “I don’t need any gifts.”

“Maybe for your birthday.”

“Get Alex something twice as nice for the both of us,” Harry said, shaking his head. “Really, Louis, it’s fine. You don’t have to do anything for me.”

Louis just nodded, the feeling still deep in his belly, overtaking everything as he looked at his cup, at the bruised and pale pieces of fruit inside that felt so important.

Harry had gotten him an orange.

*******

“Do you think we’re going to surrender?”

Louis was at the stove on New Year’s Eve, cooking beef stew, with the radio on, when he thought to ask it.

It wasn’t even a news broadcast playing; it was music, some popular dancing music, the kind that played in clubs and at train stations late in the night. But Louis had been reading papers all week, and he kept hearing the words: surrender. Peace talks. An early end. Pack up and go home and let all the rest worry about it. Everyone remembered thirty years ago. No need to repeat it. 

Except the men that yelled in speeches about how that was a weak thing to do. How the entire government must be run by morons or hidden omegas or both to think they should shy away from war.

Louis glared at the radio when they said things like that, but there was still part of him that wanted to give into the thought of peace and an end to this all. Alex could be home by spring if they were lucky.

Louis could hear Harry’s pen pause behind him, the scratching of it fading out. 

“No,” Harry said, not even asking Louis to repeat himself, “I don’t.”

Louis sighed and shook his head, stirring the pot on the stove. Thick brown broth and softened carrots swirled around his spoon.

“But Chamberlain – “

“Chamberlain is going to get thrown out.”

“He might not,” Louis said, “Maybe some others in the Parliament agree with him.”

“Maybe,” Harry agreed, “But they’re not stupid enough to say it out loud.”

“Maybe it’s smart.”

“It’s weak. And it would look bad,” Harry sighed, “When has Britain even turned onto its back and let the world fuck it?”

Louis couldn’t help it, he snorted at that, hiding his giggle against the back of his hand to muffle it.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said immediately, “For saying it like that. That was…”

“It was funny,” Louis said, waving a hand over his shoulder, “Don’t worry about it.”

Harry just hummed in return, and then the scratching of the pen started again. Louis stirred a bit more and then sighed, tucking his spoon into the blue-striped pocket of his apron. He turned back around and looked at Harry, still at the table, looking over Alex’s sales papers for the day, where he sat every day.

“Do you think we should surrender?” Louis asked, and Harry shrugged.

“Honestly, I don’t know,” he said, “I want things to smooth over as much as anyone. But I also think Hitler is a right prick, so, there’s that.”

Louis snorted weakly and nodded, titling his head. He glanced behind him, and then flicked the stove off, moving the stew off the heat. It could probably sit for a few minutes and be fine.

He wandered over to the table, and leaned over the back of the chair across from Harry, tucking his chin down.

“Why do you do that at the table?”

“Hm?” Harry asked, circling something on the page in red ink.

“The papers. Why do you do them at the table?”

“Because I used to grade papers at my kitchen table,” Harry said, “Where does Alex do his?”

“In the living room,” Louis said, “On the sofa.”

“I should’ve guessed Harry smiled, “He used to do his homework on the sofa. We only had one desk between us and he let me have it. Of course he got ink stains on our poor mother’s upholstery.”

Louis smiled.

“There are stains on ours, too. I hide them with pillows.”

“Smart boy,” Harry said, briefly lifting his pen to wave it at Louis.

Louis giggled again, and then came forward, putting his hands on the table.  

“Stop working,” he said, “It’s New Year’s Eve.”

“And?” Harry shrugged, “Just another night, really.”

“You’re so boring,” Louis huffed, pulling at the paper Harry was working on. It was enough to make him glance up and lift his brows.

“Don’t you ever go out? Have fun?” Louis asked.

“Of course,” Harry said, “Maybe not as much as I used to, but I go out.”

“Then we should have fun tonight, later,” Louis smiled, “Like, to a pub or something. Go dancing.”

“You’d want to?” Harry laughed, “With me?”

“Yeah,” Louis shrugged. He lifted himself onto the edges of his toes, leaning forward even more, “Can we? After dinner?”

He flashed him a bright smile, and Harry just lifted his brows.

“You’re sure.”

“Yes, Harry, God, let me go out on New Year’s,” Louis said, “Alex and I go out. People won’t ask questions. It’ll be fun.”

He reached out, and caught one of Harry’s hand, making him set his pen down.

“So? Can we?”

Harry kept looking at Louis, his brows still lifted, until his mouth broke into a smile.

“Sure we can.”

*******

They ended up in a pub just down the street, one Louis had been in only a handful of times. Alex usually preferred to stay in, and only ever went out to drink with his work friends. But Harry seemed very familiar with the place, navigating it easily, getting them a small booth and drinks. The place wasn’t too crowded, and was mostly young mated couples and a few younger, newly courting students. The radio was blaring, and several of the tables were pushed back, leaving an open and already-filled dance floor.

Louis watched people swing and move on the floor, curling into his cardigan a little more and tugging on his rounded collar as he waited for Harry to bring back their drinks. All the people on the floor were moving close and offering affectionate pecks to each other, and it was slowly dawning on Louis that, right, he was in a pub of people he didn’t know, and he was with someone that was little more than a friend and he certainly couldn’t share a romantic dance with.

Maybe after a little alcohol, he could get used to the idea.

Harry eventually came back over, setting two pints down and then moving into the seat next to Louis.

“This is great,” Harry smiled, “I haven’t been out dancing since university.”

“Really?” Louis asking, gingerly picking up his glass and taking a sip.

“No,” Harry shrugged, “That sort of stuff is fun when you’re twenty and with your friends. After that if you’re not mated it gets sad to go by yourself.”

Louis chuckled at that, and went back to his drink, tucking in a bit more.

“Did you want to wait until after our drinks to dance?” Harry asked.

“Yes,” Louis said quickly, and then went back to his beer, making Harry smile carefully.

“I’m sorry,” Louis got out, “I just – I don’t know anyone here. Besides you.”

“That’s better, isn’t it?” Harry said, “Probably wouldn’t be a good time if you were worried about your book club here.”

“Oh, god,” Louis laughed, “I’d never hear the end of it, actually. I’d get enough of an earful for drinking a beer in public.”

Harry frowned, his brow wrinkling as he lifted his own glass.

“Why?”

“Beer is something alphas drink. That’s why I only drink it in the house.”

Harry snorted weakly, shaking his head.

“Your friends sound like buzzkills.”

“Most of them, yeah,” Louis sighed. He looked down at his drink, and then tucked it to his lips and smiled, letting the bitterness wash over his tongue.

He drank it down, and then set it down, looking back at Harry.

“So you haven’t gone out since uni?” he asked, trying to fill the space.

“I’ve gone out,” Harry said easily, “Just not…dancing or anything.”

“Oh, okay,” Louis said, “Where did you go to uni? I don’t know if Alex has ever told me.”

“University of Brighton,” he said, “Have you ever been there?”

“No.”

“It’s lovely. Right by the beach. The beaches are pretty rocky and it’s cold most days, sure, but, it’s the ocean,” he shrugged, “I used to go to the ocean nearly every day after class with my friends.”

“And you went to parties?”

“I threw parties,” Harry smiled, “Big parties. Or as big as my mates and I could manage in our little house.”

“Oh wow,” Louis said, “I didn’t really – I’m sorry, I didn’t know you liked parties.”

“That’s because I don’t get around as much anymore, now that I have a job and rent to worry about,” Harry said, “But I like meeting people and talking to people. And I did it a lot back then since I never got to do that in secondary.”

“Why not?” Louis asked.

Harry’s smile got a bit tight, and he just waved his hand around, dismissing the question.

“Not important,” he said, and then rushed on, “The point is, I love parties.”

Louis nodded, looking down at the foam left in his pint glass before he looked back up at Harry.

“Did you ever court anyone in school?”

“I didn’t court, no,” Harry said, offering a small shrug “I…saw people.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, I had friends, and we weren’t interested in courting each other, we would just be friends. But we would…keep each company.”

“So you slept with them,” Louis said. Harry had said as much before; it was barely a surprise. He just figured Harry had at least courted a few people he was getting into bed with.

“Yes,” Harry shrugged, “It was something we both wanted. It was a big area for omegas who didn’t want to settle down.”

“But weren’t they worried?” Louis said, “About people not wanting them if they’d…been with someone else?”

“I’m sure some omegas were like that. But my friends weren’t,” Harry said, “They wanted experience, and to know what to expect, and what they liked, before they had to mate anyone.”

“Oh,” Louis said. He looked down, twisting his fingers in his lap.

He remembered his classes at university, the afternoon courses that were little more than finishing school lessons, where he learned to pour tea without spilling it and how to say the minimum amount of words necessary to an alpha. Being snapped at by his dean for forgetting to button his shirts high enough over his scent gland. His first date with Alex, and how their chaperone had smacked Louis’s hand when Alex tried to hold it. More than one professor standing in front of a classroom, passing around a fresh-cut rose as a prop, trilling on “Omegas are beautiful flowers, and they blossom with the right mate. Too many and their petals get ripped and they wither. And then who will want that?”

He hadn’t even seen an alpha naked outside of an anatomy textbook until the night he and Alex mated. He hadn’t known there could be anything else.

“So…you slept with your omega friends?” he continued on, and Harry just lifted his brows at him but still answered.

“Yes, if they wanted.”

“How many?” Louis asked, before pressing his hand to his mouth in embarrassment.

It had been too long since he had drank.

“Oh, you want to know everything, huh,” Harry laughed and leaned back in his chair, “I would say six or seven. But I had four very good friends that I saw a lot. We had a lot of heats and ruts together when we could. I still talk to them a lot, actually, see them every now and again.”

Louis nodded, his lips tight.

“So, six or seven people…”

“Six or seven omegas,” Harry cut in, making Louis narrow his eyes.

“Yes, that’s what I said.”

“You said people. I slept with more than six or seven people.”

Louis frowned, trying to go back through every word he had just said.

And then his eyes widened.

“Did you…sleep with…betas, too?”

“A few,” Harry said. He smiled, then, his eyes bright and his grin sharp, “I’ll tell you a secret.”

Louis frowned, but still leaned in closer. Harry smiled as he leaned towards him, his breath heavy with beer, and then he murmured next to Louis’s ear, laughter in his voice the whole time.

“A few alphas got in the mix.”

Louis bolted back immediately, his eyes wide.

“What?” he sputtered, “Why?”

“Why not?” Harry shrugged, grinning, “We were twenty years old and on our own and curious. There’s no reason an alpha can’t be with an alpha, or two omegas together, or either of those people with a beta.”

Louis shook his head.

“But that’s not how it works!”

“Not how what works?”

“Just – everything!” Louis sputtered, “You can’t…you can’t have babies with another alpha, for one thing!”

“I wasn’t exactly trying to have a baby,” Harry said, “I was trying to have something else.”

Louis clapped his hands over his ears, shaking his head.

“Stop it! Stop it!” he shrieked, and Harry laughed, touching his wrists.

“Hey,” he laughed, “It’s okay. I’m sorry.”

He tapped Louis’s wrists.

“Can you take these down?”

Louis blinked and peeled his ears away, and just stared at the man in front of him, who had fucked alphas, apparently, and sighed.

“I don’t like that,” he got out, “It’s weird.”

“You don’t have to like it,” Harry shrugged, “It’s not for everyone.”

“Did you like it?”

“At the time, it was fun,” Harry shrugged, “Don’t know if I’d do it much anymore.”

“When was the last time you did that?”

“In university. I swear,” Harry said. His smile faded a big, his eyes going a bit big, “We don’t have to talk about it anymore. I’m sorry.”

Louis nodded, and then reached for his glass, dragging his finger over the rim of his glass.

“So would you court anyone n – “

Harry just smiled at him and shook his head.

“I’m not courting. I’m not interested.”

“But – “

“My lack of courting is very boring, Louis. And tonight is not for boring things,” Harry grinned and stood, then, offering a hand, “Hey. Come on. You wanted to dance, let’s dance.”

Louis just stared at him, Harry’s bright smile, the way he had so easily tossed out that he had slept with so many people – alphas, even – down things Louis didn’t even think were possible, and now he was so easily onto the next thing, standing and excited and ready to dance.

Louis stared at his hand for another moment, and then slowly reached out his hand, taking it.

“Okay,” he got out.

He stood, his legs shaking a bit. He followed Harry out to the dance floor, where a few couples were swaying and spinning, a few omegas coupled up and smiling as they did friendly dances together amongst the mated pairs. The song on the radio was loud and bouncy, and most people were dancing energetically.

Harry leaned in close.

“How do you and Alex normally dance?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like…do you do the fast songs, too? Or just the slow ones? Do you get close?”

“Oh,” Louis sighed, “Um, slow. Not too close.”

“Of course,” Harry shook his head, “He’s so fucking boring.”

“Hey,” Louis snapped, and Harry laughed.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “But, um, is it okay if we dance to the fast ones tonight?”

Louis smiled.

“I’m sure I can explain away Alex dancing to a few fast songs once he got some drinks in him, yes.”

Harry nodded, and then gripped Louis’s hand harder. He pulled him in, and clasped his other hand, and Louis gasped weakly, looking up at Harry.

“Do you know this one?”

“I – “ Louis said, “I’ve never heard this song before.”

“Me neither. But we’ll figure it out. Watch my feet.”

Louis’s eyes shot down, and he watched as Harry’s loafer-clad shoes started to move, so fast and easy. Alex usually stumbled to the music, clipping Louis’s toes, and it was fine, it was sweet and made Louis laugh, but watching Harry’s feet was something so different, enough that Louis almost stumbled himself a few times, jabbing Harry’s toes as he tried to keep up.

“Sorry!” he gasped out, “Sorry, sorry!”

“It’s okay,” Harry laughed, “You want to spin?”

“What?” Louis asked, and barely had time to work out what was happening before Harry was spinning his body and then quickly straightening him again. He gasped, his cheeks growing hot, and Harry smiled.

“Good?”

“Yeah,” Louis got out, “That was fun.”

“Good,” Harry smiled, “Come on, keep going.”

Louis dropped his eyes down again, watching Harry’s feet once more. They moved fast, but slowly, he got used to it. The radio changed, the songs loud and bright, and they kept moving and spinning and shuffling, Harry loose and tipsy and laughing, and Louis growing hot and sweaty as he tried to keep moving.

Finally, the song switched to something slow, and he nearly collapsed into Harry.

“Okay,” he gasped, “Thank God, I needed a break.”

Harry chuckled, holding Louis loosely, chastely, around the back.

“We’ll just sway, then.”

Louis nodded and closed his eyes, listening to the song, to the movements of Harry’s chest. It was a love song, about the moon and the ocean and crossing them to get somewhere, and it made his eyes sting a little, the drinks getting to him.

He buried closer to Harry’s shirt, and the other alpha gripped him tightly, and sighed, petting Louis’s shirt.

“Hey,” he said, “It’s okay.”

Louis glanced up and blinked hard, and met Harry’s eyes, the other man just looking at him carefully, with a soft smile.

“I’m having a really nice time,” Louis croaked out.

“You don’t look like you are.”

“I just – “ Louis managed, “Should I be having a good time? When he’s not here?”

Harry just regarded Louis, still holding him, and then reached a hand up, touching his cheek quickly before dropping his hand again.

“Alex loves you so much,” he murmured, “And I’m sure he’d want you to have fun even if he can’t be here to see it.”

Louis nodded, his eyes still burning, and Harry just held him, reassuring him that it was okay, it was all going to be okay, until Louis felt like he could breath again. He looked back up at Harry again, and the other man smiled at him, and then petted his cheek one more time, the touch as fleeting as a stroke of lightning in a summer storm.

“Feeling better?”

“Trying to.”

“Okay,” Harry said, and then his smile was back, bright and sharp, “I want to do something.”

“What?” Louis asked.

“Just trust me,” Harry said, “It’ll be fun.”

He gripped Louis’s waist hard, and before Louis could say anything, Harry was lifting him, his arms firm around Louis’s middle as his head rose far above Harry’s. Harry spun around, Louis nearly hoisted over his head, and Louis laughed and slapped his shoulders, kicking his feet a bit.

“Hey!” he gasped, soft enough for only him to hear, “Jesus Christ, put me down!”

“Okay,” Harry laughed, “Okay.”

He settled Louis back down, his feet firmly back on the floor. Louis gasped, bringing his hands up to his cheeks, which were flushed and burning. He looked at Harry, red-cheeked and beaming, and just laughed and shook his head.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said, “I should have asked.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“Because we’re having fun,” Harry laughed, “You want to do it again?”

“Maybe,” Louis got out, and Harry chuckled.

“Okay,” he said, “Hold on real tight, okay?”

Louis nodded, and in another moment, Harry was lifting him up, Louis’s hands on his shoulders, Harry’s nose pressed to Louis’s belly. Louis laughed as Harry spun, faster his time, enough to make Louis’s hair whip around as he held on hard to Harry’s shirt.

After a few spins, Harry patted Louis’s back, shouting up to him.

“Hang on, hang on!” he said, and then loosened his grip a bit, enough for Louis to slid down easily until he was touching the ground again.

Louis leaned in hard to Harry, his arms firmly around him still, as he laughed and gasped for air.

“Harry,” he whispered loudly, “Harry, Harry – “

“Yeah?” Harry laughed.

“Thank you.”

“Did you have fun?”

“Yes!” Louis near-shrieked, his chest tight with laughter, “Yes!”

Harry was laughing too, holding Louis’s shoulders, still. Louis looked around, trying to see if anyone noticed them, loud and spinning and sweating. A few people were glancing over, most of them other omegas, offering him little smiles, only a couple glares. But most people were turned to the clock at the back of the pub, clapping and talking to each other.

Louis glanced up at the clock hands, and saw the little hand pressed to twelve, and the long hand just slipping past the same number. He blinked at it, and then turned back to Harry.

“It’s past midnight,” he said, “I think we missed it.”

“Ah,” Harry nodded, “Always a shame, that is.”

“Well,” Louis said, “Maybe that means we were spinning at midnight.”

Harry blinked at that, and then, his mouth widened again, his dimples deepening, and gave Louis one more smile before he held him, and spun, not picking him up, just spinning, laughing, the noise bright and sharp, while the room around them clapped and laughed at the clock, watching the first minutes of 1940 slip by.

*******

Hello my sweet A,

 

By the time this arrives to you, it will be long past your birthday. I’m sorry I didn’t write with better forethought. But I am thinking of you so much today, so I had to write now.

 

You are twenty-five today, which I suppose means we’re both horribly old now. I still remember you as the frightened teenager that found your way into my room without a courting appointment nearly six years ago now, although you probably resent that that remains my strongest memory of you. But it is the truth. I always like to remember you at your most tender, so I can remember how deliriously in love with you I was.

 

And in a week, it will be five years officially since you put a mark on my neck, and the week after, Saint Valentine’s Day. You really decided to make February very busy for me, and I will most likely cave in and write to you more, for each occasion and more.

 

I am fine, I promise. I saw my mother twice, and she said that she hopes you’re okay – well, she hopes Harry, the version of him overseas, is okay, but I will pass along the good will nonetheless. (And she bothered me with more wedding and baby talk, but I haven’t heard much else for five years, nothing new there.)

 

Harry remains wonderful, and of course, and put up with me quite well through January, when you know I grow cold and exhausted of the inside of our own flat. Winter is making me tired, and weary, and I miss you in my bed every moment of the night. I must admit that lately, I have been missing your mouth at my throat, and your teeth, your beautiful tender hands at my hips, your –

“Louis,” a voice snapped, “Are you paying attention?”

Louis started, his pen scratched messily over the parchment he had tucked into the pages of his book, and he blinked across the circle of chairs that were arranged around the sitting room. Marlene was speaking to him, her expression irritated and her mouth sharp and leering, like it usually did.

He sighed and tilted his book up, hiding the letter to his chest as he waited for the ink to dry so he could close the pages over it.

“If you were saying of substance maybe I would focus on that and not my grocery list,” he replied.

Marlene’s nose flared, her dark eyes sparking, and Louis heard Elizabeth repress a giggle from her spot next to him.

“You two think this is so funny, don’t you?” Marlene snapped, making Elizabeth laugh again.

“Not at all,” Elizabeth sighed, “Why don’t you catch Louis up on your brilliant analysis?”

Marlene flashed her another glare, and then she sighed and picked up the book in her lap, waving it around.

“Well, I was just saying,” she sighed, “I just think the scene where Robert takes Violet to the lake is a perfect example of how a proper bonding should look. You know, I counted the lines – “

“She has that much time,” Elizabeth muttered next to Louis, and he pressed a hand to his mouth, muffling a grin while Marlene glared again.

“ – as I was trying to say, I counted the lines of dialogue for both of them, and Robert has exactly twice as many as Violet does. She only has one line during the bonding itself. And that’s just beautiful, isn’t it, the complete trust and submission to an alpha in your most intimate moment – “

“I think Robert’s incredibly boring,” Louis sighed, “I think I would like to see some more lines from Violet, personally, to break up their horrendous sex scenes.”

Marlene’s eyes narrowed once more, and Louis shrugged, meeting her eyes.

“You would think that, wouldn’t you,” she snapped, “That an omega can talk as much as they want.”

Louis resisted the urge to roll his eyes or cut in that Marlene sure seemed to be talking an awful lot.

“I’m just saying this is a god awful book with god awful smut in it and I would prefer to maybe have one of the main characters say a sentence that doesn’t have the word ‘alpha’ in it for once.” 

“I for one think it’s very lovely,” Trevor said from across the circle. Louis cut his eyes to him, and sighed quietly as the other omega picked up his tea, his eyes sparking with excited at getting the attention of all eight members of the book club circle.

“It reminds me of me and Ben, actually,” he said, “You know, the other day, we were on the sofa, and I was mending his shirt, and he said to me ‘You haven’t said a single word all day aside from ‘Supper’s ready.’ And I thought that was so funny, you know, and he seemed so happy with it, maybe I’ll try to do it more. And I don’t even feel like I need to speak, that much, you know, I just get so tired taking care of the twins I get too tired to talk sometimes! Have I told you all how they’re doing, too, they’re so big now, and lovely, I hope they look like their dad when they get older – “

“Your twins are two years old, Trevor,” Louis cut in, “We’ve heard about them every week for two years. We have not forgotten them.”

Elizabeth pressed her hand to Louis’s leg, and he partially wanted to apologize, but he decided against it. He was exhausted, and his head hurt, and he just wanted to write a letter to his alpha and leave Marlene’s poorly decorated flat and their discussion about her horrible romance novel choices.

Trevor just gave Louis a sharp smile, and tilted his head.

“Maybe one day you can have babies, too, and then you can take up everyone’s time talking about that instead.”

Louis just glared at him, his face heating.

He always came in with the same cheap jab, it shouldn’t upset him this much. And yet it always fucking did.

He sat quietly while Trevor smirked at him and the rest of the circle tried to fill in the space with small talk about their own lives and alphas and whatever gossip they had heard at the corner store that morning.

Louis just sat in quiet, his letter pressed between the pages of his book and Elizabeth’s hand on his knee, until the front doorbell rang, and Marlene jumped up and straightened out her dress to go answer it. In another moment, she was shuffling back, and glanced at Louis, giving him another sharp look.

“Your alpha is here,” she said, and then took her place in the circle.

“Oh,” Louis said, “I didn’t expect him until later.’

“Well, he’s here,” she said shortly, opening her book back up, “We’ll see you tomorrow, Louis. Remember, Jack is hosting next week.”

“Right, of course,” Louis said. He stood, pressing his book to his chest and grabbing for his jacket and handbag behind him. He gave Elizabeth a kiss on the top of the head, and then waved to the rest of the group with a well-practiced smile and goodbye before he slipped to the front door.

Harry was standing in the foyer, his toes pointed towards each other and his hands behind his back. He smiled when he saw Louis, and reached over to open the door.

“Hi,” he said, “I was running some errands and figured I’d stop by to get you. I know I’m early.”

“Thank God you are,” Louis said as he pulled on his jacket, “Club tonight was absolutely unbearable.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Oh, nothing new,” Louis said as he bustled out onto the sidewalk, Harry following behind him, “Everyone’s terrible and has horrible marriages and awful children and they refuse to be quiet about any of it.”

He sighed hard, and rubbed his forehead, looking back at Harry.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I’m all out of sorts today. I can’t sleep lately.”

“Oh,” Harry said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know that.”

“It’s been building up since December. It must just be the cold weather,” he said, “I can’t sleep when I’m too cold.”

“I can get you a new blanket,” Harry said, “Or you can use mine. I get too hot in there by myself, anyways.”

“Oh, that’s fine,” Louis shook his head, “Can we go by the post office on the way home? I have a letter I want to send to Alex.”

“Of course.”

“And then we can go to dinner tonight,” Louis said, “For your birthday and all.”

Harry flashed him a brief smile, and shrugged.

“I don’t even know what I’m going to do this year,” he said, “I usually just come over and have dinner with you and Alex, what am I supposed to do now?”

“Have dinner with me?” Louis said, and Harry laughed.

“That’s fair.”  

Louis nodded, and then reached for Harry’s hand, and the other man tucked Louis’s hand into his own. They were nearing town now, where Louis ran most of his errands. Plenty of people to recognize them.

 “I – I didn’t get you anything, I’m sorry,” Louis got out.

“It’s perfect okay.”

“I sent Alex a blanket in the mail last week, but I forgot to get you something, too,” Louis said, “Maybe I can get you something after dinner – “  

“You don’t need to get me anything,” Harry insisted, “Not even Alex gets me birthday presents anymore. I just get apples from my students and biscuits from my neighbors.”

“Maybe I could make you biscuits, then,” Louis said, and Harry chuckled.

“It was just an example. But thank you.”

Louis nodded, and kept pace with Harry’s long strides, his feet sliding in the melting snow. Harry reached out and grabbed onto his hip, steadying him.

“Whoa,” he murmured, “Careful, careful.”

“Thanks,” Louis smiled, “I’m alright.”

Harry nodded, and then frowned, turning his gaze down a bit before looking at Louis fully again.

“Um,” he said, “I was going to wait to ask you but I was just thinking…it’s your anniversary next week, isn’t it?”

“Oh,” Louis said, “Yeah, it is.”

“Are you…feeling alright about that?”

Louis looked up at Harry, still looking at him carefully. and he shrugged.

“I feel fine, I think,” he said, “I don’t think it’ll be as bad as, um, my wedding day.”

Harry nodded, and smiled tightly.

“We won’t go out to dinner this time. I’m sure that will help.”

Louis laughed weakly and shrugged, tugging at Harry’s hand a bit.

“Did Alex ever tell you how we met?”

“In school, I know.”

“Yeah, but,” he smiled, “We used to have these courting appointments in my school. From your first day, you had to carve out your afternoons a couple times a week so that the alphas from the neighboring school could come meet you and talk to you. We got to pick which alphas we actually let take us out later, but still, I hated having to do it, it was so boring, and I always got the worst alphas who kept coming back.”

He sighed and shook his head as he went back through the old memories that had followed him as he had written Harry’s letter earlier.

“Alex didn’t even make an appointment. Apparently he had stayed out of all of that for so long he didn’t know. He just saw me on campus one day, I guess, and found my name and decided he would come over. And he seemed so sweet I just...let him.”

He swung Harry’s hand in his own, looking at the alphas’ long, rough fingers.

“I eventually let him take me out, and, well…I never had to choose another alpha to court,” Louis smiled, ““I had to drop out of school because my uni didn’t take mated omegas, but I didn’t care at that point because I hated the place so much. We got mated about a year after we met.”

“I remember,” Harry smiled, “He came over to my flat to talk to me about it. He was so nervous, but so excited.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” Harry nodded, “I think he really wanted to tell me, because I hadn’t seen him for so long.”

“Oh,” Louis nodded, “Right.”

Alex had mentioned a few times that he and Alex hadn’t seen each other for three years when they were teenagers. He had mentioned it carefully after they had been mated, that he had seen Harry for the first time in so long just a few weeks before he had met Louis. He had never said why. Just that Harry needed to leave home and clear his head. That they had fought as kids, and it had reached a boiling point, and now they were going to stick together from now on.  

But he decided he wouldn’t ask now.

“So he was excited?” Louis pushed on, and Harry laughed.

“He said he had found the most beautiful omega in the entire country,” he said, “And that he couldn’t wait to be with him forever. It was the happiest I’d ever seen him.”

Louis smiled, his cheeks burning a bit. He had never heard anyone tell him what Alex said about him when he wasn’t in the room.

“Well,” he said, “That’s – that sounds like him.”

“It does,” Harry laughed, his smile bright. He tugged on Louis’s hand, nodding towards the rest of the street.

“Come on, let’s get you to the post office.”

“Oh!” Louis said, “Right, right – can I actually – one second.”

He looked around, and then found a bench a few steps away and settled down, pulling out his letter and his pen so he could finish the letter.

“I just need to finish this, and then we can go.”

“Sure,” Harry nodded, and tucked his hands into his pockets, rocking on his heels. Louis just nodded at him, and then went back to writing, polishing off the last few sentences, his lingering questions, what he longed to do with Alex once he was home. His hand was cramping as he scrawled out the last lines, and he glanced up at Harry and smiled as he wrote out the last few lines.

“I’m ready.”

I still miss you deeply, and wonder about you every day. I long to see you once more, but I will settle for my memories and your letters and the hope of a phone call.

 

Happy birthday, my dear. And happy anniversary. I hope by this next time year I can be back in your arms again.

 

Deeply and Dearly,

 

Louis

*******

Louis couldn’t sleep again.

He couldn’t sleep soundly most nights anymore. He had slept in the exact same way for the last five years, nearly every night: burrowed into Alex’s chest, with his arms thrown around Alex’s neck and his leg around Alex’s hip, and his alpha’s arms wrapped around him. He felt bare and warmed by his mate’s skin, his mouth pressed to Alex’s heartbeat, his nose full of his scent. So enveloped in scent and warmth that he couldn’t not be at peace and sleep soundly.

But now he was awake again, with the quilt trapped between his legs, a pillow tucked under his chin, and goose bumps pricking his skin. The flat was fairly warm and he was wearing Alex’s jumper, but he was still shaking with cold, trying to rub his legs against the quilt to warm them. And he couldn’t stop thinking. He didn’t want to dream, on the off chance he would think of Alex stomping through the snow in a dirty uniform, leaving blood in the snow as he walked.

Louis shook his head hard and rose from bed, letting the jumper fall down around his thighs. He wrapped his arms around himself, nearly tempted to get a blanket from the bed and cocoon himself in that, too. But he just pushed himself forward, over the cool wood floor of his room until he reached the door. He padded outside, into the dark hallway that he could navigate with no light at all. He went past the hall closet where he kept the broom and the mop, and then he was at the door he needed.

He stood stock-still outside, his hand pressed to his chest, just breathing. His closed his eyes, tried to listen. Had he already woken Harry up? Probably not. Alex always said he was so quiet, his footsteps so light.

He grabbed for the doorknob, twisted, and the unlocked door opened for him easily.

“Harry?” he called softly. He could see Harry’s form wrapped in blankets on the bed, and he stirred in his sleep, but he didn’t wake up.

Louis swallowed and walked further into the room, keeping his arms wrapped tightly around himself as he approached the bed. The details of Harry’s form became more clear, the pale light of the hallway brushing over him now. He was turned on his side, one long arm extended far over his head, his hand bent at the wrist as he slept. He didn’t have a shirt on, and his waist was twisted tightly in the sheets, his sides moving up and down like ocean waves as he slept.

Louis held in his breath as he reached out and shook Harry’s shoulder.

“Harry,” he whispered softly.

It was even softer than the first time he had called Harry’s name. But now, the alpha’s eyes opened in an instant.

Louis immediately dropped his hand and Harry blinked, frowning a bit as he looked up at Louis. He pulled down the arm that had been extended over his head, and instead tucked it under himself and used it to lift himself up as he could look at Louis.

“Louis,” he mumbled weakly, “What’s going on?”

“I can’t sleep,” Louis murmured.

“Oh,” Harry said, “Do you want me to make you some tea?”

“No,” Louis said. He was now rocking on him feet, unsure. Harry smelled like warmed honey and sleep, and Louis closed his eyes tightly.

“I – “ Louis said, his voice suddenly feeling weak, “Can I sleep with you?”

Harry didn’t say anything for a few seconds, but every moment felt like a hour, or a day – and Louis forced himself to open his eyes and look at Harry, who was just gazing up at him with confused, sleep-choked eyes.

“What?” Harry eventually said.

“I can’t sleep well by myself,” Louis began, “I haven’t slept on my own very much in the last five years. Even when Alex goes away, I hate sleeping by myself.”

He looked down at his own hands, and pulled at his own fingers as he spoke, pink and dry from the winter air.

“I haven’t slept very well from the last few months,” Louis said, “And I’m tired all the time. I’m tired of being tired.”

“For the last few months?” Harry parroted, and Louis sighed.

“Yes, Harry. I toss and turn for hours because my alphas not fucking here, and I hate that, it makes me feel helpless, and I just – I want to go to bed, Harry. I need someone next to me.”

“You need Alex,” Harry said carefully.

“I fucking know what I need,” Louis said. He wasn’t angry. Just tired. So tired, “But you’re – “

He didn’t know to finish that. Harry was Alex-shaped, and he nearly smelled the same. Or at least, Louis used to think they smelled the same, and looked the same. He could tell the differences now. Cinnamon instead of dark chocolate, spice instead of bitter, unbearable heat instead of flickering warmth. Alex’s freckles along his spine. The callouses on Harry’s hands.  

What was he supposed to say? That he felt safe with Harry now? That if Harry was next to him and could tell him it was okay he could finally be at peace?

He couldn’t.

Instead, he could just say “Please let me sleep next to you.”

“I can’t do that,” Harry said weakly, and so quickly, “I can’t...that’s too much, Louis.”

“You don’t even have to touch me,” Louis said, “It would help me just to have someone there. To know someone is there. Please?”

Harry just blinked up at him, and Louis stared back at him. And then slowly he brought his hand down to the edge of the sheet and tried to get a finger under it, lift it up.

Immediately, Harry brought his hand up and settled it firmly overtop Louis’s, and just looked at him.

“Louis,” he said tightly, and just looked at him, “Jesus Christ, just – just turn around for a second, okay?”

“Oh,” Louis said, blinking at Harry and then at where the sheets cut over his sharp hipbones, “Are you naked?”

“Yes, Jesus, I get hot at night. Turn around, let me put my pants back on.”

Louis swallowed drily and then turned, pressing his hands over his eyes, his cheeks burning.

Stupid. That was fucking stupid. Harry could do whatever he wanted. He hadn’t expected Louis to show up and try to rip his sheets off. He could be naked. Harry was naked right now. Louis could hear the sheets moving, Harry fumbling and trying to get up –

There was a hand on his shoulder, and Louis jumped, his hands coming off his eyes and instead going to grab his chest. He looked behind him, and Harry was there, just in his pants and nothing else, just blinking at Louis.

“Come on, I’m making you tea.”

“I don’t want tea.”

“I’m making you tea,” Harry repeated. He went towards the door before Louis could say anything else, and he had to follow after Harry, trying to keep up with him as the other man took long-legged strides towards the door. 

“Harry, I made tea three hours ago,” he tried to say. Harry was already in the kitchen, and reaching for the kettle, moving too quickly. Louis tried again.

“Harry – “

Harry set the kettle down a bit too hard, rattling the stovetop, and then he turned to Louis, his face tight.

“Louis, I can’t do this,” Harry sighed, “I’m trying to help you, okay? I want you to be safe and happy because I care about you, and I promised Alex that, and I want to give you everything you need but I can’t sleep with you. So I’m trying to make you tea. Just let me do that.”

“Jesus, just say no, then!” Louis huffed, “Don’t try to make up for it! Just tell me no if you don’t want to!”

Harry just stared at Louis, and then pulled his hand away from the kettle. He turned, starting to walk around the kitchen entirely, and then he went over to the doorway, pressing his hand into the door.

“I want to,” he said softly.

“Okay,” Louis said, “And? What’s the problem.”

Harry didn’t answer, just stared at his own hand, spread out across the door.

“Louis – “ he sighed, “I should tell you something.”

“Okay,” Louis said slowly, “What?”

Harry kept looking at his hand, and then slowly drew it away, but kept his back to Louis.

“I...fancied you,” Harry said, “For a long time.”

Louis frowned, and took a step closer to Harry.

“You fancied me.”

“Yes.”

“Like…you wanted to court me?”

“Jesus, I don’t know, Louis, I just fancied you.”

“Okay, okay,” Louis said, “When was this?”

“When I first met you. Before you and Alex were mated.”

“In uni?” Louis asked, “When you first started visiting us?”

“Mm,” Harry hummed and nodded.

“Alright,” Louis laughed then, “So you fancied me when we were younger?”

“Yes,” Harry sighed wearily.

“And that’s why you don’t want to sleep with me?” Louis chuckled and shook his head, “Harry, it’s fine. You fancied me once, but you don’t anymore. It doesn’t matter.”

Harry was silent, his shoulders drawn tightly. He sighed hard, and then he turned and started to walk towards the living room. Louis watched him, and frowned.

“Harry,” Louis said, “Harry.”

The alpha kept walking, and Louis went out of the kitchen and into the living room. His stomach felt tight now as he watched Harry lower himself into an armchair, leaned forward, looking so uncomfortable. Too uncomfortable for something he had felt five years ago. 

“Harry,” Louis said firmly, as he walked forward. “Not anymore, right? You don’t fancy me anymore?”

Harry kept looking down, and then, slowly, he lifted his head and looked at Louis again.

And Louis knew. Harry’s face was too tight, his eyes too wide and wet, and it nearly made Louis stumble back.

Oh, God. Oh, Jesus.

“You fancy me?” Louis said quietly, “Still?”

“Louis, I’m so sorry,” Harry got out, “I -- I’m not a bad person. I can control myself. And it doesn’t matter how I feel, because I’m here to help you, and you have Alex, and I love you both too much to let anything happen to the two of you.”

Louis just listened to him, just staring at the man in front of him he had only known in passing, in occasional dinners and visits, and now saw every day, every waking moment, as he told Louis he was in love with him.

“But yes, I fancy you, Louis. I always have. It’s fucking stupid of me, because I know I should just mate someone, and settle down, and be normal. But fucking hell, I can’t. I’ve never been a person to settle down. But then – “

He sighed hard, holding his cheeks in his hands as he leaned forward.

“Jesus Christ, after you, Louis, I really couldn’t.”

Harry didn’t speak for a while after, just sat and breathed hard, and Louis watched him, until the other man lifted his head.

“So I don’t think I should sleep next to you.”

Louis kept watching him, how still Harry was, how his whole face and body still looked strained.

Harry, who was in love him for so long.

He didn’t know what to do with that. He just that Harry was his friend, and made him feel safe, and they had no one else but each other right now.

Louis could deal with this when he was well rested again. But not now.

He came forward, and slowly, he settled a hand on Harry’s shoulder, rubbing his bare skin until the other man looked up.

“You won’t do anything to me,” Louis said carefully, “If we were to sleep in the same bed.”

“No,” Harry said immediately, “I wouldn’t even touch you if you didn’t want that.”

“Then it’s okay.”

“Louis – “

“You fancy me. Okay. That’s – that’s fine, Harry. We don’t have to talk about it. You can just help me tonight and that can be it.”

Harry just stared up and him, and Louis shook his head and exhaled, once, so softly it was just air.

“Please.”

Harry nodded at that, and smile, though it looked tight.

“I can do that.”

“Then let’s go to my room,” Louis said.

Harry seemed to tighten at that, and frowned

“Your room? I thought – you came to the guest room.”

“Well, yeah,” Louis said, “Our bed’s bigger, and it’s more comfortable, anyways, than the one in the guest room. We might as well go there now.”

Harry exhaled hard, and shook his head.

“Louis – I can’t go into your room. I can’t because I told Alex I wouldn’t.”

“You can’t – he told you that?”

“Yes,” Harry nodded, “And I understand, I do, that’s your nest, that’s your place, just for the two of you – “

“Harry,” Louis said, cutting him off. “This is my room too.”

Harry just looked up at him, and Louis sighed.

“I want you to come in and be in my bed, because I need to sleep. Okay?”

Harry just stared at him.

“Harry,” Louis whispered, “Harry, please come into my room.”

“You won’t hurt Alex. It’s okay. It’s okay.”

“I broke so many promises to him,” Harry said, “Said I’d always be with him and then left home. Said I’d never let anything happen to him and then sent him to fucking war. Said I wouldn’t fucking go in his room and cover up his scent – “

“Harry.”

Louis smoothed a hand under Harry’s jaw, and his breath exhaled, rocky and hard.

 “You think too much,” Louis said softly, “Alex thinks too much, too. You Styles boys have thick fucking heads.”

He pet Harry’s cheek, and smiled.

“Sleep in my bed, Harry,” he said, “Just lay next to me, let me sleep.”

Harry just blinked at him.

“I’m so tired, Harry. Aren’t you tired?”

“Exhausted.”

“Then let’s go to bed,” Louis held out a hand, “Come on.”

Harry nodded, and slowly, he got to his feet. Louis dropped his hand from his shoulder and instead brought it down, and touched Harry’s hand. The other man tensed under his touch, but still allowed Louis to touch him and pull on his hand, guiding him out of the living room and towards the hall. Louis looked back at him as he went, tried to smile softly at Harry was they walked.

Harry only stopped when they reached the doorway of Louis’s room. He just rocked on his feet, looking at the small crease in the hardwood at the border of the master bedroom.

“Can’t we sleep in the guest bedroom?”

“This is my bedroom, too,” Louis said quietly, “And you are allowed to come inside.”

Harry still didn’t move, and Louis huffed.

“Jesus Christ, Harry. It’s 4 in the morning. Come the fuck on.”

Still, there was no movement from the alpha, who just stared at the threshold like it was lined with dynamite.

Then, slowly, he lifted his feet and stepped carefully onto the hardwood.

Louis exhaled a shaky laugh.

“Not so hard, is it?” he murmured.

Harry didn’t speak, just kept walking. Louis held onto his hand, guiding him inside. Harry’s eyes kept sweeping over the room carefully, gazing at the big windows, the cherry-wood furniture, the massive bed, and its mess of blankets.

Louis came over to the bed and slowly let go of Harry’s hand, and went back smoothing down the sheets and the quilt as Harry stood next to him, just looking.

“It’s okay,” Louis said quietly as he folded everything down. He wasn’t sure if it was for himself or for Harry.

“This isn’t right,” Harry said in reply.

It made Louis stop, his hands releasing from his sheets as he looked over at Harry.

“Do you want to go?” he asked softly.

“This is you room. This is your bed.”

“And I invited you here.”

Louis leaned down again, smoothing a hand over the quilt, and Harry’s eyes followed the movement.

“This is my brother’s bed,” Harry said.

“I know,” Louis said, “Harry, I know. We’re not doing anything wrong. You’re just helping me sleep, please.”

What if it becomes more than that, Louis thought, What if something happens in me.

Wild thoughts. Exhausted thoughts. It would mean nothing, in the morning.

“Here,” Louis said, patting the left side of the bed, “This is my side. You can sleep here, and I’ll sleep on Alex’s side. Is that okay?”

“Yes,” Harry nodded, “That’s – that’s great, actually.”

“Okay,” Louis said, “And, um – “

He glanced around the room, and then grabbed for one of his jumpers that was laying on the ground, offering it to Harry.

“Put this on.”

“Why?” Harry frowned.

“It will muffle your scent,” Louis said, pushing the jumper at him again, “Please?”

“Louis, this is going to be too small.”

“Just put it on,” Louis sighed, and Harry finally relented. He took the jumper and wrestled it over his head, and when he finally got in on, it on went to his naval, and the sleeves were stuck on his forearms. Louis had to hide a grin in his own sleeve, but Harry still caught him.

“It was your idea.”

“I know,” Louis said, “Come on now.”

Louis lifted the sheets on the right side of the bed and slid under the quilt, settling into the permanent dent that resembled Alex’s body. He pulled his blankets around himself tightly, and then rolled over, his back to Harry. He closed his eyes tightly, pushing himself into the dark.

He heard Harry move behind him, and then, slowly, he felt the quilt lift, and then there was another body beside him. A solid, strong body that smelled so delicious. That belonged to someone who was in love with Louis, even now.

But Harry wouldn’t touch him. They were far away, and Harry had promised he wouldn’t do anything. Louis wouldn’t even be surprised to wake up and find that Harry had left the bed half way through the night entirely, too afraid of Alex, even when he was so far away.

Louis was safe, and he already felt warmer, and was able to lay still. He didn’t need to toss and turn anymore. He could fall asleep. He could rest.

He breathed out in relief, and tucked his knees into his chest, cuddling close into the mattress. He heard Harry’s breath behind him, hitched and tight, and he wanted to tell Harry to relax, that he wanted him to sleep too.

But his brain was full of cinnamon and honey, and he felt like there was a campfire in his belly, releasing sparks through his veins, warming him slowly.  

He hadn’t felt this safe since Alex had left. Maybe it was a treacherous thought to have.

But it didn’t change the fact that across the sheets, he heard Harry whisper “Good night, Louis” and it made Louis’s lips twitch into a smile just before his heavy eyes gave into the weight, finally making him slip away.

*******

Harry was gone when Louis woke up.

He didn’t even have to open his eyes to know that; the scent of Harry lingered in the air next to him, but the heat of his body and the thickness of the smell were both gone. Louis whined a bit, shaking his head as he opened his eyes and squinted to his usual side of the bed. He reached out a hand, dragging it up and down the still-warm crease on the bed.

He didn’t expect him to stay the whole time. But he had slept through the night, and the mattress smelled so thoroughly of the alpha that he knew he had stayed for a very long time.

Louis pulled the duvet closer around himself, nuzzling his cheek into the fabric and sighing.

He hadn’t dreamt at all last night. No pleasant dreams with sunshine and sweet smells and Alex, but also, no nightmares. No rainstorms and gunshots and war. Just darkness and sweet, indulgent silence, leaving his body perfectly at rest.

Louis gripped hard onto the covers, listening carefully for any sound of movement in the rest of the flat, but he found none.

Slowly, he rose up from the bed, and went to the wardrobe to get his dressing gown, and then padded back out to the rest of the flat. Harry wasn’t there, wasn’t in the kitchen, or the guest, or the spare bathroom. He must have gone out, on a run or an errand, and still, Louis’s heart jerked a bit, the scent of Harry still fresh in his nose.

He’ll be back, he soothed himself as he sat down on the loveseat, don’t worry.

He picked up his book and tried to read but the words blurred together, and his knitting would barely turn into anything useful even with a focused mind, so instead, Louis stood up from his seat, turned on the radio, and waited.

There was no news from the frontlines, not yet, at least. The snow was starting to melt, slowly, the bitter winter chipping away to spring at long last. The troops would move more steadily without the barriers of snow and bitter wind. And then, maybe, there would be something more worrying to listen to.

Finally, the door opened, and Louis jumped, climbing quickly to his feet to greet Harry, dressed in his running kit, his cheeks stained red from the air outside. The alpha just blinked at Louis, and Louis stared back, rocking on his feet, until he eventually coughed weakly.

“Good morning,” Harry sputtered, his voice a bit rough.

“Hi,” Louis said softly, “Um. Did you go for a run?”

“Yeah,” Harry said, “Did you sleep okay?”

“I really, really did,” Louis nodded, “Thank you.”

Harry just nodded in turn.

“I’ll make you breakfast,” he said, then, and started to pull his thin scarf away from his neck to hang it up, “Just give me a few minutes.”

Louis nodded, and watched Harry go into the kitchen, not bothering to change despite the visible sweat pooling at the base of his neck. As he stood in the living room, he heard the hiss of the gas stove being turned, the rush of water into a kettle, the crisp crack of eggshells on the edge of a pan. Louis’s feet felt cold and frozen, chilled from a night’s sleep with no socks, and hard to move. But eventually he picked up his feet and went to the kitchen.

Harry was standing at the stove, rubbing the back of his neck and pushing eggs and strips of bacon around a pan, his body stiff and unsure.

Louis came over the radio, clicked it off. Harry’s head lifted, and he just looked at him, startled.

“Um, so – “ Louis started, but Harry pushed in before he could say anything.

“I’m sorry for, um, telling you so much last night,” Harry said, and then turned away, back to the stove, “That’s what you wanted to ask about, right?”

“Well. I guess,” Louis shrugged, “I’m not cross with you or anything.”

“Okay. Good,” Harry said, “Because I don’t know why I said it, it was stupid, really, and I was tired – “

“I didn’t think it was stupid,” Louis said softly. It was enough to make Harry pause, his hand ceasing in pushing the wooden spoon around.

“Five years must have been a very long time to just sit around and watch me fall in love with your brother,” Louis continued. He didn’t know where the words came from, but they emerged from his mouth nonetheless.

The oil in the pan popped loudly. Harry sighed.

“It was,” Harry said softly, “But I was so happy for you, I really was.”

He lifted a hand and turned off the stove, and then took off the pan, setting it down on the counter instead.

“I didn’t think a happy family was something either of us could have,” Harry said, “But then he got you. And you…you became his family.”

“You’re his family, though,” Louis said, “You’re his brother.”

“We’re both family,” Harry shrugged, “Just…in different way, if that makes sense. And I’m so happy I can see him happy.”

He picked up a fork and a plate, served up Louis’s breakfast. The kettle whistled sharply and he picked it up and made him a tea. Set it all the table next to the paper while Louis just watched.

“You don’t have to worry about it anymore, though,” Harry said, “I’m just a friend. I promise you that much.”

Louis nodded, his throat suddenly feeling tight.

Why did his stomach hurt, to hear Harry say it like that? They were friends, and that was that. It was only the truth.

“Can I still sleep with you,” Louis said, and his words became stuck and grabbled in his throat. If I want to. If I need to, “ -- if I have nightmares?”

“Sure,” Harry said softly, “Sure, that’s fine.”

“Okay,” Louis nodded, and smiled to himself as he did, “Okay.”

*******

Louis kept finding his way next to Harry in the middle of the night.

It didn’t mean anything aside from the fact Louis was still exhausted nearly every night, and he couldn’t find a solution to sleep that wasn’t tucking himself into the mattress next to a solid, alpha body.

He didn’t invite Harry into his bed again, at least not for the time being. Instead, he stayed up in his own empty bed, surrounded in the increasingly chaotic pieces of his nest, and sipped his tea and read a book. And then when he still wasn’t calmed by his drink or the words that were blurring together, he slipped down the hallway, knocked carefully on Harry’s door, and waited to be let in.

The first few nights, it took Harry a few minutes to get up, get dressed, and answer the door so he could let Louis in with a tight but gentle smile. Louis would tuck himself into the smoothed down, untouched side of the bed, and Harry settled back into his own crease in the mattress, and they fell back asleep with an ocean of cool sheets between them. Every time, Louis woke up in a bed alone, and he promised Harry over breakfast he would try again the next night to sleep on his own. And then hours later he would end up knocking on the guest room door again.

After a week, Harry stopped getting up to answer the door. Instead, Louis could slip easily in on his own and slid into bed without asking, next to a still-slumbering Harry who had quietly started to wear drawers to bed.

It had started to matter less to Louis that the man on the other side of the bed fancied him, then or now, when he couldn’t. Harry didn’t even speak most nights, and certainly didn’t touch him, just existed beside Louis, warming the bed and calming him down.

It wasn’t until Louis slipped in next to Harry for the tenth time in a row, his body heavy with exhaustion, that Harry spoke to him, his voice a weary grumble.

“You can’t keep slipping in,” Harry sighed, “My rut’s soon.”

“Oh,” Louis said. He had slipped his legs under the sheets, but didn’t lay down, instead just sitting up, looking down at Harry, “I forgot.”

“It’s fine,” Harry said. His body shifted as he spoke, trying to settle, “I just figured you should know, so it doesn’t…upset you or anything.”

“It won’t,” Louis said. He sniffed the air a bit, trying to pick up a difference in Harry’s scent. Maybe it was a bit stronger, a bit sharper, if he really focused in.

“I won’t hurt you, if you keep coming,” Harry added, his voice softer, “I promise. It just might…be a bit strange for you to be around me during all of that.”

“Okay,” Louis nodded.

He paused, and Harry’s face relaxed, like he was just starting to slip away fully.

And then Louis reached out and shook his shoulder, making Harry pop out one eyes.

“What?” he mumbled.

“Will you leave again?” Louis asked, “Like you did last time?”

He was met with a gentle, slow blinking, and then Harry lifted his head, his wilted curls tangled and ensnaring his temples as he looked at Louis.

“I think I might.”

“You don’t have to!” Louis blurted out, “You can just stay in your room, and I can cook for you, and make sure you get everything you need, like you did for me – “

“Louis,” Harry cut in, “That’s kind of you. But I think it’s best if I just go for a few days.”

“Oh,” Louis said. He looked down, wriggled his toes under the sheet to watch them jump, “Okay.”

“Will you be okay on your own?”

“Yes,” Louis said, “Maybe I can visit someone if it gets lonely,”

“Okay,” Harry smiled, “I’m going to go out of town again, get a hotel.”

“Will you be meeting anyone?”

“Not this time, I don’t think,” he shook his head, “I didn’t have much fun last time, anyways.”

He gave Louis a wane smile, and Louis offered one back.

“Harry?” he asked softly, and Harry smiled at him easily.

“Yeah?”

“Is it hard?” he asked, “Not having a mate?”

“You mean during my ruts?”

“No. I mean, yes, but…in general? Is it hard?”

Harry’s face creased a bit, but his smile remained as he shook his head.

“I think it would be harder if I knew what it was like to have one,” he said, “Like how you miss Alex. I can’t miss something when I don’t know what it’s like.”

Louis frowned at that, and reached forward. He slipped his fingers into Harry’s hair, tugging at the knots, and Harry blinked at him, his expression misting in confusion.

“But you’re still sad,” Louis murmured.

“No I’m not.”

“I know what Alex looks like when he’s sad and not telling me,” Louis said, “So I know what you look like when you’re sad, too.”

Harry chuckled weakly, shaking his head, which only trapped Louis’s fingers more into his curls.

“You’ve got me there.”

“Maybe when Alex gets back, I could introduce to some of my friends. Or, maybe not my friends, most of them are mated, but some of them have siblings, or – “

“Louis,” Harry cut in, “I don’t need a mate. It’s okay.”

“Everyone needs a mate.”

“Maybe I don’t, you never know.”

“But you want one,” Louis said gently.

Harry just stared at him, and then pulled away, disconnecting Louis’s fingers and leaving his hair even more of a mess than before.

“Good night, Louis,” he said softly. He turned over, and tucked himself into his blanket, and Louis just looked at him, a lump in the sheets.

“Are you angry with me?” he whispered.

“No,” Harry sighed, “Never. I’m just tired.”

Louis nodded, his lip still quivering a bit.

I’m sorry, he wanted to say, if I ruined it for you. If you think you can’t have a mate because you had to go and fancy me. I’m sorry.

He couldn’t though. His tongue wouldn’t work even if he wanted it to.

Instead, he finally slid under the covers, and turned over, so for once, he was looking over to Harry’s side, at the strong, pale expense of his back, dotted in moles and freckles. Less than Alex’s, but with the same deep, dark mole at the base of his neck, the same pale white, baby-soft hair on his shoulders.

Slowly, Louis untucked his hand from his side, and reached out, across the untouched expanse of sheets, and pressed his fingertips to Harry’s back.

He felt the alpha’s spine stiffen a bit, his breath hard, and Louis’s own breath caught as he watched, waited.

And then Harry’s whole body released, his side lowering as he exhaled, his muscles unspooling as Louis’s palm remained on his back.

Louis closed his eyes, and his hand remained where it was, careful and light, like he was holding his fingers out to a flickering flame.

*******

Harry was being quiet.

He had gotten back from his rut in a hotel out of town a week ago, and he was still letting Louis come into his room nearly every night, made him breakfast in the morning and dinner in the evening, smiled and accepted a kiss on the cheek when Louis stopped by with lunch and a pastry at the office. He sat at the kitchen table to grade his papers, and Louis took to sitting across from him, occasionally nudging his latest book club assignment under Harry’s nose so he could look at how horrible it was. He always laughed, and then would get up to put the kettle on.

But he was still being quiet.

He was keeping the radio on a lot, and Louis would come into the kitchen or living room to see him eagerly leaned over the machine, listening carefully. Or he could find days-old newspapers on Harry’s nightstands, the pages flipped out to war headlines.

Louis knew he was worried about Alex. He was too, of course. He never stopped being worried. But lately it was nothing but bad news, encroaching troops in France, and always in cities that Alex would write about in his latest letters. There was talk of war planes and bombings and evacuations in London already, and still recruitment numbers were swelling, a mounting conflict promising opportunities and money for any young, unmated alphas.

Alex’s letters were still steadying, to both of them, and he always told Louis not to worry, that he loved him, that maybe he could finally get that phone call he had been asking for. He asked about the weather and the flowers in Louis’s window boxes and things that meant nothing, and Louis gave him answers to all of them, omitting any questions that begged Alex to just tell him if he thought was going to live.

Lately, Harry didn’t even read his letters at the kitchen table like he normally did. He took them to the guest room and then only emerged to cook supper a little while later. Louis wanted to ask what was in them, but part of him knew it was nearly the same thing in his own letters – nothing reassurances and nothing questions while everything was going wrong.

Another round of letters had come in one afternoon – everything is fine, darling, don’t worry, we’re making progress, most of the reports mean nothing anyways, I love you – making Harry quietly go to his room and then go back as soon as dinner was over. Louis let him, his chest aching a bit, and then slipped into his own room and drew himself a hot bath. He sat there for too long, and read his own letter a few times over, and let the radio play nothing but music for once.

When he got out, his skin hot and pink, he took too long to sit on the counter, playing with the sash of his own robe, rubbing Vaseline onto his chapped knuckles until the radio switched to news once more and he reached over to turn it off. He pulled himself out of the bathroom, and went to the draw to get his slip for the night.

He was tugging the dove grey silk over his head and fitting it around his legs when he heard the soft knock at his door.

He hurried over quickly, and opened the door with his mouth already open, prepared to ask what Harry needed. But he closed his mouth was the door was open, the other man just looking back at him carefully, his eyes a little dark and his mouth a careful, fragile smile. He was already in his bed attire – a pair of black pants around his hips, the rest of his body bare.

“Hi,” he said, “Um – I’m sorry, but – I was wondering if I could sleep in here again.”

“Oh,” Louis got out, “Um, sure.”

“You don’t have to say yes,” Harry said, “I just – I don’t know what it is, I just can’t settle in my own bed tonight.”

“That’s okay,” Louis said, “Here, come in.”

Harry nodded, and slowly slid into the room, just watching Louis. The omega went to the bed first, pulling up the quilt on what had become his normal side, and slowly letting Harry come in as well. But the alpha didn’t lay down. Instead, he stayed sat up, with his knees draw to his chest and his arms wrapped around the small hill his legs made under the covers. Louis just looked at him, and frowned, lifting a hand to reach out.

“Is everything alright?” he asked.

Harry as silent for a moment, and Louis’s hand reached out further, prepared to touch his hair, or his shoulder, or anything, if just for a quick moment.

And then Harry spoke up.

“How much has Alex told you about how we grew up?”

“Oh,” Louis said, blinking at Harry and frowning as he picked at the comforter.

Louis didn’t know Alex and Harry’s family well. He only saw their parents for Christmas and occasionally Easter and Alex’s birthday. He had taken to their mum right away; she was warm and sweet, tall and willowy and with the same pale skin and eyes and dark hair as Alex and Harry. She always held Louis’s hands and smiled when he came over, insisted on cleaning up by herself even when Louis offered to help, and always kissing Alex twice on the cheek and asking him to come over again as soon as he could.

But Louis hadn’t liked their father when he was first met him, a week after he and Alex had gotten mated. He looked nothing like the twins; he was short, pale, and always glaring, his voice rough and sharp. He talked constantly when they were over for dinner, his voice rising above Alex’s every time he tried to open his mouth, enough to make Alex grip Louis’s hand, his shoulders wilting.

But he never wanted to talk about it directly. He would only shrug when Louis asked him.

“My father is very traditional,” he said, “And we never got along. Harry got the worst of it, though.”

Louis never managed to get anything else out of him, and after a few years, he stopped asking, and instead just smiling and getting through their rare dinners.

Now, Harry was staring forward, not looking at him, and Louis started to wonder once more what exactly “the worst of it” was.

“Only a little. I know you don’t like your dad,” he said. Harry laughed weakly, shaking his head.

“Our father is a rat bastard,” he said.

The words just hung in the air, and Harry folded over his knees, shaking his head.

“He hates me,” he said, “He always hated, me, I think. Even when I was a kid. All I can remember about him, as earliest as I can remember, is him at glaring at me, or paying attention to Alex, or – “

He shook his head, lifting his hands to drag them through his curls

“I don’t remember when he – god, shit, okay,” he said, his voice shaking a bit, “He thought I was an omega. My whole life, he thought I was going to be an omega.”

Louis just stared at him, blinking.

“What?”

Harry lifted his head and looked at him.

“Just that. He – I guess I wasn’t enough of an alpha as a kid, for him at least. He wanted alpha kids, he always told us he did. That having anything else was the worst thing he could imagine, especially an omega son instead. Because of tradition, or his own pride, or – fuck, I never knew why he hated the idea of it so much. But apparently I was too sensitive, or not tough enough for him, so he thought I was an omega. And he – “

He swallowed weakly, and Louis just stared, his breath feeling imprisoned in his own chest.

“ – he punished me for it,” Harry eventually said, “He would yell at me, and slap me, and tell me I couldn’t eat, that I needed to be more quiet, take up less space. He – “

The quiet pressed hard on Louis’s shoulders and chest, and he wanted so badly to reach out and touch Harry’s face, his neck, his hair, but his hands stayed frozen.

“Um,” Harry said, “My back, and my hips – they’re fucked up because he used to push me down the stairs. A lot, actually. And they broke and healed over too many times to be straight. I’m never going to walk or run again without it hurting a little bit. I try my best to keep moving, but, it’s still there.”

He shook his head again, and then, he took a deep, shuddering breath, and Louis saw water in his eyes, sparkling and bright in the dark.

“That’s why Alex went for me. Because I broke my fucking hips when I was ten years old and it ruined me. But he watched, and he didn’t say anything, because he was a fucking kid, we both were. And then I left home and didn’t talk for him for three years and just left him to deal with all of that bullshit on his own, and now he can’t forgive himself, and it’s all – “

Louis didn’t wait. His entire body uncoiled, all the resistance unfurling for him to leap forward, and toss his arms around Harry’s strong, shuddering shoulders. The alpha gasped weakly, and Louis pressed his face to Harry’s neck, his fingers dragging on Harry’s skin.

“Harry,” he said, “Harry, please, breathe.”

Harry hiccuped weakly, and then curled up tightly on himself, and then titled towards Louis, letting the smaller man wrap his arms round him and press his face tighter to his shoulder, nuzzling him until he calmed.

Louis was scenting him, he realized. Rubbing his skin on Harry’s, his pheromones raging as he tried to calm him down and bring him back down.

He had heard of omegas who scented alphas that weren’t there own, in emergencies, and he almost heard positive stories from it. Omegas being hurt by the same alphas they wanted to help, or disowned by their own.

And yet, he felt his belly settle and calm as he touched Harry, as the alpha held him and sobbed, his quivering lips in Louis’s hair.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, “I’m so sorry it all had to end up like this, and that he had to go, and now – shit, what if he doesn’t come home, what if you lose him -- ”

“He is going to come home,” Louis cut in, “Harry, stop it.”

“You should be furious with me,” Harry said, his voice rough and thick, “Why aren’t you?”

“I was mad at you months ago, I’m fucking over it. It’s okay. You’re okay.”

Louis pressed the scent of his neck to Harry’s shoulder, trying to rub more of his smell into the alpha’s skin. Harry groaned weakly, and Louis gripped hard onto his back.

“Harry, lay down,” he murmured, “Lay down with me.”

Harry nodded, and slowly, he lowered himself down, onto the mattress next to Louis. Louis followed him, pressed a hand to his back. He slowly shifted over, settled his head to rest of Harry’s chest, and kept his fingers gripped hard at Harry’s sides. Harry’s own hands clung to Louis’s back, his hair, and Louis could only murmur to him as careful as he could.

“You are alright,” he said, “It’s over, it’s all over. You’re safe now.”

Harry hiccuped weakly, and Louis pet his back, running his fingers down his spine carefully and trying not to wince as the soft ridge of scar tissue he could feel from where the skin had split open too many times.

“I am going to take care of you,” Louis said firmly, “Just let me take care of you.”

More breath shuddered against Louis’s shoulder, and Harry’s body still shook, but quieter now, his body nearly run out of energy. He still held Louis tight, his nose pressed tightly to Harry’s chest, his smell entering every part of his brain. He had never been held like this. Alex liked to hold him back to front, still tightly, still carefully, with the same arms, the same touch.

“It’s okay,” Louis said once more, “Shh. Shh.”

Harry nodded, then gripped hard onto Louis’s back, rubbing his face into the omega’s hair, whispering into the crown of his head.

“Thank you for letting me stay,” he murmured.

Louis’s throat felt thick, and he just held onto Harry tightly, letting their legs slot, his arms tight around the alpha’s back and waist. He didn’t answer, just held on, and slowly, he heard Harry’s breaths slow and even, felt his body relax.

He would be asleep soon. And even when he slipped away, Louis held onto him tightly, his skin touching every part of Harry’s, like his cells themselves were trying to remember the feeling.

*******

Harry came into Louis’s bed every night for a month, quietly and unannounced.

Louis would hear his footsteps on the barrier outside, the creaking of the wood, and he would softly call, “It’s okay” and wait for Harry to open the door and appear.

Every time, Harry smiled at him, lifting the sheets carefully. Sometimes he reached for Louis immediately, and Louis let him hold him to his chest. Other times he stayed to the edge of the mattress with his back turned to Louis entirely. Or turned to face Louis but kept his distance still.

But he was in Louis’s bed.

They didn’t talk about it much anymore. In the morning, Harry would shrug and smile, still in the sheets next to Louis, not daring to move until Louis was ready.

“I couldn’t sleep,” he would say, or “I missed you” or no excuse at all.

Louis couldn’t ask if to leave. And he wasn’t sure he had any reason to, either. He was used to the new smell on his sheets, the shape in his bed, the odd feeling that settled tightly in his ribs. It had been five years since he had gotten to know another person like this, closely, perfectly, both of them lying next to each other like raw nerves content to just touch and lay and exist.

Summer came, oppressively hot, and Harry whined about having to go to work after he had grown so used to his teacher’s summer holidays. Louis laughed and made him lemonade and asked to go to the park for walks. And in the evenings, he settled his head into Harry’s lap, and Harry settled into his bed, and they woke in time with each other.

May was starting to fade, the heat and humidity of June coming in, when Louis woke up to emptiness next to him.

The sheets were blazing with body heat and Harry’s smell, and he whined weakly, reaching out to touch the spot next to him. Harry must have just left. He should be close.

He pulled himself up and out of bed, and went to grab his robe from the floor. He rubbed his eyes as he drifted out of the bedroom and through the living room, past the lace curtains floating over the carpet, moved by the slightly wind. The radio was on, soft, and he tilted his head, trying to find the source. He kept walking, pushing his toes into the carpet, pulling his robe tighter around himself.

The sound got louder, and then he was standing in front of his balcony door, staring through the slats outside. He could see the slope of Harry’s shoulder, the back of his head, the base of his neck. Hazy cigarette smoke, his bare feet on the balcony floor, a glass beer bottle next to them.

Louis pushed open the door slowly, and Harry glanced behind him briefly, smiling. He didn’t say hello, just tucked his cigarette back into his mouth, the tip glowing red as he inhaled. He had the radio balanced on the ledge, next to the ashtray. The thing was spitting static in between a rerun of an earlier news report, words Louis only caught pieces of.

“…German troops have moved steadily through to the border of France, attempting to break into the English Channel and onto the British Isle…”

“Hi,” Louis murmured softly as he came closer to the ledge. Harry looked at him, fag still caught in his mouth, and smiled as he pulled it out.

“Hello,” he said softly, smoke streaming from his lips. Louis blinked at the movement, at the way his mouth puckered, how it looked nearly red in the early dark.

“…Prime Minister Churchill remains determined at this time to reject peace talks in attempt to ease the current situation…”

“Can I have one?” Louis asked, motioning to the burning thing stuck between Harry’s long fingers. He pulled his robe tighter to his chest, worrying the thin fabric between the tips of his fingers.

“Of course.”

Harry reached into his pocket to pull out his pack, and then slid it open, found one inside. Louis took it from him, their fingers touching, and Harry smiled as he lifted up his pack of matches.

“Can’t sleep?” he asked, striking the rubber and wood on the paper strip. Orange blazed on the end of the match, and Louis blinked at the way the light sparked against Harry’s eyes as he moved forward.

“No,” Louis mumbled around his cigarette, pressing his lips harder together as Harry pressed the flame to the end. He closed his eyes, inhaled, let the smoke burn his throat and mouth and then stream out in a slow line from his lips before he plucked it out of his mouth again.

“I can come in in a second,” Harry said.

“That’d be nice,” Louis nodded.

“…it remains unknown what will come of the thousands of British and French troops still stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk as Churchill undergoes continued talks…”

“Can I come closer?” Louis blurted out, “I’m a little cold.”

“Yeah,” Harry shrugged, “Sure, come here.”

Louis smiled softly and shifted a little closer, until he could smell Harry sharply, dark chocolate and musk right alongside the smoke. He could nearly feel Harry’s warmth radiating off of him, cutting through the early summer chill. Harry lifted his arm easily, and Louis came even closer, until he was tucked into Harry’s side, right against the thin cotton that covered his chest. He could feel the movement of Harry’s ribs, the beat of his heart, could smell all of him, enough to make him dizzy.

Harry’s arm locked around Louis’s shoulders, again, so easily, the weight of it strong and familiar. Louis had felt his arm on his shoulders for years. Except he hadn’t. It was familiar, everything he knew, and yet he could nearly feel every vein and muscle and callous that was new and different. It made his heart beat at the same moment it made his eyes feel heavy and ready for sleep.

He tilted his head, pressing it closer to Harry’s shoulder, and the alpha’s chest moved a bit, a laugh. Louis smiled to himself, pushing the cigarette he no longer had interest in against his mouth, forcing himself to inhale.

He felt heavy, and sleepy, and safe, swimming in the humidity and the static of the radio and a scent that was all over his house, his bed, his body.

And for a moment, he could see clearly imagine a pair of pink lips coming down to kiss the top of his head, a hand coming down to touch his waist, his hip. And even if they looked the same, he knew, in his mind, that those were not Alex’s lips, not his hands. They were the hands touching his shoulder now, the smiling lips he could see now wrapped in the burning end of a fag. 

Louis glanced up at Harry, and the movement of him lifting his head made Harry look back. He smiled, his lips wet and dark, his eyes big and sparking.

Deep in Louis’s chest, he felt a lurch of something, and he just blinked up at Harry, with his soft, careful smile, and tried to quiet the voice in his head saying.

Him.

 

Him, too.

*******

It was a day in early summer when the apartment phone rang again.

Harry was at work, and Louis had just delivered him a tart and a sandwich, and told him that he was going to pick up fish for dinner if he could find it. He had paper packages from the butcher and a fresh bag of potatoes on the counter, and he was at the counter, trimming a few flower stems with a pair of gardening scissors. It was bright and sunny, all the windows opened wide, and he had put on a pale blue cotton dressing gown, one that didn’t restrict his arms and kept his skin cool despite the warm sunshine coming in. He hummed quietly, and opened up a bottle of cola for himself once the flowers were done and put into a vase of water. Later, he would make lunch, sweep the floors, and then settle in with a book or another knitting project he would never finish, the plans for the afternoon already falling into place.

The phone rang, and he jumped, finishing his drink quickly. He wandered over to the phone, picking it up and balancing it between his ear and shoulder.

“Hello?” he sighed, leaning his head against the wall. He picked at the chord, pulling it between his fingers absentmindedly.

There was a crackle, a long sigh on the other end, and then.

“Doll?”

Louis’s body jolted, and he stopped playing with the chord, instead letting it grow tight around his fingers as he listened to a voice he hadn’t heard in ten months.

“Alex?”

“Oh, baby,” Alex sighed, “Baby, baby.”

“Alex,” Louis said, “What – how are you calling? Is everything okay?”

“I – Louis,” Alex sobbed out, “Baby, your voice. It sounds so good. God, darling, I miss you.”

“I miss you too but is everything okay? You’re scaring me.”

“God – everything is going to be fine, precious. Everything is fine,” Alex said, “I’m in Southampton right now, baby doll.”

“Southampton?” Louis said. He released the phone from his shoulder, and instead held it tightly in one hand, his other hand pressed hard to his chest, “What the hell are you doing there?”

“I…we had an evacuation. Precious, I can’t talk long, I – “

The line crackled, and Louis inhaled sharply.

“Is Harry there?”

“No, he’s – he’s working.”

“Right. Of course. It’s – of course. Listen, darling, do you have a pen? I want you to write something down.”

“Of course, of course,” Louis said, twisting around. He searched for the journal and the pencil he kept next to the phone, and then picked it up, pressing the paper to the wall with the side of his hand as he moved the phone to his shoulder again, “I have something, darling, what’s happening?”

“Okay, good. Listen, I’m going to be home tomorrow. I have a train this evening out of here, it should be at the station by noon.”

“Noon? Tomorrow?” Louis voice’s shook as much as his hand as he struggled to write it down.

“Yes, baby. I’ll explain when I see you. But please come then, okay? I’ll call later if I can find another phone. I love – “

The phone cut off sharply, leaving Louis to just stare at the wall blankly, the phone still blinking in his ear.

He hadn’t written anything down. Not Alex’s name, not a day or a time for a train to come into the station tomorrow. He closed his fist, crumbling up the paper underneath his fingers, and then let go of the phone, letting it dangle by the cord down the wall.

He thought of Alex, coming off a train, safe and unscathed. He thought of Harry’s still, warm body. He thought of the sparks in his belly when Harry gripped his hip briefly to pass him in the kitchen, and the warmth in his blood when he was able to button himself in Alex’s shirt and settle under the covers.

He thought of a body next to him in bed, on the right, on the left, the same shape, the same voice drifting to him from either side in the darkness, sending a thrill through his bones.

He heard his own terrible, treacherous heart beating in his chest, loud in his ears.

He wanted Alex home. He wanted him now, this instant, wanted the train out of the equation so he could just have Alex immediately. But there was part of him twisting his insides, whispering why now, why now, I needed more time.

With a shaking hand, Louis picked up the phone again, and swirled the dial to get to another number.

He listened to the dial, and then a chipper, high voice.

“Davidson Petrol Distributors.”

“Hello, Betty,” Louis sighed, trying to keep his voice steady as he recognized the voice on the other side of the phone, “It’s Louis. Can I speak to Alex, please?”

“Yes, of course!” Betty answered, far too happy, “Let me fetch him for you, alright?”

“Thank you,” Louis got out, and then waited, listening to the silence until the line clicked and Harry’s voice came in.

“Hi, darling,” he said, and Christ, Louis wanted to fucking cry.

Harry said that every time he answered Louis’s call at work, because that’s what Alex said, and it was the only reason he ever said it. But not now, why just he saw it now, when Louis’s stomach was a mess and his heart was beating too much and feeling too much.

It took too long for Louis to realize he wasn’t speaking, just breathing hard into the receiver.

“Louis?” Harry asked, “What’s wrong? Did something happen?”

Louis swallowed, licked his lips.

“Alex,” he got out.

“Oh, Jesus,” Harry murmured, his voice lowering, “Oh, fuck. Did you hear something? What happened?”

“I – yes,” Louis said, “He called me.”

“He called you?”

“Yes, ah – “ Louis’s throat stuck, like the words were caught in tar, and he leaned hard against the wall. The sun was still bright and cherry, and he could smell flowers, but there was sweat coating the back of his robe, and he had to close his eyes and grip the phone hard as he spoke to a man he had no idea how he was supposed to feel about anymore.

“Harry, he’s coming home.”

Chapter Text

Alex woke up when he heard steam hissing.

The train only hissed like that when it was coming to a stop, and it hadn’t stopped for quite some time. The ride was a straight shot from the southern cities up to the North, and it had only stopped at the beginning of the trip to pick up a few final passengers. He had fallen asleep somewhere in the middle of an endless strip of green grass in the middle of the country.

He opened his eyes and sat up, glancing around the cabin. It was a fairly full train, packed with people taking day trips, dressed in light summer jackets and drinking tea or eating sandwiches in their compartments. They were actually talking, and laughing. It wasn’t the same as the train that had taken him and the other privates out of the army port, when the whole car had smelled like salt water and oil and mud and no one had slept well.

Now, the only thing he had left with him from that ride was his pack, which had his uniform folded up inside it alongside the last of the five-pound bills the army sectaries had passed out along with discharge notices. He had used the rest of his final wages to buy a night in a hotel, a new shirt and trousers, and then a final train ticket home, so he could just try and forget the last ten months.

Slowly, Alex squinted and turned his eyes out to the station. His chest tightened, and he breathed out as slowly as he could.

It was his train station, in his town. It was the same place he went when he took business trips out of town, or took Louis when they had plans for a weekend away. He knew every bit of that station, from the benches to the little cart outside that sold lemonade and paper boxes of popcorn in the summertime.

He was home.

And right there in the middle of the station, he could see Louis and his brother.

He pressed his entire body to the window, lifting his eyes to look at them. He could see his Harry, dressed in Alex’s civilian clothes, his stubble and hair a little grown out.

But he couldn’t even look long, because Louis was right there, dressed in a pale blue shirt and gold-tipped red braces and his favorite shoes, gazing up at the train and bouncing on his toes. Alex pressed his fingers to the glass, tracing over where he saw Louis’s body through the window, then got onto his feet, lifting his chin and straining to look at him.

He started patting the glass, not quite able to will to his fingers to move up and pull on the window to lower it. The window rattled under his hands, loudly, and he saw Louis looking at the train, his eyes scanning…and then finally he was looking at Alex.

The omega’s eyes widened, and Alex felt his chest release as he pounded at the glass. He grinned, his eyes pricking with hot wet, and Louis just stared after him, his hands pressed to his chest, Harry holding onto his arm behind him.

When the train lurched and hissed to a stop, Alex rushed to the hall of the train, towards the nearest door. A few people glared at him, but then they saw the soldier’s pack still slung over his shoulder, and they sighed and let him through.

He rushed out of the door and down the train steps, and only stopped when he was finally on the platform. Louis and Harry were only a few yards away from him, and they were both looking at him now.

Alex walked to them slowly, trying to keep his steps steady, even though he just wanted to break into a sprint and embrace Louis immediately, kiss him and lick over his bond mark and cry and scream. He could do that when they got home, and they could stop pretending. But now, he walked carefully, until he was right in front of Louis, who was looking up at him, his body quaking, his eyes wide.

“Hi,” Alex stuttered out.

“Hi,” Louis breathed out, blinking at him.

God, Alex wanted to touch him. But if he touched him then he would have to kiss him, and then spin him around, and he would never let go. They had to get through this.

“I missed you,” Alex whispered softly, and Louis shook his head, his eyes going wet. He lifted a hand and wiped his eyes and nodded, hiccupping weakly.

“Precious,” Alex whispered even more quietly, “Please don’t cry. I’m here. I’m here, it’s all okay now.”

Louis nodded, his face still red and his eyes still wet, and he smiled up at Alex, even if his expression was frail.

“I missed you too,” he got out, his voice thick. He turned away, lifting his hand to wipe at his face, and Alex watched him until Louis lifted his head again, his eyes still red but dry now.

Alex gave him a final look, and then looked at his brother, who was just watching the two of them.

“There you are, you fucking asshole,” Alex murmured, and Harry laughed and held his arms out, ushering Alex into a hug.

“Hey,” Harry laughed into his shoulder, “I’m glad you’re back.”

“Me too,” Alex said, “Me fucking too.”

Harry patted his back, and Alex held him for a second longer, and then whispered to him carefully.

“Thank you for taking care of him.”

Harry paused, and then patted Alex’s back again.

“Of course.”

Alex pulled back, giving Harry a nod and a smile, and then turned back to his omega, who was still watching them, his whole body curled and tight. Alex held a hand out to him, ushering him to come closer, until finally, Alex fit his arm around Louis’s slender shoulders.

“Come on,” Alex said, “Time to go home.”

*******

Alex kissed Louis as soon as they were in the car.

Harry was driving them, his eyes occasionally flicking to the rearview mirror, but Alex couldn’t even process that he was there too. Louis was right in front of him, under his touch, his skin soft and sweet smelling and his body lovely and ample, and he just wanted to keep touching and kissing him.

“Alex,” Louis laughed, whispering sharply as Alex held onto his hips and kissed him, pressing the omega into the car door, “Alpha – “

“I’m sorry,” Alex got out, pulling away, “Am I scaring you? Are you okay?”

“No, no! I’m fine,” Louis breathed out, “It’s just been awhile.”

“I’m sorry, precious,” Alex sighed, “But I’m back, now. I’m not going again. We can catch up.”

Louis nodded, smiling.

“Okay.”

“Tell me all about what you were up to,” Alex smiled, “What I missed.”

“Do you really care to hear all of that now?” Louis laughed, lifting his hands and threading his fingers into Alex’s hair. It made the alpha laugh.

“You’re very smart, aren’t you,” he chuckled, and then dove in for another kiss, making Louis squeak.

“Please don’t make my first niece or nephew right in front of me,” Harry sighed from the front seat, “Wait five minutes.”

“I just got home from a war,” Alex huffed, lifting his head a bit so he could turn towards Harry.

“You’ve been out of there for three days by now.”

“You’re a fucking prick.”

“Baby,” Louis said weakly, tugging on Alex’s hair. He sighed and turned back to Louis, smiling carefully.

“Sorry, sorry,” he murmured, and then kissed Louis hard again. The omega sighed against his mouth, and then squirmed, shifting his body.

“Maybe we should wait…” he murmured, and turned his head, glancing to the front of the car.

“It’s okay. We can still kiss. Don’t pay him any mind,” Alex murmured, trying to chase Louis’s mouth again, but the omega kept squirming, “Do you need a rest?”

“I think – “ Louis gasped out, and Alex pet his cheek gently.

“Okay, that’s alright, sweetheart,” he said, “I’m so happy to be here with you. I’ll do anything you want.”

Louis smiled again at that, and then opened his mouth again, his lips just puckering into another word when Harry pulled to a stop.

“Okay, we’re here,” Harry said as the car’s ignition cut off, “You love birds can head out now.”

“Oh,” Louis said weakly, blinking around the cab of the car, “I didn’t realize.”

“You were occupied most of the ride,” Harry laughed from the front seat.

Alex sat up, smoothing down his shirt and reaching for the car door. He pulled himself out, and then went around, opening the door for Louis and helping him out, bracing his shoulders and waist as he emerged out into the sun. Harry was at the boot, getting out Alex’s pack, which he handed off with a tight smile.

“Well, I suppose this is where I go,” Harry said, “I’ll drop your clothes off later this week.”

He gestured to his attire as he said it, and Alex nodded.

“Do you want a ride home?” Alex asked as he hitched a thumb towards the car.

“No, I can just walk. It’s a nice day,” Harry shrugged, “You two enjoy your time.”

“Alright. Thank you,” Alex said, and Harry went to shrug again, but Alex came forward and gave him another hug, making Harry laugh weakly in surprise.

“Thank you for everything,” he repeated again, and Harry nodded against his shoulder, patting him on the back.

“I should thank you,” Harry said, and Alex shook his head.

“I was happy to do it,” Alex said, “I really was.”

Harry was quiet, and Alex finally pulled away again, patting him on the shoulder one more time before he went back over to Louis, taking the omega’s hand.

“Come on, darling,” he murmured, and Louis nodded and then looked behind them.

“Come by some time, okay?” Louis called to Harry, “Come for dinner.”

“I’m sure Harry has had plenty of our house lately,” Alex chuckled, at the same time Harry softly said “I will.”

Louis nodded, but Alex couldn’t be sure which one of them he was nodding to.

Harry took off back down the sidewalk, and Harry gripped onto Louis’s hand, finally savoring the feeling of Louis’s palm against his own, his short fingers laced tightly with his own. The omegas’s gaze was still lingering behind them, to where Harry had gone, and Alex tugged on his hand.

“I’m sure he remembers his way home,” Alex said.

“I know,” Louis said, “Just looking.”

“My sweet boy. Worries about everyone,” Alex sighed, then tugged Louis into the entrance of their building, “Come on. I need you all to myself again.”

Louis smiled gently, and then nodded, falling in step beside him.

Alex climbed the stairs quickly, Louis laughing next to him as he followed Alex up the stairs and to their floor. Louis had to dig his key out from his handbag, and Alex held onto his hips, kissing the back of his neck.

“Alpha,” Louis gasped weakly, wriggling under Alex’s touch. He laughed and kissed the omega’s neck hard, holding him against his chest as Louis wiggled the key in the lock.

“I’m just excited,” Alex grinned, and then reached out, engulfing Louis’s hand in his own, “Here.”

He helped to wiggle the key in the lock, twisting and finally undoing it. The door swung open, and Louis stumbled forward, Alex keeping a hand on his waist as he followed him.

The inside of the flat was clean and bright, with newly opened windows that let in the sun. The pillows on the sofas were fluffed up, Alex’s slippers were already next to his favorite chair, and the air smelled like sugar and fresh flowers.

“Oh, look at all this,” Alex cooed, setting down his pack in the mouth of the hallway. He took Louis’s face in his hands to kiss him, thumbing over his cheeks, “Has my little housewife been cleaning?”

“Yes,” Louis chuckled, “I cleaned the washroom, too, and our room. And I made biscuits.”

“Did Harry help?”

“A little.”

“I wondered why they didn’t smell burnt.”

Alex lifted a hand, and brushing it across Louis’s temple, pushing his hair back.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Alex sighed, “I’m so glad I’m home with you.”

“I’m glad you’re – “

“I thought of you every day I was there,” Alex said, his words rushing out before Louis could finish, “I know I told you, in my letters, but I wanted to tell you to your face. Your beautiful, beautiful face.”

Louis nodded, his eyes wetting.

“And I thought of you.”

“Let’s get married as soon as we can, okay?” Alex said. He fit his hands around Louis’s hips, squeezing them gently, “Let’s not wait any longer than we need to. I need you to be my wife.”

“I want that,” Louis said, his voice breathless, “God, do I want that.”

Alex nodded, and then gripped Louis’s waist tightly, lifting him and pressing him hard enough against the wall to make Louis gasp.

“We’ll get married, get a big house, have some pups, soon,” Alex breathed against Louis’s skin, raking his hands up his sides.

“Soon,” Louis smiled and blinked, his eyes clouding over, “I think I’d like that.”

“We’ll talk about it,” Alex smiled, “But now isn’t a time for that.”

He kissed Louis hard, and the omega whimpered under his mouth, lifting his arms to embrace him while Alex lifted his hips.

“Come on,” he said, “Let’s see how well you’ve cleaned our room.”

Louis tightened a bit, blinked.

“Oh,” he said, “It’s…it’s a little messy, actually.”

“Didn’t get that far?”

“No,” Louis said, “I’m sorry.”

“There’s my boy,” Alex chuckled, “Don’t worry, doll. I don’t mind.”

He loosened his grip from Louis’s sides and instead grabbed for his hand, pulling him down the hallway.

“The guest room is clean, though!” Louis stuttered as he pulled along, “Maybe we could go there instead.”

“Baby,” Alex laughed, “I’m not making love to you in our guest bedroom. Come on.”

He pulled Louis closed, pressing a kiss to his temple.

“You’re being shy, precious,” Alex said, “I wouldn’t expect that, not after the letters you sent me.”

Louis flushed and squirmed again, sighing as Alex led him closer to the door.

“What’s gotten into you?” he asked, “Oh, love, is it your nest? Do you need to go sort it out before I come in?”

“I – no, it’s all sorted,” Louis murmured.

“Okay, good,” Alex smiled, and brushed a hand over Louis’s shoulder.  He was still tight, but then again, it had been a little while. Louis had never been this shy before, but maybe it had just been long enough that he was rusty.

“It’s alright,” Alex whispered one more time, and pressed a kiss to his forehead.

“I love you,” Louis whispered as Alex opened the door.

“And I – “ Alex said as he opened the door, and then paused. He lifted his neck, staring into the entrance and frowning.

At first glance, he could tell that room was a little out of sorts. He could see more blankets and pillows on the bed, haphazard signs of Louis’s nest that had gotten tucked away before Alex came back. He could see a few of his own clothes spread out on the bed and the floor. None of that bothered him.

But it smelled…wrong.

That was what it was.

“Alex?” Louis murmured behind him, and Alex turned to look at him before looking back to the rest of the room.

“It…” Alex said, “Hold on.”

He came further into the room, and Louis didn’t move behind him, just stayed perfectly in place in the doorway.

Alex wandered into the door, glancing around and looking at the all the furniture, the open windows, the unmade bed. He kept to the perimeter of the room, squinting and walking. He inhaled sharply, his nose flaring as he picked up Louis’s own scent, but then under it was the same ever-present scent that had clung to the rest of the flat.

 “It smells like my brother,” he said finally.

“Well, he lived here,” Louis said weakly.

“But he’s…why is he here?” Alex said, flailing his arms around the room.

“The scent can carry,” Louis said, “You know that.”

“Yes, but – “ Alex paused, shaking his head. His skin felt too hot, and too tight. Surely he was wrong. Surely -- “I’m sorry, I just – I need to look a little longer.”

He wandered around a little longer, opening his drawers, the closet. He could smell Harry stronger then, but of course he had been in Alex’s clothes. He could smell Louis there too, because of course, Louis would have been picking up the clothes, cleaning them, folding them neatly back into the drawers until Harry needed them again.

“Did…” Alex said, staring into the drawer that held his fresh work shirts, still wrapped in paper ribbons, “Did Harry come in here at all? To get clothes?”

“Oh,” Louis said, “Um, maybe, yeah.”

“Okay,” Alex shook his head, “Christ, I told him not to come in here, fuck – “

He shook his head and shoved the drawer closed before took a long breath, trying to free the heat from his friend.

“Alpha?” Louis whispered, and Alex opened his eyes and glanced over to see Louis standing next to him, his eyes wide and unsure.

He exhaled slowly and smiled, reaching over to tuck his fingers under Louis’s chin.

“I’m okay,” he sighed, “I’m just upset. I told Harry to not come here, into our room – “

He gripped hard on Louis’s chin, hard enough to make Louis gasp. He dropped his hand immediately, and grabbed Louis’s hand, pulling him in.

“I hurt you.”

“No, you – “

“I did. I’m sorry,” Alex sighed, “Let’s just go to bed, okay? I’m imagining things. I’m tired.”

“It’s alright,” Louis said, “Here, let me sort out the bed for you, so we can lay down – “

“The bed’s fine, precious. Come,” Alex said. He reached out, holding Louis’s shoulders, and kissed him firmly, before he reached down to take his bed and tug him towards the bed. Louis squeezed his hand tightly as he walked, and Alex squeezed back before he arrived at the edge of their bed, and pulled back the sheets.

“Now – “ he started, and then froze.

His skin heated again, but this time, the heat raced through his entire body, making the hair on his arms prickle and the edges of his fingers and toes go completely numb.

He thought he could hear Louis’s voice, but he could only focus on sliding his hands over the sheets, scratching at the bed, pressing his nose into the blankets.

He could still smell Harry. He could smell Louis, too, but – this was Louis’s side of the bed, and he could smell Harry. It was a thick scent, covered slightly with Louis’s own, but still there, driven right into the fabric.

Harry. Harry’s smell. Right there in front of him.

“Louis,” Alex got out, turning slowly, “Why can I smell him on our bed?”

“I – “ Louis stuttered, but Alex had already started moving towards him. Louis squeaked, but Alex had reached out and started patting his arms, looking at his skin, trying to find any bruises, bites, scratches.

“Did he touch you?” he asked, “Did he hurt you?”

“No!” Louis gasped out, “He didn’t – of course he didn’t hurt me!”

“Then why can I smell him fucking everywhere?” Alex gasped out.

He swore he could smell it all now. In the fabric of the curtains, the headboard, in the walls themselves. It was Harry’s fucking scent. And it was stronger, now, encroaching on everything.

Harry in his room, in his bed, next to Louis --

“He was in our room,” Alex said, “I told him not to come in our room.”

“Alex – “

“Did he threaten you?” Alex said, his thoughts already racing ahead of him, “That was it, wasn’t it? He forced you to let him come inside. Or – or he came in when you were out. Fucking scented everywhere. Scented our fucking bed – “

“It’s not like that,” Louis said. He was crying now, and it just made Alex’s skin hotter.

“He hurt you,” he said. He was even more sure now of what had happened. He had left Louis alone, he thought he could trust Harry. He had been stupid and bad things had happened, “Baby, baby, you don’t have to lie to me. He hurt you, didn’t he.”

Louis sobbed, covering his hands with his face. Alex stared at him, and then gripped his arms tightly and growled, his entire body coiled up like a spring.

“I’m going to kill him,” he spit out, and Louis uncovered his face, his eyes wide and glassy.

“Alpha,” Louis choked out, “Alpha, don’t say that, you’re scaring me.”

“I’m going to kill him,” Alex repeated again. He dropped his hands from Louis’s arm, turning towards the door. His brain felt foggy, the scent hot and prickly inside his nose, “I’m going to fix this.”

He started walking towards the bedroom door, and he heard Louis running behind him, but he didn’t turn around until Louis grabbed his arm.

“Alex,” Louis said firmly, “What the hell are you doing?”

Alex just blinked at him, and then set his jaw.

“I’m fixing this,” he said firmly, his voice laced in a growl. “I’ll be back.”

He walked to the door again, grabbed his boots and shoving his feet into them on his way out the door. His vision was nearly white, his entire body screaming as he trudged to the door and threw it open.

Harry touched his omega. Harry hurt his omega. Harry. Fucking Harry. His fucking bastard brother Harry.

He tore into the hallway, and he thought he heard Louis behind him, running, calling out, his voice shrill and sobbing as Alex stormed back into the hallway, towards the door, in the direction that would take him back to his brother.

*******

Somehow, Alex managed to stumble his way into Harry’s building.

He had walked the entire way, the sun beating on his face and back, while Louis walked with him, tugging on his arms and shoulders, begging him to stop it and go home. But Alex couldn’t. His feet kept moving forward, his mind reeling too fast to think through anything other than that Harry had been to his room. Harry’s scent had mingled with Louis’s. Louis’s scent, their room, their bed – it was all full of Harry now. Harry could touch every part of his life but that.

And Alex had fucking thanked him for helping him.

He stormed up the steps to Harry’s building with Louis tugging hard to his arm.

“Alex, stop it,” he was shouting, yanking on Alex’s arm hard, “I mean it, stop it. We’re going home.”

Alex growled weakly, and Louis cursed.

“You fucking knothead, he didn’t do anything!” he shouted, and Alex thought he saw one of the doors down the hall slowly open enough for a neighbor to peek out, “Alex, talk to me, please.”

Alex shook his his arm, enough to make Louis drop his hands, and then he went to Harry’s door and banged hard on it, crossing his arms as he waited.

It didn’t take long.

Harry opened the door, and just looked at Alex with wide eyes, a few seconds before Alex swung his fist forward and punched him in the nose.

Harry stumbled back, holding his hand to his nose, and cursed loudly, already ducking down and holding up a hand.

“Jesus fuck – “ he got out, his voice thick, but Alex just grabbed his shirt, pushing hard to make Harry collapse onto the carpet behind him. The other man backed up, pushing him onto the living room floor that was only a foot away.

“Did you touch my fucking omega?” Alex hissed, “Did you?”

Harry looked up at him, his hand still over his face, as Alex came closer.

“I – “ he said. Alex came down onto the floor, and grabbed Harry’s shirt again, shaking him.

“Tell me!” he shouted, shaking him, “What the fuck did you do!”

“Alex,” Louis called out from behind him, “Alex, stop it!”

Alex looked over his shoulder and saw the other man behind him, panting and staring at the two of them. Harry looked in Louis’s direction at the same time, and Alex growled and pushed his brother’s head down.

“Louis, go into the hallway,” he said tightly.

“No!”

He whipped his head around, then, still held down Harry’s head.

“Louis, I said go to the hallway!”

“Don’t yell at him,” Harry said weakly.

Alex’s head snapped back to his brother, and he growled again, louder his time.

“Don’t tell me what to do!” Alex screamed, and grabbed Harry’s shirt once more and went back to shaking Harry, “What the fuck did you do? Did you fuck him? Did you force yourself on him?”

“I – “ Harry stuttered out, “I didn’t.”

“Don’t lie to me!” Alex shouted, “Then why can I smell your fucking scent all over our bed!”

“I – “

“Answer me!”

“I’m trying! Fuck me, God!” Harry snapped. He closed his eyes and shook his head, “I slept there, okay. I slept there.”

“You slept in my fucking bed,” Alex repeated.

“Yes,” Harry said, “It was my idea. I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry,” Alex said tightly, “You’re sorry for doing the one thing I asked you not to do.”

“Alex – “

Alex brought his fist back and swung it forward, nailing Harry in the face again. Harry groaned, and tipped his head back, the rest of his body jerking a bit. Blood had started to drip from one nostril.

“You’re sorry – you’re sorry for fucking what, Harry? For coming into my house, in my bed, and laying next to my fucking fiancé?”

He punched him again, then, his eyes blurring as Harry groaned under him. Alex heard Louis shout again behind him, and then felt the omega’s hands on his shoulder.

“Alpha. Stop,” Louis was crying now, his fingers limp on Alex’s shoulder. His vision burned raging white, and he turned, blinding reaching his hand out towards Louis.

“I told you to go in the hallway,” he said, and then felt his hand make contact with Louis’s chest. He blinked, and saw the omega fall to the floor, letting out a weak gasp before he turned his eyes forward, glaring.

“What’s wrong with you?” Louis shouted.

Alex opened his mouth, his hands loosening from Harry’s shirt as he prepared to leave and go over to Louis. But instead, he felt Harry’s hand reach up and yank his ear, pulling him back down again.

“Don’t touch him,” Harry growled weakly. Alex’s vision flashed again, and he pulled hard away from Harry. His ears were full of pounding blood, like he was underwater again in a riptide he could never escape. He grabbed his brother’s collar again, and leaned down, flashing his teeth.

“You do not tell me what to do. Not when you came into the bed where I mated my omega and rubbed your disgusting goddamn scent over everything. And for fucking what? Did you think I was going to just never come back? Were you waiting to fuck him?”

His lifted his hand, and then his fist kept flying to come down on Harry’s face. He heard snapping. He saw blood, bruises. Harry wasn’t opening his eyes. He could hear Louis in the distance, his voice high and weak.

“Why the fuck aren’t you fighting back? Don’t you have anything to fucking say to me?” Alex shouted, “I did everything for you! I fought in a war for you!”

“I didn’t ask you to do that!” Harry shouted, his body jerking. He spit, his mouth foaming red, and squinted at Alex through swollen eyes, “You forced it on yourself. I bet you wanted to do it, wanted the fucking glory of it. Because you’re fucking thick in the head.”

Alex growled, reaching down to yank hard on Harry’s hair. It was a childish move. It was something he did when they were five years old and play-fighting on the rug in their room that had stitched pictures of flowers and ducks on it. Harry would cry and shriek and Alex would always let go, always say he was sorry.

Now he just wanted to keep pulling, keep punching.

“I fucking hate you,” Alex said, “You always fuck everything up because you can’t keep your fucking cock in your pants. You were always like this.”

Harry grimaced, staring up at Alex through slit eyes. His nose looked dark and swollen, his eyes too, his face thoroughly bloodied. He spit again, the color lighter now.

“Thanks, Dad,” he rasped out.

Alex froze. He kept his hands in his brother’s hair, kept his gaze steady, as Harry just looked at him with his bruised, ruined face, his face tight as he looked up at him.

“Don’t tell me I’m him,” Alex said, “Don’t you dare, you fucking bastard.”

“You’re right,” Harry said, “At least you think I could’ve fucked someone.”

Alex tightened his jaw, and Harry shook his head.

“I didn’t,” Harry said, his voice weak, “I didn’t fuck him. I swear to God.”

 “I don’t believe you,” Alex said.

“That’s fine,” Harry said, “Maybe I deserve for you to think like that.”

Alex kept his mouth open, staring at Harry, until he heard soft footsteps behind him, and then hands on his shoulder once more.

“Stop it,” Louis whispered, pulling on Alex’s shoulder. He wasn’t crying anymore, but his voice was raspy and nearly gone, “Just stop it. That’s enough.”

Alex shook his head, still frozen and looking at Harry as he closed his eyes and let his head fall to the carpet, the fibers newly spackled in blood.

“Blame me,” Louis was saying, his breath choked in sobs, “Please, blame me, it’s my fault, it’s all my fault.”

Alex lifted his head, turning to Louis, but he stopped, unable to respond to what his omega had just said.

Because when he turned, Louis was paper white, and wobbling where he stood.

“Alex,” Louis choked out.

Alex stood immediately, and grabbed onto Louis, the other man’s body going weak in his arms.  His skin was feverish hot, and he could easily smell now that Louis’s scent was coming, thick and heavy.

“Alex,” the omega said again. He blinked, wetness building up in his eyes.

“Darling, darling, it’s all right, here,” Alex got out, and managed to lift his fiancé, holding him firmly in his arms, “I think you’ve gone into heat early, omega. I’m going to take you home.”

“Harry – “

“He’s fine,” Alex said, his stomach clenching even as he said it. He kissed Louis’s forehead, trying to ignore the groans behind him, “We’re leaving. It’s okay. We’ll be home soon.”

“You walked here,” Louis got out, “You fucking bastard.”

“I’ll run,” Alex said, “I’ll be quick. I’ll protect you.”

He picked up Louis entirely, lifting the omega’s feet off the ground, until he was cradled in Alex’s arms entirely.

“It’s okay,” he said again as he rushed to the door, “I’m here.”

“You hurt him,” Louis choked out, and his voice was raspy, “You fucking hurt him.”

He slapped Alex’s chest weakly, but his body was shaking now, every bit of him burning. Sweat was touching Alex’s arms through the fabric of Louis’s shirt.

“Because he hurt you,” Alex said weakly, and Louis just looked at him, his bright eyes glaring up at him as Alex rushed him into the hallway.

He couldn’t even speak before his lip began wobbling again, and Alex had to tuck him hard to his chest, sprinting as he ran out onto the street and tried to get back home.

*******

Alex carried Louis through the door, the shaking, sweaty man clinging hard to his shirt. He was still crying, his mouth shoved into his shirt, sucking hard, wetting the cotton of Alex’s undershirt.

“We’re home,” he said weakly, “It’s okay. We’re home.”

He was sweating from the run home in the hot sun, with Louis clinging to his front, weighing him down. And now Louis whimpered harder, pulling at Alex’s shirt.

“Put me down.”

“I’m taking you to bed.”

“I’m angry with you.”

“I know, and I’m sorry,” Alex said softly, “But I need to make sure you’re okay.”

Louis whined sharply, and nestled his forehead into the alpha’s shirt. Alex gripped tightly onto his waist and shoulders, and brought his nose down, nudging at Louis’s temple and brushing his lips along his cheek.

“Do you want me to touch you?” Alex said, “Or do you want me to go away for a little while?”

Louis lifted his head and blinked, and shook his head, laughing weakly.

“I want you to fuck me,” Louis sighed, “You stupid, stupid alpha.”

“Okay,” Alex nodded, “Okay.”

He finally came up to the bed and settled Louis down, and piece by piece, started pulling his clothes off. He undid his braces, and then went to his shirt, his thin vest underneath, and then onto his trousers, his drawers, his socks.

He kissed his lips hard to Louis’s skin as he went, relishing at each inch of golden skin. He licked carefully over the spots on his nose and shoulders that were shiny and bright pink, burned from too much time in the early summer sun. He could nearly taste the sunbeams in Louis’s skin, bright and salty and smelling like biscuits and daisies.

“I missed you,” Alex said, “Missed you so much.”

He lifted Louis’s legs up, reaching his hands down to feel the slickness between his legs, to run his fingers over his hard length pressed to his soft belly.

“I’m home now,” Alex said, lifting a hand up to fiddle with his own belt, “You’re okay now. No one else is going to touch you now.”

“No one touched me,” Louis said weakly.

Alex growled, and lifted his hands, yanking his clothes off as quickly as he could before he descended down onto Louis’s body, lifting up his waist. He pressed his lips hard on Louis’s, and the omega whined and kissed him back, lifting up his arms to embrace him.

“No one touched you,” Alex repeated.

“No one,” Louis confirmed, “Not Harry, not anybody. Just you.”

“Just me,” Alex said, and then nodded, “Just me.”

He reached down, pressing his hand to Louis’s heaving belly, and pressed another kiss to his mouth.

“Can I touch you, darling?”

“Yes,” Louis panted out, “Yes, please.”

“Okay,” Alex nodded, and then slipped his hand down, getting a fist around Louis’s cock. The omega hissed and bucked his hips up into his touch, twisting as Alex worked his hand over his length.

“Christ,” Alex exhaled as he watched Louis’s cheeks pink up, “I missed you so much.”

“I missed you too,” Louis gasped, reaching up to paw at Alex’s neck and pull him down again and kiss him at Alex rubbed over him, making him gasp and squirm.

“I know, I know. Wrote me so many letters. Got some very interesting letters from you, sweet boy,” Alex said. He rubbed his thumb over Louis’s head, making him whine more. His cheeks turned red, and Harry brought his other hand up, petting his cheek.

“It’s okay. I’m not upset with you for sending them. They just surprised me a little,” he said.

Louis usually wasn’t blatant about what he wanted Alex to do outside of his heat. He didn’t tease Alex in public or hint at anything, he waited until they got home and requested things quietly and under his breath and put “please” on the end of the everything. But when Alex had been in cramped bunks and rain-logged tents, he had gotten letters sprayed with Louis’s perfume and written in his beautiful, curvy handwriting telling Alex had he had been having dreams about the alpha’s hands on his hips and his teeth on his neck and his cock and knot buried inside him. Alex had kept those letters cautiously, at the bottom of his pack, and the letters were all crinkled on the edges now from how hard he had gripped the paper as he read them.

“I thought of you every day,” Louis breathed out, “Every night.”

The omega brought his own hand down, pulling at his prick the same time Alex did. He let Louis pleasure himself how he wanted as Alex kept touching him. He worked his hand down, between Louis’s legs, and brushed his fingers over his hole, pushing into the soaking wet slick. It made Louis’s thighs shake and he gasped, surging forward and grasping to hold onto Alex’s shoulders, his neck.

“It’s okay, my love,” Alex said quickly, “Lay down. It’s alright.”

Louis nodded and settled back onto the mattress, squirming as he pulled at himself and Alex pushed his fingers into Louis’s hole, preparing him.

“Did you like my letters, alpha?” Louis asked, his voice high.

“Yes, sweet. Very much.”

“Did you get off to them?”

“I – “ Alex started, licking his lips, “I liked them very much.”

He had gotten off to them, in moments of desperation when he could huddle in a corner or tent on his own and think about Louis and his letters and what he had been thinking about. But he didn’t like doing it so far away and without Louis. The other alphas were in the barracks tossed around centerfold pictures that Alex kept batting away when they showed up at his bunk, and he hunched himself under his blanket so he could rub one out while thinking of his fiancé. It still only made him feel dirty and miss Louis more.

Louis whined, squeezing his own prick.

“I wrote them so you could get off.”

“That was sweet of you, my love. But I don’t have to do that anymore. I’m here now. Now, may I be inside you?”

“Yes,” Louis nodded, “Yes, please. I’m close and I don’t want to come without your knot.”

“Okay,” Alex nodded, “Yes, okay.”

He got closer, taking his hard length in one hand, and drew closer to Louis, inhaling his sweet, heady scent. He settled the head of his prick against Louis’s entrance and the omega twitched and cried out, only settling when Alex pet his hip and pushed in slowly, carefully. Louis’s whining calmed, and he closed his eyes, his face flushing and relaxing as Alex settled himself fully inside his mate.

“Alright, baby?” he murmured, and Louis nodded, pursing his red-bitten lips and exhaling softly.

“Alpha,” he cooed softly, and Alex sighed, coming forward and kissing him as he began to move his lips.

“I love you, my darling,” Alex said, “My gorgeous china doll.”

“I love you, alpha,” Louis said. He blinked as he said it, his dark lashes fluttering prettily, “Missed you.”

“Missed you, too. Missed you so much,” Alex nodded. He kept moving his hips, and holding Louis carefully by the waist as the omega just sighed and cooed contentedly underneath him, only wiggling a little as Alex pushed into him.

Eventually Louis lifted his legs, settled them around Alex’s waist, and the alpha ducked forward, bucking his hips a little more.

“Close, alpha,” Louis mumbled, “Close – oh – fuck – “

His lips pursed, and Alex stared at his mouth, at the gorgeous, tight little pink O, the rest of Louis’s chest and face flushed in a sunset of pink and golden skin.

He shivered, a thrill going up his arms, the last of his adrenaline from an hour earlier going through his body. Louis quaked under him now, gasping and squeezing Alex’s waist with his strong legs, whiteness painting his belly.

His beautiful mate. His omega. His.

Alex blinked, his vision flashing in dots of color, and he leaned forward, groaning hard as he felt his knot pop and expand inside Louis, making the omega yelp and slap Alex’s side. He pressed himself to Louis’s collarbone, smelling his thick, sweet pheromones and feeling the sweat coating his chest. His release was pooling inside Louis, and he flicked his eyes up, his vision settling on the slightly faded red imprint of his own teeth along Louis’s shoulder, just at the junction of his neck.

He lifted his chin up and opened his mouth, and then, just as Louis could whisper “Alex” he sunk his teeth into Louis’s neck.

The other man yowled, his short nails pressing hard into Alex’s back.

“Alpha,” he rasped out weakly.

Alex held his teeth there, digging his teeth hard into the skin, while Louis squirmed underneath him.

“Mine,” Alex whispered against his skin when he pulled away. His mouth tasted metallic; he must have drawn blood. He poked his tongue out, lapping at Louis’s skin, sealing in the fresh mark. Louis mewled, leaning into his touch and pressing his hand to Alex’s neck as the alpha kept licking and kissing his neck.

“Mine,” he said again, his voice weaker this time.

“Mm,” Louis whined, “Alpha, that hurt.”

“I’m sorry, baby doll. I’m fixing it. Give it a minute,” Alex said. He kissed the reopened mark again, lapping over it more. He had only reopened it once before, the night Louis agreed to marry him officially, two years after Alex had put a mark on his neck in the first place.

When he pulled away, the mark was livid red and still wet, and a satisfied little zip ran through his belly as he looked at it.

His.

“Alex,” Louis mumbled, pulling on Alex’s shoulder and making him come out his own head and look at Louis, who was staring at him with wide, bright eyes, his lashes a bit wet.

“Oh, sweet,” Alex said, “Are you crying, precious thing? Did I hurt you that badly?”

“No, no, I’m okay,” Louis said, smiling, “I’m just overwhelmed.”

He reached up to hold Alex’s cheeks, and sighed as he held him.

“I love you,” he said again.

“And I love you,” Alex said, and then leaned down to kiss Louis firmly, blood from their bondmark on his tongue and his knot still holding them together.

*******

Alex always knew when Louis was out of heat because he had to wake the omega up, rather than the other way around.

He woke in the middle of the afternoon, the sun pushing through the small crack in their bedroom curtains. He squinted, reaching his hand over his eyes and then tugging Louis closer to his bare chest, the sweat between them making their skin stick. Louis grumbled and shifted in his sleep but kept his eyes closed, and Alex sighed, kissing the back of his neck. The intensity of his scent had dimmed and his skin had cooled, and he wasn’t climbing on top of Alex and tugging to get his cock out, so he assumed that after the last few days, which had been full of sweat and glasses of warm water and twisted, dirty sheets, Louis had finally come out of it.

“Precious,” Alex murmured, shifting Louis’s shoulder and making the omega whine.

“Leave me alone,” Louis sighed, “Tired.”

“Okay, my love,” Alex said, “Are you feeling better?”

“My head hurts,” he said, “I’m thirsty. And hungry.”

“I’ll get you an aspirin and breakfast.”

“But I don’t want you to leave.”

“Well what do you want more, me or breakfast?” Alex said, “You’ll have to pick, there aren’t two of me.”

Louis groaned again, and then pushed himself back into Alex, curled himself into the alpha’s body.

“I’ll stay for a little while,” Alex said, “And then I’ll draw you a bath and make you breakfast.”

Louis nodded and burrowed closer into Alex’s chest. Alex chuckled and kissed the top of his head, and then stroked the back of Louis’s sweaty, tangled hair and allowed himself to lay in the sheets with Louis clinging to him.

Louis was finally ready to wake after an hour or so later. Alex drew him a hot bath with soap and oils, and he sat with Louis as he soaked and washed his hair, occasionally lifting his head and puckering his lips until Alex gave him a kiss.

When he was done Alex dried him off with a fresh towel and then tied him up in his favorite pale blue dressing gown before he carried him to the living room and settled him down on the sofa. Once Louis had a book and a blanket, Alex set to making him some tea and something to eat. He used up the last of the eggs in the icebox and fried them along with some toast, and then brought the food and tea into the living room on the little wooden tray they kept in the cupboard. Usually it was Louis who brought Alex food on that tray, after ruts or on days Alex had had a hard day and didn’t want to eat out of his chair.

Louis smiled softly when Alex settled the food in front of him, and Alex gave him one more kiss before he got his own plate and tea and carried it over to his armchair. He lit his pipe and took a long drag as Louis ate his food, and Alex just watched through the haze of smoke.

He was so afraid he had forgotten all the little details about Louis -- the way he held his teacup between his fingertips, the way his lips puckered when he blew on his food, the little bites he took. All of him so beautiful, so delicate, so finely crafted. And as Alex watched, he knew he hadn’t forgotten any of it, not really. All of it was so intensely familiar it made his chest ache. He breathed in the smoke deeply and exhaled carefully, and when Louis looked up through his lashes and caught Alex’s gaze through the blue smoke Alex felt his eyes burn.

Louis finished his food and tea and lifted up the napkin on the tray, wiping his mouth and fingers carefully. He looked back to Alex when he was done, and smiled softly. He stood up, and Alex lifted his eyes to watch him, his mouth opening a bit, but Louis spoke before he could.

“So,” Louis said carefully, “We have to talk.”

Alex lifted his brows and pulled the pipe from his mouth, setting it down on the tobacco tray he kept on the side table.

“Alright,” he said quietly.

Louis nodded, and then came over to the chair and settled himself down on Alex’s lap. He lifted his fingers to Alex’s hair, pushing through the short strands at the front, and sighed.

 “I want to talk about how you pushed me.”

Alex cringed, a muscle in his throat jumping.

“I didn’t mean to.”

“I know you didn’t,” Louis sighed, “But you still did. And you can’t do that again.”

“I won’t.”

“Alex, I’m serious,” Louis said. He pulled his hands back, folding them in his lap, “If you push me again, I’m going to leave, do you understand? Even if it’s an accident, I’ll leave.”

“Louis – “

“No. Listen to me,” Louis said, “I have seen battered omegas. That is not going to be me. You hurt me, I’ll leave you. You don’t get to hurt me.”

Alex swallowed drily as he looked at his mate.

He had only frightened Louis badly once. They had been mated for less than a year, and the flat had been falling apart, with a broken sink and an ant infestation. Alex’s starting paycheck at the company was barely enough to cover their groceries for the week and repairs for the flat, let alone any treats for Louis or anything else he had promised him when they made mated. One day he had been sitting at their kitchen table, deprived of his morning cup of coffee because coffee beans were another thing that had been slashed from his budget, and wondering how he was going to pay for their water bill, and when Louis had dropped an egg on the floor.

Alex could only remember bits of what he had done – how he had stood up so fast his chair had clattered, how he had screamed so much his vision had gone white. He could remember how angry he had been, how he had told Louis he needed to be so careful, he couldn’t just drop food like that, not with how hard Alex had been working and how little they could afford. Whenever he tried to remember it exactly, the words he had used shifted in his memory. Sometimes he remembered calling Louis ungrateful, or stupid, or just that he was clumsy and didn’t they teach him better in his finishing lessons. They were all bad. He remembered that much.

But what he would always remember, all too vividly, was how Louis had fled and hidden under the kitchen table, crying and shaking with his knees drawn to his chest, his scent bitter and sour as he cried. Alex had kneeled on the ground, his eyes overflowing, as he begged Louis to come out. He had said that he was so sorry and that he would never do that again, that one egg wasn’t a big deal and he didn’t care about that, he just wanted Louis to be okay. Louis had only crawled out from under the table after an hour and Alex had been late for work, but it had been worth it to be able to cradle Louis in his arms and rock him back and forth and kiss him.

He had promised himself he would never be that angry with him or hurt Louis in any way ever again. Especially not when hearing himself yelling and seeing Louis shake had reminded him too much of hiding in his bedroom with Harry while their father had yelled and broken things in the living room, how their mum had tucked her hair over her bruised temples with shaking hands when she cooked dinner two hours later.

Nothing would push Alex to that. He wouldn’t let it.

“I never want to hurt you,” Alex said, “Never.”

Louis nodded, and Alex leaned forward, reaching out a tentative hand.

“Can I touch you again?”

Louis sighed, and shrugged.

“Alright, gorgeous,” he smiled.

The alpha settled his hand on Louis’s bare thigh and tilted his chin up so his nose could nestle into Louis’s throat. Louis scratched the back of Alex’s head and sighed happily.

“Hello, my sweet alpha,” Louis murmured.

He touched Alex’s hand on his thigh, turned it over and ran his fingers over his hands. His fingertips picking over the hard, calloused bits that had formed over the last few months. Alex swallowed, shaking his head and starting to retract his hand.

“They probably feel weird now, huh. They’re all hard,” he mumbled, and Louis shook his head, and chased his hand, pulling Alex back to settle it back on his leg again, higher, near his hip.

“I like them,” Louis smiled, “They’re on you, of course I like them.”

He leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Alex’s forehead, and smiled against his skin.

“Alex,” he said softly, “We need to talk about Harry.”

Alex bristled, his hand tightening on Louis’s hip.

“I don’t want to talk about him.”

“You can’t ignore it,” Louis said, “Don’t be a child.”

Alex leaned back, pulling away, and set his jaw. He looked up at Louis, who was glaring at him with the same sharp, unmoving eyes.

“Okay,” Alex said, “Fine.”

“Good,” Louis nodded, “I will tell you this once. Harry did not do anything to me in this flat I did not want him to do. He did not kiss me, or fuck me, or see me naked, or even hold my hand in private. I can promise you that.”

“Alright,” Alex gritted out, “That’s…okay. Good.”

“But,” Louis said, “I asked him to sleep with me. Just sleep.”

Alex’s grip tightened on the arms of his chair.

“You…you asked him to do that.”

“Yes.”

“Okay,” Alex said, “Why?”

“Because I can’t sleep alone. You know that. I just toss and turn and I can never get a decent night without someone next to me.”

“So you thought it would be a good idea to just let my brother sleep with you?”

“At the time, yes,” Louis sighed, “Because I was exhausted and that was the only solution I could think of.”

“And it helped?”

“A little,” Louis nodded, “But I still missed you. I always missed you.”

“So Harry replaced me.”

“Harry was all I had,” Louis pushed on, “Nothing replaces you, Alex. Nothing. No one.”

Louis pressed his hands to Alex’s temples, and the alpha looked up at him, swallowing weakly.

“That’s all?”

Louis’s eyes shifted a bit, but he smiled after a moment.

“That’s all.”

He pressed a firm kiss to Alex’s mouth before Alex could look at his eyes for too long and examine how they had shifted. Louis’s lips were a bit firm, a bit more unpracticed than they had been in the last few days. But he was out of heat, and they had had a hard talk, and Alex was back after being gone for so long. Louis could be nervous. He could be unsure. It was fine.

Alex sighed against his mouth and grabbed onto the back of Louis’s head, melting into the kiss. Louis’s lips picked up against his own, moving faster, opening easier. His fingers curled into the front of Alex’s shirt, and Alex kept kissing him, pulling Louis closer to him until they could not go any closer.

For a few minutes, he told himself, could forget about the fight. He could forget about what he could done. He could forget everything. He could let this kiss be all that mattered.

*******

Alex started to clean the flat the next day.

Louis had done a pretty thorough job already. The floors were scrubbed and shiny, the pillows on the sofa were neatly arranged, and the kitchen was full of fresh flowers. But Harry’s scent was clinging to everything, and Alex did his best to get rid of it.

Louis didn’t have any errands to run, so he sat quietly on the couch while Alex cleaned, his body wrapped up tightly in an afghan and an unopened book sitting on his knees. He watched as Alex went from room to room, his nostrils flaring as he tried to find anything that still had Harry on it. The problem was it was still over everything. Cinnamon and raw honey coating over Louis’s scent and the last remnants of his own. It was on the dishes and the coffee mugs, the kitchen chairs, the hook in the front hallway.

He picked up each cup, sat in the chairs and counted until he could no longer smell Harry. He moved to the living room and crawled over the sofa, rubbing his scent gland into the back of the couch and pressing his arms and hands into the seat. Louis just stared at him and sighed.

“Is that necessary?” he asked.

“Yes,” Alex hissed quietly.

“Right. Right. Sorry I asked,’ Louis said. He finally opened his book, and Alex looked at him and shook his head. He kissed his forehead firmly and Louis glanced up at him through his eyelashes.

“I’m doing this so we can get back to normal,” he said, “You understand, right?”

“Of course, baby,” Louis said with a soft smile, “Go on.”

Alex nodded and then stood up from the couch and went down the hall. Their room still reeked of Harry, even when he had washed the sheets. He went through anyways; laid in the bed, picked up his shirts and scented them, went to the bathroom and touched every object, even if the room was mostly free of Harry’s scent.

Then he moved to the guest bathroom and did the same thing, staying there a little longer since Harry had clearly been there more. And then, the guest bedroom.

He hadn’t changed the sheets, so it still smelled like Harry everywhere, and he wrinkled his nose as he laid on the bed. He could just close off this room, but the thing was, he didn’t want Harry anywhere. He wanted his brother to get out of his house and leave him alone. So he rolled in the sheets and rubbed his scent gland on the blankets and shook his hair over the pillows, and then paced the room, opening the drawers of the dresser aimlessly rubbing his hands over the insides. He pulled open the wardrobe, too, expecting the same thing – emptiness that he would stare at and then try to claim.

Instead, he saw a jumper hanging up in the otherwise empty wardrobe.

It was definitely Harry’s – he could smell that immediately. And it was something Harry must have owned already and brought with him – the thing was pale cream and had a collar full of little embroidered red roses. It was something Alex wouldn’t be caught dead in, but Harry was always showing up in colorful button downs and jumpers with designs of lions and butterflies on them, his hands full of rings and his wrists cuffed in oversized bracelets he admitted to getting from omega shops. It always confused Alex, how much Harry loved his clothes and shiny things, but they made him happy so he left it alone.

Now, though, he tore the jumper off its hanger and stormed into the living room.

“Harry left one of his stupid jumpers here,” Alex said, “I think I’m going to burn it.”

“What?” Louis said. He stared at Alex, and then his eyes trailed down to the jumper in his hand and his eyebrows lifted.

“I didn’t know he left anything here,” Louis said, “I didn’t really go in the guest room too much.”

“It’s fine,” Alex said tightly, “I bet he left it here to fuck with me or something. That little bastard.”

“I think he just forgot it, baby.”

“Well, either way, I’m going to…fuck, I don’t know, I think I’ll just throw it out.”

He started to go towards the door, but Louis stood up.

“You’re being ridiculous,” Louis said, “Give that to me.”

He came over and reached for the jumper, and Alex frowned and tugged it away, which only made Louis huff.

“Alexander James, you give that thing to me right now,” Louis snapped. He reached for it again, and Alex sighed and let him take it.

“I’ll donate it to the charity shop tomorrow, it’s on my way home from the doctor’s office,” Louis said. He batted his hands, shooing Alex towards the door, “Now get out and go get me some fresh bread and eggs, you’re driving me mad today.”

“Alright, fine,” Alex said. He ducked his head as he went to the front hall, and reached for his shoes. Maybe he did need to go out for a bit. Maybe he was going a little crazy holed up inside.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, “I’m just – I’m trying.”

“It’s alright, I understand,” Louis said.

Alex nodded, and lifted up his foot, tying his boot tightly.

“I’m going to go put this in a bag,” Louis said, holding up the jumper, “When you get back, let’s do something, just you and me. We’ll play that wretched Monopoly game you like so much.”

“Really?”

“Yes, of course,” Louis said. He leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Alex’s cheek, “Now go, okay? Don’t let this silly jumper worry you.”

Louis set the jumper down for a moment so that he could straighten out Alex’s shirt. The alpha’s eyes followed where the jumper was on the floor, but Louis caught his chin and forced him to look forward. The alpha sighed, and then finally smiled and kissed Louis.

“Don’t’ worry,” Louis said again, and Alex nodded.

“Alright, I’ll let you take care of it,” Alex said. He grabbed the doorknob and opened the door while Louis sighed and shook his head behind him.

“I love you, omega,” Alex said as he slid out the door.

Louis smiled softly, and then pressed his fingers to his lips before turning them out, waving them to Alex as the door started to close.

“I love you too, alpha.”  

*******

Alex tried to be normal again, after that.

He went back to work after a handful of vacation days, and tried to reorient himself as if he hadn’t been gone for almost ten months. He looked over the new client files Harry had gathered and sighed as he flipped through them. His brother had done good work, and he had a fresh pay raise, but he wasn’t going to thank Harry for any of that. Even if Louis had asked for it, he wasn’t going to forgive Harry for being in his bed, stamping his scent into everything. He just couldn’t.

Instead, he made a new wedding budget.

“I think a winter wedding would be nice,” he said one morning at breakfast, while Louis was frying up his eggs.

“Winter?” Louis said with a raised brow, “Why?”

“Well why not?” Alex said, “I think the snow would look nice with all the white and blue you wanted. And we had planned for fall, winter is only one season away.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” Louis smiled.

“Then I think I’ll meet with the priest next week,” Alex smiled, “How does December 3rd sound to you?”

“Oh,” Louis said, “Um, what about February?”

“February?”

“Well, December…it’s my birthday, and then Christmas, it’s just so many things.”

“Well, February is my birthday.”

“Yes, but then it’s our mating anniversary,” Louis said. He turned, and brought the plate of eggs over, and then reached out, grabbing onto the terry collar of Alex’s robe, “Oh, we could get married on our mating day, it’ll be so romantic.”

“That might be on a Tuesday, I think.”

“Alex,” Louis huffed, and Alex sighed and smiled.

“February sounds lovely, my darling,” Alex said, picking up Louis’s hand and turning it over. His ring flashed, and Alex closed his eyes and kissed his knuckle, “I’ll meet with the priest, then?”

“Sure, love,” Louis nodded. He got up quickly then, and went back to making up some toast to go with breakfast.

Alex met with the priest later, and then came home and made a list for Louis.

“Go to the print maker, and the florist, and the baker. Call all your bridesmaids,” Alex grinned, “We’re getting married on February 8th, 1941. It’s official.”

“Oh,” Louis gasped out weakly, a moment before Alex’s lips met his own, “That’s – “

“It’s wonderful,” Alex said between kisses, “It’s fantastic.”

He kissed Louis again, and smiled widely. This was his life. This was his future. He didn’t need to worry about the war or his brother anymore, not when he had an omega who slowly turned and tossed his arms around Alex’s neck and grinned he kissed him, murmuring the date of their wedding against his mouth.

“February 8th,” Louis said, “I’ll be Mr. Louis Styles. Finally.”

“Yes, my love, you will,” Alex breathed against his mouth, “And then pups. As many as you’d like.”

Louis smiled, but the movement of it was a bit weak, and Alex leaned in.

“Oh, sweetheart, are you not ready for that just yet? We don’t have to. It was just an idea. We can wait a while longer.”

“It’s not that,” Louis said, “I’m just…thinking, that’s all. You’re telling me so many wonderful things all at once.”

He smiled, and Alex opened his mouth, but before he could, Louis pressed in with a kiss. And then he moved his hands to Alex’s waist, untucking his shirt. Alex gasped, pressing his mouth to Louis’s.

“I thought you’d want to talk more,” he said weakly.

“Maybe later,” Louis said, his fingers going to Alex’s belt.

“Later is fine,” Alex said.

He wrapped an arm around Louis’s middle, lifting him enough to make the omega shriek a bit, and then carried to their room, pressing a kiss to his shoulder as Louis gasped and squirmed in his arms.

Yes, everything was normal, he thought as he laid Louis out on their bed.

Everything was simply fantastic.

*******

“Louis, angel, I’m hungry.”

Alex had his face buried in Louis’s sweat-slick belly, his arms heavy and wrapped around Louis’s body. The omega snorted and lifted his hand, running it through Alex’s tangled curls.

“Too bad someone told me I didn’t need to go grocery shopping yesterday,” Louis said, “And said we should go to a film instead.”

“But you liked the film.”

“Sure I did,” Louis said, “But we have no food left.”

Alex groaned, rubbing his hair into Louis’s stomach. It had been a wonderful week, and he had gotten home from work early yesterday, just as Louis was grabbing his handbag and shoes so he could go out to the store. But instead, Alex had picked him up by the hips and told him they could go to a movie and dinner instead. Louis had only fought with him about it for about a minute before he had relented and gone to change his shirt for the occasion.

They had had a fantastic evening, and night after that, and Louis still had a fresh mark below his Adam’s apple from the night before, but they were still left with no groceries, and Alex’s stomach was finally starting to grumble.

“You’re the worst, you really are. I’ll go buy you something,” Louis said. He shifted, and Alex groaned louder when Louis moved out from under him. Louis scoffed and pet Alex’s hair again. Alex lifted his head just in time to see Louis roll his eyes at him.

“My needy boy,” Louis said.

“You’re needy,” Alex retorted weakly, but still smiled as he reached for Louis’s hand and kissed it, “Thank you, my love.”

“Of course. Does a cherry tart and coffee from the bakery sound good?”

“Yes, please.”

Louis nodded and smiled and then went to the dresser, pulling out his needed clothes. Alex watched him pull his drawers and his trousers over his hips and bum, and then how he went about putting on his undershirt and his regular shirt over top of it. Once he had put his socks on he went to the bathroom, and a few minutes later he emerged with his hair combed and little dots of rogue on his cheeks. Alex smiled and blinked at him, nestling his chin into the pile of sheets Louis had left behind when he got out of bed.

“Do you need money?”

“I have some notes in my purse, I should be fine,” Louis said, “I’ll be back in fifteen minutes, twenty if there’s a line.”

“I’ll count every minute,” Alex said.

Louis went to roll his eyes but stopped instead and just sighed and came forward to kiss Alex gently on the cheek.

When he pulled away, he went straight for the door, and Alex listened until his footsteps faded down the hall and then the front door opened and closed. Alex sighed and happily and fell back down against the covers, blinking into the late sunlight.

He laid there for a while, stuck in the tangle of sheets, inhaling the way the bed smelled like Louis’s flowery scent and their sweat. He had forgotten to put down the blinds, and the late June sun hit his eyes, making him groan and toss an arm over his face. He tried to turn over and go back to sleep and fit in a few more minutes before Louis would return with their breakfast, and comfortably tuck his warm, golden body back into Alex’s side.

But as he turned over, he inhaled, and he smelled it.

He sat up, rubbing his eyes and sniffing again. Surely he was mistaken. It couldn’t be here, not now. Not after all he had done.

But when he breathed in, it was there. Harry. Harry’s scent was here, in their room, again.

Alex frowned and pulled himself out of bed, the tangled sheets falling away from his naked hips and legs. He trudged around the room, lowering his head and sniffing weakly. It got weaker the longer he stayed on his side of the room, even though he looked through his drawers and wardrobe for any sign of Harry’s scent that had clung to the wood. But it was only filled with his own scent, and a bit of Louis’s from where he had put Alex’s clothes away a few days before.

It was only when Alex started to move to Louis’s side of the room it got stronger. His mouth twisted, and he went through the same motions, opening drawers and cabinets and trying to find it. Still, it was overwhelmingly Louis’s own scent.

Alex sighed and closed the last drawer of Louis’s dresser. There was nothing. Surely, he had imagined it. But when he lifted his head and started to walk back to bed, it returned. He shifted his head, sighing as he tried to find the source one last time, and then his eyes fell on the shadow of a pile of clothes shoved between Louis’s dresser and wardrobe.

He knew that was where Louis kept his nest. The omega kept it shoved away as best he could, and even if it was a bit visible to Alex, the alpha had agreed to do his best not to look at it and to never, ever touch it. 

But now, Alex edged closer to the pile. He sniffed again, shaking his head. It smelled too familiar.

He frowned and crouched down, getting closer to the nest. Doing it made his stomach roll – he had promised Louis to never look at the next, to go near it. Yes, it was in their room, but it was his private space and not for Alex to see.

But there, in the corner, he could see the sleeve of a cream colored jumper poking out.

Alex inhaled carefully, his stomach clenching, and then pulled it out.

It was Harry’s jumper. The one he had found in the closet, the one Louis had said he’d get rid of. But he hadn’t gotten rid of it. He had taken it and put it in his nest, his most private space, and mixed it in amongst the blankets and sheets and shirts that smelled like Alex. He had probably put it at the bottom, too, to hide the scent away for so long. Louis had taken it and hidden it from him.

Alex stood frozen in the middle of the room, gripping the sweater, for so long he didn’t hear the door open, and barely registered the sweet voice that carried through the flat.

“They didn’t have cherry tarts, can you believe that? I had to get cinnamon apple instead. You like that, don’t you – “

Louis’s voice halted the second after Alex registered it, and Alex’s head snapped up for him to see Louis standing in the doorway of their room, holding a paper bag, his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide. His gaze shifted to the jumper, and his fingers shifted on the paper bag, the crinkling nearly deafening to Alex’s ears.

“Alex?” he said softly, “What – “

All Alex could do was hold up the jumper and shake it a little, his voice barely holding together enough to speak.

“Why do you have this, Louis?” Alex said, “Why did you keep this?”

“I – “ Louis said. His voice trembled, and he slowly set down the bag in his hands to rest on the dresser instead. He looked back at Alex, and drew a breath, his eyes flicking to the corner, “Were you in my nest?”

“I smelled Harry,” Alex said in reply, “I was just looking to see where it was coming from, I didn’t mean – “

“You were in my nest,” Louis cut in, his lip wobbling, “I told you not to touch my nest! It’s mine!”

Alex’s hand tightened around the jumper, and the tightness growing in his chest.

“Why is my brother’s fucking jumper in your nest, Louis,” he gritted out.

“Why – I – “ Louis sputtered, “It shouldn’t matter, it’s my nest!”

Alex swallowed and shook his head. He remembered Louis under the kitchen table, crying. He remembered how he had promised him it would never happen again just a few weeks ago. He tried to take a deep breath again but it still didn’t seem to reach his lungs enough.

“I don’t care,” he said softly, firmly. Louis’s eyebrows lifted, and he tilted his head forward.

“You don’t care,” Louis said repeated, “You dug up my nest, and you don’t – “ 

“You put Harry in your nest,” Alex said, “Now I want you to answer me when I ask you why it was there.

Louis’s eyes widened at his voice, and Alex’s lips stayed hanging open for a moment as he registered his own tone.

His voice had dropped to a level it rarely went to outside of rut. He had only used that voice once before outside of rut, when they had gone to a carnival on a date on afternoon and Louis had wandered off and frightened Alex so badly he had told him off for fifteen minutes after he found him.

No, Alex didn’t use his alpha voice very often. The one that made Louis freeze up and lower his head and apologize. But he was using it now.

Louis’s body had gone stiff, and his head was lowered, a bit, his chest moving quickly. Alex wanted to take it back. He shouldn’t have used that voice, shouldn’t have pushed him. He tried to take a step forward and hold out a hand, but Louis stepped back and held up his arms.

“When I tell you, you can’t hurt me,” Louis said softly.

“No, never,” Alex said, “I wasn’t trying to.”

“Even if you’re angry. Even if you’re furious.”

“I won’t,” Alex said. His throat felt drier by the minute.

Louis nodded, and then he turned his eyes up, his lips quivering as he looked at Alex.

“The thing is, I think I fancy Harry,” he said, “Very much.”

Alex just stared for a minute, his throat too weak to swallow.

“Romantically,” Alex got out.

“Yes, romantically,” Louis said, “I think, quite frankly, that I’m in love with him.”

He crossed his arms and ducked his head, and Alex could only look at him. He shuffled back, and his back touched the footboard of their bed and he managed to sit down on the edge, but still, all he could do was stare at Louis, mouth agape, and try to breath.

“You told me it meant nothing else,” he managed, “When he was in our bed, you told me you just needed to sleep – “

“Well, I lied, okay!” Louis shouted, “I lied because I was scared!”

Louis covered his mouth with his head and squeezed his eyes shut, his lashes wetting. He eventually pulled his hand away and batted it feebly in the air, shaking his head.

“I lied, okay, I’m sorry,” he said again, “At first I needed to sleep but then it – it turned into something else, I guess.”

“Did you two – plan something?” Alex said. He could barely get at words. He felt like his head was swimming.

“No, nothing like that,” Louis said, “Harry didn’t know I fancied him. But he told me that he fancied me, maybe, a long time ago – “

“He did, huh,” Alex got out.

His mind reeled back to when Harry would visit them when he was in uni, their weekly dinners. How Alex had let him into his house, had left him alone with Louis when he needed to go get something from another room. Had he fancied Louis then? Had he always?

“But he didn’t do anything!” Louis cut in. “And I didn’t tell him how I felt. I didn’t even realize until the end, a few days before you came back, actually – “

Louis’s words brought Alex back, and he felt weight fall on his shoulders, his mind slowing even more than before.

“A few days?” he repeated.

“Yes, a few days before you called – “

“I was in Dunkerque then, Louis,” Alex interrupted. His voice was shaking again, and he didn’t bother to stop it, “I was getting shot out from all sides. I was in the sea while it was on fire from the oil.”

“Alex – “

“And you were falling in love with my brother. My brother I sent here to protect you.”

Louis gazed at him, his eyes full and his lip shaking, and he started to open his mouth, but Alex held up a hand and pulled himself up, shaking his head as he did.

“Anything else you neglected to tell me, dear?”

Louis’s mouth opened wider in surprise, and then he held up a hand to his temple, his fingers fanning out to cover his face.

“No,” Louis managed, “That’s all.”

“I need to lay down,” Alex said. He shuffled to the doorway, towards the living room. He had to lay down on the couch. Not in the guest room. Not where his brother had been. He needed to lay down on the couch and try not to think about Louis, and Harry, and what had happened in the months he was away and so, so afraid of dying.

“Alex,” Louis called out weakly behind him, but Alex just held up a hand, waving him away.

“Thanks for the tarts,” he said, “I don’t need them now, though. I feel sick.”

He thought he heard Louis call out again, or maybe gasp weakly, but he couldn’t hear behind the roaring in his ears, and Louis didn’t bother to chase after him. He made it to the living room and sank down onto the sofa, his hands shaking a bit as they caught his weight. His head and ears felt like they were underwater again, and he wished this time it was as simple as popping his head out of the water and gasping, even if everything around him was on fire.

His mate, his fiancé, his Louis, the only man he had ever loved and ever wanted to love, was in love with someone else. Not even anyone else. He was in love with Harry. Harry, who had apparently just sat and watched and probably fucking waited for a moment like this, to snatch away one of the only things Alex had ever loved.

And he had done his job.

Alex curled up on the couch and waited for Louis to come get him, to apologize again, but he didn’t come. Alex sighed and pressed his forehead to his curled up knees and tried to breath. He could cry and scream and break something. He could go to Harry’s flat again and punch him in the nose, again, for good measure. Or he could get up, run back to their room, try to untangle this mess.

But he couldn’t do any of that. Especially not the last one. Not with the roaring in his ears and the way his heart felt wrapped in weighted chains, like there was an anchor scraping in his chest.

The walk to the end of the hallway felt longer than when they had been an ocean away.

*******

Alex tried to live in the flat for the next week.

He limped through the weekend, and then through the week, pulling late shifts and then dragging himself home when it was dark. Louis kept trying to apologize and touch him and kiss him, but after a while, he stopped when Alex offered him nothing.

He was just still…angry. And confused, and struggling to keep all those emotions from bubbling up. Louis was in love with his brother. He had brought Harry into his home, into their bed, into their relationship, when all Alex had wanted was to give him a companion. Alex had gone, and Harry had replaced him, and he didn’t know how much of Louis’s heart still belonged to him and how much belonged to his brother.

It was unbearable. So he came home late and curled up tightly on the opposite of the bed and barely touched Louis, and tried to ignore the pain on Louis’s face and the way his smell soured when Alex gave him barely anything.

And then, on Friday afternoon, six days after he had found that blasted jumper, he found himself packing up a suitcase and trudging his way into the living room.

He found Louis on the sofa, with a blanket draped over his shoulders and a book in his hands. He was dressed in one of Alex’s jumpers and a pair of his old trousers from uni, ones that had patches on the knees and that Louis had to cuff around his feet. Louis’s tea was still hot, and his fingertips traced around the steam-choked rim as his eyes remained on the book.

It was like any other night, and Alex just wished he could sit next to him on the sofa, put his arm around Louis and do paperwork with the other hand until he eventually spilled ink on the cushions and Louis chided him for it. He wanted to make his own cup of tea and smoke a cigarette and settle his head on Louis’s shoulder and ask him what he was reading. He wanted it to be another night. But it couldn’t be.

“Louis?” he said softly.

Louis didn’t look up, just lifted his brows.

“What.”

“I’m – “ Alex started, “I’m going to go for a hotel for a little while, I think.”

“You’re – what,” Louis said. He finally lifted his head, and immediately, flicked his eyes to the suitcase in Alex’s hand. He closed his book, and opened his mouth, still staring at the suitcase.

“I – “

“I think we need some space,” Alex said, “Maybe.”

“We don’t need space,” Louis said immediately, “We had too much space.”

“But I can’t – Louis, I can’t even sleep in our bed anymore. I can’t even touch you. I don’t know how to be around you. So maybe I need to stop.”

Louis blinked at him, his fingers going white as they gripped his book.

“Are you leaving me?”

“Not for good,” Alex said, “Never for good. Just for a few days.” 

Louis kept staring, and then set his book on the table next to his tea. He stood up, the blanket sliding off his shoulders, and then took soft, careful steps towards Alex. His smell was bitter, so different from the gentle sweetness Alex was so used to, and it made his stomach turn.

“Don’t you dare, Alex,” he said, his voice thick, “Don’t you dare leave me.”

“I’ll only be gone for a little while, I promise,” Alex said. His palms were sweating on his suitcase handle as Louis came closer. He looked so small, in Alex’s big clothes, his eyes so wide.

“But you can’t go,” Louis said.

“I need to, baby,” Alex said.

Louis stared at him, and then glanced down to his feet, rocking on his toes.

“I just needed to sleep,” Louis said, “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”

Alex swallowed, trying to tap down the burst of heat that went through his veins.

He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know if he wanted to scream and upturn a table, or curl into a ball and cry, or just push it all down and ignore the fact that all of this was even happening in the first place and keep going like they always had.

But he couldn’t keep away the visions of his brother in his bed, touching Louis, smelling Louis, and Louis letting him, wanting him to do that, feeling the same way for Harry he had promised he would only feel for Alex –

He couldn’t stop thinking about it, and he didn’t know how he was supposed to exist any longer, in this house, if that’s all he could think about when he looked at his omega.

“I’ll be back soon enough,” Alex said, “I – I love you.”

Louis narrowed his eyes as Alex went to the door, still gripping his suitcase.

“That’s a horrible thing to tell me as you’re leaving,” Louis said.

“But – “ Alex managed, “I do.”

He had his hand on the doorknob now, and Louis just looked at his hand, then at Alex, his eyes still narrowed and his mouth straight.

“Okay,” Louis said, his voice quivering a bit. He walked down the hallway then, his robe fluttering around his thighs as he walked, and Alex watched.

“Omega – “

“You’re leaving, Alex, fuck, just go, if that’s what you want to do,” Louis snapped, his shoulders tight, “Isn’t that what you wanted to do?”

Alex just stared after him, and then, turned the doorknob, finally opening the door. Louis winced as the hinges creaked.

“I’ll come back,” Alex said, his voice growing thick, “I’m sorry.”

Louis didn’t respond, just stayed still in their hallway, and Alex just looked at him for awhile longer, filling his nose with the scent of honey and vanilla. He moved slowly, and tried not to look at Louis for too long as he pushed the door open and started to slip away.

This would all be fine, he assured himself. This was what they both needed. Just a bit of time away. Nothing more.

Another few days away couldn’t hurt.

*******

Louis was used to being alone in the flat.  

He didn’t have a job; he had pretty much thrown out any chance of being employed as soon as he had let Alex sink his teeth into his neck five years ago. He was a housewife without a wedding ring, his entire job was to run errands and then take care of the house. And because he didn’t have any pets or children, he entertained himself. He was good at that, finding ways to fill the day with laundry and reading and flipping through the radio.

This should have been no different. But every other day, he had Alex coming home at 5, and at least, for a little while, he had the promise of Harry doing the same thing. He had a reason to iron all the shirts in the dresser and start cooking supper at two in the afternoon. He would have company to fill up the flat with smell and noise and tell him about their day.

Now, he didn’t have anything. He had himself, and without the promise of anything else, that wasn’t enough. He wasn’t supposed to be by himself. He was supposed to do things right, and then he would have company and a purpose and wouldn’t drive himself crazy.

Instead, he tried to carry on with his chores and his daily routine, but after it reached Monday evening, his cabin fever was getting bad, and his guilt was slowly taking over his whole body.

He had hurt Alex in ways he had promised he would never do. He knew it had been a risk to keep the jumper – he had known that the moment he took it from Alex and then wildly scented it and shoved it far down into his nest, far enough he had hoped Alex would never smell it. But he had, because Louis had left it out and been reckless.

He didn’t blame Alex for that. That was the worst part. He had done something terrible. But he had never expected Alex to leave. And then not come back for a day, and then two days, and another day after that.

Alex was rarely cross – he usually kept his temper tapped down, and tried to talk to Louis about anything that was bothering him instead of screaming or throwing a fit. But that had gone out the window now, and Louis couldn’t even know where he was supposed to look to find him. He could go to all the hotels in town to find him, but surely word would get around he was hunting for his alpha in a hotel. And the staff probably wouldn’t even let an unchaperoned omega past the reception desk.

So, no, he couldn’t do that.

But he was losing his mind, alone and trying desperately to clean the house or nest or just pray Alex was going to walk back through the door at any moment, tell Louis he over reacted, and then they could work everything out.

Tuesday night came, and Louis knew he needed to do something.

He went to the shops, and he bought everything he needed to make a blackberry pie.

It was Alex’s favorite treat – Louis usually made it every summer, and when he could find the berries, for Alex’s birthday. The twins’ mum had given Louis the recipe years ago, when Louis had first met her, and told him that it had been Alex’s favorite since he was three years old. So Louis had tried to copy the recipe ever since when he needed something big. It was a day-long task to make it, but that’s what Louis needed. Something to distract him, something grand.

He put on the apron Alex had given him as a birthday present – pale purple, the edges trimmed in lace and the middle fashioned with a little white satin bow. He usually only wore it when he was putting finishes touches onto dinner, or when he knew Alex was going to be home soon and wanted to look especially pretty for him. He would have to be careful this time to make sure he didn’t stain it too bad.

He started with the crust. He took out each bag and measuring cup and filled up his bowl with the flour, salt, and butter. He mixed it together, added water, mixed it again. He took it out and rolled it, rubbing flour on his hands and spreading out the dough until it was a smooth bowl. He covered, put it in the ice box. Then he went to make his filling --  he mixed the blackberries, sugar, flour. He chilled it all again and then waited, turning through a book while barely reading it. He took out his dough, rolled it out, crimped the edges into a pan with a fork and neatly cut out the stripes that could go on top. He filled the pie with the berries, settled the stripes on, brushed with with milk and sugar and butter.

He made the mistake of going to the living room while the pie was cooking, and he rushed in fifteen minutes later to see the kitchen in smoke. He pulled out what was left of it and threw it out, then sighed, set his shoulders, and went out to get more.

He did it all again, and this time he settled himself in the oven and watched it cook. It was early in the morning now, and his arms were splattered in berry juice and sugar and flour, he had badly stained two of his favorite aprons, and he felt like crying a little, but he had a beautiful pie. He settled it on the counter, carefully, and decided he would cover it and stay up all night, batting away fruit flies from his creation. Because in the morning, he would take it to Alex. He would give him a gift, he would be a good omega, he would show him he cared about him and would take care of him.

He would show him it would all be fine.

*******

The next morning, Louis got himself ready to go to Alex’s office.

He woke up far too early, and forced himself to just lay in bed until it was nine, late enough for him to get up and make himself breakfast. Alex’s work day would be starting around now, and he had just enough time to get ready and then come in the middle of the work, around Alex’s lunch hour.

He finished his breakfast slowly, playing the first station the radio was set to, and then went back to their room. He picked out his favorite shirt, trousers, and shoes, and dug out his petal pink corset girdle from the back of his wardrobe, the one he usually only wore on anniversaries and special occasions. He sucked in his middle and spent far too long doing up all the latches in the back, and then put on his clothes, smoothing his shirt over his newly tucked in waist and stomach. He went to the bathroom and fiddled with his hair, and then got out his blusher and powder and waxy lipstick and applied it carefully, smiling once it was all on. He looked pretty. He looked perfect. Surely it would be enough.

Finally, he went to the kitchen and collected his still-perfect pie, wrapping a blue and white checked flannel under the dish, and then got his handbag from the hall and went outside.

It was a lovely, clear summer day, and he walked with confident strides, his shoulders back. It felt good, to fix things. To get them all back to normal, like nothing at all had happened.

He made it to Alex’s office and let himself inside, strolling down the front hallway. There were people moving in and out, Alex’s coworkers and a few clients. When he made it to the front desk, he cognized the receptionist, Ruth, who lifted her head when she heard him, her neat auburn eyebrows rising as well.

“Oh, Louis,” she said, “Hello.”

“Hi, love,” he smiled, holding up the plate in his hands, “I just thought I’d surprise Alex with a little treat, I can just head to his desk if he’s not in a meeting.”

Ruth’s forehead crinkled, and she titled her head.

“Louis,” she said, “Alex isn’t here today.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Well, he’s called out sick every day since Monday,” she said. Her eyes narrowed a bit, for just a moment, “Said he was home with the flu.”

Louis’s fingers shifted on the plate, and he swallowed.

“Oh,” Louis said, “Um – “

God damn it. He should’ve thought this through. Why did he assume Alex was at work? But of course he wasn’t. And he had told him he was home, not even visiting his parents, so Louis could use the excuse that he must have gotten delayed and away from the phone.

He didn’t have an excuse. He couldn’t explain away why he was supposed to be home, tending to a sick alpha, and instead he’d brought a fucking pie to his office, like an idiot.

“I’m sorry for bothering you, then,” he choked out instead. Ruth was still staring at him, and the other secretary on duty had lifted her head, glancing over. Shit, this was going to get out, somehow, he just knew it. Someone was going to tell their sister who would tell her husband who would tell his friend who would tell his neighbor who knew someone in Louis’s book club. That was always how it fucking went. Someone was going to tell someone else that Alex Styles probably had a mistress he was staying with, or Louis was losing his mind, or something that would still not be as bad as what was actually happening.

Louis turned and stumbled out of the office, back into the hot sun. His cheeks were burning, his eyes were burning.

Shit. God damn it, Alex, god damn it. Why couldn’t he have been in work?

Fucking shit.

Louis desperately wiped his face and sighed hard, shaking his head. The pie was getting heavy in his hands, and what was he going to do with it? Eat it alone by himself on the floor? That would be a perfect end to this, wouldn’t it? Giving up and getting sad and fat all by himself?

He blinked back his burning eyes and tried to think of how he could at least get rid of this thing, at least. He could bring it to Elizabeth, they could have tea and she could hold him as he tried. Or the church. Maybe he could go to confession while he was at it, that seemed appropriate. Or –

Louis froze as the thought crosses his mind.

It was a bad idea. A horrendous, idea, really. The exact opposite of what he needed.

But his feet carried him before he could even think.

*******

Before Alex had stormed over to have that horrendous fight, Louis hadn’t been to Harry’s flat since last summer, when Harry had asked him and Alex to come over to help him make biscuits for a school holiday fundraiser. Louis hadn’t done much beyond hand Harry cups of flour and water, and Alex had stayed by the counter while Louis batted his hand away from the sugar bag and laughed.

Still, he remembered the route. Past the corner store that sold the best jarred peach preserves around this time. Right at the pharmacy. Down the street, the third building on the right with the battered blue door, up three floors, and he’d be there.

Louis balanced the tin in his hands carefully, squaring his shoulders back at he walked. The old floorboards squeaked and groaned a bit too loudly under his feet and he winced as he walked, trying to be delicate and careful as he walked over to the door he knew to be Harry’s.

He sucked in a deep breath and then knocked on the door and took a step back, rocking on his feet as he waited. He could hear noise from inside the flat, moving and shuffling feet, and he lifted his head, listening carefully and reminding himself he needed to exhale.

Then the door opened, and Louis blinked, trying not to flinch too much.

Harry peered out at him, confusion crossing his face as he gazed at Louis. His features still bore marks from his fight with Alex; the skin around his eyes was dark, there was a red gash over his right eyebrow and two strips of medical tape around his swollen nose.

“Louis,” Harry said, his body straightening as he stared.

“Um. Hi,” Louis said. He suddenly very small, standing on Harry’s doorstep holding a blackberry pie awkwardly against his chest. He pushed the plate towards Harry, looking up at him.

“I brought you this,” he said, “Um, do you like blackberries?”

“You can’t be here,” Harry said flatly, without even reaching towards the pie.

Louis just looked at him, and frowned.

“Yes, I can. I can be anywhere I want.”

“You know what I mean, Louis,” Harry sighed, running a hand through his hair, “What if Alex had been here, huh? What if he smells me on you when you go home?”

Louis bristled and glared, straightening his shoulders once more.

“Alex doesn’t control everything I do,” Louis snapped, “I can come see you if I want to.”

Harry closed his eyes, and sighed, shaking his head.

“Are you alright?” Louis cut in, “Did you go to the doctor, at least? You have tape on your nose so I – “

“Yeah, I went to the doctor. I told them I got in a bar fight the night I was discharged. Gave me a dirty look but at least they fixed it. Apparently my nose will never be straight again but – it’s fine. I’m alright.”

Harry sighed, pushing his head up over his forehead and closing his eyes. Louis thought he saw his nostrils flare for just a moment.

“Louis,” he said, “It’s not a good idea for us to see each other right now.”

“It’s fine, really – “

“Louis,” Harry interrupted again. His eyes opened, and they had gone a wide as he stared forward, his mouth hard and straight, “I’m trying to tell you I do not want you here.”

Louis blinked, and shifted his fingers against the plate he was holding, looking up at Harry as the alpha just gazed back at him, his expression unshifting.

“What?” Louis got out.

“We got to be together when Alex was gone. And I was so happy I got to spend that time with you, really, it was – “ Harry swallowed, “That’s, fuck, it was all I’d ever wanted, was to be with you so closely, for so long.”

“We can do that again.”

“You know we can’t.”

“But we can be friends, can’t we? You’re still my friend. At least I hope you are.”

“I – yes, Louis, we can be friends. That’s fine.”

“Then why can’t I talk to you, Harry?” Louis said, “I know Alex is cross with you. I know it’s not good right now. But why can’t I just come inside and have a cup of tea with you and talk? Can’t you let me do that?”

Harry winced, a muscle in his throat jumping, and he shook his head.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said, “But I can’t do that.”

“Why not?” Louis asked weakly, and he hated how weak his voice sounded.

“Because – “ Harry sighed, “Because you’re Alex’s omega, and that’s how the world works. I’m sorry, but that’s it.”

Louis stared at him, and then swallowed down the thickness in his throat. His eyes were burning too, and he tried to blink them away. Not now. Maybe not even, not in front of Harry.

“Alex left,” Louis said, “He went to a hotel or something. I don’t know. He’s being a prick.”

Harry’s eyes flickered, and he scratched the back of his neck.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said, “But I can’t do anything about that. That’s for the two of you to figure out.”

“But – “

“Do you have a place to stay, at least?” Harry said, “Are you staying in your flat?”

“Yes, of course – “

“Okay. That’s good. As long as you have a place to stay, that’s good.”

Harry shuffled his feet, and then glanced at the ground, no longer looking at Louis, though the omega still tried to duck his head down, trying to get even the smallest glance at Harry’s mouth, his crinkled forehead, his eyes.

“I’m sorry, Louis. I need you to go,” Harry said eventually, and Louis bit his lip hard.

“Harry,” he said weakly, and Harry sighed.

“Please. Call Alex. Tell him he’s being a prick, because he is. Get him to come home. And then don’t worry about me.”

“I – “ Louis started, but Harry was already backing away and starting to close the door.

“Harry, stop,” Louis said weakly, “Can we just talk, please?”

“Thanks for bringing the pie,” Harry said instead of answering. A weak smile managed to emerge on his lips as he said it, a fleeting softness crossing over his eyes, “Good choice, blackberry. It was our mum’s favorite.”

“I know,” Louis said softly. I bloody fucking know, that’s why I made the damn thing, he thought, to make Alex happy. And if I couldn’t do that I could at least try to make you happy.

But the words caught in his throat as Harry shut the door, and he couldn’t yell, couldn’t even fight with Harry, of all people, because another door was being closed in his face, and he was alone, perfectly dressed, still cradling the pastry Harry hadn’t wanted, and with no one left to talk to.

*******

Louis walked home in a daze, trying to keep his steps even as he walked back to his own flat. The girdle was starting to dig into his sides and make his stomach hurt, and he had to keep stopping to take long breaths and pull the strap of his handbag back over his shoulder. He held onto the tin with sweating, unsteady hands, trying to make sure he could just get home, to the safety of his own flat, away from everyone. He felt like everyone around him could sense what was happening, could see through the powder sweating off his face and the cooling pie in his hands and how he had been bad. He had been shameful. He had ruined everything.

He ran up to the flat quickly, quickly getting his key out and jamming it into the lock. He turned it with an unsteady hand, and then slipped instead, trying to close the door behind him. But before he could get it all the way closed, his sweaty, unsure fingers slipped against the pie plate, and before he could bring up his other hand to catch it, the whole thing slipped from his grasp.

It bumped into his front on the way down, splattering his shirt and trousers with juice, and he gasped weakly as the whole thing fell on the floor.

He just looked at it for a moment, and then shut the door behind him and slammed his foot down on the aluminum tin, letting the red insides and pastry explode over the entryway.

“Damn it!” he yelled, and then fell to the floor, holding his hands over his eyes. He let himself cry now, the anger, wet tears coming full force as he brought his knees to his chest. He thought of Alex, leaving, the secretaries at the office, staring at him like they already knew he had failed, then Harry, standing there, telling Louis he didn’t want him.

He had ruined it. He had ruined everything.

“Fuck,” he muttered, “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

He curled even harder into himself, his loafers sliding in the blackberry juice on the floor, and he sobbed weakly into his arms.

*******

Alex didn’t come back the next day, either.

Louis hadn’t expected him to, but still, he felt the absence of a key in the lock or his alpha’s footsteps in the hall every moment, like a weight on his bones.

He kept trying to be normal. He had started to scrub his stained clothes from the day before he just left it all in the dolly tub. He had started to clean up the pie and threw away what he could of its remains, leaving it for the fruit flies to feast on. Then he scrubbed at the floor until his hands were raw and then gave up when the red juice wouldn’t come out.

He tried to make himself a cup of tea but kept drinking it too fast and burning his mouth. Or he would get distracted and put too much milk in, or put sugar in, like he was making it for Alex by accident. He tried to draw himself a bath but he couldn’t pull himself inside. He tried to sleep in their bed, but he just curled up on the sofa instead.

He tried to nest, but it wasn’t right. Alex’s shirts were soft and fit in well with his hoard of blankets and pillows, but something was missing. Alex had washed all the sheets in the guest room so they were bare of Harry’s scent, and even if there were there, Louis couldn’t have pulled himself out of bed to look for them if he wanted to. And of course he couldn’t put that jumper back in the pile. He knew exactly where it was, shoved the bottom of his drawer, but he couldn’t get it out. That was why Alex was gone. Because he had wanted Harry.

Alex was angry with him. Harry was angry with him. Because he had wanted too much and been selfish. He was a terrible omega.

Maybe he always had been. In school he had gotten his knuckles smacked for holding his forks the wrong way, his cheeks slapped for speaking too much, poor marks for arranging flowers wrong or burning the meal he had been assigned to make. He was too loud, too sloppy, would never mind a decent alpha the way he was.

Sit up straight. Cross your legs nicely. Keep your clothes nice. Smile.

 

Please your alpha. Listen to them. Pleasure them. Be kind and true.

 

Don’t be a bad fucking omega.

They had never told him he would ruin it by being a harlot. Because that’s what he was. He was a whore. He was a terrible, unfaithful omega. One alpha hadn’t been good enough for him. He had wanted more, and now he had nothing.

Alex would leave him, surely. Harry would never want him again. And he would have no one.

Maybe that was all he had ever deserved.

*******

On Thursday afternoon, Louis was still asleep, his body curled up tightly on the sofa.

Despite the summer heat, he had buried himself under three blankets, all with Alex’s smell lingering on them just enough to keep him inhaling so hard his nostrils hurt. The radio in the kitchen was on; he hadn’t turned it off for a few days. He was keeping a growing collection of bowls and plates on the coffee table, along with long-cold cups of tea and a glass of milk that was starting to smell sour. All around the room, there were rejected blankets and shirts, all things that had lost Alex’s scent, or didn’t smell just right, and Louis had tossed away in frustration.

He needed to get up. He needed to clean. But the weight of the blankets and the warmth of the sun were pinning him in place.

But. Softly, so softly it could have been just a wishful thought, the door creaked open.

 Louis’s head shot up from where it was buried under his blanket. He sniffled weakly, but his throat and eyes were dry and aching from nearly a full week of disuse. He lifted his head and looked to the door, when a thin slice of light from the outside hall was carrying through the door. He could see a familiar shape in the doorway; long legs and a thick coat and big, awkward hands wrapped around a suitcase handle.

“Omega?” Alex whispered softly.

Louis blinked and then stood, keeping the blanket wrapped around him, and Alex shifted in place.

“I’m back, precious,” Alex murmured.

Louis opened his mouth, but then Alex turned on the light, making him close his eyes and hiss.

When he opened them again, he saw Alex staring at the living room, and then at Louis himself. He suddenly became very aware that he was standing in the midst of his ruined nest, and he hadn’t cleaned, and there were dirty clothes everywhere. He had swollen eyes and unwashed hair and he probably looked and smelled awful, and he was wrapped in their old mating blanket.

“Oh, darling,” Alex exhaled.

Louis just stared at him, and then came forward, walking so fast the blanket fell away. He came up to Alex quickly, fast enough the alpha backed up against the wall, his eyes wide, as Louis’s eyes filled again and he reached his hands forward.

“You bastard,” Louis sobbed, smacking Alex’s chest.

“Louis – “

“You fucking bastard! You goddamn fucking – asshole!” Louis screamed. He pounded his hands forward, weakly slapping at Alex’s chest.

“Louis. Stop it.”

“You left me! You left me alone, you – god damn it, stop leaving me!”

He was shouting, and his hands kept flying, blindly, his vision clouding up with tears as he sobbed and yelled. Then, two strong hands gripped themselves around Louis’s wrists, stopping him.

“Omega,” Alex said firmly, “Omega, stop.”

Louis squirmed, pulling at Alex’s hands. Alex sighed, rubbing his thumbs along Louis’s wrists and bowing his head to look at Louis more directly.

“Louis, you’re hurting me. I promised I wouldn’t put my hands on you and hurt you. I’d like you to do the same to me.”

He squirmed again, and then went limp as he looked up at Alex. The alpha was still watching him carefully, his eyes wide and soft as he looked at Louis.  Then pressed his head into Alex’s chest, his hands still trapped in Alex’s wrist, and he finally opened his mouth and let himself sob.

“Oh, baby,” Alex said, “Oh, sweet boy.”

Louis sobbed loud and ugly, and Alex’s release his hands, letting Louis clinging onto Alex’s shirt and dig his fingers into the fabric.  

“I’m so sorry,” Alex said, his hands stroking over Louis’s hair, “I will not leave you again.”

“You have to promise,” Louis hiccupped, “Not for a war. Not for business. Not even when you’re angry. Still right here with me.”

“I promise. Never, never,” Alex said. He pressed his lips to Louis’s forehead, pressing a flurry of light kisses into his skin. It made Louis feel weak and squeeze his eyes shut.

“I was bad,” Louis whispered weakly into Alex’s chest.

“No, sweetheart. You weren’t.”

“I was bad. I was selfish.”

“I forgive you,” Alex said firmly, “I’m sorry I left over it. But I forgive you. I love you.”

“Do you still want me?”

“Of course, precious.”

“Even after Harry?”

Alex paused for a moment, and Louis’s chest went tight, until Alex pulled away and held Louis’s face carefully in his hands.

“I still don’t know how to feel about all of that,” Alex sighed, “But I’m not going to leave. I’m going to be right here, alright?”

Louis just nodded, his eyes still stinging and his chest still aching, his entire flat a mess around him, and finally, he leaned his head to Alex’s chest and closed his eyes.

“Alright.”

*******

Two days after Alex came home, Louis marched into the living room with Harry’s jumper in his arms, his eyes already on the door.

“I’m going to get rid of it,” Louis announced.

Alex glanced up from where he was reading the newspaper in his bathrobe, lounged in his armchair. He flipped down the edge of his paper and lifted his brows, his eyes sparking.

“You are?”

“Yes, I am,” Louis nodded firmly, “I’m taking it to the charity shop. It needs to go.”

“Okay,” Alex said, “I – thank you.”

“No need to thank me. I should’ve done it the first time,” Louis sighed. He walked across the living room and touched Alex’s shoulder, smoothing his hand up to his chin as he smiled and gave him a kiss.

“I love you,” he murmured.

“I love you, too,” Alex parroted. Louis smiled again and touched his cheek, running the pads of his fingers over his stubble before he dropped his hand.

“I’ll be back in about an hour, alright? I might go to the park and read after I drop it off.”

“Alright, my love,” Alex smiled, “Have fun.”

“Thank you, darling,” Louis said, “I’ll see you soon.”

He went out of the flat, then, heaving a deep breath as he walked out of the building and onto the street. He knew the route to the charity shop well; he had gone there plenty of times to drop off Alex’s old shirts or his own jumpers and trousers he had grown bored of over time. He had to turn right at the next street, and then down a few blocks. After he went there, he could go to the bookstore or the flower market if he had time.

But he didn’t turn right. He went left.

He wasn’t going to go to the charity shop. He had known that from the moment he woke up that day. He would get rid of the jumper, get it out of their home, but he was going to give it right back to Harry.

He should have felt guilty for lying to Alex again. But he just kept thinking about Harry’s blackened, swollen face, and he needed to check on him. He wanted to apologize again and tell him he and Alex were okay. He was just going to go one last time before he closed this all up and forgot about it. He would see Harry last time, and then would be able to accept the fact that he might never see him again.

Louis walked briskly to Harry’s neighborhood, his mouth twitching a bit when he saw his building. He jogged up the stairs, his hand tightly gripping the rail. This is the last time he would be in this building; the last time he would touch this rail. No more Harry’s flat after this.

He went to Harry’s floor, sucking in a breath as he approached the door. He caught himself smoothing down his hair and his shirt as he walked, and then stopped himself. He didn’t need to primp and preen for Harry. He would smile and drop the jumper off and tell him that he and Alex were happy again, and that would be that.

He knocked on the door and stood up, standing up straight. He heard footsteps, heard the doorknob click and turn, and in spite of himself, he smiled, his mouth already opening to say hello when the door cracked open.

But when the door opened, it wasn’t Harry on the other side of the door.

It was a beta man. Louis had never seen him before, and he wasn’t sure if he even would have been able to remember meeting him before. He had dark eyes and pale, sandy hair and a plain, unmemorable smile. Louis forced his features to smooth over and rearrange themselves as the man looked at him.

“Hi,” the beta said, “Can I help you?”

“Oh, I’m looking for Harry,” Louis said, “Are you – “

“He left,” the beta cut in before he could finish. Louis’s mouth opened, shut, and opened again as he felt his brows crease.

“Left?” Louis repeated.

“Yeah, he said he was going on some trip, he headed out a week ago, I want to say,” he said, “I’m just keeping his place for him, my gran lives down the hall and told me a spot had opened up.”

“Oh,” Louis said, “I’m sorry, then, I just – I’m sorry.”

“No worries,” he said, “You a friend of his? He left me the telephone number for where he’ll be staying, if you give me your name I can give me a ring, tell him you stopped by.”

“Oh, you don’t have to,” Louis said, “But, um, where is he staying?”

“Brighton, I think.”

“Brighton,” Louis said, and then nodded quickly, “Brighton, that’s nice.”

His lips twitched a bit, and he looked down at the floor. He pulled on the strap of his bag and tried to ground himself, remember why he was there in the first place. 

“I do have, um, one thing,” Louis said.

“Yeah? What’s that, mate?”

“I have his jumper,” Louis said. He dug his hand into the bag and felt the soft, balled up fabric and squeezed his eyes shut, hard, before he reopened them to white sparks flying across his vision, “I – he left it at my flat.”

“Oh,” the beta said. Louis saw his eyes flick to his bond mark, and the omega flinched under the new gaze, “Oh, are you his omega? I’m sorry, I didn’t -- ”

“No, no, no,” Louis said, far too quickly, “I – his brother. I’m engaged to his brother. He just left this at our flat. So. Ah. I wanted to return it.”

Louis pulled the jumper out quickly, the rumpled cream fabric piling out, and he thrust it out, holding it as far away from himself as his arm could reach.

“Ah, alright,” the beta said.

He took the jumper with a smile, and for a moment, Louis hated him. He violently hated him for a reason he could not figure out. Why was he here, when Harry wasn’t? What was he going to do with the jumper? How could he just stand there, so unaware of the turmoil that seemed to be squeezing Louis so hard he couldn’t breathe?

“That’s um, that’s everything,” Louis said, pulling the strap back over his shoulder and straightening himself out.

“Okay,” the beta said, his voice a bit drawn out and flat, “Ah, if you’d like me to let him know you came by, he said he’d call once a week to check how the place was – “

“No, that’s alright!” Louis chirped quickly, “Just wanted to drop the jumper off. Have a nice day.”

He turned and raced back down the hallway, and didn’t hear the door to Harry’s flat close until he was to the stairwell. He gripped the railing hard as he descended, holding his chest with his hand.

Harry was gone. He had left town with a bruised and broken face. And Louis knew he was because of him. Because of everything he had done, how badly he had hurt him. He had sent one of them away, and now the other.

He dragged himself down the stairs and onto the street, squinting hard against the sun. His body felt hot and numb, and he dragged his feet as he walked, telling himself it was fine.

He had come here to return the last bit he had of Harry. It shouldn’t matter he was gone. Louis was done with him. He didn’t care anymore.

He still thought of Harry on the way home, trying desperately to not imagine what he was doing that moment, that second, as Louis tried to forget him from miles away.

*******

Harry hoisted his bag higher up his shoulder and jogged off the train steps, turning up his chin to glance around the Brighton station.

It was the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday, and the place was bustling with tourists going out to enjoy the beaches in the warm weather. He walked quickly through the platform, dodging couples that were holding hands and kissing, oblivious to what was happening outside. Behind him, a pair of omega girls ran off the train, giggling and holding onto their straw hats, their other hands entwined in each other’s. He smiled as he watched them dart past him, and then walked out to the outside of the station, poking his head about to look around at the cars parked around the entrance. 

He saw a grey Mercedes parked by the side of the road, and he could already see a familiar face through the window; a sharp nose and a long, dark hair covered in a ha. It made him smile and jog forward.

“Hey,” Harry called, already smiling as he jogged to catch up with the car parked by the side of the street. The driver looked up, and grinned as well as he opened the door and held his arms out wide – Joseph Taylor, his old school friend, fully visible now.

“Harry fucking Styles,” Joseph called, “Jesus Christ, you’re back.”

“Yeah,” Harry laughed. He came closer until he was back in the arms of one of his old best friends, who was laughing and patting his back.

“Where have you been?” Joseph said, “Your face is fucked to all hell.”

“Oh,” Harry said, lifting his hand to his nose, which was still bandaged and crooked, even if his eyes were less swollen and dark and the scrapes on his nose and forehead had scabbed over.

For a moment, he considered telling Joseph that he had been at war, and that’s where he had been, and that’s where his ruined nose had come from.

“Bar fight,” he said instead, feeling his shoulders loosen as he said it so easily, “I’ve just been home but I figured I should get out of town for the summer.”

“Well we’re happy to have you,” Joseph said, “Rachel already put a room together for you, I think she’s more excited than I am to see you.”

“Rachel,” Harry repeated, and nodded as he remembered Joseph’s wife, who had spent more time in his own bed than Joseph’s when they were school, “God, yeah, it’ll be good to see her again.”

“We’ll be sure to give you a warm welcome back to Brighton, sweetcheeks, that’s for sure,” Joseph chuckled. He ducked into the passenger side, and glanced over, palming Harry’s chin, “You’re still real fuckin’ pretty with your screwed up nose, you know, it’s unfair.”

Harry snorted weakly. He and Joseph had also been in bed more than a few times in uni.

“You’re married.”

“And my wife and I are both well versed in your cock. You’re not mated, are you?”

“No,” Harry sighed, leaning back into his seat, “Drive the fucking car, you bastard.”

Joseph laughed and just slapped Harry’s leg as he started up the ignition.

“Oh, I’m going to have fun with you this summer.”

Harry sighed and leaned back into his seat, only cringing a bit at how Joseph’s car started and bumped along.

“I think a little fun is just what I need about now.”

*******

The next afternoon, Harry had run out to the bakery to get a bag of fresh pastries upon Joseph’s request, and had returned to Joseph and Rachel standing on chairs and stringing paper chains and lanterns to their ceiling.

“What’s this, then?” Harry asked, setting down the paper bag on the counter and his shoulder bag on the nearest chair. They both turned, and Rachel grinned, hopping off her chair and brushing her legs down her grey trousers as she came over to Harry, her blunt brown hair bouncing as she walked.

“Hi, dearest,” she said, tossing her arms around him and kissing him on the cheek, “We’re having a party tonight.”

“A party?” Harry repeated, “Why?”

“For you, dummy,” Joseph said, “And you should be so grateful, too, I invited fucking everyone.”

“Everyone?” Harry repeated.

“Everyone from university, just about. Or at least anyone that’s nearby, we rang them all after you left,” Rachel said as she ripped open the bakery bag on the counter.

“And they didn’t tell you to fuck off?” Harry said.

“Of course not, it’s for you. Everyone adores you, don’t they,” Joseph said.

“I dunno,” Harry sighed, “I don’t think I should be going that wild yet. Maybe have a few settled days.”

Rachel and Joseph snorted at the same time, and Harry sighed.

That morning he had woken up naked, in between the bodies of two of his best friends, with the smell of cannabis clinging to his hair, but that had been a temporary mistake.

“Alright, fine,” Harry said, “As long as it’s small.”

It did not turn out to be small in the slightest.

A few hours later, Joseph and Rachel’s townhouse was packed with people, groups spread all around their living room and porch and back garden. They had plenty of things to drink and smoke, and there were a few people who had brought enough instruments to string together some kind of background music.

Harry tried to float through it all, accepting hugs and kisses on the cheek and trying to catch up with as many people as possible. He recognized about half of them as old friends, although most of them had split into pairings now, a little more divided than they were in school. But they still greeted him warmly and wanted to jump into his arms and know how he was doing.

 

Yes, he told person after person,  he’d moved up North. Yes, the North was a bit dreadful at times but his brother lived there. No, he wasn’t mated. He was a teacher now. Yes, a bit unexpected, that, but he enjoyed it.

He went through the hugs and the greetings, but after a few hours he was so exhausted he resigned himself to grabbing a drink and wandering out onto the porch. He sighed when he saw Joseph sitting at one of the outdoor tables, sipping his own pint and looking out to the many bodies that were clustered in his garden.

“So you’re really still having parties like this, huh?” Harry said as he moved to stand next to where Joseph was sitting. His friend looked up and grinned, raising his own drink to Harry.

“Only on special occasions. And you, my friend, are a real fuckin’ special occasion.”

“Everyone seems good,” Harry said, as he tucked into his pint, looking over at Joseph.

“Yeah, honestly, everyone’s the same as always. Except married and a couple are pregnant.”

“Well at least some of you got your shit together,” Harry laughed.

He looked back across the party, looking at all the people. There were so many new faces and new crowds that Harry didn’t recognize. He took another sip of his drink, trying to get his mind to remember why he was here this summer. To get away, to get better.

“Hey, ah, is there anyone here you think I should meet?” Harry asked.

“What do you mean?” Joseph asked, already focused on topping off their pints.

“I’m trying to take someone out, maybe.”

“Ah,” Joseph grinned, “Well, there are a few people from the old crowd that are still unmated and would be happy to help you out for the summer, or a few other couples that are open…”

“Not like that,” Harry interrupted, “I think…I need to court someone.”

Joseph frowned at that, lifting his brows with a short laugh.

“Court someone? You?”

Harry didn’t laugh at that. Instead he just sighed and shook his head.

“I’m getting old. I can’t keep fucking around. I need a wife. I need…fuck, I need a real house. Kids. Just, I need it.”

“You let me fuck you last night and then you ate out my wife.”

“That was a very bad choice. And you gave me marijuana.”

“And I’ll give you more, if it means you’ll top me next time.”

“Joseph, I’m being serious,” Harry said.

He went back to his drink, rubbing his finger over the rim of his glass while he felt Joseph staring at him.

“Something happened, didn’t it,” he said after a minute.

“I met someone,” Harry admitted, a bit too easily, “A while ago.”

“Didn’t work out?”

“It was never going to work out.”

Harry shook his head, then lifted a hand to push his fringe out his face.

“I just need to move on. I need to be settled and stop moving around.”

He was quiet for a moment, and then he felt Joseph’s hand on his shoulder, nudging him.

“Hey,” he said softly, “It’s alright.”

Harry squeezed his eyes shut and lifted his hand, rubbing over his face while Joseph held onto him.

“Listen, it’s fine. We have fun but fuck, I love my fucking wife, you know? It’s the best thing in the world, being married and have someone to come home to. You deserve that, you do. I think everyone does.”

Harry nodded and pulled his hands away and went for his drink instead before he could look at Joseph again.

“Thanks,” he murmured, “You’re a good friend.”

“My pleasure,” he shrugged, “And you know, I might have someone for you.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Joseph said, “I think she might be here, actually. One second.”

He got up from his seat, and lifted his head, scanning the crowd in the garden. Then he grinned and laughed shortly and pointed across the crowd.

“Yeah, she’s right there! Look.”

Harry sighed and stood, trying to follow where Joseph was pointing, “Where?”

“There. Blue dress,” Joseph said, waving his hand. Harry kept looking, and then finally, he saw a slender, blonde girl in a pale blue dress, talking to a small circle of people by the garden’s fence.

“That’s Alice Lennon. She’s my brother’s friend from uni,” Joseph said, “Just graduated a couple weeks ago and I think she’s staying in Brighton until her flatmates move out.”

“Just graduated uni,” Harry repeated, “Sounds a little young.”

“She’s three years younger than you and also smarter,” Joseph said, “Really nice, too. Loves going to parties and dance halls and everything. But she’s raised up North and everything, like you, think she has pretty conservative family. I know she’s been saying she wanted to look for a mate after she finished school.”

Harry nodded, still looking at the girl as she talked. She was far enough away he couldn’t really see what she even looked like, so he just shrugged.

“I mean, I guess I could talk to her.”

“You know what, I’ll get her for you, one second,” Joseph said.

Harry watched as his friend trudged across the garden, and tapped the girl on the shoulder. She turned, smiling and tossing her arms around Joseph’s shoulders as he hugged her back and laughed in turn. Then she pulled back and started speaking, moving her hands fast as she talked to him. Joseph laughed and nodded along, and then leaned in, talking to her and pointing in Harry’s direction. She looked over at him, and Harry lifted a hand, waving before tucking back into his pint. She turned back to Joseph, and then shrugged. And then they were walking back over to Harry, until they were right in front of him, close enough that Harry decided he would have to stand for this.

“Harry,” Joseph, “This is Alice. Alice, Harry.”

Harry looked at the omega that was now in front of him, his fingers shifting on the glass in his hand. She was on the taller side, nearly the same height as Joseph, her body slender and straight under the plain cut of her dress. She had dark golden hair tied up behind her head and a round face, her nose dotted in freckles and her deep brown eyes blinking easily at Harry.

She was pretty. No sharp edges, no round curves, no crinkles around sapphire-colored eyes.

Good. That was good.

“Hi,” Harry said, keeping his hand firmly in his trouser pocket. It didn’t seem like a good time to reach out for a handshake.

“Hi,” Alice returned. She kept her hands clasped in front of her, swaying a bit as she looked at him.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Harry said. His palm had started to sweat from where it was shoved in his pocket.

“You, too,” Alice smiled. She leaned her head forward, her chin down, blinking at Harry while she smiled gently. Presenting. Careful and quiet.

Harry took another drink.

“Um,” Harry said, “If I’m not interrupting you, maybe we could go in the house and talk. It’s been awhile since I’ve been in town, I’m in the mood to talk to new people.”

“Oh, sure,” Alice said, “Let me just tell my friends where I’m going. I’ll be right back.”

She turned and went back across the garden, back to the small circle of people she had left. She started to tap some people on the shoulders, talking and smiling to them, a little brighter than she had been in front of Harry. Less eager to please.

Joseph jostled Harry’s shoulder, and he glanced over to see his friend’s wide grin.

“She likes you,” Joseph said, and Harry sighed and shrugged, pushing the other alpha’s hand away.

“We’ll see,” Harry said as he watched Alice say good bye to her friends again and come back across the garden, straight towards Harry with a smile, “We’ll see.”

*******

Alex stood in the bathroom, brushing a razor of the last of the hair on his jaw.

It was early in the morning, just around seven, and far earlier than he would normally get up. But this morning he wanted to move slowly as he got ready, even if it meant moving out from the warmth of his bed, leaving Louis behind with a weak whine as Alex pulled his arms away from the omega’s body.

He had been back for a few weeks now, and each night, he climbed into bed with Louis. He woke to him in the mornings and came home in the afternoons to Louis napping on the couch or reading a book in the kitchen, and still, when he kissed him his stomach twisted a bit as he remembered everything Louis had said to him, everything that had happened in their flat.

It hung over him as he washed his hair under the bathtub tap, brushed his teeth, shaved the last of his stubble. The memory of Harry’s scent, and how he had screamed, and how Louis’s voice had trembled as he almost cried when Alex left. And how he had cried for real when he finally returned.

Louis had been a bit…stiff since he had gotten back. Friendly, smiling, but…stiff. Just a bit distant, even when he kissed Alex and cuddled up next to him at night. Maybe he was still angry. Maybe he was still thinking of Harry, even if he hadn’t mentioned him. Alex had heard from one of Harry’s acquaintances in the market he was out of town, and he didn’t know if Louis knew that. He probably did. Omegas gossiped, word out around. And a horrible part of him didn’t want to be the one to bring it up.

“Alex?”  

Alex started and and looked towards the doorway of the bathroom. Louis was standing there, holding onto the tie of his robe and smiling softly. The sight of him made Alex sigh and smile, warmth enveloping the length of his chest. That, at the very least, had not gone away.

“Morning,” Alex said softly, “Did you sleep well, baby?”

“I did,” Louis said. He took a step forward, readjusting his arms around himself, “I woke up when I heard you moving around.”

“Sorry,” Alex murmured. He turned back to the mirror, drawing the razor over his skin again, “Didn’t mean to wake you.”

“It’s alright. I was probably nearly awake anyways.”

He came further into the room, and Alex kept his razor in one hand but watched Louis as he shuffled across the bathroom and came down to sit on the edge of the tub.

“Can I watch you get ready?” Louis asked, and it made the warmth spread further in Alex’s chest. This was different. Louis hadn’t said that in a while.

“Of course,” Alex said.

The omega nodded, and he leaned forward a bit, resting his chin in his hands. Alex looked back at the mirror and kept drawing the razor over his chin and jaw, getting rid of the last bits of dark hair. He picked up his towel and wiped his face, then went about cleaning his razor under the tap. He set it all aside and then picked up his comb, bringing it up to his unruly curls.

“Can I do that, actually?” Louis asked.

Alex turned to look at him and lifted his brows, “What? Comb my hair?”

“Yeah,” Louis said. He shrugged and flicked his eyes up, his gaze wide and hopeful, “Just…kind of want to do it today.”

“Alright,” Alex said. He held the comb out, wiggling it a bit as he offered it, “It’s all yours.”

“Oh. Good,” Louis smiled brightly and stood up as he took the comb, “Can you sit down? Here, maybe?”

He patted the edge of the tub, and Alex nodded.

“Sure, love,” he said. He picked up a clean towel, rubbed it over the still-wet ends of his hair, and then went to sit on the edge of the bathtub. Louis moved until he was standing in front of Alex, and then lifted his hands and began to card his fingers through his hair, the comb following behind his fingertips. Alex closed his eyes and just felt the way Louis’s fingers skimmed his scalp so gently, making him hum softly.

“Love your gorgeous hair,” Louis murmured as he worked, “I remember when I first met you, it was so long, it always got in your eyes. I thought it was so beautiful. I wrote letters to my mum about how I met an alpha with the prettiest curls and how sweet he was and how I wanted pups with those curls.”

Alex chuckled, and reached up to hold onto Louis’s hips. He had heard that story before; he had heard all of Louis’s stories, and he still smiled when he heard them.

“I nearly cried when you cut it a month into our courting, remember?” Louis said, “You kept telling me it would grow back but I didn’t want to listen. I was devastated.”

“I remember,” Alex smiled, “I felt horrible. I wore a hat to our next three outings.”

“You did,” Louis laughed, shaking his head, “And then I felt bad.”

“Those hats looked even worse than my hair.”

“Well, I liked them,” Louis said, “Or maybe I was just too far gone then to notice if they looked bad.”

The omega leaned forward and pecked Alex on the forehead, and Alex closed his eyes as Louis went back to his hair.

Harry had told him to get that haircut. Alex had visited him and said he liked his brother’s hair, and Harry had told him that short hair would look better on him and he should get his hair cut before he went home. Later, he had written Harry a letter berating him for talking Alex into such a bad decision, and Harry had written him back telling him he was going to get Alex’s letter framed, it had made him laugh so hard.

He wouldn’t bring any of that up now; not with Louis’s fingers wrapped so carefully in his curls and his body secured between Alex’s open knees.

Louis carefully combed down Alex’s wild curls, leaving his hair neatly parted, only a few soft waves lingering around his temples. Louis smiled and kissed his forehead, and then backed up and put the comb back on the counter.

“There you go, alpha.”

“Thank you, sweet,” Alex said. He stood and walked over to Louis, kissing him carefully on the lips, “I haven’t even kissed you good morning yet. How could I forget?”

Louis smiled, and ducked his head, but Alex caught his chin with a finger and the omega looked back up.

“Happy morning to you, my sweet boy.”

Louis’s eyes sparked and his cheeks colored, and Alex pecked his forehead before moving away and going back to the counter to slap on his aftershave, put on deodorant, and wash his hands one more time before he went back into the bedroom.

Louis followed him, and stood nearby as Alex opened up his top dresser drawer. The alpha took out a pair of trousers from his drawer and a fresh shirt, breaking the paper ribbon on it so he could unravel it. He shook it a few times, trying to get the creases out, and then Louis stepped forward and reached for it.

“Can I iron it for you?” he asked.

“Oh,” Alex said, “Of course, if you want to.”

“Yes, please. One minute.”

Louis smiled brightly and rushed out of the room. Alex heard their spare closet open, and then a clatter as the ironing board came down. He smiled and shook his head as he put his trousers on, getting a belt and a pair of socks from his second drawer as he waited. Louis used to iron his shirts for him every morning, from the first day they were mated. Sometimes he creased them worse than they had been in the first place, and a couple times he had left in on for too long and burnt the fabric right down to the ironing board. But still, Alex loved to hear the sound of that ironing board clattering every morning and the hiss of the iron over his clothes. Louis had fallen out of doing since Alex had come home. He had missed that sound.

“I have it!” Louis called a few moments later, and then came back into the room carrying the shirt and grinning. It still had a large crease by the shoulder, but Alex just smiled and took it from him.

“Thank you, precious.”

He slid the shirt over his arms, and Louis reached forward again.

“I want to button your shirt for you,” he insisted, and Alex just sighed and shook his head fondly.  

“Okay, Louis,” Alex murmured. This was the Louis he remembered. Not the version that was in love with Harry, or crying on the floor, or pouting in another room and not speaking. His Louis was back, and it felt like he could breathe again. So he would keep saying yes. He would say yes to everything Louis asked him for.

Louis got to work quickly and stuck his tongue out, pinning it between his teeth as he slid each button into place, only stopping when the top button was left, the same one Alex never did up. He smoothed his hands over his shirt and smiled, bouncing on his toes.

“I want to pick out your tie, too.”

“Whatever you want,” Alex said.  

Louis went to the wardrobe quickly and rifled through Alex’s rack of ties with the same careful fingers, and then pulled out a dark green one shot through with gold thread. He held it out to Alex, and the alpha nodded.

“I knew you’d pick that one.”

“It’s my favorite,” Louis said, “Of course I’d pick it.”

He came back over, and without even asking, he looped the tie around Alex’s neck and started to do up the knot, threading the tie together with steady fingers and squinted eyes. When he was finally done he tightened it around Alex’s throat, and then smoothed down the edges of his shirt collar and smiled. He lifted a hand up to Alex’s temple and held his fingers there for a long moment, his eyes wide and sparkling.

“So handsome,” he said, “I’m very lucky, aren’t I.”

“I’m the lucky one,” Alex said.

Louis just nodded, then finally tucked a piece of hair behind Alex’s ear.

“I’ll make you breakfast,” Louis said, “What would you like?”

Breakfast. Louis hadn’t made him breakfast in so long, either.

“Whatever’s easiest,” he heard himself say.

Louis wrinkled his nose and sighed.

“That’s a boring answer,” he said, “I’ll make you French toast. You love French toast.”

“I do,” Alex agreed, “If that’s not too much trouble for you.”

“I want to do something for you,” Louis insisted.

“You’re doing so much for me this morning,” Alex said. It was all things Louis had done before, every day. But he had gone so long without them, and now that they were back, they were all so precious, so enormous, he wondered how he had ever taken advantage of them. 

“Well. I love my alpha,” Louis said, with a small shrug, “That’s all.”

“And I love you, omega,” Alex replied.

He kissed Louis gently again and the omega closed his eyes and sighed happily before opening them again.

“I’ll go get started,” he said, “I don’t want you to be late for work.”  

Louis left a lingering hand on Alex’s chest, and then slowly moved away, until he was back out of the room.

Alex watched after him, and then turned to the little mirror that hung over his dresser and looked at his neat hair, his perfectly pressed collar and tightened tie that made his eyes look greener and brighter. Just like he had always used to look, before he had first boarded that train in a uniform meant for Harry. How he had looked in his own life.

He had just started to get that life back. Had just gotten Louis back.

He wasn’t going to lose it again.

*******

Louis came home from running errands one day in the middle of August, ready to start making Alex lunch, to find his fiancé had already beaten him home.

He smelled the leather and cinnamon as soon as he walked in the door, the strength of it exactly what it normally was when Alex was actually in the room. And sure enough, when he walked down the hallway, he saw Alex standing in front of their closed behind room, a wide grin on his face and his hands behind his back. When he saw Louis he reached out his arms, holding the omega by the shoulders and pulling him into an embrace.

“Perfect timing, china doll,” Alex said after he gave Louis a soft peck, “You took just as long as I thought you would.”

“Hi,” Louis said softly, “What – what are you doing home so early?”

“I took the day off.”

“But you left this morning.”

“I had to pick up something,” Alex said, “Something for you.”

Louis frowned, and it only made Alex’s grin grow.

“Okay,” Louis said, “What did you get for me?”

“Guess.”

“Alex,” Louis huffed, “I don’t to play a game right now.”

“Just guess.”

“Fine,” Louis rolled his eyes, “Flowers? A book? Some chocolate?”

“No, none of those,” Alex said, “Guess again.”

“Oh for God’s sake,” Louis said, “A jumper? Lipstick? A new tea set?”

“Nope, still wrong.”

“If you ask me to guess again, I’m just going to turn right around and walk out again.”

Alex chuckled, and held out his hand.

“Okay, fine. I’ll show you,” he said, “It’s in the bedroom, come on.”

“Oh, alright,” Louis said, taking Alex’s hand, “Did you just put rose petals all over the bed? It took me an hour to clean all that up last time you did that, you know.”

“No, no,” Alex laughed, “You’re so impatient, just wait and see.”

Louis’s bottom lip stuck out, and Alex laughed once more as he walked backwards towards the bedroom door. When he finally arrived, he pushed it open with one hand, and grinned as he pulled Louis through.

“Here,” he said, and held onto Louis’s shoulder, angling him towards the corner of the room.

Louis looked for a moment, and then stopped in place and blinked slowly. He looked for a long time, and he felt Alex behind him, the alpha settling a hand on his shoulder. Slowly, his body moved forward, out from under Alex’s touch so he could walk forward.

There was a new vanity table on his side of the room. It was made of bright, pale wood, with seashell-pink knobs and little white flowers and dotted painted on the edges. There was a little stone bowl in the corner of the vanity, along with a gold tray filled with a new bottle of perfume, a new powder puff and a little vase full of purple flowers. A big mirror was stationed on the back of the desk, spotless clean and trimmed with little brass swirls and flowers, and there was a padded stool tucked under the vanity, the cushion tied with a thick, bright white ribbon.

“I got this made for you,” Alex said behind him.

Louis slowly reached a hand out, touching the sanded wood as he listened to his alpha.

“I had it made a little while ago, and they just had it sitting in the shop. It was going to be my wedding present for you, but, I figured I could get you something better now.”

“Oh,” Louis said. The wood felt almost soft under his hands, pretty and smooth.

“Here,” Alex said, “Sit down, let me show you.”

Louis nodded and pulled out the stool. Its top had a thick, pink velvet pad, the whole thing fashioned with big gold buttons. He sat down slowly, looking in the mirror at himself and Alex, who was moving behind him. The alpha settled one hand on Louis’s shoulder again, and moved his other hand, touching everything on the desk and pointing at things.

“It has a bunch of drawers, they’re all deep so you can put whatever you’d like in them,” Alex said. He pulled one drawer open, pointing to the small wood boxes inside, “And here, I got these little boxes screwed inside them, so you can put your perfume or your compacts or whatever you’d want in there, and it’s easy to find.”

Alex closed the door and went back up to the desk’s surface, and picked up the stone bowl.

“And this little bowl, so you can do your shaving. I know you don’t like having to share the sink with me” Alex said, “I’m sorry it’s all empty. I didn’t want to put any of your things away just yet. I wanted you to do that.”

Louis just nodded, and watched Alex’s fingers go to the tray.

“I got you dried lavender from the flower shop,” Alex said, “And some new perfume. It’s vanilla, I thought you’d like. It’s sweet like your other one.”

Louis kept nodding his head, his fingers curled in his lap. He didn’t know what he was supposed to touch or look at. It was all so wonderful, this gift Alex had gotten him. A gift meant for their wedding, for their lives together, so Louis would have his own place to get ready every morning.

He had been trying to focus on being okay with Alex, feeling at home in his flat again, to not think about the last few months. He hadn’t even thought of their wedding – or getting a new suit tailored and ordering new flowers and cake sending invitations again. He had been trying to fix their present, he hadn’t thought about their future. And now the feeling made him feel flushed and giddy in a way he hadn’t felt since he had planned their wedding for the very first time, over a year ago.

Alex kissed his neck, softly, and Louis gasped, jumping a bit at the sudden touch.

“What do you think?” Alex asked gently.  

“I love it,” Louis said, his lip wobbling a bit.

“Omega,” Alex said, “Are you alright, precious?”

Louis nodded quickly, and then before he could think much more he turned and tossed his arms around Alex’s waist, squeezing hard as he buried his face into his stomach.

“I love you so much,” Louis said, “You’re so good to me.”

“I love you, too,” Alex said, “All I want to do is be good to you.”

Louis sniffled, burrowing deeper into Alex’s shirt.

“You’re wonderful,” Louis said, “You’re perfect.”

He lifted his head, and looked up at Alex, who was just gazing down at him, with bright, soft eyes and a gentle smile on his lips.

“I can’t wait to marry you,” Louis murmured.

“Me either, precious thing,” Alex said. He ran his fingers over Louis’s cheeks, lifted up his chin, “Always and forever, you and me. Just the two of us.”

Louis swallowed, and smiled.

“That’s right,” he agreed, “Just us.”

He pulled back, and held onto Alex’s belt loops, pulling on his waist.

“Come on,” he said, “I want your help putting away my things.”

“I thought you didn’t want me to touch any of your things.”

“You can touch my lipsticks and my comb and everything,” Louis said, “Come on, I’d like your help.”

Alex nodded, and Louis took him to the bathroom and handed him the bins full of Louis’s creams and lotions and cosmetics, and they sat on the floor, sorting through the bins and putting everything away. Louis grabbed Alex’s wrist and pulled him in the right direction for nearly every item, but Alex just laughed and kissed him with each one, and neatly put away each tub and compact until everything was settled inside the drawers.

And then Alex kissed Louis hard, and Louis reached out and grabbed onto the waistband of Alex’s trousers and tried to shove his hands under his belt. Alex gasped and then moaned, going to undo his own belt.

“Omega,” he groaned, and Louis yelped as Alex picked him up by the back of his legs, settling his hands on his backside and pressing.

“Alex,” Louis got out, “Come on, touch me, please.”

“Of course, of course.”

Alex nodded, panting, and settled Louis on the bed, undressing him quickly and with fumbling, awkward fingers. He kissed Louis’s neck, making the omega groan, and rubbed his big hands over his nipples, his belly, and then over the V of his hips, making Louis gasp and squirm and search for his mouth.

“It’s alright, alright, I’ll take care of you, my darling boy,” Alex whispered, and keeping kissing Louis. As he took off his drawers. As he unbuttoned his own shirt and trousers. And he touched and rubbed and licked, he sealed everything with a kiss, especially when he bucked his hips up and settled himself inside, making Louis moan and sigh and cry out, allowing himself to feel the sensation of his bare skin on Alex’s body and the sheets, to get lost in his touch and his body and his sweet words.

It was the closest he had had to a perfect afternoon in a long time.

*******

Louis heard it in the market, while he was getting some preserves.

September was creeping up, and the last of the summer fruit was becoming scarce on the shelves. Louis moved around the shop, picking up jars of strawberries and peaches and examining them for the right color, seeing if they were filled up all the way. He was going to check the shop next door to see if they had vanilla ice cream as a surprise for Alex, so they could eat preserves and ice cream on the balcony after dinner that night.

He found a jar of strawberries and two jars of peaches that seemed fine, and tucked them into his basket. He rounded the corner, already digging in his handbag for his purse, when he heard the sound of laughing from the corner where they kept the ladies’ fashion magazines in paper bags. Two omega girls were standing there, still in their skirts and cardigans from school, and hunkered behind the stands, flipping through the pages of the rags and giggling to each other. Louis smiled for moment, remembering all the times in secondary when he and his friends would go to the drugstore and do the same, the time one of his girl friends had tried to sneak a little tube of lipstick and a pack of cigarettes into her bag and they had gotten banned for a month.

He started walking towards them, considering picking up a magazine for himself, when one of the girls spoke again.

“Do you have Mr. Styles for maths this year?”

“Yeah,” her friend said, “He’s nice.”

“He’s handsome, don’t you think.”

“He’s old, Abigail!”

“No, he’s not,” the girl named Abigail sighed, “I think he looks like a movie star.”

“You’re so weird,” her friend giggled, and then thrust a magazine page her Abigail’s face, “Here, look. Do you think a lipstick like this would make me look like too much of a tramp?”

Their giggling continued, but Louis was frozen in place, still gripping his purse tightly between his fingers.

They were talking about Harry. School had started, and Harry was teaching again. He was back.

Louis stood for another moment, then dashed to the counter to pay for his preserves. He set out his money and grabbed his paper bag quickly, hastily making for the door, the ice cream and magazine forgotten as he bolted down the street, back towards a street he hadn’t been to in quite some time.

*******

When Louis reached Harry’s building, he strode up the door easily, squaring his shoulders as he walked.

His heart was fluttering in his chest, but he kept telling himself, it would all be perfectly fine.

He knocked, and bounced on his toes, his fingers shaking a bit against his paper grocery bag as he waited.

The door opened, and he opened his mouth in turn, ready to shout out Harry’s name, maybe “Surprise!” if he wanted to. Big smile. Happy.

Instead, he was greeted with a girl. A woman. An omega. 

His lips dropped but stayed open as he stared at her, and she just smiled back.

“Hello,” she said, her voice bright and unaffected, “Can I help you?”

Louis just kept staring – at her blue and pink apron tied over her white dress, her her long blonde hair, at her bright smile. She was barefoot, and standing so comfortably in the doorway.

“Uh,” he said, “Who – um. I think I have the wrong flat.”

Louis’s nose flared. He smelled spiced apples.

The omega in the doorway just kept smiling, her brows knitting together a bit.

“Who are you looking for?” she asked.

“Um – Harry Styles?”

“You’ve got the right place, then,” she said, “I can tell him you’re here. Can I have your name?” 

Louis blinked at her, and tightened his grip on his bag.

“I’m Louis,” he said weakly, “I know Harry, could I just come in – “

“Sorry. I need to ask before I let you in,” she said, turning over her shoulder and calling out, “Alpha?”

Louis’s throat went dry at hearing the word leave her lips.

Alpha.

Louis blinked rapidly, trying to keep his eyes dry as he listened.

“Yeah, Al?” Harry called back, and Louis nearly choked out at hearing his voice. He didn’t know how he had always thought it was basically Alex’s voice, but missing something. It was completely different, full of so many things he needed, night and day from the voice he woke up and fell asleep it.

“There’s someone here to see you,” the omega in the doorway said, “An omega.”

“That’s very specific, babe,” Harry’s voice chuckled, and making the omega smile.

“He says his name is Louis,” she called, and Louis swallowed tightly, shaking his head.

“It’s fine, I’ll just – “

“Louis?” Harry called hesitantly, “I – one second.”

Louis backed up, fully prepared to just slip off.

He hadn’t planned for this. This was wrong. Harry had been gone for a few months, this couldn’t –

“Louis?” Harry’s voice said again, and this time, he was right there. Harry was coming towards him, in a fresh undershirt tucked into a pair of black trousers, drying his hands on a dish towel. He smiled hesitantly, and slung the towel over his shoulder as he came towards the door.

“Louis, hi,” he said, and Louis opened his mouth, barely squeaking out a “hi” of his course before Harry slid an arm around the omega girl’s waist and kissed her cheek.

“Honey, this is my brother’s fiancé,” Harry said, and then flicked his eyes to Louis, “Louis, this is Alice. She’s my omega.”

There was a hand squeezing Louis’s throat, not giving him any air. He blinked, uselessly, and looked at Alice, then Harry, then back to her, trying not to let his eyes linger at her throat. 

“Oh,” he said, “I didn’t – I didn’t realize you got mated. Congratulations.”

Alice laughed brightly, and shook her head.

“Oh, no. We’re just courting at the moment. But who knows.”

She shrugged and laughed again, and Harry smiled, squeezing her side.

Fuck. Fuck, Louis had to go.

“I’ll leave,” he blurted out, “I just wanted to say hello, but – you’re in the middle of something.”

“No, no, please, come in,” Alice said, “I’m making pork chops. You can have dinner with us.”

“I’m sure Louis has to get home for his own dinner, Al,” Harry said, glancing at Louis.

It made his face burn. Harry wanted him to go away.

Shit.

“Could I just come in for a little while?” Louis said, “Just for a moment. I’ll leave before you eat.”

“Of course!” Alice agreed, but then paused and turned back to Harry, “Oh. I mean, Alpha, is that okay if Louis stays?”

Harry shrugged while Louis just stared at her again.

“I don’t see why not,” he said, “Come in, Louis.”

“Thank you,” Louis managed, his voice dry.

He followed Harry and Alice into the flat, and glanced around the studio flat. It was pristinely clean, everything nearly sparkling. The bed was neat and folded down, Harry’s usually messy desk was cleaned and his papers were stacked perfectly, the kitchen counter was full of neatly labeled ceramic jars. The air smelled thickly of spiced apples.

“Here, Louis,” Alice chirped, reaching out, “I’ll put your bag down for you.”

“Oh,” Louis got out, and feebly let this strange omega take his bag and put it down on the kitchen counter. Harry watched her, and then turned to Louis, lifting his brows.

“Louis,” Harry said, “Do you want something to drink?”

“Uh,” Louis blurted, “A beer.”

Alice frowned a bit at that, glancing at Louis.

“We have some wine. Would you like that instead?”

“Louis likes beer,” Harry filled in, “That’ll be fine.”

“Oh. That’s funny,” Alice smiled, “I haven’t met very many omegas who like beer.”

“Oh. Yeah,” Louis said weakly.  

Louis didn’t appear to hear, she just hummed and went over to the icebox, getting out a pair of beers. She plucked a bottle opener out of his apron pocket, and smiled as she came over to Harry.

“Thanks, babe,” Harry said as he accepted both the bottles and then handed one to Louis, “We’re going to drink these out on the deck, is that okay?”

“Okay. I’ll just finish up dinner,” she smiled, and then dipped her hand into the same pocket and held out a pack of fags and a lighter, “Do you want your cigarettes?”

What the fuck, Louis thought as he gripped his bottle, who the fuck is this girl.

“That’s alright. I’ll pass right now unless Louis wants one,” Harry said. It made Alice look at Louis again, with that same soft frown.

“You smoke, too?”

“Sometimes,” Louis replied, “Not today, though.”

“Funny,” Alice said softly, then shrugged and tucked the lighter and cigarettes back into her apron, “I’ll have them if you want them, Alpha.”

“Thanks,” Harry nodded, and then gestured to the deck door, “Louis, do you want to join me outside for a second?”

“Sure,” Louis said, his feet falling in step with Harry as they walked across the flat and back outside.

Even Harry’s deck was pretty, with pretty fabric chairs and a vase of cotton branches on the outdoor table, next to Harry’s ashtray. He didn’t remember any of that being here. Was it all new? Had that come with her, too?

“I assume Alex doesn’t know you’re here,” Harry said, taking a sip of his drink, and Louis just shot him a look.

“Alex doesn’t need to know where I am,” Louis said. He felt tired just saying it.

“I know, I know,” Harry said, “I just hoped he’s calmed down a little about everything.”

Harry stroked his nose, and Louis blinked, leaning forward to really look at it. Harry had a scar along the bridge now, bright white, and the line of his nose had a bump in it and leaned to one side. Louis gasped weakly.

“Oh, god.”

“Well, Jesus, I didn’t think it looked that bad,” Harry chuckled, “I kind of like it. I think it adds character.”

Louis nodded, weakly, and gripped his warmed beer hard in his hands.

“Where did you go?” Louis said, “Where have you been all summer?”

“Brighton,” Harry said, “I went to visit some old friends.”

“You didn’t say anything.”

“Thought it was for the best.”

“Well. I missed you.”

“I’m sorry, then,” Harry shrugged and took a drink.

Louis kept searching his face, looking for any real apology, any sign that he had missed Louis even a fraction of how much Louis had missed him.

“Did you get your jumper?”

“My what?”

“Your – your jumper. The one with roses on it,” Louis said, “You left it in the flat, and I came by to return it…but you were gone. I gave it to the man who was staying here.”

“Oh,” Harry said, his brows lifting, “Yeah, that. David did give it to me. He didn’t mention you’d been the one to bring it by, though. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

Louis stood still for a moment, worrying his lip with his teeth, while he watched Harry take a long drink, his throat jumping as he did so. Louis lifted his hand, pressing it to his chest, and forced himself to look away from Harry’s neck.

“So. Alice,” Louis stuttered out, and Harry lifted his brows and took his mouth off his bottle.

“What about her?”

“She’s new.”

“Yeah,” Harry said, “We met over the summer. Some of my old friends set us up.”

“She looks young.”

“She’s twenty-two.”

“Oh. Well, she seems…neat.”

“She likes cleaning.”

“And she cooks?”

“Very well.”

“And she’s polite. And she asks your permission for everything.”

Harry’s brows lifted again.

“I don’t know what you’re trying to say.”

“I’m not trying to say anything.”

“Are you angry, Louis?”

Louis frowned, gripping his beer hard.

“Maybe.”

“For finding someone? Or for leaving?”

“Both. I don’t know,” Louis said, his chest growing tight.

“I don’t see why you’d be angry at me,” Harry said, “Now you can be with Alex, and I can have my life, and I won’t muck everything up for either of you.”

“Sure,” Louis said. That made sense. When Harry left, he had been in love with Louis, and then Alex had come back, and that was it. A one-sided story. If it ended, what would it mean to Louis?

Everything. Now, it meant everything.

He just stared at Harry, who was still sipping his beer, and finally, Louis slammed down his own bottle on that beautiful, perfectly made table, loud enough to make Harry stop drinking and open his mouth.

“You – you can’t love her,” Louis spit out.

“Louis.”  

“She’s – she’s like a doll. She’s a model in one of my omega studies textbooks,” Louis said, the words coming out fast and hot, “And you don’t want that, you like parties, and you like dancing, and you’re funny, and – “

“You don’t know what I want,” Harry said, “And be careful how you talk about my omega.”

“You’re not even mating! You’re courting her!” Louis said. Shouting. He was shouting, now. “Why is she in your house, anyways? Are you fucking her? Or is she too proper for that, too? Does she just stay here to do your cooking and cleaning?”

“Louis,” Harry snapped, “You’re asking very personal questions there.”

The omega’s lips closed, pressing painfully together, and Harry just looked at him and sighed.

“Why are you here, Louis?”

“I wanted to say hello,” Louis said weakly, “I heard you were back in town, I just – “

“How did you know I was away in the first place?”

“I came by. I knocked. You had a someone here, and --”

“You came by,” Harry closed his eyes and shook his head, “Of course you did.”

“I just wanted to see my friend, Harry,” Louis snapped, “You said we were friends.”

“Right. We are. But you’re overstepping your boundaries here.”

Louis twisted his hands around the neck of the bottle and kept his head down.

“I just – “ Louis said, “I just wish you wanted me here.”

“Of course I want you here. You’re just being rude.”

“Maybe there’s a reason I’m rude,” Louis grumbled, “Did you ever think of that?”

“Alright, Louis,” Harry sighed, “I’ll play along. Why are you being so rude to me, and to my omega?”

Because I don’t want her here. I want you. I want to be the only one here with you.

“Because – “ Louis mumbled, and then groaned and shook his head.

“I can’t hear you, Louis.”

Louis bristled against, his shoulders tight, and his head snapped up, his entire face burning.

“Because I’m bloody in love with you!” Louis shouted, “Are you fucking happy now!”

He could barely register that the words were out of his mouth, and he squeaked weakly, slapping a hand over his mouth.

Harry was staring at him, his mouth hanging open. His eyes had gone wide, and Louis could see all the whites around his bright irises. The alpha’s scent flared and Louis winced, involuntarily taking a step back.

“You’re what,” Harry got out.

“I couldn’t – I couldn’t tell you,” Louis sputtered, “But – right before Alex came home, I realized – fucking hell, I realized I loved you, too.”

Louis blushed furiously, and Harry shook his head and glanced away.

“You don’t love me. You love Alex.”

“I love both of you,” Louis said. His voice was starting to snap again, and he was sure his whole face was scarlet.

“You don’t mean that,” Harry said. He stood up from his seat and paced, “You’re saying that because of the war, and – I confused you, I shouldn’t have done that.”

“I’m not confused, Harry. I know how I feel.”

“You don’t.”

“Don’t tell me what I feel!” Louis shouted. He feebly stomped against the deck, making Harry wince, “You – you’re always telling me what to do!”

Harry whirled around then, lifting his brows.

“I tell you what to do?”

“No – you – you and Alex! You’re fucking morons, you always tell me – damn it!”

Louis sat down, and shoved his head between his knees, trying to breath in.

He wanted to go home. He wanted to jump off the bloody balcony. He needed to leave.

He heard the door behind him open, and his stomach lurched.

“It’s fine, Al,” Harry said quickly before Alice could say anything, “Louis got some upsetting news, today, that’s all. Go back inside, we’ll be done soon.”

“I – “ Alice said softly, “Yes, alpha.”

The door closed, and Louis lifted his head when he heard the door close.

“Yes, alpha,” he parroted under his breath. Harry’s head snapped to him, and he sighed.

“Louis, you should go home,” Harry said weakly, “Alice and I are going to have dinner soon.”

Louis blinked at him, biting his lip hard.

“Come home with me,” Louis murmured, “Please, Harry.”

“I can’t,” he said, “You know I can’t.”

Louis felt his eyes fill up, but his body felt weak, his stomach hollow and empty and his chest aching.

“Go home, Louis,” Harry said, “Tell Alex you love him. Be happy.”

“Fuck you,” Louis murmured.

Harry’s eyes widened a little, and his mouth opened.

“Louis.”

“I can tell you to fuck off if I want to. Fuck you, Harry.” 

He stood up, gathering up his handbag and holding it to his chest.

“I won’t come back and bother you or your fucking omega. Don’t worry about that. I’ll go home to your brother like I’m supposed to.”

“Louis – “

Louis just shook his head and went to the door, pulling it open and not listening to what Harry was saying behind him. It sounded like his name. It sounded like ‘please.’ But he couldn’t listen. He just walked quickly through the doorway, through Harry’s living room, leaving his groceries behind as he swept past the suffocating smell of spiced apples and back out of the flat.

*******

Louis dragged his feet back to his own flat. He had checked his watch and saw it was well past 5 now, which meant Alex was home. He didn’t want to talk to him now, he wanted to take a long bath and light a candle and forget about all of this. Forget about Harry and Alice and apples and the look on Harry’s face as those treacherous, bitter words had left Louis’s lips.

Still, as slow as he moved, he found himself back at their own flat.

The door was unlocked, already, and when he came in, Alex was sitting in his favorite chair, his spine straight and his eyes to the door. He relaxed a bit when he saw Louis, but then Louis saw his nose twitch and his eyebrows lift. 

“Where have you been?” he asked. It should have been concerned, the same way it usually was when Louis lost track of time and came in late. But it was flat, barely a question. Louis’s lip quaked, and he turned his eyes down.

“Harry’s,” Louis squeaked out, and Alex sighed.

“I told you not to go there,” he said, “I could have guessed you would, though. I heard he came back a few weeks ago. One of the blokes at work has a son in his class.”

“I’m sorry,” Louis said. His eyes were full now, and he squeezed them tight as wetness slipped out and onto his cheeks. He heard Alex sighed, and then he blinked his eyes open, Alex had leaned forward in his chair, looking at Louis with rounded, concerned eyes.

“Precious thing. I’m not upset with you,” Alex said, shaking his head, “Come here. Can I have a kiss?”

Louis frowned, shuffling his feet.

“Are you really not mad?”

“No, darling. I’m not,” Alex said, “I promise. I just want to kiss you. You worried me sick, silly boy.”

Louis nodded, slowly, and then shuffled over to where Alex was sitting. Alex reached out to touch his waist, and immediately, Louis melted. He moved and shifted until he was in Alex’s lap, and he buried his head into his shoulder, smelling his tobacco-choked cardigan. Alex pet his hair, scratching his hair.

“What happened, little love?” Alex said carefully, “Did Harry say something to you?”

Louis heard the edge in Alex’s voice, and he just squeezed the edge of Alex’s cardigan and nodded his head weakly. Harry had said so many things. Too many things. And so had Louis.

Eventually, Louis sighed and mumbled against Alex’s shirt.

“He has an omega.”

“What was that, doll?”

Louis lifted his head, trying to make his voice clearer.

“Harry. He has an omega. There was a girl there. He’s courting her.”

Alex blinked at him and frowned.

“Oh,” Alex said, “Are they serious?”

“I guess,” Louis shrugged, “He seemed to like her.”

Alex nodded.

“That’s – huh. Interesting,” he said, “Well. That’s good, maybe…”

A weak sob broke from Louis’s lips, and he clapped his hand over his mouth, hoping he could take it back. More tears slipped out as he stared at Alex, trying to find hardness in his eyes. Louis was crying over Harry being with another omega. He wouldn’t do that if his entire heart belonged to Alex. He wouldn’t care. He wouldn’t have gone there in the first place if Harry was nothing more than a friend.

But there was nothing dark in Alex’s gaze. Instead, his eyes softened, and he pet Louis’s back.

“Oh, precious boy,” Alex murmured, “I’m sorry.”

Louis shook his head, his lips quivering so hard he wondered how he could speak.

“You know why I’m upset,” he said, “Why are you saying it’s okay?”

Alex looked at him for a long moment, and then sighed and kissed his forehead.

“Because you’re upset, and it’s my job to comfort you when you’re upset, regardless of why that is,” Alex said, “Because I adore you, sweet boy. I love you with my entire heart. And I think I’ve realized that will I love you regardless of what happens.”

Alex’s eyes turned wet for a moment, and he took a deep breath as he held Louis’s cheeks in his shaking, calloused hands.

“I will love you even if one day you decide you do not love me.”

Louis sat in Alex’s lap, with his thighs folded against his mate’s middle, his body cradled so perfectly in his alpha’s heat, and all he could do was stare at the man in front of him, with his new stubble and gentle, Christmas-tree-green eyes and nervous, soft mouth. Louis’s mouth opened, and he just blinked. He swore he could feel a twinge in the mark on his neck, an ache in his chest like the chambers of his very heart were being threatened to be tugged apart.

“I will always love you,” he said. He reached out and ran his hands over Alex’s face, his cheeks and mouth and mouth, permanently crinkled now by stress lines, “Ridiculous boy, you are my world. How can I not love you for the rest of my life?”

Alex gazed at him, his mouth falling up, and then pulled Louis against his chest and held him firm. And then Louis’s beautiful, sturdy alpha wept against Louis’s shoulder.

“Precious omega,” Alex murmured, his mouth ghosting Louis’s neck, “Love of my life.”

Louis grasped onto Alex’s shoulders, and hugged him tightly as Alex shook against him. Louis had seen Alex cry so many times. In university, before a hard test. The time he was hammering a nail into the wall and slammed the hammer into his thumb. The night of their mating. But now, he was crying like Louis had never seen before, blabbing out words Louis barely understood.

“I’m sorry I left. The water, Louis, the water was so high. And so dark. And so cold. My father, Louis, our bloody fucking father, I couldn’t stop him. Harry, oh god, Harry, fuck – “

Louis just gripped onto Alex’s face and his curls and kissed him, licked at his tears. He was stripped away, a raw spirit, trying to comfort his alpha and scent him and cure him of his pain, wrapped in each other like it was the dawn of the world.

“I’m sorry,” Alex said, and then, in the next breath, “I forgive you.”

“Me too,” Louis said, kissing under each of Alex’s eyes, “Me too, my love.”

They stayed still for awhile, Alex’s breath heavy in Louis’s ear as they cradled each other, Louis’s nose in his chest, everything smelling like burnt chocolate and tobacco and laundry soap.

“I was going to buy you ice cream,” Louis said eventually, “And strawberries. I left the strawberries at Harry’s house. And I forgot the ice cream.”

“Fuck the bloody ice cream,” Alex laughed weakly as he nuzzle into Louis’s temple, “I have you, my love. My sweetest desire. Only thing I could ever want.”

Louis closed his eyes, and held on tightly to his alpha. His beautiful boy, his soul made into a person.

And for just a moment, it was enough. It was everything he needed.

 

*******

Later, when Louis had calmed down and the hiccups had dissolved from his voice, Alex crawled in bed next to him and settled an arm around his waist. Louis closed his eyes and felt as Alex rubbed his skin, over his stomach and hips, and hummed and kissed his shoulder. The alpha’s skin was warm and smelled like leather shoes and bitter chocolate, and Louis leaned into it, nosing into Alex’s shoulder.

Alex let out a pleased little sigh, and then tightened his arm around Louis, his voice careful when it came out.

“Can I ask you something, my love?”

“Of course,” Louis said immediately, “You can ask me anything you want.”

He heard Alex swallow, and instinctively moved closer to him. Alex sighed and touched Louis’s hair, moving his lips down to touch the crown of the omega’s head.

“Why didn’t you leave?”

Louis lifted his head a bit, trying to catch Alex’s gaze in the darkness.

“What on earth do you mean?”

“I mean – “ Alex sighed, “Why didn’t you leave me the first time, after I got in that fight with Harry?”

“Oh, sweetheart,” Louis sighed.

“No, no, I need – I need to understand,” Alex said, “Because…you love Harry. And’s fine. But..I was a bad alpha for you. So why didn’t you go?”

Louis frowned, and moved in to touch Alex’s face.

“Why are you saying ‘was’?” Louis asked, “You’re still my alpha.”

Alex tried to shift away from him a bit and sighed.

“Even with Harry?”

“Harry or not, you’re my alpha, love,” Louis said, “And I wasn’t going to leave you.”

“But” Alex asked, his voice quaking, “I was terrible, then. I was angry. I shoved you. I screamed at you.”

“Alright, yes, you weren’t your best,” Louis sighed, “But that’s not who are you. You were stupid and angry and hard headed but…you’re not normally like that. You’re sweet, and smart, and I love you very much. And you were an arse these last few months but that’s not the alpha I let mate me, and that I’m going to marry. So no, I’m not going to leave you.”

Alex nodded, and then was quiet for another moment before he spoke again.

“Can I ask you another question?”

“Of course, my love.”

“Why do you like Harry?”

Louis paused, and then reached up, clicking on his bedside table so he could look at Alex fully. Alex blinked hard against the light, and Louis gripped his face in his hands and smiled as he spoke.

“Well, he’s very handsome, for one” Louis smiled, making Alex snort weakly before Louis could continue, “He’s very kind. And he’s smart, and funny.”

“Am I…not any of those things?”

“No, you are. You two are very similar. But you’re different,” Louis said, “You’re very sweet, love, but you keep it inside when it’s not just us. Harry is more affectionate, and all the time, not just in private. And I like both. I like when it’s something special between us, but I also like the idea of getting to kiss in public.”

He brushed back Alex’s curls, and kept talking, the words tumbling out easily now.

“And you’re both smart, but you express it different ways. And you have different senses of humor. You’re more traditional than Harry is, you like rules more, and he doesn’t really follow anything,” he said, “But I think most of all, I like that you balance each other. I like him only if I know I can have you, too.”

“Of course you can have me,” Alex breathed out easily. His lips shifted, and he turned his eyes down, “I’m just sorry you can’t have Harry, too.”

Louis’s mouth open, and he touched Alex’s lips, causing the alpha to just smile at him carefully. Louis’s lips moved a bit, and he breathed out softly, a question quivering on his life.

Harry, too? Alex would let him have Harry, too, if that was possible?

He couldn’t get the question out, but Alex just looked at him, his eyes gentle and celery green in the bright light, and all Louis could do was reach out and collapse into Alex’s chest. His alpha’s arms came up to hold him carefully, and rocked him as Louis pressed his nose into his skin, breathing in his scent and knowing, he wasn’t angry. And that maybe, if he had asked, Alex would have said yes.

*******

Harry really wished he hadn’t given his students a test.

It was on his syllabus, and they had studied for it, but he really just should’ve given them the weekend to study for it and given it on Monday. Because now it was Friday and he had a stack of sixty tests to get through. Not that he could focus on them anyways.

Even as he rubbed his forehead and checked off answers and wrote little letter grades with a circle around them in the corner, he was still thinking about Louis. He had been thinking of him since he had come home, really, and his neighbor’s grandson David had thanked Harry for letting him stay in the flat, and then had said someone had come by with something for Harry. His jumper. His jumper that reeked of Louis and made him gasp and quickly shut it in a drawer while Alice had been done paying the cab driver outside. He had forced himself not to open that drawer, not to think or it or Louis. But of course then Louis had come over, and yelled at him, and told him he was in love with him. And he had reentered Harry’s thoughts all over again.

It was a treacherous thing for Louis to say, and he couldn’t tell whose fault it was. He couldn’t tell if he had strung Louis along or if Louis had just stared at Harry’s face enough for nine months to confuse him with his brother. Either way, it didn’t matter, not after Alex beat his face in for something he deserved. Sleeping in his brother’s bed, with his fiancé – he never should’ve done that. He knew, even if he had a hard time regretting it, ever now. That was why he had slammed the door in Louis’s face the first time he had tried to come over, looking so sweet and pretty and with that damn pie. And then why he had left town. And then why he had told him he needed to leave. Because he didn’t regret a moment of touching Louis, spooning him, giving him food and tea and cigarettes to share.

And he needed to regret it, or at the very least, forget it.

“Alpha?”

Harry’s head jerked up as he was thrown out of his thoughts, and he turned in his chair as he blinked. His stomach churned a bit with guilt as he looked behind him and saw Alice was sitting on the bed, wearing one of Harry’s work shirts she must have fished out of the hamper. She had one leg tucked under her and the other swinging off the side of the bed, and when Harry looked at her, she smiled softly.

“What do you need, Al?” Harry asked.

“Can you come into bed?” she asked, “It’s late.”

“In a few minutes,” Harry said, “I have a lesson I really need to plan out.”  

“Oh,” she said, tucking her hair behind her ear, “Well, I don’t want to disturb your work.”

Harry leaned back in his chair, looking at her for a moment. Her eyes were big and dark and lovely, gazing up at him, barely asking for anything, always eager to please. It made Harry close his eyes for a moment, and he tipped his head back.

The thing was, he had tried. He had taken Alice on multiple dates over the summer – to the library, to the carnival, to dinner. He had brought her gifts, given her kisses, brought her up to Joseph and Rachel’s guest room and turned the lights off and done whatever she wanted to do. And when he asked her to come back with him, to move in, for a few months or forever, whatever worked out, he had meant it. Alice was a good match for him. She was smart and funny, gentle and eager to please, traditional enough that she was content to stay home and make Harry lunch and rearrange his furniture but modern enough that she had no qualms about Harry undoing her buttons before they had mated. And that was good for Harry. It was everything he probably would’ve wanted years ago, and it was enough to make him forget, just for a little bit.

And then Louis had come into his house, and it had been over the second Harry had smelled him, and he had been overwhelmed with memories of Louis’s fingers touching his back, his slender body tucked under Harry’s arm. As guilty as he felt for admitting it, the memories of it were better than anything else he could ever have now.

“How about I take a break,” Harry said, “Ten minutes, how would you like that?”

Alice’s eyes shifted, but she just smiled and shrugged.

“If that’s what you want.”

“Al,” Harry sighed, “Yes. It’s fine. I’m barely getting anywhere, could use a break anyways.”

He stood up from his desk, cringing as his knees popped from disuse, and walked the short distance to his bed. Alice smiled and moved, making room in the bed for Harry to join her.

The moment Harry was settled, she had her hand on his chest and was leaning in, her lips pursed out, and Harry sighed and gave her a kiss. She pushed her lips firmly against his own, opening her mouth and sighing her his, her fingers firm on his shirt front. He chuckled a little, lifting his hand and tucking it against her shoulder. Her body was warm, and willing, and right here, and he touched her and kissed her and let her swing her slim thighs around him. She leaned forward to kiss him, the open front of his shirt on her falling forward, letting his gaze down to every bit of her autumn-paled skin, and he sighed happily as he kissed her, pushing his hips up, making her squeak.

“Alpha,” she groaned, and Harry chuckled again.

“Alright, alright, one second,” Harry said.

Harry reached for his bed side drawer, where he kept the condoms and Alice’s little plastic diaphragm. He needed this, maybe. He just needed to get laid and then to sleep. That wouldn’t fix everything but it would fix tonight.

Then, his hand had just touched on the drawer knob, and Alice settled a hand over his own, making him pull back and lift a brow.

“What?”

“Maybe…we could do without those,” she said. She lifted her brows, and a small, hesitant smile crossed her mouth.

Harry didn’t return it.

“No.”

Alice’s smile dropped and her brows knit tightly together.

“We could be careful.”

“I’m not doing anything without a condom, Al,” Harry said, “Unless you want your diaphragm.”

“No, I hate that thing. It’s horrendous.”

“Then condoms it is.”

Alice was fully frowning now, and exhaled sharply.

“Why, though?”

“Alice,” Harry sighed, as he sat back on his heels, “Don’t fight with me on this. You know why I have to use them. What could happen.”

“I know,” Alice said softly. She was looking away now, and her lips kept pursing, “But -- well, that wouldn’t be bad, would it? We could just get started early.”

Harry just stared.

“You want a baby? Right now?”

“Not right now, necessarily.”

“You’re talking like you are.”

“I’m just saying it wouldn’t be the worst thing,” she said, a hesitant smile coming onto her face, “A happy accident, you know?”

“It’s not an accident if you’re asking me to fuck you bare.”

Alice’s face screwed up, and she sat back on her heels.

“Forget it, then.”

“No, we’re not forgetting it. You’re being ridiculous.”

“No I’m not.”

Harry rubbed a hand hard over his forehead, “For God’s sake.”

“Harry, my sister was mated after six months. It’s been four for us.”

“You’re not your sister. I’m not her alpha. We’re not doing that.”

Alice’s lips pursed again, and she slipped her legs off of Harry.

“Babe – “ Harry said weakly, but Alice shook her head.

“Harry, you don’t want to mate me, do you?”

“What?”

Alice lifted her head a bit and huffed, her lip poking out.

“I mean, you’re courting me, and you wanted me to come live with you, and that’s all fine. But you don’t want to marry me, do you? Or mate me, or have pups with me?”

Harry laid in place, frozen. He didn’t know what to say to that. He had tried so hard to want that. He could manage a life with Alice. He could offer her a proposal by the end of the year and a pup by next summer. He could do that. But he could never want that. A part of him, deep down, would know he was lying to himself, no matter how hard he tried.

Alice just shook her head.

“No, then?” she said, “That’s okay.”

“Alice – “ he got out, but she just sighed and stood up.

“Harry, it’s fine,” she sighed, “I understand.”

Alice climbed off the bed, and Harry watched her. She went to the chest of drawers that had stored her clothes for the last month, and she quietly started to take off Harry’s shirt, her back to him as she undid the buttons.

“I didn’t know if – “ she started to say, then shook her head, “I didn’t know if it would work out, I guess. I wanted to think it would. Maybe that was silly of me.”

She was pulling her clothes out now, leaving them in middle piles. She went to the bed side table and pulled her tin of mints off the table, then went into the bathroom and started to rustle around.

“Alice,” Harry called, “What are you doing?”

“Getting my things,” Alice said, “So I can go.”

“Go?” he repeated.

Alice poked her head out of the bathroom and lifted a brow.

“Yes, go.”

She returned a moment later with an armful of her combs and cosmetics, and then dumped them onto Harry’s desk. Then she dug under the bed and pulled out her suitcase, the same one she had brought from Brighton a few months ago.

“I’m sorry. I’ll sleep on the couch,” Harry said, “Don’t go.”

“No, no,” she sighed, “I think I want to leave now, if that’s alright.”

Alice paused for a moment as she shoved her clothes into her suitcase, her eyes flipping up at Harry as she smiled sadly.

“We’re over, aren’t we?” she said, “That’s right, isn’t it?”

Harry wanted to say no. He wanted to cling onto the scrap of normalcy he had given himself this month; a mate and a future and something normal for once.

Instead he said, “I suppose so.”

Alice nodded, and then kept packing up her things. All of the bits and pieces she had brought into Harry’s life, disappearing by the second.

She didn’t ask why it was over, and Harry was glad. He didn’t know if she knew about Louis. Maybe she did. She was a smart girl and they had yelled so loudly that horrible afternoon. That all would make sense, if she knew.

But she didn’t ask. She just packed up her things and then went to the bathroom and changed into the last of her own clothes.

When she came back, she picked up her suitcase and offered Harry a tight-lipped smile.

“It’s late,” Harry managed to say, “Do you have somewhere to stay?”

“I have money saved up. I can get a hostel for a few days and then I’ll go back to Brighton for a little while and find a job. I don’t have much else to do.”

“That hostel is across town,” Harry said, “I’m not letting you walk there alone.”

“I’ll be just fine.”

Harry sighed and stood up, and went to the front entrance to fetch his shoes and his coat.

“Let me walk you there, Alice,” he said, “It’s the least I could do, for a friend.”

Alice looked at him for a moment, and then, slowly, she smiled.

“Okay,” she said, “Thank you, Harry.”

He nodded, and then walked out of the flat together. It was bitter cold, and the walk was long and through some areas Harry would rather avoid. He reached out to pull Alice close to his side, but she rolled her eyes at him and kept walking, her chin tilted high. He just shook his head and smiled.

It had been a good few months with her. He didn’t regret knowing her, sharing a life with her, for a brief moment. But that’s all it was – a brief moment in his life. Not meant to last.

They finally made it to the hostel, a small two-story house with a fading, yellow light turned on outside. All the windows upstairs were black, but when Harry knocked on the door, an older, tired looking beta woman answered the door and smiled, ushering Alice inside with a friendly smile.

“Sorry, dear,” she said to Harry, “You can’t come in. Policy.”

“That’s fine,” he said, “I just wanted to pay for her stay tonight, and then I’ll be on my way.”

Alice opened her mouth as Harry opened his purse up, but then just smiled as he handed over the notes to the hostel worker. She took it from him and smiled, and then nodded to Alice.

“Come along, dear, let’s get you a room.”

“Can I have a moment with my friend, please?” Alice asked. She was already turning to Harry before the hostel worker nodded in return.

They looked at each other for a moment, Alice with a sweet, upturned face and smiled, and Harry sighed.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said. Alice just shrugged, in turn.

“You’re a wonderful alpha, Harry,” Alice said, “Maybe just not for me.”

She came forward, then, and before Harry could react, she kissed him on the cheek. He blinked at her as she moved away, and she smiled.

“I hope you find someone for you really soon, Harry,” she said.

Then she slipped into the front hall of the hostel, and the door was closed, leaving Harry out in the dark and the cold alone.

He stared at the door for a moment, and then sighed, flipping up the collar of his coat and he turned around. He had a long walk home.

*******

The next day, Saturday, Harry woke to knocking at his door.

He groaned and lifted his head, rubbing a hand over his face. He was sleeping diagonally in his newly empty bed, his feet hanging over the side and brushing the wall. His clock read somewhere in the middle of the afternoon, but if it wasn’t for the knocking, he wouldn’t have had any reason to get out of bed. He had gotten home late last night after dropping Alice off at the hostel, and he had yet to get up, clean up his flat and think what her leaving meant for him.

The knocking kept coming.

Harry groaned again and pulled himself out of bed. He found his robe where it was hung on the back of the bathroom door and he tied it around his naked body, running a hand through his tangled, greasy curls as he plodded to the door. Maybe Alice had forgotten something, or a neighbor was stopping by to ask to borrow some flour. He didn’t know if he was quite prepared to handle either of those scenarios at the moment, but he still opened the door and blinked out into the hallway.

“Hey, little brother,” Alex said on the other side of the doorway, a sheepish smile crossing his lips.

Harry froze, his body going rigid as he stared. He shook his head a bit, trying to clear it, but to no avail.  

No, he wasn’t losing his mind. Alex was standing in the hall, in a black jumper and a freshly shaven face and a hopeful spark in his eyes, and Harry was gripping the door so hard he was sure his fingers were white.

“Can I come in?” Alex asked. He rocked a bit on his feet, and Harry clenched his jaw, grinding his teeth for a moment.

He could really easily slam the door right now. It was a logical solution. And Alex had picked the worst possible day to try and do this.  

Harry narrowed his eyes and tilted his head, trying to find any kind of concealed aggression on Alex’s face.

“What part of my face are you going to break today?” Harry said, and Alex’s smile faltered a bit as he lowered his gaze.

“Nothing,” Alex said, “I promise I just wanted to talk.”

Harry looked at his brother for another long minute, considering what to do. Once more, his fingers gripped hard on the door, and he wanted to close it. He really did. He wanted to attempt to have a somewhat normal day after a shitty night. And still, his fingers did not want to obey.

He was all alone, his omega had left him, and his nose had healed.

He opened the door wider.

Why not.

“Alright, fine,” Harry said, “But I’ll hit you back this time if you break that promise.”

Alex snorted at that, and then smiled and stepped inside.

“That’s fair,” Alex said, lifting a finger to point to Harry’s nose, “God, Christ, that thing looks terrible.”

“Thank you,” Harry said, “Some of your finest work. Now you get to be the pretty one, aren’t you happy?”

“I’m thrilled,” Alex chuckled, and then his voice softened and trailed off, “Thank you for, um, letting me in.”

Harry sighed, his shoulders drooping a bit as he did.

“Does Louis know you’re here?” he said in responded. Alex shrugged and smiled meekly.

“For once, yeah, he does.”

Harry hummed and latched the door. He turned around slowly and saw his brother carefully surveying the flat, probably looking at Harry’s unmade bed and all the clothes strewn on the floor where he had forgotten to pick them up last night.

“Where’s your omega?” Alex eventually asked, “Louis said – “

“She left,” Harry sighed, “We ended things. Last night, actually.”

“Oh,” Alex said, “I’m sorry about that.”

“It was for the best,” Harry said.

He crossed into the kitchen, searching for something to do so he wasn’t standing with his brother in his flat for the first time since he was almost certain Alex was going to rip him apart with his bare hands. He could have sworn his nose smarted at just the thought, and he lifted a hand and rubbed at it absentmindedly as he picked up the kettle and felt how much water was in it.

“You want tea? Coffee?” he asked.

“Sure. Tea would be great,” Alex said behind him.

“Coming right up.”  

He focused on making the tea, and he just listened to Alex walk around the kitchen and then pull a chair out from the kitchen table. Harry didn’t turn around or try to make small talk as he filled the cups with water, let the tea bags soak and filled Alex’s cup with the ungodly amount of sugar he loved so much. He heard Alex tapping on the table, adjusting his chair, clearing his throat, probably to say something. But to say what? To ask Harry about the weather? School? How his flower boxes were growing? Alex was about as shit at small talk as Harry was. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t saying anything.

Finally, Harry carried both cups to the table, setting one in front of Alex. His brother lifted his head and smiled at him, but Harry was looking down at him with a pinched expression and a hand on his hip, and his smile fell as he picked up the drink.

“What?” he asked.

“Louis told you about Alice, huh,” Harry said. He didn’t know where to start. It was a fair enough place.

“Who?”

“Alice. She’s – she was my omega. The one that left last night.”

“Oh. Um, yeah, he mentioned her. From when he came over here.”

“Mentioned her,” Harry repeated, and rubbed his forehead, remembering that night again. Every word. Every crinkle of Louis’s face.

“Well,” Alex started, and then noisily stirred his spoon around his cup before speaking again, “Had a little crying fit over it. But don’t tell him I told you that.”

“God, fuck,” Harry exhaled. Of course Louis had gone home and cried because of him. He had been close to tears when he had dashed out of Harry’s flat, and just the thought of that had followed him for weeks. He hadn’t even had the strength to think of what Louis did when he was home again.

“Look,” Harry said slowly, “I hope you didn’t give him too much trouble for that, I didn’t know he was coming over, and – “

“Oh, no, it’s fine. We’re fine,” Alex said, and then lifted his brows, “Just wasn’t too happy that you upset him again.”

Harry just stared at Alex, and then sighed and pulled out the chair opposite of him.

“Why are you here, Alex? What do you want to to talk about?”

“I want to talk about Louis.”

He said it so quickly, and so easily, and Harry could just look at him before he sat down and then reached out for the china jar in the middle of the table.

“Before we start this conversation,” Harry said, “I need you to give me five minutes.”

“What are you – “ Alex said, and then let his eyes fell to where Harry was pulling out a little pre-rolled brown cigarette and a pack of matches out of the jar, “Harry, are you smoking fucking cannabis?”

“Oh, relax, it’s an omega strain, I just need it to relax,” he said as he lit it up and brought it to his mouth, “Now start talking.”

“An omega – god, fuck,” Alex huffed, “Can you take anything seriously?”

“I am taking this very seriously,” Harry said as he exhaled.

“No you’re not, I’m trying to talk to you, to make amends, and you’re getting high.”

“Not getting high,” Harry said, “Told you that already.”

“God, you know, you are kind of a prick sometimes.”

“And? How do you want me to handle this, Alex? You came to my home and asked to talk to me about the man we’re both in love with, I’m trying to get through this in any way I can.”

Harry froze as he said it, and he watched Alex do the same, the other alpha’s jaw flexing weakly as he forced his eyes back down.

“So,” Alex chuckled weakly, “I guess…I guess Louis was right when he told me that you love him.”

“Oh. Louis told you. Right. Makes sense,” Harry said, and lifted the joint back to his mouth. He really hoped this wouldn’t kick in as slowly as it usually did.

“Um. Yeah,” Alex said, “So, uh, it’s true, then? That you’re in love with him?”

Harry was quiet for a minute, breathing in the sweet, earthy smoke and then back out again.

There was no point in lying. Not after all this, and not now, face to face with his brother at his own kitchen table.

“Yeah,” Harry admitted, breathing out hard, “I’ve loved him for a really long time.”

Alex bobbed his head carefully, up and down, the curls on his forehead bouncing. It was longer than when Harry had last seen him, fresh out of the army. Alex didn’t normally leave his hair to grow out this much. This was the most their hair had looked alike since they were teenagers.

Harry was still staring at the curls on Alex’s forehead when Alex’s head stopped moving, and he fixed Harry with a steady gaze.  

“For how long?” Alex said quietly. Harry couldn’t pick up any hostility in his voice, but he still kept his voice soft, not trying to upset Alex if he could avoid it.

“As long as I’ve known him,” Harry said.

Alex hummed, and then leaned back in his chair, tapping his fingers on the table as he gazed at Harry.

“Harry,” Alex said softly, “I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Pretty much since I realized you’re in love with him.”

“Oh?” Harry said, “And what have you been thinking?”

“That you can’t love him.”

Harry’s chest suddenly felt tight, his entire body crawling with pinpricks of heat.

“Alex – “

 “I’ve been thinking that you don’t even know him. That you two are acquaintances. That you don’t know enough to love him.”

“I – “

“You didn’t know him in school, Harry. You didn’t get to see how he was with his friends. How he got in trouble every day and didn’t care. You didn’t help him with his papers just so he could get through his classes and stay in school for another year. You didn’t see how fucking devastated he was when he had to drop out after we got mated. How it ate him up inside for a year.”

“Alex.”

“You didn’t take care of him when he was sick, or in heat, or when he broke his arm when he fell on black ice. You haven’t met his mum, or his sisters, or you’ve never been to his family’s house. You didn’t get his great grandmother’s blessing to marry him. You didn’t – “

Alex stopped, closing his eyes.

“You don’t know Louis,” Alex said softly, “I kept thinking that you couldn’t have that, that is was mine. My memories. Our life.”

Harry stared at Alex, who was staring intently at his tea. Harry settled his joint down on the china ashtray and stared at Alex, open mouthed before he could speak again.

“But I want to do all of that,” he got out, “I know I shouldn’t want it, but I do.”

Alex closed his eyes, and it only made Harry ramble on a bit more. 

“I don’t want you two to not be together. I want…I just want to be part of it,” Harry said. He reached out for his brother’s hand. Alex flexed his fingers and his jaw but didn’t pull away.

“You love him so much,” Harry said, “I want to love him too. But I want to love him with you.”

Alex nodded, a bit, blinking down at his cold tea.

“Why do you think you love him, Harry?” Alex said, “I’m just trying to understand. Maybe I could understand you falling for him when you were living together, you’re in the same house, things happen. Fine. But…you’ve loved him almost as long as I have. And I can’t understand how.”

Harry looked at his brother, and wished he had a real answer for him. Something that would make sense. But he didn’t. He had just fallen for Louis immediately and had never gotten back up, despite trying to surround himself in his friends and his one night stands and then his career and then…Alice. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t stand back up if it meant walking away from Louis.  

So he opened his mouth once more, and tried to explain it as best he could.

“You remember when we learned about soul bonds, don’t you?” he said, and Alex flicked his eyes up and lifted his brows.

“Soul bonds aren’t real,” Alex said immediately, “There’s just physical bonds. And work. Work you didn’t do and I did.”

Harry’s jaw twitched, and he cringed a bit, gripping his own mug. The weed was just starting to kick in, smoothing over his jittery nerves, and he took a long breath and shook his head.

“You know that’s not true,” Harry snapped, “I just – what is it Mum used to tell us? That we’re the same heart, just in two bodies.”

“Harry. Really.”

“What if we’re the same soul?” Harry said, “And what if we both need him?”

Alex blinked, and shook his head.

“That makes no sense.”

“I know it doesn’t,” Harry said softly, “I’ve been trying to figure out for five years why I can’t stop loving him. And I can’t come up with anything that makes sense. I just do.”

Alex kept his eyes on him for a long moment, and then turned them back down, back to the table.

“Do you think you always will?”

“I think so,” Harry said, “I don’t think there’s anyone else for me.”

He leaned back in his chair, picking the joint out of his mouth and extinguishing it against his ashtray.

“I understand why you punched me. I was over the line then,” Harry said, “And I understand if you never want to speak to me again because of this. I wouldn’t either, I mean – “

“I want you to come to dinner.”

Harry stopped, his mouth still open, and then he frowned.

“What?”

“Harry,” Alex said, “I said I’ve been thinking a lot. And yes, I’m angry with you. I think part of me still is. And I don’t understand why you’re love with the only man I’ve ever been with, of all people. And part of me still doesn’t think you deserve to be with him. But Harry, he’s in love with you. You’re important to him. And I can’t deny him that.”

Alex stood up then, and then crossed the table and reached his arms out. He held his hands up, ready to push Alex away, just in case. But instead, his older brother swallowed him in a hug, leaving Harry’s cheek pressed to Alex’s midsection. Alex’s hands wrapped around Harry’s head and between his shoulder blades, and he just held him there.

“And you’re important to me, too,” Alex said, “So. Yes. I would like you to come to dinner, and I want us to talk, and I’d like you to see Louis again.”

“You do?” Harry mumbled, his mouth a bit squished against Alex’s stomach.

“Yeah, I do,” Alex said. He pulled away then, and looked down at Harry, a small smile on his face, “You know, I missed you.”

“There was a reason we weren’t speaking.”

“Yeah, I know. But you were my best friend for 25 years. I still missed you.”

“Me, too,” Harry smiled, and then stood up, finally looking at his brother, identical eye to identical eye, “And I would love to come to dinner.”

“Thursday?” Alex said, lifting a brow.

“Absolutely.”  

Alex nodded, and then turned and looked around the flat, glancing to the rumbled bed in the corner that still smelled like sweat and the promise of sex before.

“So. Was your summer alright, then, while it lasted?”

“It was great,” Harry said flatly, “How was France?”

“Okay, you know what, you’re still a little bastard,” Alex said, reaching out to dig his knuckles into Harry’s crown before shoving him in the shoulder, “And you need to clean your fucking flat, it smells revolting in here.”

Harry snorted, and shook his head.

“Yeah, I sure did miss you,” Harry said, “You have another hour to spare? You want a beer?”

His brother looked at him, and then smiled, maybe a little more sadly than Harry remembered, but still, a smile.

“I’d like that.”

*******

That Thursday, Harry went to Alex and Louis’s flat after work.

It was the first time since he had gone with Louis to pick up Alex at the train station that he had been here, and even just climbing the stairs to the flat made his heart clench a bit. He took a deep breath as he knocked on the door, and held it deep in his chest as he heard footsteps, too soft and careful to be his brother’s, plodding to the door.

The door opened, and Harry exhaled, long and hard.

“Harry,” Louis said, his face immediately lighting up into a bright smile. He had on a pale purple apron and a white sweater, and he had little dots of pink rouge on his cheeks, and it was all so much that Harry couldn’t speak for a moment.

“I, uh, I brought you this,” Harry said, and held out the bottle of wine in his hand. Louis looked at it with those wide, sparkling eyes, and he smiled even wider, reaching out to grab it.

“Oh, thank you!” he said, “This is lovely, Harry, it really is.”

Louis reached out, and grabbed Harry’s hand, and Harry felt his heart clench all over again.

“Come in, Harry, please,” Louis said, “I’m making roast beef. And I baked apple pie.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Harry said, even though his voice was tight as he came in.

“Let me get your coat,” Louis said, and set the wine down so he could reach out and pull Harry’s undone coat off his shoulders, “Alex, darling, Harry is here.”

“I know, love, I heard you,” Alex called, and poked his head out of the kitchen, “Harry, beer?”

“He brought us some wine, alpha, isn’t that nice?” Louis said.

“Oh, then bring it to the kitchen, I’ll pour us all glasses.”

Louis nodded, and then hung up Harry’s coat. He lowered his voice as he brushed past him, touching his hand to Harry’s hip.

“Thank you for coming, Harry,” he murmured, and Harry could only stand with his mouth open as he watched Louis walk back into the kitchen, the big bow tied over his lovely, round bum swaying as he walked.

Eventually, Harry came back to his senses and walked back to the kitchen, where Louis was taking something out of the oven and Alex was trying to talk to him over the radio as he searched every drawer for the wine opener. Louis sighed and pulled open a drawer Alex had already looked in, and then laughed and kissed Alex’s cheek as he handed it to him. Alex laughed too, and then looked back at Harry and smiled, holding the wine opener out to Harry.

“Harry, come here, come open the wine for me.”

“Oh, alright,” Harry said.

He crossed the kitchen and took the opener and bottle, and when it was open Louis easily reached up and opened up a cabinet for him with a gentle smile. Harry took out three glasses from it and poured out their drinks, handing them off accordingly.

“I want to toast,” Louis said, “To Harry being back.”

“Sounds like a good toast, little love,” Alex said, and touched Louis’s waist as he lifted his glass, “Harry, welcome back. We missed you.”

“We really did,” Louis cut in.

“I did, too,” Harry managed.

He drank his wine, and then Louis went back to getting dinner ready. Harry watched all of it, and answered every time Alex or Louis asked him about his life, his classes. They all sat down, and Louis still scolded Alex and filled his plate for him and lifted his own napkin to wipe grease off Alex’s mouth, like always. But now, when Harry was telling a story, Louis reached out and touched his hand and smiled brightly, and Alex merely glanced at the two of them for a moment before smiling.

They ate, and Louis poured them more wine and got out a pack of cigarettes, and they smoked in the living room while Alex got out a board game, the mere sight of which made Louis groan and top off his glass. They played for two hours and emptied nearly half the pack of cigarettes and drained the wine before Louis even got them their pie, and Harry was laughing harder than he remembered laughing in a very long time as he watched Alex and Louis bicker over the rules.

He was happy. He was so happy.

“This goddamned blasted Monopoly game!” Louis shouted, picking up one of the unused pieces and tossing it across the floor, “It’s the worst thing to ever happen to me! It takes too long and it’s so boring.”

“I like it better than that word game you like,” Alex sighed.

“Well then we’ll just have to play that next week, maybe you’ll understand now I feel!” Louis huffed, “I’m tired, anyways, I’m going to bed.”

“Oh, darling,” Alex said, “It’s early, it’s only – “ he glanced at his watch, and then lifted his brows, “Oh. It’s midnight. I didn’t notice.”

“Right. So. I’ll just go to bed,” Louis said. He started to stand up, but Alex was faster, and picked him up in a cradle, making Louis shriek and smack his chest.

“You’re a goon.”

“Alright, darling, whatever you say,” Alex chuckled, and then started to move back across the room.

Harry’s stomach a dipped as he watched them move, the corners of his mouth drifting down. He bowed his head as he stood up, slowly, and started to go to the hallway.

It had been a good dinner. A good night. But he had to go now.

Just as he was walking into the hallway, Alex’s voice called out behind him.

“Harry,” Alex said, “Where are you going?”

Harry turned, and looked at his brother, still cradling Louis in his arms, both of them looking at him with curious expressions.

“I – I’m going home,” Harry said, “It’s late. And you two are going to bed.”

Alex looked at him for a long moment, and then his entire face softened, his eyes brightening a bit.

“Harry,” Alex said softly, “Why don’t you stay?”

Harry stared at him for a long moment, almost certain he had misheard him.

“What?”

“Stay the night, it’s dark out, it’s a long walk home,” Alex said, readjusting Louis in his arms, “You can take the guest room, even, I’ll give you anything you need from my bathroom.”

“Oh,” Harry said, glancing at the two of them, “I don’t know – “

“Harry,” Louis said softly, his voice gentle and wine-soft, “Stay. Please.”

He just stared at Louis, nestled in his brother’s arms, and then up to Alex’s face, who just looked at him, his eyes shifting for a moment before he just nodded, as if to say, It’s okay. I mean it.

Harry thought about what waited for him at home – an empty, unmade bed, a half-full icebox, six more joints, a stack of papers to grade, a drawer full of unironed shirts. It was enough for him when he woke up this morning. But now, with the prospect of staying here, in this warm flat filled with the smell of honey and sugar and flowers, he never wanted to go back there again.

“Okay,” Harry said, and his voice felt very far away, “I think I will.”

Louis grinned, and Alex just gave him a careful, gentle look, and then Alex turned, taking Louis back into their bedroom. Louis’s head lolled a bit, and he held out an arm over his head, wiggling his fingers to Harry as he drawled out, “Good night, Harry.”

Harry weakly held up a hand, and waved to Louis in turn, his heart pounding and clenching in his chest, his feet feeling like they were hovering off the ground.

Stay. You can stay.

“Good night, Louis. Good night, Alex,” he said in turn, and then, an uncontrollable smile twitched onto his lips as he breathed out the next words slowly, reverently, hoping it would not be the last time he said them, “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Chapter Text

Harry had slept in.

He never slept in. Every morning for the last three years he had woken up at four in the morning and gone for an hour long run. When he got home he would take a cold shower, and then made himself breakfast before walking to school so early sometimes he had to unlock the doors on his own.

Now, he barely had an hour to kill before he had to go to school.

Harry pulled himself off the mattress of the guest bed, looking around for his clothes. He had left them on the chair by the chest of the drawer, but he hadn’t folded them, so they were probably a mess of wrinkles. That was fine. He could go home and get something new. He had just enough time.

He put on his old clothes, trying to rub out the wrinkles as much as he could as he opened the door to the guest room. Immediately, he heard music floating from the kitchen and smelled of fried food mixed with fresh flowers and honey. Harry licked his dry lips and slipped down the hall in his socked feet, shoving his hands in his pockets as he craned his neck towards the kitchen.

It was dark outside but the kitchen was lit up with bright light. Alex was at the kitchen table, nursing a cup of black coffee and looking at the morning’s newspaper. He was still dressed in his pajamas, his house robe tied over his vest and long drawers. Louis, meanwhile, was at the stove with a daisy-print-covered apron over his nightgown, putting some eggs, toast, and potatoes on a plate. It reminded Harry of when he used to stay over at his omega friends’ homes in university, when mornings would smell like omega sweetness mixed with grease and salt. He gulped weakly and took another step into the room.

When he came closer both Alex and Louis looked up, Alex offering him a weak, tired smile as he picked up his cup and Louis grinning so brightly he could probably make the sun rise outside.

“Harry!” Louis chirped, “Hi. Good morning.”

“Um,” Harry said with a thick, dry tongue, “Morning.”

“Grab a seat,” Louis smiled, already going to pull a chair out from the table before he went back to the stove, “I just finished Alex’s eggs, so now I can make yours.”

“Oh,” Harry said, “I should – I should go home.”

Louis frowned, pausing as he lifted up Alex’s finished plate.

“Home?”

“I have to go to work,” Harry said, “I have homeroom at seven thirty.”

“And?” Alex said, rubbing his eyes, “You have an hour.”

“I need to shower. Change my clothes.”

He gestured feebly at himself as if to make this clearer, but Alex just snorted.

“We have a bathroom there,” Alex said, “And I don’t think a bunch of teenagers will care if you’re in the same clothes as yesterday.”

“I – “

“Have some eggs, Harry,” Alex said, his voice strong even if it was laced with morning gruffness.

Harry just stared at his brother, before grabbing the back of a kitchen chair and sitting down.

Alex gave a satisfied nod, then lifted a hand to his own hair, petting his tangled curls as he read his paper. Louis came over with Alex’s full plate, giving the alpha a kiss on his unshaven cheek as he did.

“Hi, alpha,” he whispered, rubbing his nose into Alex’s cheek, making the alpha smile and turn to kiss him on the lips.

“Hi, dove,” Alex murmured. He reached out for Louis as he walked away, his reach moving for Louis’s bum before he glanced quickly at Harry and squeezed Louis’s hip instead. Louis glanced over his shoulder, smiling at his alpha before he went back to the stove, rustling around to get out the food and pans he needed.

Ten minutes later, he was sliding a blue china plate filled with eggs, toast, and a rare strip of rationed bacon in front of Harry, alongside a matching blue mug full of milky coffee.

“Here,” Louis said softly, “That’s how you like everything, right?”

Harry looked over the eggs with the soft yolks, the toast that was only a bit browned, the pale cream color of his coffee. It was all exactly how he liked it. He didn’t know Louis had remembered how he liked his food; he usually had made his own breakfast when they cooked together. He must have been paying attention.

“Yeah,” Harry said eventually, and Louis smiled brightly.

“Good, good,” Louis nodded, and then went back to the stove one last to make his own breakfast.

When he returned, he picked up the abandoned newspaper from the side of Alex’s plate, fanning it open in his lap while he picked up a piece of bread.

“It’s a bit too early for war news, baby doll,” Alex said gently.

“I’m reading the gardening section,” Louis said, his mouth full of bread.

“I can see what you’re reading, it’s got nothing to do with flowers.”

“Leave me alone,” Louis said, swatting his hand at Alex. The alpha sighed and went back to his food, while Louis flipped through the front pages of the paper as he ate.

Harry had been nursing his coffee, waiting for his food to cool, and finally picked up his fork to get into his eggs. Louis’s eyes occasionally lifted, glancing at Harry eating before returning to the paper.

“Is it okay? Do you like it?” he finally blurted out when Harry was half way done with his eggs.

“S’good, yeah,” Harry said. The eggs were a little too salty and the bottom of the toast was soggy with bacon grease, but he was absolutely not going to say that to Louis’s face. Especially not with the way the omega’s eyes lit up at the compliment.

“Good. I’m glad,” Louis said. He glanced over at Alex’s empty plate, then immediately stood and grabbed it up, “Seconds, alpha?”

“Yes, please, precious,” Alex said, “More coffee would be nice, too.”

“Of course,” Louis gathered Alex’s mug, too, and then looked at Harry, “Harry, do you think you’ll want seconds?”

“Oh,” Harry said, “No, that’s okay, wouldn’t want to be a bother.”

“Oh, it’s not a bother, really,” Louis said quickly, “I make thirds for Alex, sometimes, it doesn’t bother me at all.”

Harry blinked, remembering all the times he had offered to cook his own breakfast and dinner because Louis grumbled about how much he hated cooking, how often he had helped the omega clean up a burn-covered pan or a floor full of splattered oil. That seemed ages away from the omega in front of him now, still wearing his apron and nearly begging to take care of someone.

“I don’t think I’m hungry enough, I don’t usually have a very big breakfast,” Harry said, “Thank you, though.”

“Alright, then,” Louis said, his smile dropping for a minute before brightening again, “I just don’t want my boys to go hungry.”

The omega went back to the stove to scrape together Alex’s seconds and Harry tried to center himself enough to finish his Louis-made breakfast.

Alex was just starting on his second plate when Harry glanced at the kitchen clock and coughed awkwardly when he saw the time. Alex looked at him, his mouth full of bacon, and frowned.

“What?” he mumbled.

“Can I borrow a shirt?” Harry said, “I need to go to work soon.”

Alex swallowed and stood as he ran his napkin over his mouth.

“Sure,” Alex sighed, “Do you want a jacket, too?”

“Uh, I guess.”

Alex nodded and motioned for Harry to follow him.

“We’ll be right back, Louis,” Alex said, kissing the omega’s head, “Enjoy your gardening column.”

Louis nodded, flipping open the paper and burying himself in the international section.

Harry followed Alex down the hall to the master bedroom, and he hesitated in the doorway, just choosing to watch Alex walk around rather than actually enter the room.

He didn’t feel like asking if he was even allowed in there in the first place.

His brother rummaged around in his wardrobe until he pulled out a dark blue shirt and a brown jacket, then walked them back over to Harry.

“These look awful together,” Harry said, and Alex gave him a bored look.

“Beggars can’t be choosers, Professor Styles,” Alex said, shoving the clothes into Harry’s arms.

“It’s – the kids call me Mr. Styles; I don’t work for a university.”

“Well, whatever it is,” Alex said.

The other alpha stood there for a minute, just looking at Harry with his head tilted. He lowered his voice and crossed his arms over his chest as he spoke again.

“I just…I thought you should know that Louis woke up early to make you breakfast,” Alex said, “He knows you have to be at work by 7:30.”

“I – what?”

“He got up at 5 because he knows you usually go for a run but I guess you slept in, which is fine. I just sat with him. But you got me up bloody well early, you know that? Earlier than either of us would ever normally get up.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize,” Harry said, “I’m so – “

“No, no, don’t be sorry. That’s not the point,” Alex cut in, “The point is Louis wanted to do something for you, and I thought you should know.”

Harry just blinked, still cradling Alex’s clothes, the smell of his brother’s scent and cigarette smoke lifting up to his nose.

Louis had done something just for him. His stomach squirmed pleasantly at the thought.

“That’s – I’ll thank him before I go,” he managed, and Alex snorted.

“Yeah, you fucking better,” Alex said, “Now get dressed, you don’t want to be late.”

Harry nodded and then ducked into the spare bathroom, getting rid of his wrinkle-ridden shirt and changing it out for Alex’s top, which tugged a bit too much on his shoulders but otherwise looked fine. He put on the jacket and then went to retrieve his shoes and bag from the front hallway. When he entered the hall, Louis spotted them through the kitchen doorway and perked up, standing so he could follow Harry into the hallway.

“Are you leaving?”

“Yeah, I don’t want to be too late for homeroom,” Harry said as he pulled on his shoes, “Sorry I can’t stay longer.”

“It’s alright. I’m glad you were here this morning,” Louis’s smile was so bright and earnest. He was nearly bouncing on his toes, and the whole picture made Harry’s stomach feel liquefied.

“Me, too,” Harry said, his voice a bit too weak. He cleared his throat, looking back at Louis, “Thank you for breakfast.”

“You’re welcome,” Louis said. He rocked on his toes for another moment, and then leaned forward, wrapping both arms around Harry and squeezing. The alpha jumped a bit in his arms, but just when he was processing what was happening, Louis had pulled back and neatly folded his hands in front of him.

“Have a nice day at work, Harry,” Louis said, and then stepped back to give him a bit of room.

Harry managed to nod and grab his bag, his belly heating up at the smell of Louis clinging to his jacket, and the omega who lingered in the hall and waved at him until he was out the door.

*******

Harry had to stay late after school and comfort several crying teenage girls. He had given them a hard test recently, a long end of unit exam with multiple parts and a steep curve. Still, there were a few students who hadn’t managed to get a passing grade, and he had to close his door and sit with each of them as he went over their tests and offered them tissues. They were all sweet girls, all of them omegas, and he knew they were all going through a lot. One of them had gotten her first heat over the summer and had been in and out of the school nurse’s office for various headaches and cold chills since the school year had started. Another one had just gotten kicked off the girl’s golf team after she had presented. One had trouble at home and had come to Harry before. And one was just awful at math but Harry was as gentle with her as he was with the others. By the time he had gotten out of school he had guiltily given all of them passing grades and was ready for a long shower.

He did just that after he got back to his flat. Leaving a trail of his shoes, briefcase, and work clothes from his front door to his bathroom, he headed to the shower. He washed his hair and his body and then stood in the shower singing until the hot water ran out. As he stepped out of the shower, he thought about what he could do to entertain himself now that he was alone again. Usually he would go for a run after school, but for now he was perfectly content to spend his evening on the sofa with a magazine and without having think about any basic equations until Monday morning. He would think about the rest of his weekend later.

He was in the middle of drying his hair when his house phone started ringing. He groaned at the noise and dropped his towel on the floor, deeming himself just dry enough to jog over to the wall and grab the phone just before the last ring.

“Hello,” he said absently, wincing as the excess hair in his hair hit his shoulders.

“Harry,” Alex’s voice said, “Why are you at your flat?”

“Because – I live here?”

The line was silent for a minute, and then Alex groaned.

“Louis thought you were coming over.”

“Oh,” Harry said, “Sorry, I thought – “

“I know, you said you’d see us later. Could mean anything.”

Alex cleared his throat on the other end.

“I – listen, come over. Pack a bag for the weekend. Spend the next few days with us.”

Harry frowned and shifted the phone to his other ear, cocking his head.

“You’re serious.”

“Of course I am,” Alex said, “Louis – he really misses you.”

“Misses me?” Harry said, “I was there yesterday. I was there this morning.”

“I know, but he just really likes you,” Alex said.

Harry’s hand tightened around the phone. What did that mean? What did he want it to mean?

“Just come be with us,” Alex said, “What were you going to do this weekend, anyways?”

“Um,” Harry said, “Grade papers. Go the gym. Maybe see a film.”

“So, nothing.”

“Alex, I have work.”

“Bring your work here,” Alex said, “Seriously, Harry, Louis is climbing the walls over here. Just come here a bit.”

Harry picked at the cord of his phone, thinking over Alex’s offer. He did have work. He still had his own life, and he had planned to return to it until the next group dinner.

But Louis wanted him to return. And suddenly that seemed far more important than a stack of his students’ papers and a visit to the gym.

“Okay, sure,” Harry said, “Give me an hour.”

*******

Harry only had to knock on the door once and in the next moment, the door was swinging open, like someone had been patiently waiting on the other side for that knock.

“Harry,” Louis breathed out, “Hi.”

The omega was leaning heavily against the door frame, blinking up at Harry and bouncing on his toes. He was in a large black jumper – probably Alex’s, judging from the way it hung over his hands and went to the middle of his thighs – and a large pair of socks, but the rest of his legs were bare, sturdy and fading golden and covered in soft hair. Harry gulped weakly, and then shifted his eyes back up to Louis’s bright, wide eyes.

“Hello,” Harry said, and blinked when Louis reached out and grabbed onto the corners of Harry’s jacket. He tugged firmly at the corners, and it took Harry a moment to realize that Louis was trying to take it off. Once the jacket was off Louis went to hang it up, looking back at Harry over his shoulder as he did so.

“I’m making hot chocolate,” Louis said, “And some popcorn on the stove. Do you want some?”

“Oh,” Harry said as he stepped into the flat, “Um, no hot chocolate. Popcorn, though, sure. Maybe some tea?”

“Yes, of course,” Louis said, “Just – give me a moment.”

He scurried off into the kitchen again, and Harry just watched where he had gone before he came into the living room. Harry walked over to where Alex was sitting on the sofa in a thick grey cardigan and a worn pair of corduroy trousers, and his brother wordlessly offered him a cigarette and a pack of matches without looking up from his book.

“Hey, little brother,” Alex said, and Harry frowned at Alex’s easy tone.

“Is Louis alright?” Harry asked.

“Yeah, he’s fine,” Alex said, “I told you, he’s just fond of you. Was nearly bouncing up and down waiting for you to come over.”

Alex looked up and smiled wryly, and Harry breathed out.

“Is that okay?” Harry asked, and he didn’t quite know what it was – that he had come, that Louis was excited, that Louis seemed so…comfortable around Harry.

“I called you and said you should come over, didn’t I?” Alex said, and then went back to his book.

Harry nodded, and let himself recline into the sofa as he waited for Louis to return. It didn’t take long – there was only a little more clattering from the kitchen and suddenly the omega was returning with two large mugs in his hands and a bright smile on his face. He settled the two mugs on the coffee table in front of the alphas and glanced at each of them in turn.

“Hot chocolate, darling,” he said, and then, when he turned to Harry, “Harry, your tea.”

“Thank you,” Harry got out, and picked up the mug Louis had set down for him. Alex offered the omega a smile and picked up his mug too, and then lifted a hand, settling it on Louis’s hip.

“Thank you, precious,” he said, “Maybe put some trousers on now that Harry’s here, yeah?”

Louis sighed, poking his lip out.

“They’re not comfortable, that’s why I took them off.”

“Well why don’t you put on a pair of my sleep trousers?” Alex said, “I washed the blue pair too many times, they should fit you round the waist just fine.”

“Okay,” Louis sighed, and Alex smiled, leaning forward and kissing Louis’s hip. Louis beamed at the attention, and then glanced at Harry before looking away and scuttling off to their bedroom. Alex watched him, and then turned back to Harry, his eyes dropping a bit.

“I, um,” he said, “Sorry about that, I just – was a bit awkward, him walking around with nothing on, that’s all.”

“It’s fine,” Harry said, “I didn’t – like, I didn’t mean to look at him or anything, I just – “

“I’m fine with you being here, yeah? I really am,” Alex cut in, “I’m fine with how you both feel. I just…I dunno if I’m ready for Louis to do everything with you that he does with me, you know?”

Harry swallowed drily and nodded.

Of course. Their feelings were on the table now and there was nothing left to hide. But Harry was still a guest. He still wasn’t getting a kiss at the door, and he certainly wasn’t getting Louis half-naked.

“Makes sense,” Harry said softly.

Alex nodded and then leaned back on the sofa and closed his book, tossing it on the table next to him.

“You know,” Harry said, and then worried his lip with his teeth, “You know, I respect you, and if you changed your mind – “

“Oh, I haven’t changed my mind,” Alex said, “I love you, and I love Louis, and I’d really like it if you were happy. And besides, it’s Louis’s decision, too, and he wants you here.”

He lit his cigarette, took a drag, and then exhaled as he took the cigarette out of his mouth.

“But I’d just like to see how all this works out, if that’s alright with you,” Alex said, “Since, you know, if you break my fiancé’s heart you might not have a knot anymore.”

Harry just stared at him, and Alex sighed, chuckling weakly.

“I’m sorry. I was trying to make a joke,” he said, “I just thought we could just feel it out, if that’s okay with you. Take it a bit slow.”

“Oh,” Harry said, “That’s fine, really, I just – I don’t know what to do in this whole situation. So that’s probably for the best.”

Alex nodded, and reached out a hand, softly punching Harry in the knee.

“Good, good,” he nodded. He took another drag and then blew out slowly, lifting his head, “Hey, do you smell something – oh, fuck. Oh, fuck, he’s burning the popcorn.”

Alex shoved his cigarette into the ashtray and stood up, and Harry caught a whiff of the sharp, burning smell right as he heard pounding bare feet coming from the bedroom, and then Louis shouting and cursing from the kitchen.

“One second,” Alex said, and then stood up and went to the other room, “Precious? Precious, it’s okay.”

“I fucking burnt, shit, I’m sorry – “ Louis said, and then Alex’s voice, shushing and calming him.

“It’s fine, baby, we’ll make a new pot. I’ll make a new pot. Just go sit out with Harry, okay? I’ll take care of it.”

There was more murmuring from the kitchen, and finally, Harry heard shuffling bare feet just before the sound was covered by the clattering of pots and pans.

Louis emerged a few minutes later, his legs now clad in a pair of dark blue pajama pants, which still pooled around his feet as he shuffled. He lifted his head and smiled at Harry, and then slowly sat down on the couch, tucking his legs under himself as he looked up at Harry.

“Hi,” he said softly, and Harry felt his mouth go dry.

“Hello, Louis.”

“Thank you for coming,” Louis said, a smile twitching at his mouth.

“You’re welcome,” Harry said, “I’m staying the weekend.”

“I know,” Louis smiled, his eyes bright, “Alex said you would.”

The omega leaned forward, then, and delicately placed a hand on Harry’s knee. No, on his thigh, just above his knee. On a spot that was more flesh than bone.

If he looked carefully, Harry swore he might’ve been able to see Louis’s cheeks flare pink.

“I’m really happy you’re staying,” Louis murmured.

He drew his hand away, then, and carefully tucked it back into his lap, but Harry just stared at his delicate fingers curling into themselves, let his eyes rest on the pale skin of the back of Louis’s hand.

He was still looking when he told Louis “I’m glad, too.”

*******

Something Harry noticed quickly was that Alex and Louis went on a lot of dates.

Not just an occasional dinner, but dates every single week, and multiple of them. There were plenty of times he called them that week and asked if it was alright for him to come over, only to get a reply like “Of course that’s fine, but just so you know Louis and I were planning on going to dinner tonight so you might want to just come late for drinks” or “We’d love to, Harry, but Alex is taking me to the museum tonight. Will you be bored here by yourself?”

He was still happy to move around them and let them have their time, even if it meant sitting alone in an apartment that wasn’t his, listening to a radio and reading books that belonged to someone else. A little time in their orbit was all he wanted.

But the week after he had stayed the weekend, he had gotten to see things Louis and Alex had never shown him before.

He got to see how excited and giggly Louis was when he walked out of their room and gave Alex a twirl to show off his outfit, and then took the alpha’s hand eagerly to leave the flat. He saw them both come in late, bright cheeked and smiling as they held hands or, on more than one occasion, Alex carried Louis back into the flat. Several times Alex handed Louis flowers or chocolates before they went out, always saying it was “just because.”

It made the ache in Harry’s chest grow, and suddenly, he was thinking about dates a lot. He’d never taken a courtship class like Alex and he had barely gone out properly before, but he spent his free time thinking about pressed button downs, dinner reservations, paper-wrapped flowers and most of all, a very, very happy Louis.

Harry knew he wasn’t visiting only as a friend or a brother or a house guest anymore; there was another reason underlying his extended visits and it was no secret to any of them. And all week, Harry just kept wondering what would happen if he did something more than awkwardly flit around Louis.

So on a slow Saturday afternoon, Harry tucked his hands behind his back, swallowed his pride, and timidly went to stand in front of where his brother was reading on the sofa.

“Hey,” Harry sighed, “I’d, um, like to ask you something.”

“Sure,” Alex said, turning the page of his book, “What’s going on?”

Harry moved closer to the chair, hanging his head a bit as he looked at his brother, who was still staring at his book and not even looking up.

“I’d like to take Louis out,” Harry said before he could think about it much longer.

Alex lifted his head, for a brief moment, and he frowned slightly, closing his book with one hand.

“Out?” he parroted.

“Just for the evening,” Harry rushed on, “I thought we could go to dinner and then maybe see a play at the theater.”

Alex’s frown deepened, and he leaned back in his chair, resting his chin in his hand as he regarded Harry. Suddenly, Harry felt small, and inferior, like he had when he was a child and Alex was his entire world, like that twenty minutes between them had given him all the knowledge and the power in the world.

“Harry,” Alex said, “Are you – “

He sighed, rubbing his eyes, and then right back to staring.

“Do you want to court Louis?”

“Oh, well, I didn’t – “ Harry stuttered, “I didn’t mean for it to be courting, maybe just – “

“I’m just asking,” Alex said, “Eventually, would that be something you’d like to do? Would you like to court him?”

“Uh,” Harry choked out.

“Harry, you stay in our guest room nearly every weekend,” Alex said, “You’ve already told me how you feel about him. Don’t overthink this. You can just tell me.”

He swept his hand out as he spoke, and a small smile twitched at his mouth.

It was enough to remind Harry that after everything that had happened between them, he was still talking to his brother.

“Yes,” Harry said, “I really would like to.”

“Okay,” Alex sighed and shook his head. “That’s good to know.”

Harry nodded, and Alex smiled again.

“You said you needed to ask me something, you know,” Alex said, “But you still haven’t asked me anything.”

“What?”

“You just told me you wanted to take Louis out. What did you need to ask me?”

“I wanted – “ Harry licked his lips and sighed, “I wanted to ask your permission to take Louis out for the night.”

It made Alex lift his brows again, and Harry continued on.

“It didn’t feel right, not to ask you before I did that,” Harry said, “That was, um, all I wanted to ask you.”

Alex looked at him a moment later, and then opened his book and went back to thumbing to the right page.

“It would make Louis very happy if you took him out,” he finally said, “So why don’t you go ask him? I’m not going to give you permission, he’ll give you that. It’s his choice.”

“Oh,” Harry said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to – “

“I stole that line from him, admittedly,” Alex said, “When we were in uni, I told him that I planned to ask his assigned attendant if I could take him out for a date. He said I should just ask him for his own permission. If he said yes, it didn’t matter what his attendant said.”

“That sounds like him,” Harry said.

“It does, huh,” Alex said, “Anyways, he should still be in our room. Maybe it’ll be a surprise if he hasn’t eavesdropped the whole time.”

Harry snorted, and shook his head. He went to take a step out of the room, but then he looked back.

“Alex?”

“Yeah, little brother?”

“I have one other thing to ask you.”

“Go ahead, then.”

“What are Louis’s favorite flowers?” Harry asked, “I’d like to get him something.”

It made Alex smile, and he slowly opened his book again.

“I got him daisies and white carnations on our first date,” Alex said, “It might be a good idea to pick something different. Roses are always a safe bet. He likes pink ones.”

“Okay,” Harry nodded, “Thank you.”

“Of course,” Alex said, “Good luck.”

Harry nodded and then preceded down the hall, all the way to the master bedroom. When he got there, he took a breath, wiping his palms on the back of his trousers. He wished he wasn’t so nervous and yet he could feel himself starting to sweat.

When he opened the door, Louis was in the doorway, bouncing on his feet. He was too close to the door for someone who hadn’t been expecting someone to come in.
“Hi, Harry.”

“Um, hi,” Harry said, ““Louis?”

“Yes?” he asked, his eyebrows lifted and his smile bright.

“I was wondering – well, if maybe you’d like to go to dinner with me tonight.”

“Dinner out?” Louis asked, his voice bright and barely surprised.

“Were you listening to us, by chance?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Louis said quickly, waving his hand around, “What were you saying?”

“Uh. Yes. Dinner out,” Harry said, “Um, and then maybe to a play? I’m not sure if you like plays, but there’s a new one at the theatre, a comedy, so I thought maybe – “

“I’d like that,” Louis said, “Um, just you and me?”

“Well, yes, I was thinking so,” Harry said, “Unless – “

“That’s okay,” Louis said, “What time?”

“Seven?”

“Okay. I’ll get ready now.”

“It’s in three hours, Louis – “

“I’ll get ready now!”

The omega closed the door quickly, and Harry was left staring at the scarred wooden door, his mouth hanging open.

*******

Harry didn’t get ready for the date until an hour before they left, and it quickly became the longest hour of his life.

He took a long shower, trying to breathe and not focus on his own rabbiting heart. He had been on a date before. Of course he had. He had taken Alice out on plenty of dates just a few months ago. Hell, he had taken Louis on dates before. But that was as his brother. And tonight, it was just him and Louis, nothing between them. They weren’t reluctant roommates or even just friends. They were skirting…something. Harry was afraid to put a name on it. Maybe he didn’t want to jinx it. Maybe he just didn’t know what to call it if he started courting an omega that was already taken.

After his shower, he dried off, shaved, and combed his hair. He put on his favorite pair of grey checkered slacks and a dark green shirt, which he left undone at the top three buttons. After that he carefully put on his gold crucifix, his battered old watch and his favorite rings. He got out his grey and black loafers and sprayed on the thin bottle of cologne he saved for his rare nights out, and then took a deep breath and rubbed his hands over his face.

When he went out into the hall, Alex was waiting for him, standing by the kitchen table and looking at the paper-wrapped bouquet Harry had picked up at the supermarket an hour and a half earlier.

“Do you think he’ll like them?” Harry asked.

“Yes. He loves pink and white. I think it looks nice with the daffodils,” Alex said, his gaze still on the flowers. When he did glance up, he just squinted at Harry. “Is that what you’re wearing?”

“Um,” Harry said, “Yes?”

“You’re not taking him out like that.”

Harry snorted.

“Yeah, I am.”

“Go put on a tie,” Alex said.

“You’re shitting me, right?”

“I wore a tie every single time I took him out,” Alex said, pulling his shoulders back and pushing his chest out.

“And? I’m not eighteen and at a fucking prep school.”

“It wasn’t a prep school,” Alex said, his stance deflating. “It was university. It was just orthodox. We didn’t even have uniforms.”

“Whatever you say. Have any other advice?”

Alex flicked an invisible piece of lint off the kitchen table.

“I think your jacket looks dumb.”

“You know what – “

“I’m ready.”

The sound of Louis’s voice made Harry immediately stop speaking and turn around. Harry inhaled, trying to hide the noise of it as he leaned into the wall behind him.

Louis was standing carefully, with his feet together and his eyes cast down. He was in a dove gray silk shirt, with a rounded collar that was buttoned all the way to his throat, a pair of ballet slipper pink braces that matched the leather strips on his shoes and the glossy sheen on his lips. He had a black cardigan folded over his arm, the same color as he trousers, and he held his usual brown leather handbag carefully in his hands. He lifted his gaze and blinked at the two of them, his gaze shifting between the two alphas. His eyes were wide and his mouth was a lovely, coy smile, like he was waiting patiently for his praise.

But Harry could barely say anything, his mouth had gone dry. He had seen Louis dressed up before, but never just for him. And that meant something.

Alex kept glancing at Harry, and then finally sighed and smiled, tilting his head forward.

“You look beautiful, darling,” Alex said softly, and it made Harry swallow before finally speaking up.

“Yes. Um,” he stuttered, “You look beautiful.”

“Thank you,” Louis said softly, shifting his handbag in his hands, “Harry. Should we go?”

“Yes. Um,” Harry said, “Dinner reservations are at seven, so – “

“So you should get moving,” Alex said.

Louis nodded, and then looked over at Alex, his body relaxing when Alex settled a hand on his arm.

“Bye, alpha,” Louis said softly.

“Bye, my darling,” Alex said, pressing a soft kiss to Louis’s mouth, “Have fun. Be safe.”

“I’ll be safe,” Louis said, “Harry will take care of me.”

“He better or he won’t be allowed in this flat ever again.”

Harry sighed, opening the door in anticipation to go, while Louis just laughed and kissed Alex’s cheek.

“I know, my sweet alpha.”

He gave Alex one final kiss and then went to the door, smiling at Harry as he crossed through the open door. Harry gave one final glance behind his shoulder at his brother, who was just standing, looking at the two of them.

He mouthed “thank you” and then, carefully, he closed the door.

*******

Harry was too scared to hold Louis’s hand.

He realized it was the simplest of things, and even couples that had started newly dating usually did it. It was a sign that an alpha and an omega were more than just companions or acquaintances, that there was a reason they were together and unsupervised. It was a sign to the world they were meant to be together.

But Harry couldn’t bring him to it. Every time he thought about it, he became acutely aware of the sweat on his palms. He found himself continually looking down on Louis’s short, thin fingers delicately folded at his sides. He wondered if Louis would notice him sweating. He wondered if Louis would like the heavy, cool feeling of Harry’s rings against his skin.

They walked side by side as Harry battled with himself, and Louis talked to fill the air. He was also walking quickly, his words high and a little forced, and Harry’s mind tripped over itself trying to take in every word while still entertaining his own racing thoughts.

Eventually Louis breathed out hard, shaking his head and placing a hand over his heart.

“I’m sorry,” the omega said, “Um, I’m a little nervous. Is it silly that I’m nervous?”

“No,” Harry said, and then smiled sheepishly, “I’m nervous, too.”

“I wouldn’t think you would be.”

“I am,” Harry said, “I really am.”

Louis looked at him for a long moment, then smiled.

“I haven’t been on a first date in just about seven years,” Louis said, “I forgot it feels like this.”

Harry laughed a bit at that, taking the chance to move a bit closer to Louis.

“What does it feel like for you?”

“Like I’m going to vomit and faint,” Louis said, “But that I couldn’t be happier about it.”

The omega looked over at Harry and flushed, pressing a hand to his mouth.

“I’ll try not to do either!” Louis said, laughter quickly overcoming his voice, “I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s alright,” Harry said. It was more than fine, really. His heart was going to burst with fondness at this flushed, giggly omega at his side. He felt miles away from the version of Louis that had snapped at him every time Harry asked where he and Alex kept the plates in the cupboard.

Louis took a long, loud breath, and then looked back at Harry as his occupied hand shifted nervously on his handbag’s strap.

“What does it feel like for you?” Louis eventually asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“What does it feel like for you, to be on a first date?”

Harry tapped a finger against his leg, trying to figure out an answer. The truth was, every one of his first dates had felt different from this. His first date with Joseph when they were young university students had started as a casual alpha’s night out that ended with both of their trousers down in the loo. His first date with Alice had felt chaste and sexless and like he was doing a favor for a friend. This – this felt far different. This felt monumental.

Like he was trying not to fuck up something he had been waiting for his whole life.

“I would say vomit-inducing is also fitting for me,” Harry settled on, which made Louis laugh and then smack his arm.

“That’s my joke!” Louis shrieked as he kept playfully batting his arm, which made Harry laugh too.

Eventually, Louis moved away again to be at a respectable distance, and within another block they had arrived at the small restaurant. Harry made sure to open the door for Louis, then pulled out his chair for him, and ordered Louis his water and wine when the waiter came. They had done this before, when Harry had been pretending to be Alex and they went on expected date nights. But now Louis offered Harry a bashful, giddy smile he had never seen before, and it only made Harry want to do every little thing for Louis. He wanted to fold down Louis’s napkin over his lap for him, call the waiter over again and again to keep asking for things on Louis’s benefit.

He breathed in, settling himself, and Louis broke the silence by chatting about the décor of the restaurant and asking Harry’s opinion on what he should order.

Eventually, Louis asked Harry about how work was doing and Harry filled him in about his students, his lesson plans, the gossip about teachers Harry did and didn’t like. Louis smiled and nodded along, laughing at stories about rude coworkers or students and smiling softly as Harry talked about his favorite students, most of them omegas. By the time their dishes had arrived, Harry had given Louis practically every name on his course roster.

“Did you always want to be a teacher?” Louis asked as he picked up his fork, “You sound like you love it so much.”

“I guess,” Harry shrugged, “I like kids. And I had good teachers growing up. I applied to a lot of jobs after university, and I found a temporary teaching position by dumb luck. I guess it just stuck.”

“You didn’t study to be a teacher?”

“I studied Mathematics and Law,” Harry said, “I thought I’d be an accountant or a banker for a while and then maybe go to law school later once I saved up the money. But I like teaching better.”

Harry picked up his fork and stabbed at one of his Brussel sprouts as he looked across the table at Louis.

“What about you?” Harry asked, “What did you study in university?”

Louis shrugged, his smile dropping a bit.

“Literature,” Louis said, “But that doesn’t really mean anything. Your classes only mattered at my school if you wanted to be a nurse or a nursery teacher. They’d send you to the good buildings for technical training if you wanted to study one of those. I just ended up studying nappy changing and tea serving more than I did Dickens.”

Louis kept his eyes on his food, and he shrugged again, “Besides, I was only there for two years.”

“Right,” Harry said nervously, swallowed down, “Sorry. I had forgotten you dropped out of university.”

“I was kicked out of university,” Louis corrected him, “A professor overheard me telling one of my friends I was getting mated over the weekend and she reported me to the dean. I got a letter to pack up my dorm room that afternoon. No mated omegas could stay in. I would’ve at least liked to finish the semester, but I guess I got out of a few nasty exams.”

He rolled his eyes as he said it, and he looked over at Harry and his expression softened.

“I’m not mad at you for bringing it up,” Louis said, “I don’t regret it. Alex dropped out of school too, we did it together. I guess – “

He sighed, shaking his head.

“It wasn’t what you always wanted?” Harry asked cautiously, “Like, you didn’t always want to be – “

“A housewife?” Louis supplied with a wry smile.

“I mean, yes,” Harry said, still regretting his choice to bring this up.

“I guess not,” Louis shrugged, “I was top of my class when I was a kid, every year. I guess at some point I thought I wanted to be a doctor or something. And I’ve had a job. I was a secretary for a few months the summer for university. I was good at it, too. I could type fast. I – “

The omega shook his head and waved a hand around.

“I almost took another job as a secretary when Alex and I were first mated, for some extra money. But I didn’t want to hurt Alex’s feelings,” Louis said, “He would have let me if I wanted to. He doesn’t really tell me I can’t do anything. But he likes to hold onto his pride.”

Louis was quiet for a moment, and then Harry cleared his throat.

“Which of the omega classes was your least favorite?” he asked.

Louis lifted a brow and tilted his head.

“Mine was sewing and embroidery, I took it in secondary,” Harry said, “My hands were too big to hold a needle nicely, so I would always walk out of the room with ten bandages on my fingers.”

Louis giggled at that.

“You took omega classes?”

“That’s how my dad registered me for school,” Harry said, “Alex got the alpha sections and I got the omega ones.”

Louis’s smile flagged at that, and Harry rushed on to fix it.

“But the joke is on him because now I’m the only one of us that can cook.”

Louis groaned at that, “Oh, cooking was my least favorite. I always burned everything or undercooked it. I almost made my teacher sick on more than a few occasions because of some rather pink chicken.”

His eyes widened as he said it and he held up his hands, “But I’ve improved a lot! I’ve never made Alex sick or anything.”

“I believe you,” Harry said with a laugh.

“Oh, and you know what else I hated!” Louis exclaimed, clapping his hands at the sudden memory, “Dinner etiquette!”

“Oh, where they showed you how to sit and what forks to use?”

“Yes,” Louis exhaled, “Oh my god, when we were first mated, Alex used to eat half his food with his hands and I used to get so angry at him and he never understood why. But – I had taken a class for months on how to eat properly and he was using his bloody hands! It drove me mad.”

“I used to be the same way with my friends in university,” Harry chuckled, “I had to teach my flatmate to use a soup spoon because he was drinking chowder straight from his bowl.”

Louis laughed again and shook his head, and then launched into a story about how much he hated his posture course. The waiter came by to clear their dishes and Harry ordered them a slice of cake to share, and Louis was still rattling on with his university stories. Harry smiled and nodded at each one, taking in stories about a Louis he would have loved to have known better.

Eventually, Louis had to pause to catch his breath and their cake arrived on the table a moment later. Louis was giggling and flushed and he reached for his water, taking a long drink as he gazed at Harry from across the rim of the glass. When he lowered his drink, he smiled at Harry sheepishly and tucked a piece of hair behind his ear.

“Can I ask you something?” Louis asked.

“Of course.”

“When did you first know you fancied me?”

Harry stopped at that, lowering the fork he had already started extending towards the cake. Louis was looking at him with an open, curious face, and suddenly, his answer felt very simple.

“The moment I first saw you.”

Louis blushed, his shoulders wriggling as he looked away.

“Be honest.”

“I am being honest,” Harry said, “When I first saw you -- you were beautiful, yes, and I was drawn to you because of that. But I could just tell – you had this spirit I had never seen in another person. I was seeing you for the first time and yet I felt like if I got to know all of you, you and I could fit perfectly together.”

Louis blinked at him, his glossy bottom lip moving down, his mouth open. Harry picked up his glass, trying to save himself from the lump that was at home in his throat.

“Just a little inconvenient you were wriggling around on my brother’s lap that first time around.”

Harry took a long drink, while Louis just kept staring at him. His bright eyes looked glassy, and Harry quickly finished his drink. He didn’t want Louis to cry. Not here, not tonight, not ever.
Before his racing thoughts could catch up with him, Harry reached out and held out a hand across the table.

“But we’re here now,” Harry said, “That’s all that matters. Everything else was worth it.”

Louis looked at him once more, and then, slowly, he extended his hand and placed it into Harry’s outstretched palm.

Louis’s hand was warm, and small and delicate. It looked like it was crafted out of fragile bird bones, milk and sugar skin, tiny seashells for his fingernails. It should have belonged on the hand of a Greek statue that had been fished from the sea. And yet it was attached to an equally delicate wrist, then a lovely golden arm, and all the up to a narrow shoulder; an entire beautiful body with breath and blood in it.

Harry must have been staring for too long, because Louis was bright red by the time Harry got around to cataloguing his face.

Carefully, Harry curled his fingers around Louis’s face, encasing the precious feature in his hand. Louis flushed again but let him, his slender lips quirking as Harry did so. His scent was heady and sweet, like honey fresh out of the hive and flowers straight from spring blooming, and Harry never wanted it to forget it.

He shifted his fingers on Louis’s hand, and cleared his throat. Louis giggled weakly, wiping his free hand on his crimson cheeks as he did so.

“Now,” Harry said, his throat still unbearably thick, “Are we going to finish this cake?”

*******

The play let out late, and Harry had to call a cab for them because Louis was exhausted and nearly flopping all over him. He still smelled like warm honey and sun-baked flowers and fading perfume; the gloss was gone from his mouth but his lips were bright pink and smiling, and Harry was very aware of his every touch. Every time Louis grabbed for Harry’s arm or shoulder, his stomach rolled and his skin heated and he did his best to politely help Louis stand upright again. Harry opened the cab door for Louis when it pulled over the curb, and Louis smiled at him happily as he flopped down in the back.

“God, I’m so tired,” Louis huffed once Harry got into the back seat with him and closed the door, “You didn’t tell me the play would be three hours.”

“Some films are that long,” Harry said, and then leaned forward to tell the driver Alex and Louis’s address.

“They shouldn’t be,” Louis sighed, “God, it’s almost midnight. I haven’t been out this late since I was nineteen. I feel so old.”

He groaned and turned his head, which was still comfortably leaning against the cab seat. He offered Harry a smile, and held out his hand, flicking Harry on the shoulder.

“But I’m glad you wanted to do this with me.”

Harry sat up a bit straighter, trying not to let an incredibly eager smile break out on his face but failing miserably.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Louis nodded, “I really am.”

Louis let his hand crawl across the leather seats between them, and Harry’s eyes dropped so he could watch the omega’s fingers walk over to his own hand until Louis was settling his palm on top of Harry’s knuckles.

“Harry?” he asked quietly.

“Yes, Louis?”

“I really, um,” Louis stuttered, “I really hope you want to do this with me again sometime.”

Harry swallowed, his mouth dry, and he lifted his gaze up from Louis’s hand to his eager face.
“If you’d like that, I’ll make it happen.”

Louis nodded, and then gingerly retracted his hand, turning away from Harry has he folded his hand over his heart. Harry could have sworn he saw Louis start to grin as he turned away.

The cab dropped them off, and Harry walked beside Louis all the way up to the familiar unit. When Louis unlocked the door and ushered Harry inside, Alex was sitting in his armchair, smoking his pipe and listening to the radio at a low volume. He smiled when he saw Louis, his face lighting up even though his eyes looked tired.

“Hi, precious,” Alex greeted, and Louis blushed.

“Hi, alpha.” Louis said in turn.

He took off his shoes and set down his handbag, and then crossed the room to Alex’s chair. Louis crawled into Alex’s lap, his body fluidly rearranging so he could comfortably tuck himself against Alex, with his arms around his waist and his legs bracketing Alex’s lap. Alex wrapped an arm around Louis in turn, smiling and settling his face into his shoulder to scent him and give him a kiss on the neck.

“Did you have fun with Harry?” Alex asked.

“I did,” Louis said.

“Was he nice to you?” Alex said, locking eyes with Harry across the room.

“Yes, of course,” Louis answered.

“Did he open doors for you? And order for you? And pull out a chair for you?”

“Yes, yes,” Louis sighed, “I know you’re glaring at him right now, stop it.”

Alex chuckled and rubbing Louis’s back, kissing the top of his head.

“Just making sure.”

Louis lifted his head and smiled too, his eyes closing as his face relaxed. Alex closed his hand over the back of the omega’s neck and Louis sighed, happily leaning forward to pull himself closer into Alex’s body.

“I’m, um, making tea,” Harry stuttered out, still unable to look away from them, “Do you want some?”

“Sure,” Alex said at the same moment Louis replied, “Yes, please.”

Harry nodded, and then finally turned to go into the kitchen, only to stop again at Alex’s voice.
“Are you staying tonight, Harry?”

“Um,” Harry said, “Can I?”

Alex scoffed, “It’s midnight. Stay. Sit with us.”

Harry nodded again, and then glanced at Louis, who was tucked against Alex’s chest but smiling sweetly at Harry, and he had to stumble into the kitchen before his heart collapsed on itself.

*******

Harry returned to his own flat on Sunday night so he could start his work week and give Louis and Alex some of their own space. But he still called Louis for a few minutes each night that week to ask about his day and promise, over and over, he would be back. He returned to the flat on Thursday for dinner as usual, and he was greeted by a very enthusiastic Louis taking his coat and then thrusting a dish of his favorite ice cream that had been kept cold in the ice box into his hands.

Harry spent the night there, curling up in what was quickly becoming his own bed instead of just a guest’s. Louis had freshly washed the sheets and they smelled like lemons and still felt warm, and one of Alex’s old bathrobes was hanging on the edge of the wardrobe door, just for him.

He knew he was welcome here now just about any time of the week. But his gut still twisted when Alex slipped out on a Sunday afternoon to get eggs and a pack of cigarettes, and Harry saw the perfect opportunity to approach Louis alone.

The omega was sitting on the couch, trying to knit something out of a knot of dark blue yarn. His brows were tight and he was frowning, but as soon as Harry stepped into the room he grinned and looked up.

“Harry,” he said, “Hi.”

“Hi,” Harry returned, “What do you have there?”

“Oh,” Louis glanced at his work, “I’m trying to make Alex a pair of mittens. If I go at this pace, maybe they’ll be done by Christmas.”

Louis set his work to the side, and patted the spot on the couch next to him with a soft smile.

“Sit,” he offered to Harry, who took the invitation gladly. Louis turned to look at him fully once Harry had sat down, and folded his hands neatly in his lap, “Did you want to talk to me?”

“Oh. Um. Yes,” Harry started, and then tried to take a breath to steady himself. He really shouldn’t be this nervous.

“Louis,” Harry blurted out “I don’t mean to speak for you, but, well, I had a great time the last time we went out.”

“I did too,” Louis agreed quickly, his smile growing bright as he said it.

“Well, I was wondering if you’d like to go out again this weekend,” Harry said, “Maybe we can go to a museum or something. Or an indoor garden. Get ice cream.”

“Oh,” Louis said, and smiled again, although it was smaller now than his grin had been before, “That sounds lovely.”

Harry frowned, his stomach churning a bit. Louis still looked happy, but he wasn’t giving him a firm yes.

“Is something wrong?” Harry asked softly, and Louis’s fingers shifted nervously in his lap.

“Can I ask for something?” Louis said.

“Of course.”

“I just – “ Louis shook his head, “You’ll think this is silly.”

“Tell me,” Harry said quickly, his stomach twisting with worry again.
“Well, when Alex took me on dates, when we were in uni– we always had a chaperone. Usually a teacher or something, which I hated, but – that’s how we did it.”

“Okay?” Harry said, his voice pitching up. He wasn’t quite sure where this was going.

“So I’d really, really like to go out with you. But – I’m used to doing things a bit more traditionally, and I know all of this has been challenging for Alex to wrap his head around so – “ Louis drew in a long breath, and then his words came out in a rush, “I was wondering if maybe Alex can be our chaperone, of sorts? He can sit away from us, so we can talk and have our time, I just – I think I’d like him there. I’d like him to be part of this.”

Louis fidgeted again, casting his eyes down to his twisted fingers. Harry tried to think about what Louis’s request meant – his own brother tagging along on his courting dates. It hadn’t been something he’d imagined doing as an adult – or really ever -- but he hadn’t thought he’d be doing this at all. He never thought he’d have the chance to court Louis or even come close to him. He would do anything for that, any request.

Being with Louis meant he would have to share.

“I’m sorry if that’s – “ Louis stuttered, but Harry grabbed his hand and gave it a squeeze. Louis stopped immediately, his eyes going back up to Harry’s face.

“It’s okay. it’s understandable,” Harry said, “He’s your alpha. If you want him there, that’s fine with me.”

Louis’s mouth opened, and then closed again until he was smiling fully.

“Thank you, Harry.”

They sat quietly together for a little while, Harry just watching as Louis tried to stitch together his mittens. When Alex got home, Louis put his knitting down and jumped up, tossing his arms around Alex and giving him a kiss.

“Alpha, can I ask you something?” Louis asked, “In the kitchen?”

“Of course, love,” Alex said. Louis was already tugging him into the kitchen before he was finished speaking.

Their soft voices floated out from the other room and Harry just listening, absently running his fingers over Louis’s lumpy knitting project. They were talking for a long time, and Harry could barely catch any words, but he just hoped the fact Alex wasn’t yelling meant that everything was going well.

Eventually the kitchen door opened, and Alex walked out with Louis right behind him, the omega eagerly bouncing on his toes as he walked. Alex looked at Harry for a moment, and then sighed, a small smile coming over his face.

“So I guess I’ll be seeing more of you than I already am,” Alex said, and Louis nodded happily, weaving his hands through the crook of Alex’s elbow and leaning against his shoulder.

Harry exhaled, the sound coming out as a laugh.

Somehow, they were going to make this work.

*******

Alex, it turned out, was a very exhausting chaperone.

When all three of them were together, they tried to go places where Alex and Louis’s acquaintances weren’t likely to be lingering around. Instead they took short train rides to visit the art and science museums in the neighboring city, or took a long cab ride to a restaurant on the edge of town. Most of the time they just went for dinner or ice cream early in the evening, when restaurants were nearly empty.

No matter where they went, Alex was always with them, just at a safe distance. When Harry and Louis got a meal, Alex had water and an appetizer at a nearby table. When they were at a movie, he sat two rows away and coughed loudly when Harry put his arm around Louis. Half the time Harry was amused and the other half he considered getting into a fist fight with his brother in public, but Louis seemed so happy to have both the twins present on the dates that Harry allowed it.

When Harry suggested going to the park and renting a rowboat one sunny afternoon, Louis eagerly agreed and went to go find his sunhat and sandals. Harry figured once they got there, Alex would occupy himself by sitting on one of the benches near the park’s pond and feeding the ducks that lingered on the shore.

Instead, Alex rented his own small boat and paddled around six feet away from Harry and Louis.

Alex was very lucky Harry loved both him and Louis so much.

Harry sat facing Louis, holding two oars tightly in his hands as he rowed them around the pond’s small circumference. He had gotten Louis a box of popcorn from one of the park vendors, and the omega sat happily nibbling on it while Harry rowed them around.

“This is so romantic,” Louis smiled, “This is such a good idea, Harry. It’s like a movie.”

“Thanks, love,” Harry smiled and then glanced back over his shoulder, “Although Alex is paddling a little close.”

Louis laughed, and leaned closer to settle a hand over one of Harry’s own.

“Leave him,” he said, “He means well.”

“I know,” Harry sighed, and then pulled on his oars again, keeping the boat moving. He paddled enough to briefly pass Alex’s boat, and the other alpha lifted his head to nod at Harry.

“Harry,” he said, “Are we keep things appropriate in there?”

“Alex, you enforce my chastity more than my priest does,” Harry said, while Louis just laughed and wiggled his fingers.

“Hi, baby,” he greeted, and Alex smiled, “Hi, baby doll. You having a nice time?”

Louis nodded eagerly, and then shook the cardboard box in his hand.

“Do you want popcorn, baby?”

“I’m alright, lovey, but thank you,” Alex smiled, then turned back to Harry, “Just keeping an eye on things. Doing my chaperoning duties.”

“Are you enjoying yourself in that boat?” Harry asked, “I haven’t seen you move more than two feet the entire time we’ve been here.”

“I’m just relaxing. Don’t always have to be paddling around.”

“Do you know how to steer a boat, Alex?”

“Oh, fuck you,” Alex hissed, then grabbed hold of his oars. He tried to lift them enough to paddle but they just uselessly batted the water and he cursed. Harry bit his lip from laughing.

“Alright,” Harry said, “Well, we’re just going to have another go ‘round. You have fun slapping the water.”

Alex shot him another glare and then sighed and went back to trying to steer the boat, while Harry just snorted and steered them away. Louis watched Alex with a smile, and then looked back at Harry.

“He’s really happy to go out with us, you know,” Louis said, “He tells me every time we come home that he has fun watching us.”

“Really?” Harry asked, and glanced back over at his struggling brother, “He acts like he’s getting teeth pulled when he’s with us.”

“He’s trying to be protective,” Louis shrugged, “It’s all an act, anyways. Don’t tell him I told you this but he trusts you. He knows you wouldn’t hurt me.”

“I wouldn’t,” Harry agreed immediately. He stopped steering for a moment, and then just looked at Louis, “Do you know that?”

“That you wouldn’t hurt me?” Louis asked, “Of course I know that. I wouldn’t have let you take me out in the first place if I thought you were going to hurt me.”

“Well – that’s good. I just wanted to make sure.”

It made Louis smile again.

“Before I met you, Alex used to tell me his brother was the sweetest, gentlest person he had ever met,” Louis said, “And I knew it was true as soon as I met you, and I still know it.”

Hearing Louis say that made Harry’s throat go tight. He had taken Louis out for weeks now, and every time he crossed his fingers and hoped that Louis felt safe, that Alex felt happy and that everything was alright. Every time it felt too monumental to ask for confirmation, like this could all end in an instant.

But it wasn’t ending, and Harry had to force his hands to keep paddling so his brain wouldn’t turn to mush with how happy he was.

Alex chose that moment to fall out of his boat and into the water.

Harry heard it first, and he and Louis both snapped to look at the spot across the pond where there was now an overturned rowboat and a very annoyed looking Alex poking out of the water.

“How the hell did you manage that?”

“I don’t know!” Alex yelled.

“Fucker can’t even keep his boat straight,” Harry grumbled, before raising his voice again to call to Alex, “Do you need help?”

“I can swim!” Alex shouted back, “I was in the fucking Army!”

“Shout that louder, why don’t you!” Harry called, then groaned, “Alex, the water is a meter and a half. Just stand up.”

“It is not – oh. Oh.”

Alex stopped moving then, his body stilling, and then he slowly started to edge his way back to the edge of the pond, pushing the boat as he went.

Louis was holding his stomach and bent in half from how hard he was laughing, and Harry just had to keep biting his lip. If Alex caught him laughing at a time like this, the other alpha probably wouldn’t forgive him nearly as readily as he would forgive Louis.

Eventually Louis straightened back up, wiped his eyes, and asked Harry to paddle him back to shore so he could help Alex. Harry return the two rented boats to the boat house while the omega sat with Alex on the shore, trying to dry him off with his own cardigan. Harry flopped down next to them when he was done, and Alex gave him a brief glance.

“If you two ever do this again I’ll stay on the bench next time,” he relented.

“Good,” Harry said, and leaned over to give Louis a quick wink, “Because I think I owe Louis a make up boat date that doesn’t end with you flipping yourself overboard.”

*******

Harry’s rut was approaching, steadily and ever-present on the horizon. Alex still let him stay over most days of the week, thankfully, but he always gave Harry meaningful looks and asked him more than a few times what his plans were for the next week. Louis still felt comfortable around him, but he usually clung to Alex, and Harry had decided against taking him on any more dates until he was himself again. More than anything, he just felt cagey and tired most days, like he was constantly in need of some kind of release. When he couldn’t go back to his own flat and pull one out, he could only settle for the next best thing, which was the old boxing gym deep in the unmated part of town.

He found himself going there every day during his daily midday break that week. The gym was constantly dark, with only a few strips of light bulbs and the sunlight from a set of yellowed windows illuminating the space. There were sand-filled bags hanging from the ceilings, a couple pairs of thick climbing ropes, and a large boxing ring in the middle that was usually occupied by rotating pairs of the same five people. It was about all Harry needed, along with a bit of company, even if it came from alphas older than his father who all had veterans’ badges from the last war.

Harry crossed the lashed concrete floor of the gym until he reached a darkened corner. He set his leather gym bag down, digging out his work out clothes. The place was filled with the usual mid-day crowd, all alpha men who were retired or in between jobs. None of them paid attention to him as he stripped to his drawers and pulled on his silky boxing shorts and laced up his trainers. He taped up his hands as usual with the roll in his bag, and then went to the nearest punching bag to gear himself up with some warm-up punches.

He jabbed the bag lightly at first, small taps, before picking them up until he was hitting the bag with a steady, hard rhythm. His punches made the bag swing and swivel enough that he had to keep stopping to right it and then keep going.

“Styles, you need me to hold it for you?”

Harry lifted his head to look over at George, the owner of the gym, who was lingering around the edges of the now-empty boxing ring. Most of the others still called him by his old Sergeant war title, but when Harry had first come in four years ago, looking a bit lost and babbling about how he just needed a new place to box, George had spotted him on the bag and told him not to worry about calling him by the old nickname.

He had especially insisted on that after Harry had come back a few months ago, trying not to think too hard about the fact he was lying about going to war to someone who had actually been there.

“Sure,” Harry said, “I was about to get my gloves anyways.”

Harry went back to his bag to retrieve his old leather boxing gloves, which he slipped on over his taped-up hands. When he returned, George held the bag for him, bracing his feet so Harry could punch it as hard he wanted without the thing swinging everywhere afterwards.

“Come on, harder than that,” George said, and Harry landed a hard punch in response, “Good boy. Keep that pace.”

Harry fell into his usual rhythm, delivering solid blows as George gave him short, gruff bits of encouragement. When Harry got too cocky and went too fast, George told him to slow down. If Harry didn’t listen, George released the bag and ordered Harry to sit and drink his water. After a set of particularly hard punches, George let go and pointed to the wall.

“Go. Rest. Drink. Now,” he barked, and then his face softened a bit, “You trying to throw out your arm out so you can’t see me anymore?”

Harry huffed and sat down, yanking off his gloves so he could grab the cup of water he’d poured out earlier.

“I’m just stressed out,” he offered, and George laughed roughly.

“Boy, I know you’re stressed. I’ve lived with another alpha for thirty years, I know what a rut smells like.”

Harry smiled weakly, letting his head rest against the wall behind him. George went and got him another cup of water before getting a rag to wipe down some of the bags. Harry just watched him, drinking his water and letting himself take slow, even breaths, trying to get the stubborn tension and aggression out of his system.

He had just gotten back to his feet, ready for another round, when a voice on the other side of the gym made him stop.

“Hey,” a voice yelled, “Why is there an omega here?”

Harry lifted his head instinctively, squinting at the entrance. The gym didn’t have any particular rules on who could and couldn’t enter, and George wasn’t very strict. But the place was usually frequently by alpha men, with an occasional beta and a few alpha women scattered in. Harry was sure that no omegas had ever been here, not even by accident.

But as he strained his eyes, he saw the silhouette of a petite body, dressed in pastels and gripping a handbag to his chest.

“Louis?” he said out loud. He said it before he could think through his words. He was already moving towards the entrance.

“You know him?” George said, following behind Harry.

“I – yeah,” Harry said.

He moved swiftly, trying to get to Louis as quickly as he could. He could see Louis’s mouth moving, a fierce expression on his face. He was standing right in the entrance of the gym, with his hands crossed tightly across his chest, his chin high in the air. He had attracted the attention of a couple alphas Harry had seen around before, men with greying hair and war tattoos on their large biceps. They were looking at Louis like they had never seen an omega in their lives, eyes nervously flicking from Louis to each other.

“There’s no sign on the door,” Louis said, “What’s the problem with me being here?”

“This is an alpha gym,” one of them said, only for his companion to mutter, “No it isn’t, Charlie.”

“Well, there are just alphas here,” Charlie said, “It’s dangerous for you to be here. Didn’t anyone teach you that?”

“Didn’t anyone teach you not to hurt random omegas?” Louis said, his voice raising and his face reddening.

“Charlie, shut the fuck up,” Harry called out, “He’s with me.”

Louis’s gaze shifted, and his mouth opened in an O, his eyes glancing at Harry’s sweat-covered torso before he looked up to his eyes.

“Harry,” he said, sighing and smiling, “Hi.”

“Hi, love,” Harry said, then glanced at the other alphas, repeating, “He’s with me, it’s fine.”

“Doesn’t matter, he shouldn’t be in the gym,” Charlie mumbled.

“He can be in the gym as much as anyone else can,” George cut in from behind Harry, “Harry says he’s fine, and I say he’s fine. Go back to what you were doing.”

“How are we supposed to do that when there’s a fucking omega here distracting us?”

“I’m mated,” Louis hissed, “And I’m half your age, you pervert.”

“Okay, love,” Harry sighed, reaching out and grabbing onto Louis’s shoulders. He did his best to gently steer him away, “Let’s go in the corner.”

Louis scoffed, glaring at the other alphas one more time before letting Harry guide him back over to the corner where Harry had stashed his things. George mercifully gave them space and headed back to his “office” – the hall closet where George kept his property papers and a box of cigars. Once Harry was sure there wasn’t anyone left to watch and eavesdrop on them, he fully turned to Louis.

“Hi,” Harry said, “What are you doing here?”

“I have your lunch,” Louis said. He dug into his purse and pulled out a paper bag with Harry’s name written on it, “I just finished bringing Alex his and then I went to the school, but they said you were at the gym. I had to ask three different people where that was, but I found it.”

He smiled proudly, like he had accomplished a Herculean feat, and Harry could just stare at him.

“You brought me lunch?” Harry said dumbly.

“Well, yes,” Louis said, “Remember, I used to bring you lunch all the time.”

“Yeah, but – “ Harry glanced around the gym, and then, upon not seeing anyone looking their way, he leaned in and whispered, “That was when I was Alex.”

“Okay,” Louis said, drawing out the word, “And now you’re Harry and I’m bringing you lunch.”

He held out the paper bag again, shaking it a little bit.

“I packed you a ham sandwich, an apple, and a chocolate biscuit. Do you still like all of that?”

“Um,” Harry said, “Yeah, I do, thank you.”

He took the bag slowly, looking down at it and feeling its weight. He had forgotten about the feeling of having Louis bring him lunch every day with a wide smile and a kiss on the top of the head. It was different then, of course, because it an act and it was meant for Alex and Harry just got the ghost of Louis’s affection.

But now he was holding a bag of food with his named lovingly written on the paper, and Louis had gone to the trouble of going to the school for him and then all the way here.

“What are you doing here?” Louis asked, breaking Harry out of his thoughts, “Why aren’t you at the school?”

“I don’t have classes before or after lunch, so I have a free two hours,” Harry said, “I usually come here and just work out for a little while, it helps clear my head and usually helps me get rid of some of the pain, too.”

“The pain?” Louis said with a frown.

“In my back and my hips,” Harry said, gesturing vaguely to his body. He knew he had white scars all over his hips and his back currently for anyone who bothered to look, and he also knew Louis had seen them before. Still, the omega’s eyes dropped to the waistband of his shorts before shooting back up.

“Boxing helps,” Harry explained, “It stretches out the muscles and helps me build strength in my core so my hips don’t take the brunt of my weight.”

Louis nodded, his eyes looking a bit far off, but he was still listening.

“As long as you feel better,” he said, “But – if you’re here during your lunch period, when do you eat?”

“Uh,” Harry said, “I forget to do that a lot.”

Louis’s eyes immediately went wide, and then came closer and pressed the lunch bag to Harry’s chest.

“Harry,” he scolded, “You need to eat something.”

“I know, I know,” Harry said, “I just forget. I’m not hungry.”

“How can you not be hungry!” Louis said, his voice lifting, “Eat something. Eat something right now, please.”

“Okay, okay, Louis,” Harry chuckled. He opened the lunch bag and pulled out the apple from inside, holding up the shiny red sphere for Louis to see before he pressed it to his mouth and took a bite.

“More than a bite,” Louis said, which made Harry laugh around the apple in his mouth.

“M’still eating!” Harry laughed, “Do you watch to make sure Alex eats?”

“Yes. I’m his omega. That’s my job,” Louis said plainly.

Harry blinked, trying not to think too much into that statement. Alex was Louis’s alpha, so he made sure he was fed. Louis was making sure Harry was eating, ergo…

It was a simple algebra equation, the kind he taught everyday, but he didn’t feel like solving this one right now.

He ate more of the apple, and it made Louis smile and bounce on his toes.

“I should keep working out, Louis,” Harry said, “I have to go back to school in about half an hour.”

“Oh okay,” Louis said, “But you’ll eat everything else, right?”

“Yes, yes, I promise,” Harry said, “Just after I get back to school, maybe.”

“Alright,” Louis smiled, “I’ll come back here tomorrow to give you another lunch.”

“Oh,” Harry said, “I – sure, that would be great.”

Louis smiled, and then shuffled his feet and shrugged, his cheeks pink again.

“Well, um,” Louis said, “Bye, Harry.”

“Bye, Louis,” Harry said.

Louis walked out, his head high, all the way out of the gym.

Harry watched him go, and then sat down on the floor to dig into the lunch Louis had brought him. He was down to the bitter core of his apple when George emerged from his office, smelling like tobacco and giving Harry a knowing eye.

“Who was that?” George asked.

“A friend,” Harry said vaguely.

“A mated omega friend?”

“Yes,” Harry said, rolling his eyes.

“And his alpha knows you two are friends?”

“George,” Harry huffed, “Yes.”

“I’m just asking!” George asked.

Harry grunted in response, then paused for a moment, turning the apple core over between his fingers.

“His alpha is my brother, actually.”

George whistled, shaking his head.

“Fuck, Styles,” he chuckled.

“Don’t tell anyone else here,” Harry said, “I trust you.”

“I’ve slept next to another alpha every day since we got home from the war. I’m not one to judge,” George said, “He seems like a nice one. Hope it works out for you.”

Harry just shrugged, trying to tap down the nervous movement in his stomach.

He hoped for that, too.

He tossed his apple core into his empty cup and then stood, grabbing his gloves again.

“Can we get back to the bag?”

George offered him another sharp smile, and then got his position behind the bag.

“We sure can, kid.”

*******

Harry started his rut on a Tuesday, and he didn’t return to Alex and Louis’s flat until the next Saturday morning. He had been in the middle of packing his bag to go back when he had gotten a very frenzied call from Alex explaining he was starting his own rut just as Harry was finishing his, and he needed to wait a little longer.

So when Harry arrived on their doorstep again, with his weekend bag and a bouquet of flowers for Louis in tow, Louis nearly launched himself into the alpha’s arms.

“Harry!” he exclaimed, nearly breathless. After Louis drew away, Alex had to hold him against his chest just so Harry could set his bag down and unlace his shoes.

“Harry, I missed you,” Louis said.

“I missed you too,” Harry said, offering Louis a smile, “What did I miss around here?”

Louis opened his mouth, and then blushed as Alex squeezed him tightly and shot Harry a glare.

“Nothing. You missed nothing,” Alex said, “We can start lunch soon, so – “

“Actually,” Harry said, “I was hoping to take Louis somewhere special for lunch today.”

Louis’s face immediately lit up, and he bounced against Alex’s hold around his middle.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“Go get ready and you’ll find out when you come out,” Harry replied, “Wear something suited for outside.”

Louis nodded quickly, and then wriggled against Alex’s hold.

“Alex – “ he mumbled, then sighed, “Alpha, I have to go to our room.”

“Can I have a kiss first?” Alex asked. His voice was teasing, but it was soft, and Harry realized suddenly that Alex’s rut was the first time they had had to themselves in a long time since Harry had come into their lives.

Louis nodded happily and then twisted himself around, lifting himself up onto his tip toes to offer his lips. He whined a bit when Alex refused to bend down to meet him, instead stretching out his neck and making it harder for the omega to reach. Eventually, he caved, laughing as he grabbed Louis’s waist securely and dipped his body down, giving him a long, slow kiss. After they were done, Alex righted Louis again and then kissed his forehead, swatting his bum playfully as Louis scurried back to the master bedroom.

Once Louis was gone Alex turned to Harry, setting his hands on his hips as he looked at the other alpha.

“Have a good few days?” he asked, and Harry snorted.

“Sure. Had a grand old time folding my pillow in half and fucking it for nearly five days.”

Alex flushed red down his neck, and he sighed.

“Shouldn’t have asked,” he said, “So where are you taking Louis?”

Harry grinned, and dropped onto one knee to unzip his weekend bag. He pushed aside a few spare pairs of shirts and trousers, and from the very bottom, he pulled out a woven basket covered with a tied-down flannel. He lifted it up for Alex to see, and his brother offered him a smile.

“A picnic,” he said, “He’ll love that.”

“You think?” Harry said, not trying to hide how his voice pitched up hopefully. He had spent far too long planning this.

“He will,” Alex nodded. He paused for a moment, then spoke again, a bit more quietly, “You’re doing well, you know.”

“Doing what well?”

“Courting him,” Alex said, “He’s really happy.”

Harry smiled for a moment, and then frowned and stood up as he looked at his brother.

“Hey, you alright?” he asked, and Alex sighed and shrugged.

“It’s stupid,” he said, “But – I guess I was worried that when you were gone, things wouldn’t be the same between me and Louis.”

A cold feeling settled in Harry’s stomach, and he uselessly opened his mouth.

“Oh. I – “ Harry stuttered, “I didn’t – “

“We’re okay,” Alex interrupted, “We’re great, actually. We had some time together and it…it was great as ever.”

Alex took a deep breath, and for the first time he could remember in a long time, Harry thought his big brother was about to cry.

“I just want to you know,” Alex said, his voice soft and halting, “You’re not taking anything from us. You’re adding to it. You’re multiplying it.”

“You mean that?” Harry said, and fuck, he felt like he was going to cry, too.

“I do,” Alex said, “I love you. Louis adores you. Don’t worry about anything else.”

Harry opened his mouth, but his lips could only quiver and open and close uselessly, and eventually, Alex had to wrap him in a tight hug.

“You’re okay,” Alex said, “Don’t let Louis see you cry. He’ll start fussing and we’ll never get out of the house. Trust me on that one.”

Harry laughed weakly, and then just let himself be held by his brother, letting their identical bodies slot together for the first time in months.

His brother, who had given him everything and still wanted him to stay.

*******

After Harry and Alex had pulled apart and sorted themselves out, Louis came out of his bedroom. He was practically skipping, dressed in a brand new outfit and holding a large, floppy sunhat in his hands. Alex had helped him put the hat on, straightened the pale pink ribbons around the brim for him, and then kissed his nose before letting Harry take Louis’s hand and lead him out of the flat.

It was sunny out, the leaves fiery orange and the early October heat keeping them mercifully warm. The park was filled with families walking their dogs and teenagers riding bicycles, but they were able to find an open stretch of grass free of noise and fallen leaves.

Harry tossed down the checkered blanket he had brought along while Alex made himself comfortable with a book under a nearby tree. Harry held Louis’s hand and helped him down onto the blanket before sitting himself. He pulled out the food from the basket: the bread and jars of jam, the cheese and crackers, the strawberries, a box of chocolates, lemonade in glass bottles. Louis smiled and dipped his head at he watched, the large brim of his sun hat obscuring his face as he smiled down at his folded hands.

“You brought everything.”

“I did,” Harry nodded, and then pulled out a cellophane-wrapped sandwich, “Even something for Alex.”

He held it up and waved it at Alex, who just looked at him blankly.

“I just sat down,” Alex said.

“And? You can sit down again, come get it,” Harry replied.

Alex huffed from his position at the other side of the park, and he stood, coming over to snatch the sandwich from Harry and then stalk away.

“Don’t forget your Coke,” Harry called, pulling a glass bottle out and holding it over his head until Alex took that, too.

Harry laughed and turned back to Louis, who was still smiling at him from under the wide brim of his hat.

“Here,” Harry said, “Let me serve you.”

He carefully unpacked the two chipped plates he had brought from his own flat, and fixed Louis a plate of jam-covered bread and fruit and cheese. Louis took it with a smile, and picked up each piece carefully, taking a moment to look at everything before he ate it like he had never seen food before.

Louis asked about Harry’s return to school, and Harry told him about how he had worked twice as hard that week because his school hired the worst possible substitute for his rut who had done nothing but confuse his students. Louis told Harry about the new books he had gotten from the library and how sad he had been about his flowers finally succumbing to the autumn chill until he was all out of anecdotes.

Their food was well picked over by that point but neither of them wanted to go, so Harry eased himself onto the blanket so he was nearly laying down, his elbows propping him up.

“Are you full?” Louis asked, and Harry shook his head.

“Me neither,” Louis agreed. He reached out to the carton of strawberries between them, plucked out a berry, and held it out to Harry.

“Here,” he said, and Harry smiled and reached out to take the strawberry, only for Louis to yank it back.

“I’m feeding it to you,” Louis scolded, “Don’t take it.”

Harry laughed, his chest bubbling with warmth at the gesture.

“Alright,” he allowed.

Louis held out the strawberry again, and this time, Harry just lifted his mouth and moved his body closer to bite into the berry. He bit into the whole thing, nearly down to Louis’s fingers, which made the omega shriek and pulled his hand away as soon as Harry had the whole fruit in his mouth.

“You can’t do that!” Louis said, “You almost bit me.”

“I didn’t, though,” Harry said between chews, “The berries are real good.”

He picked one up, and then held it out to Louis.

“Want one?” he said, and Louis blushed.

“Yes, please.”

The omega didn’t even try to take it with his fingers, instead he carefully leaned forward to bite into it with his teeth. He did it with small, delicate bites, and it took him three times before he ate the whole thing. He smiled at Harry when he was done, and carefully, he licked his lips.

“Real good,” he agreed, and Harry had to take a deep breath to settle his stomach.

God, he didn’t know how he had gotten so lucky.

“I’ve never taken anyone on a picnic,” Harry admitted, “I always really wanted to, though.”

“No one?” Louis lifted his brows, “Really?”

“You sound so surprised.”

“Well, ah,” Louis said, “I just figured you went on a lot of dates. Figured you had a chance to try everything.”

“I’ve gone on dates, sure,” Harry said, “But I’ve never courted anyone. I was saving all the good stuff for then.”

He winked at Louis, but the omega didn’t smile. He just looked down at his hands.

“Yes, you have,” he said softly.

Louis’s voice suddenly grew sad, and Harry opened his mouth as Louis continued.

“You did court someone,” Louis said, “You courted Alice.”

And then, suddenly, the warmth in Harry’s chest, the previous smile on Louis’s face, the beautiful blue sky that looked like it had been painted just for the two of them – it all fractured around him, and he was just left with an awful, heavy feeling in his belly.

“Oh, Louis,” Harry stuttered, “I – “

He reached out to touch Louis’s hand, and the omega lowered his head more but didn’t pull away. Harry wanted to stroke his thumb across the omega’s skin, but he didn’t dare make any further move than what he had already done.

“Louis,” Harry said softly, “I – I wasn’t courting Alice.”

“Yes, you were,” Louis whispered in a quivering voice, “You told me you were. She was your omega, for a little while.”

Harry’s throat was suddenly thick, and he tucked his fingers under Louis’s chin, pushing him up. When he met Harry’s eyes, his eyes were wet and shiny, and Harry instinctively moved forward as he tried to explain.

“Louis, I don’t know how to explain this. But…I walked through all the steps with Alice. I formally asked her on dates, and bought her gifts, and all of it. But my heart wasn’t in it. I wasn’t doing it because I wanted to mate her. You need that to court someone, really court someone.”

“Then why – “

“Why did I call it that? I don’t know. To convince myself, maybe?” he shook his head, “I shouldn’t have done that. Especially not in front of you. You know, I didn’t even call her my omega unless we had company. I couldn’t call her that when it was just the two of us, and that should’ve told me everything I needed to know. But I kept trying.”

Louis was watching him with a hard, blue gaze, his lips settled in a pouted, firm line as he watched Harry fumbling for his words. The alpha finally exhaled, hanging his head. He moved forward, then, tucked his limbs to make his body smaller and leaned forward until he was looking up at Louis. It made the omega gasp a little bit; an alpha wasn’t supposed to lower themselves to an omega at all, let alone in public. But Harry didn’t know how else to say what was fighting to come out of his mouth.

“I wasn’t courting her,” Harry said, “I was just…pissing away time, waiting to see if I was brave enough to come back to you.”

Louis blinked at him, and his lips parted. He leaned forward for a moment, and then, slowly, retracted himself.

“You mean that?”

“I do,” Harry said immediately, “I always wanted you. I still can’t believe I actually was lucky enough to get you.”

Louis was still for a little while, and then, slowly but surely, the smile returned to his face.

“Okay,” he murmured, and then he pushed his hat back, enough for Harry to see his whole face, and he gave him a smile as bright as the sun, “I believe you, Harry.”

“You do?”

“Yes,” Louis nodded, and then, softly, “Thank you for waiting for me.”

The warmth in his belly, the fast thumping in his chest, the lightness in his head – it all came thundering back to Harry at once, and he was glad he was laying down because he swore it could’ve knocked him straight off his feet.

He took a long moment to just look at Louis, with his sweet smile and his sparkling eyes, until a familiar voice broke them apart.

“Hey,” Alex called out, “Are you two going to let the ants eat those chocolates or am I allowed to take some?”

Louis laughed at that, and he looked between Harry and where Alex was sitting.

“Can he come join us?” Louis asked, “Is that okay? We’re almost done.”

“Sure he can,” Harry said, “I think he’s probably tired of pretending to read that book while he eavesdrops on us, I haven’t seen him turn a page all afternoon.”

Louis had to cover his mouth with both hands to quiet his laughter, and Harry called Alex over, moving to make room on the blanket for his brother.

Harry wasn’t sure the knee and elbow that pummeled his side as Alex settled down as an accident or not.

*******

They didn’t end up going home for hours after that.

Harry packed up the basket and they started to walk home, and then Louis saw a poster for a dance hour at the local pub, so they killed time with a picture at the cinema, and then got beers at the pub as soon as the music started. Louis convinced both of them to come out onto the dance floor, even if it took Alex at least three beers before he agreed. They got home late, all of them panting a bit and laughing and Harry still lugging along the picnic basket.

When they got home, they all paused in the doorway to take off their shoes, and Harry put the basket away in the kitchen. When he came back, Louis was hanging up his hat on the hook, and Alex had a gentle hand on his hip. Louis smiled and lifted his head when Harry reentered the hallway, and Harry returned his smile and took a step closer.

“Did you, uh, enjoy yourself today?” Harry asked.

“Oh, yes,” Louis nodded, “Very much.”

“I’m glad,” Harry, “I thought it was a nice day for a picnic. And then, everything else after that, I guess.”

Louis nodded, a little too fast, and Harry frowned at the sudden movement. He glanced over Alex, but he just looked a little confused, too. So Harry looked back to Louis.

“I, um – “

Then, in the space of a heartbeat, Louis surged forward, cupping Harry’s face in his hands. He tugged hard until Harry was pulled down, matching his height, and then he leaned forward, and their lips met.

Harry gasped weakly against his lips, his eyes opening wide as Louis kissed him, hard. His lips were thin but soft, and persistent, strong against Harry’s own. He was holding on so tightly, kissing Harry tightly and with barely open lips, but Harry could feel the strength and the urgency of his touch, the way Louis breathed hard against his mouth, the way his fingertips dug into Harry’s cheeks.

He pulled away too quickly for Harry to kiss him back. And when he did, his cheeks were blazing bright pink, and he lifted his hands up, covering his newly puffy mouth.

“I’m sorry,” Louis gasped out, and stepped back until he bumped against Alex. He leaned back into his alpha’s weight, and then lifted his head, looking up at Alex with wide eyes, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me, I – “

Harry looked at them, his heart pounding in his chest. The kiss was one of the tamest he had received in years, but he still felt like his head was spinning and like he was about to collapse.

Alex was just looking down at Louis carefully, and then, slowly, lifted his chin and kissed Louis gently.

Louis’s entire body seems to relax, melting back into Alex. The alpha put a hand on his hip, gently guiding him until they were actually front to front, and they kept kissing, languid and easy. Harry noticed now they were almost chaste kissers, barely much tongue, Alex’s hand firmly on Louis’s back, but they were so comfortable and so seamless within the little pecks, soft sounds trading between their mouths.

Slowly, Louis pulled back, blinking slowly but at Alex. His eyes looked shiny, a little glazed, and his mouth was red now.

“I got to see how it looks when you kiss me,” Alex murmured, and his eyes briefly flicked to Harry before going back to his omega, “When you did that to Harry. It was like watching us.”

“Did you like it?” Louis whispered, and Alex reached up, wiping at the omega’s mouth with his fingertips.

“Yes,” Alex said softly, the corner of his mouth lifting, “We look good together.”

“Well it wasn’t really – “

“Sh, omega,” he said, “Not now.”

He leaned forward again, and they kissed again, with the same soft, gentle rhythm, Alex’s hands on Louis’s back.

Harry watched them, his back firmly against the wall, and he thought about what Alex had said.

Here, watching his brother kiss Louis, that was what it would look like if Harry kissed Louis. Alex kissed differently than Harry did; with his mouth more cautious and closed where Harry would’ve opened Louis’s mouth more, pressed in, let his hands roam. But the line of his brother’s jaw, the way his full lips connected over Louis’s, the way his eyes closed…that was Harry’s face, and he suddenly flushed at the thought he was watching someone else and himself in the same moment.

Alex pulled away from kissing Louis, and Louis blinked again, smiling as Alex held his chin.

“Would you like to kiss Harry again?” Alex asked, “You stopped so soon.”

“I – “ Louis stuttered out, and ducked his head, “Yes.”

“Okay,” Alex said, and kissed Louis’s forehead, “Ask him, darling.”

Louis turned, looking at Harry, and before he could open his mouth, Harry spoke.

“Yes,” he said quietly, “Yes, please.”

Louis nodded and then slowly pulled away from Alex and went back over to Harry. This time the alpha reached out, holding Louis around the middle, and then pressed his mouth down to the omega. He realized now how big the difference in their height was, how far he had to travel down to connect them. Louis’s lips were cautious again, delicate and pressed tight, and slowly, Harry opened his own mouth. Louis’s didn’t follow his, so Harry teased his tongue out, prodding at the seam of Louis’s lips until Louis gasped and pulled back a little.

“Oh, my,” he gasped out quietly, and Harry rubbed his hand over the back of his head, trying to soothe him.

“It’s alright,” he said gently, “It’s alright.”

He teased his tongue again, and this time, Louis’s mouth opened slowly, letting Harry slip into the wet warmth, Louis’s lips moving carefully around Harry’s own open mouth. Harry’s hand tugged on the back of Louis’s head, pulling him closer, until Louis was flush against Harry’s rabbiting chest. The omega squeaked, and Harry rubbed his fingers along his scalp again, and then softly pecked one last kiss on his lips and before he drew back, his mouth still open and his breathing hard and fast.

He was desperately trying not to get hard.

He watched Louis carefully, but the Louis still had his head titled, his lips puffy and wet, his eyes closed. Eventually, he laughed, weakly, and opened his eyes.

“I’m shaking,” he whispered, and lifted his hands, pressing them to Harry’s chest so the alpha could feel his trembling fingers, “Harry, I’m shaking.”

“You’re okay,” Harry said quickly, and reached up to hold Louis’s hands.

“I know,” Louis whispered, “I – I’m wonderful.”

He shook his head, and then slowly closed his mouth and blinked, his eyes clearing as he looked at Harry.

“I – “ he said, and looked back at Alex, “Alpha?”

“It’s okay,” Alex said, “You’re okay, precious.”

Louis nodded, still glancing between them.

“I’m going to go lay down,” Louis said, “I think – um, yeah.”

He took a stumbling step back, and then turned, striding down the hall until he was jogging, and then there was the sound of the master bedroom door opening and closing.

Both alphas stared after him, and Harry ducked his head, pressing his hand to his mouth.

“Fuck,” he breathed out, “I’m sorry, I – “

“I’m not angry,” Alex said immediately, and Harry looked up. His brother looked a little surprised, his eyes still wide, but no, he didn’t look angry. And his scent was rich and strong and not bitter, just as it always was.

“You’re not?”

“He wanted to kiss you,” Alex said, and then he glanced away, “And, uh, I meant it. I liked watching.”

“I – really,” Harry said, and then, softly, “I liked that, too.”

Alex nodded, then shook his head.

“I’m gonna go, uh, check on him,” Alex said, “He’s probably just excited, but can’t hurt.”

“Right, of course,” Harry said, “Will you, uh, tell me if I can help?”

“Sure,” Alex nodded, “Right. Well, I’m going to, uh – “

Harry swallowed weakly. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t even know how he was going to go to the bathroom and run himself a bath and wank this all away.

“Yeah,” he said, “Go do that. I’m gonna wash up.”

Alex gave him another nod, and then he went off to the bedroom.

Harry stayed in the hall, a hand covering his mouth, his heart pounding and he thought of Louis’s mouth, his hands, his little, delicate body pressed against his, how beautiful and breathy his voice had sounded.

He had his first kiss when he was fifteen, in an alley next to his school, before he had presented, with a newly presented omega boy whose name he couldn’t remember. And suddenly, he felt that fifteen-year-old boy curled tightly inside his body, whose fluttering, nervous heartbeat and rapid thoughts seemed to have replaced his own.

Louis had kissed him.

Slowly, he drew his hand away from his mouth and ran it over his face instead, groaning a bit as he pulled himself down the hallway to the bathroom. He removed every piece of clothing, drew a bath, and sat in the hot water, pretending not to hear the groaning and squeaking springs in the room across the hall. He just leaned his head against the cold porcelain of the tub and settled a hand between his thighs and put the other over his own throat, trying to feel himself breath.

Eventually, he let himself laugh, softly, and he smiled as he slipped his head under the water to get his hair wet.

He didn’t think he would ever stop smiling.

*******

Harry didn’t know when he had moved into Alex and Louis’s guest room.

By this point he was used to packing an overstuffed weekend bag, because typically Alex and Louis would ask him to stay on Sunday night and then sometimes on Monday night too. And at some point, the weekend bag became a fully packed suitcase for a week’s trip, with only a few days in between he was back home. And between that time he kept leaving more and more things in the guest room closet, until slowly, he had no reason to go back to his flat.

It was still his flat, and he still had knick knacks on the shelves and weed in a biscuit jar on the counter and rent to be paid on the second day of every month. But now, his whole life was crammed into a flat that was too small for three people. He kept his papers clipped together on the kitchen table to grade, he had his clothes hung up neatly in the wardrobe, and he had his toothbrush balanced on the guest room sink.

Every morning, Louis smiled at Harry and settled his coffee and breakfast in front of him. Sometimes he kissed Harry on the cheek. Never on the lips. That was for date nights and for when Alex could keep a watchful eye on them. But still, it made Harry’s chest fill with warmth every time. And then, when he had to go to work, Louis would give him a lunch packed in a paper bag and tell him to have a nice day at work, and then would kiss the tips of his own fingers and wriggle them at Harry as he left.

He was home now.

As October bled away in cold wind and browning leaves, Harry settled into his altered life. He took Louis on a few dates a week and the rest of the time he just lingered around their flat, making tea or reading a book or laying on his bed, listening to the news coverage Louis wasn’t allowed to hear.

One Monday night, he sat at the kitchen table, with a set of his students’ homework assignments spread out in front of him. He pulled out a joint from his canister and lifted it to his mouth, only for it to be snatched from his fingers and thrown back on the table before he could even light it.

“Don’t smoke that shit in the house,” Alex said as he walked away from the table.

“I’m just trying to relax,” Harry huffed, already reaching for the spliff again. Louis was at the counter, laying out all the ingredients for dinner, and glanced over at them and frowned.

“Harry can make himself at home, alpha,” Louis said, and gave Harry another look, “Harry, I don’t mind if you smoke in here.”

“That isn’t a regular cigarette, doll,” Alex offered.

“I know that,” Louis huffed as he pulled out one of his aprons, “Don’t worry about it. Now, I need to make dinner. Tie my bow for me.”

Alex sighed and turned his attention to Louis as the omega slipped his apron over his head and then turned his back to Alex. The alpha grabbed the back strings of Louis’s apron and then carefully tied them into a tight, full bow. He tugged a little on the edges once it was done and kissed Louis’s shoulder.

“All tied, love.”

“All tied?” Louis parroted, and shook his hips, bumping his bum into Alex’s leg, “Stays put, even when I move?”

Alex chuckled and patted Louis’s bum.

“Yes, you little menace,” he sighed, “Give me a kiss.”

Louis giggled again and then turned, lifting himself up to kiss Alex on the lips. With another soft smile, Alex told Louis he was going to read in the living room for a little while, and then slipped out of the kitchen.

Harry waited until he was gone to light his joint, and sat quietly, smoking and grading his papers. Louis moved around in his peripheral vision, and occasionally, Harry would look up to watch up sort through boxes or pull out bowls. Eventually, Louis looked back at him and smiled.

“Can I get you anything before dinner, Harry?” Louis asked, “Some tea? A snack?”

“I’m okay, but thank you,” Harry replied, which made Louis nod. He was quiet for a long moment, and then moved closer and spoke again.

“I told Alex I knew what you were smoking, but I don’t,” he whispered, “What is it?”

Harry had to press his lips together to try not to laugh, but Louis frowned at him.

“Don’t laugh. Tell me.”

“It’s – it’s marijuana,” Harry said, but Louis’s face was still blank, “It’s a plant, like tobacco, but it makes you very relaxed. I buy it from a friend of mine at the gym.”

Louis nodded, still looking at the join in Harry’s hand.

“Can I try it?” Louis asked.

“I think Alex would murder me,” Harry said, then winked and leaned forward, “C’mere, though. Open your mouth.”

“What – “ Louis said, and Harry opened his own mouth and blew his smoke gently towards Louis’s face. Louis’s eyes widened and he coughed, covering his mouth.

“Dear god,” he hacked, his cheeks reddening.

“What’s going on in there?” Alex called, and Harry and Louis both shouted “Nothing!” at the same time, making them both cover their mouths. Harry felt laughter itching hard at his throat.

“I don’t like that, I don’t think,” Louis said when he finally got control of himself.

“It’s an acquired taste,” Harry admitted, “You just let me know if you ever want to try it okay.”

“Alright,” Louis said. His voice slow and hesitant but he was still smiling.

Louis went to fetch himself a glass of water and Harry just watched him. He allowed himself to lean back in his chair, properly admiring Louis like he was an exhibit in a museum. All paling skin against cream-colored trousers, his hair neat in the front but spiky and uncombed in the back, his spotty apron the same color as his eyes.

Harry stared for too long again, and eventually, Louis turned again.

“What?” he murmured, his lips still smiling.

“How do you think…all of this is going?” Harry asked before he could think about what he was saying.

Smoking with Louis around was a bad idea.

“All of what?” Louis asked.

“Us courting,” Harry said, plowing right on, “Me living here. All of it. Are you…happy?”

“Oh,” Louis said. His smile dropped for a moment as he thought, his eyes blinking and far away for a moment before his lips quirked up again, “Yes, I’m happy.”

Harry’s chest was warm honey, and his throat tickled with dry smoke and a sudden. Happy lump.

“Am I…” Harry said, “Am I what you wanted? What you expected?”

Louis tilted his head, his eyes going a bit far away again.

“You…” Louis started, and then sighed and shook his head, “It’s funny, you know. I lived with you for almost a year, and I barely bothered to get to know you, did I? Like, I hated you, or ignored you, for the longest time and then…well, I spent the rest of the time so confused about how I was supposed to feel about you.”

“So…” Harry interjected, and Louis rolled his eyes at the interruption.

“You’re not Alex,” Louis said finally, “But I courted Alex. I mated Alex. I would do it all over again with him, but…well, I’m glad you’re not exactly the same. I’m not falling in love with my fiancé again. I’m falling in love with you.”

Louis stared at Harry for a long time, and eventually his eyes widened a bit. Maybe he was afraid because Harry wasn’t talking. The truth was, he couldn’t. His brain was hazed out on drugs and Louis and he was never coming back down.

“Does that make sense?” Louis asked, and Harry nodded, his head moving quickly.

“Come here,” he murmured before he could think any more.

Louis came closer to him, and as soon as he was in Harry’s orbit, Harry dropped his joint into his ash tray and then reached out and held onto Louis’s face, drawing his up to kiss the omega on the lips. Louis gasped under his lips but kissed back, careful and cautious as always. But Harry pushed harder this time, pushing at the seam of Louis’s lips, tilting his head, letting his lips slide freely over Louis’s own. He smoothed his fingers over Louis’s cheeks and down to his neck. Louis hissed when Harry’s hands strayed to the junction of Louis’s neck and shoulders, one hand caressing the bite mark on his shoulder and the other on the clean spot that mirrored it on the other side. The omega’s lips jumped as he reacted, and Harry pulled his hand away from Alex’s bond mark. Instead he held Louis by the other shoulder, still kissing him firmly, trying to communicate every word he couldn’t articulate into the kiss.

He couldn’t tell which of them pulled away first, but they were separated, Louis was panting, his cheeks red and his scent bright and ripe. He pressed his hands to his face, staring at Harry with wide, nearly tearful eyes.

“You’re so gorgeous,” Harry said, his brain still hazy, and Louis closed his eyes, shifting his hands to cover more of his face and part of his eyes.

“You are,” Harry insisted, and then, “Louis?”

Louis shifted his hands, one blue eye peeking out between his fingers.

“Yes, Harry?”

“I’m falling in love with you, too.”

He had been in love with Louis for years, but it was the kind of love he could only feel from a distance – infatuation, stolen glances, a moment where Louis would speak to him gently or touch his arm that he would cling to for weeks. But this was different. He could love up close now, without secrets and without barriers.

It felt like a new type of love altogether. He hoped he could feel it for the rest of his life.

Slowly, Louis dropped his hands and looked at Harry properly, eyes still wide and hands shifting nervously. Then, he moved towards Harry and kissed him again. It was lightning fast, a quick press of Louis’s lips and then he had pulled back, holding his hands over his smiling mouth. After a moment, Louis cleared his throat carefully.

“Well,” he said, “Then I suppose that works out.”

He turned, then, and finally went back to preparing dinner. Harry tried to go back to grading papers but he couldn’t focus anymore; he would just give all his students full marks and leave it at that. Surely no one could complain.

Instead of working, he watched Louis make dinner, and exchanged smiles with him every time Louis glanced over his shoulder. When Alex came back in he kissed Louis on the forehead and then the lips, and gave Harry a knowing look but didn’t say anything. Instead, he picked up Harry’s ashtray and wordlessly threw his burnt out joint into the bin, and then sat next to Harry and nudged the other alpha’s knee with his own as he did so.

There was no animosity in it; no brewing fight waiting to break free. There was no worry, no quiet tension as they waited for Harry to leave. It was just any other evening, with Louis loving Alex and Alex loving him back and Harry still learning to be in the middle of it all.

It all felt so simple, so utterly free of the worry and aching longing Harry used to feel every time he saw Louis so unquestioningly in his brother’s arms, barely offering a glance in his direction.

This was different, and it was warmer and safer than any other feeling Harry could remember.

Finally, he felt like he was home.

*******

One night, Harry woke up to a shout down the hall.

His eyes opened immediately, a jolt of energy going through his body as he blinked into the darkness. The shout has been short, but he could hear words following the sound, along with some shallow gasping.

He fumbled for his bedside table, where he kept his watch. After a few moments of searching, he picked it up and squinted through the darkness at the time on the face. It was around two in the morning, and he hadn’t been awake at that time since he was twenty years old. But he heard more shouting and gasping down the hall, so he tried to sit up and run a hand down his face.

Down the hall he heard a door open and close, and then gentle footsteps on the hardwood. Harry listened carefully, then pulled himself out of bed, found a pair of drawers to cover himself, and plodded out of his room and out into the hallway. There was the sound of running water coming from the kitchen, and he followed the sound and the sight of bright yellow light, even though the brightness made him screw up his eyes and curse under his breath.

Harry stumbled his way down the hall half-blind, and then stopped short when he finally reached the kitchen, his breath caught tight in his chest.

Louis was standing at the kitchen sink, his eyes sleepy and his hair mused and cheeks pink as he filled up a glass of water. He was in a pale pink nightgown, adorned with puffy, gauzy sleeves and a little white ribbon threaded next to his collarbones, with a tiny silk rose stitched to the center. He looked so stunning, so perfectly lovely, but Harry couldn’t even think of that because he could hear crying in the next room.

Harry coughed weakly, and Louis started, slapping his hand over his chest. Some of the water in his glass sloshed back into the sink.

“Oh, Harry,” Louis said, “Um, hi.”

“Are you okay?” Harry said, and Louis blinked at him.

“I’m fine,” he said softly, “Um, it’s – it’s Alex.”

“Alex?” Harry repeated.

“Yes. He’s, um – “ Louis said, “He’s been having fits, lately, in the night. Nightmares. I don’t know.”

He reached up a hand, tucking his hair behind his ear, and Harry frowned.

“Nightmares?” he asked, “For long how?”

“Um,” Louis said, “Maybe a month?”

“A month?” Harry repeated.

“Yes, um – “

“Why haven’t I heard him before? I’ve been over here nearly every night for two months now…”

“He’s usually a little quieter than this,” Louis said. His voice was soft, and on the verge of quivering, and Harry’s stomach lurched at the idea of Alex shaking and sobbing a door down and Harry never being the wiser.

“I usually just get him some water and he goes back to sleep in a few hours,” Louis said quickly, “Don’t worry, okay? I’m sorry we woke you up.”

He turned off the tap and lifted up the glass. He tried to walk past Harry, but Harry reached out a hand, touching Louis’s bare shoulder. The omega jumped and looked up at him with big eyes, his mouth open.

“Maybe I could…see him?”

Louis’s mouth opened, then closed, before he looked at the door to the master bedroom.

“You’d like to?”

“He’s my brother. He’s in pain,” Harry said simply. He was too tired to say anything else, to explain all the times he had jammed his six-year-old body into his brother’s twin bed because he had woken from a bad dream. Back then, Harry could have solved everything by volunteering to shine a torch under Alex’s bed to check for monsters. He had a feeling tonight could require something else.

Louis stared at him for a moment longer, and then his shoulder drooped, his head dropping with his posture. Harry noticed blue shadows under Louis’s eyes he hadn’t seen before.

“Let me ask, okay?” Louis said, “He’s in a state right now.”

“Of course,” Harry said.

Harry followed Louis to the master bedroom door and waited outside. Louis slipped into the room, and a moment later Harry heard the bed shift and his brother mumble words he couldn’t understand. The gentle cooing of Louis’s voice followed, and Harry tried not to listen too hard, but the soft gasping and weak hiccups were hard to ignore.

Finally, Louis’s voice came again, and Harry leaned towards the door, trying to catch every word.

“Alpha, baby,” Louis murmured, “Harry wants to see you. Can he come in?”

Harry held his breath, waiting. He heard more murmuring, their voices hushed and going back and forth for a moment until Louis spoke up.

“Harry,” Louis called, “You can come in.”

Harry nodded to himself, and then twisted the doorknob before pushing the door open. He squinted into the room, blinking at the soft light provided by the lamp on Louis’s bedside.

Alex was sitting in his bed, his knees to his chest, his head in his hands. His forehead was slick with sweat, and when he looked up, his eyes were blown, completely dark. Louis was pressed to his side, running his fingers through the alpha’s hair.

Harry approached slowly, and then sat carefully on the side of the bed. Alex looked over at him, his eyes still distant and glassy.

“Hey, big brother,” Harry said, “I’m here. Is that alright?”

“I had – “ Alex blinked, “I was dreaming.”

“I heard,” Harry said, “What were you dreaming about?”

“I – “ Alex shook his head, “Don’t remember.”

“That’s alright,” Harry said. He reached up and settled his hand between Alex’s shoulder blades, where his bare skin was slick, “How about Louis and I just sit with you and you can drink your water?”

Alex nodded, and Louis reached over the bedside table to retrieve the half-empty glass of water. Alex drank it slowly, and Harry ran his hand over his brother’s skin. When Alex was done drinking Harry took his glass and put it down, then nodded at Louis.

“Louis,” Harry said softly, “Can you hold his hands?”

“Yes, of course,” Louis said, and quickly grabbed Alex’s hands, grasping his stiff fingers within his own. Alex took a slow breath and unfolded his knees, letting his legs stretch out across the bed.

“Louis, tell him a story,” Harry said, “Anything.”

Louis looked puzzled for a moment, but then turned back to Alex, examining his face for a moment before speaking.

“Alpha?” Louis said cautiously, and smiled when Alex looked at him, “Do you remember when we were in university, and you took me on that date to the lake?”

“Yes,” Alex nodded, “I remember.”

“Afterwards you didn’t want to say goodbye, and neither did I, but I had a curfew,” Louis said with a laugh, “So…you climbed into my dorm through the window.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry interrupted, “He did what?”

Alex groaned, but Louis laughed and kept talking.

“I lived on the second floor of the building, and he climbed all the way up. I don’t even know how. He didn’t have rope or anything.”

“I stepped on the hedges,” Alex supplied, “And then the windowsill from the window under you.”

“Jesus Christ,” Harry laughed, “I didn’t know you had it in you.”

“Shut up, Harry,” Alex grumbled, but then his mouth split into a smile a moment later.

“I almost had a heart attack when he knocked on my window,” Louis said, “We didn’t do anything, we just cuddled, but we both could’ve gotten expelled for it. We’re lucky we never got caught.”

“We sure were,” Alex sighed, “Especially with the number of times I did it.”

“You did this…more than once?” Harry stuttered. Alex glared at him, but Louis cut in.

“He did. Nearly every time we went on a date until we mated, for a year,” Louis giggled, “I bought a rope to throw down to him, eventually. I used to tell him I should try growing my hair down to the ground, and then we could do the Rapunzel line and he could ask me to let my hair down.”

“We did it anyways,” Alex said. His knuckles flexed as he squeezed Louis’s hand, “It always made you laugh.”

“It did,” Louis said, “You put up with me so well.”

He kissed Alex’s cheek, and Alex smiled, his eyes fluttering closed. The redness had left his face, and the tension had dissipated from his shoulders and chest. Harry smiled and rubbed Alex’s back again, and the other alpha’s eyes opened, like he had just remembered Harry was there.

“I can’t believe you did that,” Harry said, “Is that why you called me so much back then, panicked you weren’t going to be able to wait until your mating night to have sex?”

Louis shrieked, letting out a high, delighted, “Alpha!” as he shook Alex’s shoulder. Alex offered Harry a rather impressive glare.

“Why are you here again?”

“I’m distracting you, asshole,” Harry said, “Do you feel better?”

“I – “ Alex started, and then blinked, his expression freezing for a moment. He looked down at his hands, and then closed his eyes. All the fear was gone from his face, but so was the joy that had been there when Louis was talking. Now, there was just exhaustion.

“Yes,” Alex finally said, his voice incredibly soft, “Yes, I feel better.”

“Good,” Harry said, “I’m glad.”

Alex just nodded, and Louis’s eyes flitted between his alpha and Harry. Eventually, his lips moved, spelling out the words “Thank you.”

Harry dipped his head, and then took his hand off Alex’s back and moved to stand up.

“I should go,” Harry said, “I – I have work in the morning.”

“Do – “ Louis started, and glanced at the empty spot Harry had left.

Harry’s stomach tightened at the thought that maybe, just maybe, Louis had wanted him to stay in bed.

“I’ll leave you two alone,” he cut in, “Alex, drink some more water. Try to get some sleep.”

Alex just grumbled in response, and then folded himself in half again, leaning towards Louis. Louis wrapped his arms around Alex and kissed the top of his head, running one hand through his curls. He looked at Harry as the alpha walked towards the door, and in the darkness, Harry swore he saw Louis smile at him just as his hand touched the doorknob.

*******

Harry was exhausted the next day at work, and ran on several cups of black coffee until the early afternoon. He left after his last class, a full hour before the school let out, and trudged back to Alex and Louis’s flat in the hopes of laying down for a nap. He considered going to his own place, but he had no food there and if he came home early looking as worn out as he did, maybe Louis would fuss over him for the next several hours. That wouldn’t be so bad.

But when he got home, Louis was gone, and instead, he saw Alex sitting on the balcony, drinking a beer and smoking.

Harry frowned, toeing off his shoes and going to the balcony door. Alex glanced up when Harry opened the door, and just stared for a moment, his cigarette hanging off his lips.

“Hey,” he finally said, taking the fag out of his mouth.

“Hey,” Harry returned, “It’s not even two in the afternoon yet, what are you doing home?”

“I called in sick today,” Alex said, “Louis’s at book club, you just missed him.”

Harry nodded, and then moved out onto the balcony, closing the door behind him.

“Mind if I sit down?” he asked, and Alex nodded. Harry took the empty chair next to Alex, and wordlessly, his brother extended his pack of cigarettes and book of matches to Harry.

“Last night you asked what I was dreaming about, and I said I didn’t remember,” Alex said suddenly, “Well, that was bullshit.”

Harry lit up a cigarette, took a long drag, and waited for all the smoke to exit his lips before he answered.

“I figured,” Harry said, “It’s alright, though, I don’t take it personally.”

“I just…I didn’t want to say it in front of Louis,” Alex said, “He thinks he’s so tough you know, but…he’s got a soft heart. And the stuff I dream about isn’t something I want him to hear about.”

Harry nodded, looking down at the fag in his hand.

“You want to tell me now?”

“Is it okay if I do?”

“Sure it is,” Harry said.

Alex took a long, shaky breath, and then covered his face with his hand.

“Do you remember when we used to visit Grandmum and Granddad by the shore in the summers?”

Harry did remember, and he told Alex as much. He was probably only four or five then, his parents had only just started fighting outside of closed doors, and every summer for three weeks he and Alex would get to go to his mothers’ parents’ house by the seaside.

“I dreamed I was there, and I was little again, and building a sandcastle…and then…”

His voice started shaking, and he slowly put a hand over his mouth and squeezed his eyes shut.

“Harry, you can’t imagine what bodies look like when they wash on shore after being in the ocean for so many hours,” Alex said, “Humans aren’t meant to just roll around in the sea like that. It makes your skin turn white and fall off.”

Harry’s throat felt acidic and he swallowed hard.

“You dreamed about them coming onshore while you were building a bloody sandcastle?”

“Yeah,” Alex said, “I used to just dream I was back in France, but…now I dream about every beach I’ve ever been to. The other day I had a dream where I took Louis down to the shore and we made love on the sand and a fucking corpse washed up next to us. And it’s every fucking night.”

Alex’s hands shook around his cigarette so hard he dropped it onto his lap, and he cursed as the tip burned a perfect circle into his trousers.

“God, fuck,” he swore, brushing away the ash from his thigh. When he was done he put his face in his hands and shook his head, “God fucking damn.”

Harry felt sick all of sudden, sitting on his brother’s balcony, smoking his cigarettes, when he knew he was the reason Alex was having those nightmares. That could have been him, sitting there shaking and thinking about dead bodies in the middle of his wet dreams.

But it wasn’t. Alex had saved him from that, and Harry needed to fucking do something about it.

“I used to have nightmares when I first left Mum and Dad’s,” Harrys said, “Every night for nearly a year and a half.”

Alex lifted his head, his face red and his eyes glassy. He sniffled and wiped at his nose, and then picked up his beer to calm his fidgeting hands.

“About what?”

“Dad,” Harry said, “About all of you, really. But mostly Dad.”

“You did?”

“Yeah,” Harry said, “I had – really bad dreams, Alex. About him hurting you and Mom and I couldn’t stop it. It was – “

He shook his head. He still remembered all the dreams, all the screaming and the blood and how his heart would hammer too hard when he woke up. He didn’t think he would ever forget that.

“It was bad. It was really bad. And it felt so real.”

They were both silent for a moment, and then, Alex’s soft, rough voice came again.

“Do you have them anymore?”

“Every now and again,” Harry said, “But not every night. Not like before.”

Alex’s eyes looked glassy as he listened, and when he spoke again, his voice sounded razor thin, in danger of snapping right in half.

“What did you do to make it stop?” he asked.

“I started seeing a shrink,” Harry said, “It, um, it really helps.”

“A – a shrink?” Alex said, “But…crazy people do that. That’s where you go before they put you away.”

“That’s not true,” Harry sighed, “You just…talk through things. And sometimes you get medicine.”

“Oh,” Alex said. He shook his head, leaning back in his chair, “I don’t think I need to go there yet.”

There were many times in his life Harry wanted to wring his brother up by the neck. Today, right now, probably took the cake. But when he spoke, he kept his voice level.

“Alex,” he said softly, “Do you remember when we were in year seven, and we both had Mr. Alden as our Literature teacher?”

“I remember,” Alex said, “He fought in the first war.”

“And he always watched the door, remember? And if you dropped your book he would stand there and stare and not move for at least ten minutes?”

“Are you trying to say I’m like Mr. Alden?”

“I guess,” Harry said, “Um, well, I used to hear the teachers talk about it. They said it was shell shock, from the war. But my doctor told me they call it war neurosis. And he also told me I had it, from everything with Dad, even though I wasn’t in a war.”

Alex didn’t say anything, he just tightened his jaw and kept looking forward. So Harry kept going.

“Anyone can get it. But they call it war neurosis because, well, it’s most common when you come home from war.”

Alex blinked at him slowly, his eyes narrowing as he turned back to Harry.

“You’re telling me I’m shell shocked.”

“I’m not a doctor,” Harry said, “I don’t know for sure. But…you could be.”

Alex didn’t say anything to that. He stayed silent, sipped his beer, lit up another cigarette. Harry just watched him, from his darkened eyes to his still-shaking fingers, and he leaned forward, setting a hand on Alex’s knee. It made Alex jump and then glare at him, but Harry spoke anyways, and didn’t move away.

“Alex, you remember what happened to Mr. Alden, right?”

Something sparked in Alex’s eyes, and he looked away.

“I remember,” he said softly.

He didn’t need to say it.

Mr. Alden had blown his brains out the next year they had him for class.

“I think you should go to a doctor, Alex,” Harry said, “Please.”

Alex was quiet for a moment, and then, suddenly, Harry had his sobbing brother on his shoulder.

He reached up, holding onto Alex’s hair while he cried, doing his best to soothe him. But Alex just wanted to keep crying, so Harry let him keep going, even if Alex was dampening the shoulder of his favorite work shirt.

“I don’t want that,” Alex eventually said, and it was so choked in tears Harry cocked his head.

“What?”

“I don’t want to be like Mr. Alden,” Alex said, “I want to marry Louis. I want to buy him a house. I want to stay here.”

Harry nodded, still stroking Alex’s hair.

“Louis wants that, too,” Harry said, “And so do I.”

Alex sniffled weakly and then looked up at Harry.

“I guess I can stay for you, too.”

Harry snorted and tugged Alex’s hair hard, making the other alpha grunt and pull away. His face was so red and wet with tears, and he drew his shirtsleeves over his eyes and nose. He stared out at the alley outside for a little while, blinking his reddened eyes, and then slowly turned to Harry.

“You can give me the number for a shrink, right?”

“Of course I can,” Harry said, “You want it now.”

“Not now,” Alex said, “But. Later. Once I get used to the idea.”

“But you’ll go.”

Alex was quiet for a moment, and then, slowly, he glanced back over at Harry.

“If that’s what it takes for me to stay.”

*******

Harry had given Alex the phone number for a local psychologist, and the other man kept the number constantly tucked into the breast pocket of his work shirt. Every morning, Harry watched him put it away next to his favorite black pen and the embroidered handkerchief Louis’s family had gotten him, before he would kiss Louis on the forehead and go to work.

He didn’t talk to Harry about it, but sometimes Harry heard Alex and Louis speaking in low voices in the kitchen, and then after a couple weeks Alex started to come home late every Monday. Louis would just give him a soft smile and a kiss when he came home, and he would go to their bedroom for a little while before coming back to the living room to smoke or play cards with Harry and Louis.

Harry didn’t ask about it, but every time Alex came home they exchanged eyes and Alex smiled at Harry for long enough to know that not asking was the best thing he could do right now.

Of course, that extra hour or so Alex spent away meant that Harry and Louis had more time alone than usual. Time they spent playing games of cards, checkers, and chess, smoking out on the balcony, or trying to work together to make increasingly complicated recipes that took every bit of four hours to complete. Time they spent touching hands and lips and ankles; time Louis ended up in Harry’s arms or against his shoulder. There was always a bit of distance between them, their touches never becoming too heated, but they were there. Harry’s stomach no longer turned every time Louis touched his skin; instead, there was just warmth where nerves had once been.

So it felt perfectly naturally when Harry was home on a Friday night, he had two beers in his system, he was done with work, and he had Louis in his lap.

Well, he almost did. He was sitting on the couch, his legs relaxed and open, and Louis had his own legs spread over Harry’s lap as he sat next to him, his bum brushing Harry’s thigh, and he was kissing him.

Louis had gotten far more affectionate with his kisses lately. He was always making an excuse to kiss Harry and Alex on the cheek, forehead, or lips when he could. Harry didn’t protest one bit, especially not when it had been a tiring week and Louis was making himself so eagerly available.

Harry kissed Louis back, holding Louis’s cheeks in his hands as he lapped at the inside of the omega’s mouth, nipped at his lips, slid over his mouth. Louis whined and gasped as he did so, every movement Harry made being rewarded by a new sound. He leaned forward, his hands freely sliding over Louis’s cheeks and then down his neck and shoulders as Louis wriggled happily against him.

He almost could have forgotten his brother was in the room if he hadn’t spoken up.

“I know you two want to have sex with each other.”

Harry yanked back from the kiss, gasping as he did, and turned to stare at Alex. The other alpha was sitting in his armchair, casually lounging back while a glass of scotch in his hand like what he had said was perfectly normal.

“I’m sorry, what?” Harry sputtered.

Harry glanced at Louis, who looked equally shocked. His eyes were wide and he was trying to hold his open shirt collar closed. Louis looked over at Harry, and then back at the alpha who was still calmly observing both of them.

“Alpha, what – I wouldn’t – I would never – I – “ Louis stuttered, before Alex cut in.

“Shh, love, I know you wouldn’t do that,” Alex said, “But I think you want to.”

Louis just kept staring at Alex, and then over at Harry before snapping his eyes back.

“I,” he stuttered out, and then fell silent. Alex just nodded.

“Can you come here, Louis?” he asked. The omega nodded and quickly got up, trotting over to the armchair. He pulled himself easily into Alex’s lap, and the alpha settled an arm around him as he continued to speak.

“I know you two are interested in each other. Harry has been courting you for a few months now, love, and now you’re touching every chance you get.”

Alex looked right at Louis as he spoke, and the smaller man flushed at that.

“Alpha – “ he murmured again, and Alex kissed his forehead and soothed him before he kept going.

“It’s alright, baby. I’m making peace with it,” Alex said, “Harry is part of our home now, and you’re curious, it’s okay.”

Louis nodded, his eyes still cast down to his own lap.

“I would just prefer you two not to consummate anything until we…figure things out more.”

“Consummate?” Harry echoed with a snort, and Alex glared at him.

“Do you want to listen to me or not?” he snapped. He reached over, stroking Louis’s hair, “Like I was saying, I would prefer you not do that. But…I suppose it is a little unfair of me to not let you do anything.”

Louis stared at his alpha, his fingers curling tightly into his shirt.

“So I was thinking, maybe we can compromise,” Alex said.

Harry’s head snapped to look at Alex at the same time Louis perked up.

“What do you mean, alpha?” Louis asked, his voice high.

Alex glanced at Louis, and then over at Harry. He shook his head with a groan, then picked up his tumbler of scotch and took a sip.

“I have an idea,” Alex said, and Harry couldn’t help it; he leaned in closer. He also saw Louis shift in Alex’s lap, moving closer to the alpha.

“What kind of idea?” Louis prompted, and Alex smiled at him.

“One I’m explaining, precious,” he teased, “An idea I think you two will like.”

“And will you like it, too, alpha?” Louis prompted.

Alex blinked and then kissed his mate’s forehead.

“I will like part of it,” Alex said. He sighed, then, and pulled Louis closer to him, “So let me tell you what I’m thinking.”

*******

“Alex?”

“What, Harry?”

“Are you going to look at my cock?”

Alex groaned, rubbing his face. He was sitting on his bed, his hands laced tightly in his lap, while Harry stood a few feet away, dressed in a cotton under shirt and a loose pair of house trousers. Louis had been in the bathroom for nearly an hour, preparing himself for what was about to happen, and Alex’s expression had not changed at all in that time.

When Alex had pitched the idea last night, Harry had been interested. Louis had been, too, even if he blushed right down to his toes and stuttered for awhile after Alex announced what he had been thinking. They decided to do it the next evening, and Louis had been practically dancing on air the whole day, kissing both of them eagerly and just blushing and ducking his head when Alex asked if he was excited for the night.

It was a lot of fanfare for just taking their clothes off and nothing more, but honestly Harry had never felt so excited for something that used to feel so small.

“I have seen your cock at least a thousand times in the last 25 years,” Alex said, “I have no interest in it. I’m not going to look. I am going to look at my fiancé. That is the enjoyable part of this for me.”

“Well, then,” Harry sighed, and then looked back at the door, “Is, um -- ”

“Louis,” Alex cut him off, calling out loudly “Are you ready, darling?”

“Um,” Louis said from inside the wash room, “Yes?”

“Come out, then,” Alex said, “Harry is excited to see you.”

There was a moment of silence, and then, slowly, the door creaked open.

Louis stopped out carefully, with one hand around his waist and the other carefully holding together the neckline of his robe. He was wearing a robe made of soft cotton today, lavender with little white flowers embellished on the collar and sleeves. His hair looked soft and newly tousled, like he had spent too long pulling at it.

He kept his eyes down as he approached the bed and came up to Alex first, giving him a kiss and a soft “hello, alpha” before he turned in Harry’s direction. He was a few feet away from him, far enough that neither of them could touch even if they both reached their arms out, and they had Alex’s careful, watchful eyes right between them. Louis rocked on his feet, just looking up at Harry.

“Hi,” he said eventually, and Harry nodded towards him.

“Hi,” he returned.

Louis’s cheeks flushed, and he giggled awkwardly, holding his hands over his mouth. The collar of his robe fell open a bit, and he quickly dropped his hand back down to fix it.

“This is weird, right?” he said, “Like – we’re not – we’re not even touching, or doing anything. We’re just looking.”

“Yeah,” Harry agreed, “Just looking.”

“Just looking,” Alex piped up, and Louis gave him a glance.

“Thank you, sweetheart, for letting us do this,” Louis said.

“Yeah,” Harry said, “Thanks, Alex.”

“My pleasure,” Alex said flatly.

“You got to see me naked, too, before we were mated,” Louis said, “You cried. Do you remember that?”

“Yes, and I didn’t touch you then, either,” Alex sighed, “Harry, are you going to get your kit off or not? I have things to do today.”

Harry groaned, rolling his eyes.

“You ruin everything,” Harry said.

He still paused, though, before he went to take anything off. He looked at Louis, whose gaze was far away and fixated over Harry’s shoulder, not quite looking at anything yet. His hands were still shielding his body, his fingers unsure and twitching. Harry wanted to touch his hands and kiss his forehead and tell him it was okay. But he couldn’t. No touching.

He could see Alex watching Louis carefully, making sure that nervousness didn’t slip into anything more concerning. It would be okay, if he trusted both of them.

So Harry fiddled with the edge of his shirt, and then slowly, drew it over his head. He dropped it onto the floor at his feet, and rolled his shoulders back, readjusting his posture. Louis looked for a moment, and then laughed.

“I’ve seen that before,” Louis said, “You never wear a shirt around the house.”

“Oh. Right,” Harry said. He glanced down at himself, and then back up at Louis, “Um, do you like the way I look?”

“I would hope the answer is yes,” Alex said. Louis shot him a look.

“Be quiet,” Louis huffed, and then turned back to Harry, a soft smile on his face, “Yes, Harry. I really like the way you look.”

Harry nodded at that, letting his mouth twitch with the promise of a smile. He remembered when he was a teenager freshly out of his father’s house. He had been skinny and weak, still covered in bruises; too scared to talk to anyone -- let alone anyone touch him. Then he had found his jobs painting local houses and fixing up their roofs, and later had found a boxing gym in Brighton with men willing to give him a spare pair of gloves along with their time.

He remembered how proud he was of the way his muscles had filled out and his spine had straightened. How good it felt to not want to cry when he took his clothes off in front of an omega, to make excuses for the way he looked.

He didn’t think he would ever be that nervous again, but here he was.

“Do I – “ Harry said quietly, “Do I look different than Alex at all?”

“Um,” Louis said, and glanced at Alex. The other alpha just lifted his brows but still nodded, and it was enough to make Louis look back at Harry, “Your arms are bigger. And your chest.”

Quickly, he looked over to Alex again, his eyes wide.

“Just a little bit!” he insisted. Alex snorted, shaking his head.

“It’s fine,” Alex said, “I know Harry exercises more than I do.”

“It’s nothing, really. I, um, I box sometimes. After school.”

“I remember,” Louis said, blushing. He tilted his head, looking at Harry for a moment longer, “And, uh. Your stomachs look different.”

“Different how?” Harry asked.

“Yours looks, um,” Louis said, his face bright red, “…harder.”

“Okay. Are we done yet?” Alex asked.

“Let him finish!” Harry said.

“Right, right, my mistake,” Alex sighed, “Anything else you want to rub in, darling?”

“Harry’s bum is rounder,” Louis blurted out, and then covered his mouth quickly as Alex just lifted his brows.

“What are you doing looking at Harry’s arse?”

“He lives with us!” Louis sputtered.

“Okay, okay,” Alex said, “That’s enough of that.”

“Oh,” Louis said softly, and then dropped his hands, “Is it – is it my turn now?”

Alex pressed his lips together, and Harry felt his skin heat up.

Oh, god. He had somehow almost forgotten that eventually, it would be Louis’s turn.

He was going to see Louis naked today.

“If you’re ready,” Alex said softly.

Louis looked at him for a longer moment, and then nodded silently and reached for his waist.

He undid the tie of his robe. Harry could see a flash of white under the lavender fabric, a pair of drawers over Louis’s hips. Slowly, Louis slipped the robe off his shoulder, revealing smooth, golden skin underneath. The robe fell down over his arms, and then his chest, and then, the entire garment easily fell away, down onto the floor at Louis’s fidgeting feet.

Harry’s mouth went dry.

He had never seen Louis half-naked from the waist up. Not entirely. He had thought about it, more than he ever would’ve admitted, but any time he had tried to picture Louis underneath his clothes, the pieces of his shape had never come together perfectly. But now, they were together right in front of him, and he never imagined the omega could look so utterly impeccable.

Louis was compact but lean, with a slender waist that flared into round hips. He had a flat stomach that only pouted out a bit at the bottom, rounded with soft weight. The skin was dusted with the auburn hair, redder than the stuff on Louis’s head. His chest was completely flat, not the slightest bit of definition, and his nipples were tiny and dark, pebbled up against the air. He had a small patch of sparse hair between his flat pectorals, that same auburn color as the hair on his belly and legs. Louis flushed more, and this time, Harry saw the color travel all down his chest. The omega crossed his arms, and the round, shapely muscles of his biceps and forearms flexed in time as he did so.

“I don’t shave my chest,” Louis said, “I – I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Harry said immediately, “Looks – nice. Lovely.”

Louis blushed again.

“Alex likes it,” he said softly.

“Well,” Harry licked his lips, “I do, too.”

Louis looked away, and he held his hands delicately in front of himself, his fingers starting to fidget.

“Do you, um – “ Louis said, “Should we just – should we keep going?”

“Oh.”

Right. Keeping going. Harry still had his drawers on, and he was supposed to be naked. And he was half hard. And Alex was trying very hard to stare at the wall, while Louis looked like he was going to shake out of his skin.

“I guess – sure. Sure,” Harry said, and settled his hands on his hips, “Just – yeah. Okay.”
He took a long breath, letting the air flow through his nose and mouth. He let his eyes close, not looking at Louis, or at Alex, or at anything.

He pulled his drawers off his hips, and let them fall to the floor. He gave them a kick, getting them off his feet, and then let himself open his eyes.

In front of him, Louis’s eyes were brilliant blue saucers, big and round. He had his hands up by his mouth, his cheeks scarlet as he looked at Harry, his eyes darting down and then back over at Alex, who had taken up interest in his finger nails.

Finally, Louis giggled, curling his fingers against his lips.

“Oh,” he said, his voice muffled with laughter, “Oh, wow.”

“Um,” Harry said, curling and uncurling his hands, “Is that…a good ‘wow’?”

“Oh. Oh, yes,” Louis said, “Um…it’s nice. You look nice.”

Louis cleared his throat, rubbing at the base of his neck.

“You look like Alex,” he said, “So, um. It’s familiar.”

“Right,” Harry said quietly. He tried to calm himself, too aware of how his cock was twitching and fattening, and how it was open to the air, for Louis to clearly see.

“It’s kind of…red,” Louis said quietly, “And you’re leaking a little.”

“Right.”

Harry glanced down at his own dick, and he could see he was half-hard, his length slightly curved, the head a dark red already. His tip was leaking generously, the end already capped like a thick pearl of moisture. He had always gotten wet quickly.

“You smell really nice,” Louis said then, and Harry’s ears pricked at how soft and far-away his voice sounded. And then his nose alerted at how sweet Louis smelled, potent enough to crowd all of Harry’s senses.

“Thank you,” Harry murmured, and shifted his feet.

“Like cinnamon,” Louis added, and then shifted his eyes down again, “Your hair is shorter down there than Alex’s.”

“I, uh. I shave it,” Harry blurted out, gesturing dumbly to his cock.

“Huh,” Louis said, and then smiled, his eyes glassy, “That’s funny.”

“Omega,” Alex cut in, and then reached out to squeeze Louis’s arm. The other alpha’s scent wafted off of him strongly, tainting the air with a sharp, possessive bitterness.

Louis turned to Alex, his eyes still wide, and the alpha nodded to him, “Let’s finish this up, okay?”

His voice took a sharp edge, and it made Harry take a step back.

“I’m not going to break your nose again,” Alex said without looking at him, “Or any other part of your body. I just think Louis should get his kit off now. Don’t you?”

“Um,” Harry said, “Only if he wants to?”

“Good answer.”

“I – “ Louis stuttered, “I want to. If that’s okay. Alpha?”

“That’s fine, sweetheart,” Alex said, and grabbed for Louis’s hand, “Show me and Harry.”

Louis’s mouth lolled open, his lips wet and bitten bright pink. He looked down, his fingers resting on the band on his drawers. He closed his lips, and then slowly, his Adam’s apple bobbing, he pulled the underwear down.

Harry thought he was going to faint as the white fabric came down, uncovering Louis’s soft, pale hips, his strong thighs, and then…

Louis squirmed, trying to move his hands to cover his hips, parts of his cock. His cock. Dear Lord God. It was small, probably only a little longer than Harry’s middle finger, and not terribly thick. It was bright pink, buried in a little patch of course, reddish hair, and Louis kept looking at it, shifting his feet nervously.

“Do you – “ he stuttered, “Is it okay?”

“Yes,” Harry breathed out, “Oh, yes.”

Louis looked up, his eyes still wide and glassy, but he frowned, shaking his head.

“You – “ he said, “I know you’ve seen a lot of omegas before, though. Am I really okay?”

Harry wanted to tell him exactly how perfect he was. How beautiful his delicate little cock was, how it was more beautiful than anything he had ever seen. Smaller, too. He could cover it in one hand, maybe even a few fingers. He could lick it and swallow it down without choking. Probably without even feeling it.

Instead, he just said, “You are perfection.”

Louis shifted in place, but he still smiled, his eyes sparkling.

“Oh,” he said, “Thank you.”

Harry nodded, and Louis tilted his head.

“Do you want to see my bum?”

“That wasn’t what we agreed on,” Alex said, but Louis just swatted at him.

“Just for a minute,” Louis said, and then looked at Harry, “What do you think?”

“Um,” Harry said, “I’d like that if you want to show me.”

Louis gave him a sunny smile, his pink cheeks rounding up as his mouth curled, and then he turned around. Harry tried to lick at the inside of his mouth, bring some wetness back to his tongue.

Harry savored every moment as Louis turned, his thighs bouncing as he rotated. When he was fully turned, his pale, plump bum was perfectly on display – all strawberries and cream skin and a lovely, round shape.

Louis leaned forward a bit, pushing his bum out as he did so, and his arse shifted, his cheeks parting just a bit…

Harry swallowed drily the same moment he heard his brother inhale sharply.

There was wetness between Louis’s cheeks.

“That’s enough,” Alex said suddenly, and stood up, “Please.”

Louis looked over at his alpha, his eyes a bit wide. Louis seemed to snap out of his trance and he hurried to pick up his robe from the floor, pulling it back over himself. Louis wrapped himself up in his robe tightly, and then went over to Alex and deposited himself in the alpha’s lap, kissing him deeply. Alex reached up, tugging on Louis’s hair, kissing the omega hard enough to make Louis whine. Louis pulled away, and then tucked himself under the alpha’s chin, rubbing into his skin, his scent potent and thick.

“Hi, Alpha.”

“Hello, little doll,” Alex said. He rubbed his hands over Louis’s cheek, kissed his hair, “Was that fun?”

His voice still had some sharpness to it, and Louis glanced over at Harry, squirming in Alex’s lap.

“Are you cross with me?”

“No, love.”

“I still love you, and how you look,” Louis said, “I love your arms, and your bum, and your stomach – and your -- ”

He flushed bright red, and Alex kissed his nose.

“I understand, little one,” Alex said, and then looked at his brother, “Harry – “

“I’ll go,” Harry said, “I’ll take a walk. You two take your time.”

He started towards the door, but Louis’s loud, eager voice stopped him.

“Wait,” Louis said, and Harry turned to look at him at the same time Alex fixed him with a firm stare.

“Can I give Harry a kiss?”

Alex looked at his omega, tightening his hold on his waist. He seemed to mull it over for a minute, glancing over at Harry, and then sighed.

“Yes, sweetheart,” he said, “Quickly.”

Louis nodded and scrambled up, going over to Harry. He lifted himself up while Harry brought himself down, closing the distance between them. Harry settled a hand on Louis’s hips, where the loose material of the robe that was barely covering the omega’s body. Harry kissed him quickly and chastely, before pulling back quickly. Louis just gazed at him even after the kiss was over, wavering in place, a spaced-out smile on his lips.

“Omega,” Alex called, and immediately, Louis’s legs carried him back to the bed, into Alex’s lap. His legs wrapped around the alpha, and he reached for the button of Alex’s trousers.

Harry picked up his clothes, holding them in front of his cock, and made for the door.

He had barely gotten outside when he heard his brother growl and the bed squeak.

“Alpha…”

“Let me see you, baby.”

“Harry saw me,” Louis gasped out, “Harry likes me.”

“Yes, yes. But don’t think of Harry right now. Think of me. Look at me. I’m your alpha, aren’t I?”

The bed whined, and Louis cried out.

“He can look at your cock,” Alex said, “But I know what to do with it.”

Louis moaned again, and Harry raced down the hall, back to the safety of his own room. He didn’t waste anytime; he grabbed a dirty shirt off the floor, wrapped it around his throbbing cock, and he pulled as fast as he could, forcing the orgasm out of himself. He choked and doubled over, gasping as he felt his knot swell and the shirt become wet and sticky. He closed his eyes, trying not to listen to how loud the other room was getting.

As fast as he could, he found fresh drawers, trousers, a shirt and shoes. He pulled it all on quickly, tugged a hat over his curls, and raced out of the flat, not even bothering to get his wallet. He just needed to get away from another alpha’s territory.

It was still Alex’s territory.

But as he went out into the stairwell of the building, ignoring rank he probably smelled, he kept thinking of Louis. All his curves and pinkness and loveliness. How he had squirmed under Harry’s gaze and told Harry he liked the way he looked. How he had gotten wet. For him, for Alex, for both of them.

Harry breathed out hard, shaking his head.

It was his brother’s time now. But they had all been in that room, they had all seen the same things.

There was no turning their backs on that.

*******

Harry got up the next morning as early as he always did and immediately went to tie his trainers to go for a run.

He heard the shuffling of bare feet in the kitchen, and he inhaled sharply at the sudden scent of over blossomed flowers and honey.

He walked into the hall, and then moved to the kitchen. He could see a petite form standing at the counter, fussing around with bowls and pans, his body sloppily wrapped in a white robe.

“Louis?” Harry said. He meant it less as a question and more as permission to come close.

The omega turned quickly, staring at Harry, and the sight of him made Harry stop in his tracks.

His neck was covered in dark marks – some of them red, some already turning blue and purple. There were only thin slices of golden skin between them, and there was the deep, perfect indent of Alex’s teeth over Louis’s jugular.

Harry stared at it for a bit too long, and then, when he finally looked up at Louis’s face, he immediately came forward, already holding his hands out to the other man. Louis’s pupils were dark and blown out, his eyes glassy. He was flushed, his face bright pink, and his mouth was pouted open.

“Louis,” Harry said gently, reaching out to the omega, “Hey, hey, why are you out of bed?”

Louis swallowed and shrugged. His robe slipped a little bit, and Harry could see a white bandage over his bond mark. Alex must have bitten it up a little too much the previous night.

“I – “ the omega got out, and then pointed feebly to the stove, “Breakfast.”

“You want breakfast?” Harry frowned, “Are you hungry?”

“No, no,” Louis said, shaking his head hard. He pointed at the stove again, jabbing his finger as if that would make Harry understand, “Alpha needs breakfast.”

“Alex isn’t even awake,” Harry said, “I don’t think he needs breakfast.”

“But you’re awake,” Louis said. His voice was pinching, and he was frowning again as he repeated, “Breakfast.”

“I don’t understand,” Harry said, “I think you should be in bed, Louis.”

Louis whined, shaking his head. His body teetered, and Harry shot his hands out, holding Louis’s shoulders to steady him. Louis smiled at that, his glassy eyes looking at Harry. His scent was so thick and sweet Harry had to breath in through his mouth.

“You need breakfast. Alpha needs breakfast,” Louis said, and then held up two fingers, “I have two alphas.”

Harry froze, staring down at Louis, who was just swaying back and forth, smiling dopily up at him, high as a kite on Alex’s love and with bites all over his neck, not even aware of what he was saying.

Calling Harry his alpha.

Or, well, one of his alphas.

Louis wriggled in Harry’s arms, trying to move further into the kitchen.

“You need tea,” Louis said, “And eggs and bacon and toast.”

“Um, I don’t think you being near the stove is a good idea right now,” Harry said, holding Louis’s shoulders firmly, “I shouldn’t eat before my run anyways. How about you cook for me when I get home?”

“Okay,” Louis smiled, “I will go wait on the sofa until you come home.”

He tried to move again, and Louis giggled when Harry held him in place.

“You’re very strong,” he said.

“Thank you,” Harry said, “Hey, love, I bet Alex really misses you right now. Let’s go back and see him, okay?”

“Alex?” Louis said. He blinked, and then, slowly, his face transformed. He frowned, his lip quivering, and his eyes grew wet, “Oh, I miss Alex. I want to go see Alex.”

“Okay, sweetheart,” Harry said gently, “Let’s go see him.”

He tried to hold Louis at the shoulders and at the waist, guiding his steps, but Louis wobbled too much, and Harry finally just held tight onto his waist and then picked him up, easily swinging him up into his arms.

“Yay,” Louis giggled, kicking his feet and tucking his head into Harry’s chest.

Harry thought he would die right now with how much his heart was pounding, holding this precious, loopy omega in his arms.

He carried Louis back down the hallway, and then pushed the door open with his hip. He heard a grunt from further in the room, and then he saw his brother’s head emerge from the pile of blankets in the middle of the bed.

“Sorry,” Harry whispered, “This one thought it would be a good idea to cook breakfast.”

Alex looked confused for a moment, and then he squinted his eyes hard at Harry, the edge of his lip drawing back a bit.

“Don’t growl at me, it’s too early for territorial disputes,” Harry sighed, “Just wanted to return him to you.”

Louis wriggled in Harry’s arms, trying to get down.

“Alpha,” he murmured. Harry wasn’t sure which one of them he was talking to.

“Yes, love, I’m here,” Alex said.

He still thought that word was just for him. The thought made Harry’s stomach flip.

Harry helped ease Louis into bed, and the omega immediately crawled towards Alex, tucking himself into the alpha’s side. Alex chuckled and covered him with the blanket, kissing his head.

“There’s my silly boy,” he said, “Did Harry bring you back safe?”

“I needed to make him breakfast,” Louis said, “But I missed you.”

“Harry can have breakfast later,” Alex said, “I’m glad you’re here.”

He ran a hand over Louis’s head, and then flicked his eyes up, looking at Harry for a long moment.

“I’ll go,” he said immediately, and moved towards the door quickly.

“Bye,” he heard Louis exhale softly behind him, and he breathed out slowly as he opened the door.

“Uh, bye, Louis,” he said, and then quickly shut the door behind him.

Once he was alone he shook his head, running his fingers through his hair. He could barely think straight as he went back to the door so he could get outside and go on his run.

Louis. His marble-glass eyes. The bites on his skin. His pink cheeks. His breathy laugh. His smell.

Alpha. Alpha.

I have two alphas.

Harry took a shaky breath, wiping his arm over his eyes.

Louis was deep in omega space. He had no idea what he was saying.

But whatever he was saying was also probably the truth. He just might not remember any of it.

Harry didn’t know if he would ever get to hear Louis call him again.

But the problem was that he was sure now he needed the sound of Louis calling him alpha, in that same soft, uninhibited voice, in order to survive.

And maybe, just maybe, if he could live to hear Louis say that again, he could muster up the courage to call him Omega right back.