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2001

He forgot to pick up milk last night.

It’s 6:07 AM and he was dead asleep until just seconds before, but the moment the sheets rustle and he feels Louis swing his feet out of bed, Harry’s wide awake. His very first thought is that he forgot to pick up the fucking milk last night.

Louis’ gonna kill him.

He closes his eyes tight and pretends he’s still asleep, but he knows it’s a lost cause. He always wakes up when Louis does. All the same, he pulls the comforter up high over his head and burrows his face into his pillow, hoping that today is the morning Louis miraculously decides to go for toast and black coffee.

But then the blanket’s being pulled back and a sleepy-warm kiss is being pressed behind his ear. “It’s okay, babe. It’s a Starbucks kind of morning anyways.”

Harry’s eyes are still closed and it’s only 6 AM, but a guilty, fuzzy smile creeps across his face. Louis hates Starbucks mornings. “How’d you know?” he mumbles, turning over to nuzzle his face into Louis’ chest.

Louis merely gives him an affectionate kick and climbs out of bed.

1995

“Jell-O shot?”

A small, messy haired boy pauses and cocks his hip out, holding a tray of cups filled with bright green goo. He’s got a wet spot running down the front of his gray t-shirt and his jeans are probably just on the wrong side of too baggy, but in that moment Harry Styles starts frantically trying to remember how many drinks he’s had because—

He’s strangely sure he’s just fallen in love.

“Who are you?” The words tumble from his beer stained lips in a slow rush.

The boy lifts his tray a bit higher. “Louis,” he grins. “I made Jell-O shots,” he adds proudly.

Harry takes a cup wordlessly and before his mind has the chance to catch up with his mouth, Louis is swaying away, gelatin in tow. Harry’s frozen to the spot for all of ten seconds before he’s dashing after him, tiny plastic cup still pinched between his fingers, shot untaken. He catches up quickly and watches as Louis earnestly offers his tray to a pair of underwhelmed sorority girls.

“Can I have another?” he asks loudly, tapping him twice on the shoulder. Louis spins around, obviously a bit unsteady, and a huge, excited grin breaks across his face.

“Hello!” His eyes are alive with party and freedom. The sober part of Harry’s mind wonders if he’s graduating tomorrow afternoon as well. “Wait a second.” Louis’ eyes narrow in almost comical suspicion. “Didn’t I just give you a shot?” He pulls the tray protectively to his chest.

“Yeah,” Harry nods, looking down at the untouched Jell-O still in his hand. He reflects on the eight or so drinks he’s had throughout the evening. “But you’re probably the prettiest boy I’ve ever seen in my life.” Some terrible, bass thumping song comes blaring through the speakers. “So I had to come get another one.”

Louis beams then, eyes crinkling in the corners, cheeks rounding out.

“Who? Me?” he teases, striking a pose. “Prettiest boy?” He puffs out his chest and lifts his chin just so and Harry sort of freezes for a moment, because, well, he hadn’t actually planned out how any of this would go. Just sort of ran after cute Jell-O boy ten hours before he’s set to be walking across the stage and be handed a fancy diploma with Bachelor of Visual Arts scrawled across it, fifteen hours before he’s supposed to be moved out of his apartment and headed back to his parent’s house.

“The prettiest,” he confirms, nodding solemnly. “Go on a date with me?” Never mind that he’s leaving town in fifteen hours, that he’s drunk and sweaty, that he’s never even seen this kid before.

Louis watches him for a few seconds, smiley, smug, and somehow serene. “Okay,” he finally agrees. “But no movies! And I don’t put out on the first date!”

They end up going to the beach, and Louis is just as charming— just as pretty— sober as he is drunk.

He also ends up putting out.

(“Oh, fuck it. Get over here.”)

Harry doesn’t leave town the next day. Or the next. Or the next.

2001.

“So what time do you think you’ll be home tonight?” Louis asks, leaning against the kitchen counter, half-eaten apple in hand. He’s already fully dressed and ready to leave. Light blue button down, dark blue tie. Electric blue eyes staring across the room. Clear blue sky framing him through the open window.

“Probably 7:00 or so,” Harry apologizes as he ties his shoes by the front door— a whole three steps from the kitchen, four steps from the living room, five from the bedroom.

New York City’s different than Charleston is all.

“You?”

“Think I’ll be done early actually. Dominic’s got a client in Chelsea at three and then I think I’ll just head out once he’s gone, to be honest…I’ll save you some pizza for dinner?” Louis offers, tossing the apple core in the trash and crossing the room for his bag.

Harry pouts, but doesn’t protest, unable to frown for even a few seconds before a smile creeps back up. “Guess I deserve cold pizza…I’ll pick up milk on the way home,” he promises, glancing at his watch. “Shit—how’s it already quarter to seven?” He sighs and pulls the door open. “See ya, babe.”

“Love you!”

Outside, the sky’s so blue he has to put on sunglasses.

1996

“Louis,” Harry says, laughter tinging his moan. “Lou, we literally cannot do this.” He’s met with not one, but two sets of puppy dog eyes.

“But, Harry…” Louis’ crouched on the dirty, scuffed up linoleum of PetSmart, a tiny, fuzzy lump cuddled tight to his chest. “Harr -eh ,” he waves one of the puppy’s paws. “Harry, look at me! Harry! Harr -eeeeeh!” The puppy’s ears perk up at the high pitched noise. Harry sets his jaw and pretends not to see the little leash Louis’ now waving back and forth.

“He’s very cute. I get that.” Louis’ face lights up and, damn it, Harry wants this puppy. Wants it because it’s cute and he loves dogs, and, fuck , he wants it because Louis wants it and this could be a real, big, important relationship step— somehow bigger than moving into the two bedroom in Charleston— because this would be a life and a shared responsibility and, shit, leases can be broken, but you can’t just mess around with a dog.

He frowns and shakes his head and knows that even though Louis’ bummed out, that he knows it’s for the best too. That it’s just puppy fever and the fact that Niall’d gotten one last month.

“We live on the fifth floor, babe,” Harry reminds him gently. “And we both work all day.” Louis sighs, but nods with a sad laugh.

“Yeah, I know—“

“Lease is up next summer. We’ll factor it into the next place, yeah?”

Louis’s eyes flicker up to his and Harry holds the stare. Stupid, mushy “I know you know why I’m smiling,” smiles spread across both their faces.

One year and one month since the night before graduation. The night Louis showed up drunk to the wrong party with a tray full of Jell-O shots and Harry decided right then and there that he was done and spoken for.

Already a year or only a year?

Louis regretfully hands the puppy back to the clerk and let’s Harry help pull him up with a kiss on the cheek and a promise of pizza for lunch.

A puppy can wait another year. They’ve got time.

2001

The AC’s on too high, someone’s taken all the pens from his desk again, and it’s been all of thirty seconds since Harry’s sat down, over-priced Starbucks in hand, but Taylor’s already here, leaned up against the wall of his cubicle, file folder in hand.

“I’m missing your August summary.” She crosses her ankles in one direction, and then in the other. “You said you’d get it to me by six yesterday.” Harry tries to hold her steely, unimpressed stare (and tries not to sweat because, well, he hadn’t turn in the stupid summary. Completely forgot and had bolted home the second it struck six.) He drops his eyes after a beat. Screw Taylor and her ridiculous ability to always look so perfectly bored yet demanding.

“I didn’t get to it,” he mumbles, booting up his computer to avoid her stare. “Had a lot going on.”

Taylor shrugs. “I didn’t actually ask for an excuse. I need it by 9:00.”

“You do know I’m in editing, right?” Harry says. “I don’t have time for this summary stuff today. I’ve—“

Taylor was already halfway perched to leave, but she turns back then, tucking a blonde strand behind her ear. “Assistant to the editing assistant isn’t editing, sweetheart,” she smiles. “9:00. You’ve made me late.”

Assistant to the editing assistant.

Six years in the industry. Five struggling in Charleston. One suffering in New York City.

And he’s still a motherfucking assistant to the editing assistant.

2000

Their room’s pitch black and the blankets are pulled up high. It’s 2:17 AM and Harry wants to stay in this little cocoon forever.

“What am I supposed to do up there?” Louis whispers, feet nudging between his. Harry knows he’s not complaining, not nagging nor trying to dissuade him. He’s asking. Genuinely wondering what the hell a 25 year old with a degree in Marine Biology and a speciality in Sea Turtle conservation research is going to do in New York City.

“Um.” He pulls Louis in closer, burrows his nose into his hair, salty, earthy as always.

Neither of them say anything for a long time. The phone call informing Harry that he’d been offered a position as a new hire in the editing department at Grant News Media still rings in his ears.

In the days that followed, Harry had offered to turn it down. Planned to actually. Couldn’t imagine Louis giving up the beach and the turtles and having his sisters ten minutes away and all their college friends across town.

Other opportunities will come along, he’d said.

But Louis quit his job and called the moving company himself.

“It’ll be cool to try something different for a while.”

2001

It’s 8:50 when Zayn pops his head around the corner of Harry’s cubicle.

“Dude, I really can’t talk right now. If I don’t finish this report—“

“You hear about that plane crash?”

Harry stops short. “— what?”

“Louis works in that area doesn’t he?”

“What?” Harry’s hand is frozen in midair, halfway towards scratching his neck.

“Yeah, some plane just rammed into one of the Twin Towers, I guess. Ben is—“

Harry’s blood doesn’t run cold and his heart doesn’t skip a beat. The wind isn’t knocked out of him and his stomach doesn’t drop.

He’s mostly just confused.

“What?” he repeats for the third time.

Zayn shrugs. “I heard it was just a little one, though. I don’t know. Ben’s just started getting people on it. I was down that way and overheard him sending Perrie and her team out and thought of you, is all.”

When Zayn leaves, Harry sits in a stunned, mildly disturbed silence because— what the hell? How does someone accidentally hit one of the Twin Towers?

But, he reasons as he swivels back around to face his screen again, Zayn’d said it was a small plane. And those towers are huge. And there’s two of them. 50/50 shot there.

It’s actually probably concerning how unconcerned he is, but six years in the news industry has taught him a lot about sensationalization. So, he’s fine. He’ll just give Louis a call.

He dials Louis’ extension and waits. Gets an extra thirty seconds to bask in normalcy.

The line rings and rings.

Louis doesn’t answer.

1997

There’s a single drop of blood on Harry’s right hand. A perfect, dark red circle. His eyes are on the road as he drives, but every few moments they’re drawn to the drop. His fingers tighten reflexively on the steering wheel.

“Relax.” The words come out thick. Stuffy. He looks over and Louis is staring at him reproachfully out of the corner of his eye, two fingers on the bridge of his nose, head tilted forward.

Harry’s throat closes. “I—“

Louis cuts him off. “Harry. It’s just a break,” he says for what might be the tenth time since they got into the car. “I’ll be fine.”

Harry’s hand reaches up to shakily card through his hair. “I should’ve seen— I wasn’t looking!” he mutters, guilt pounding his chest. “I was looking at Niall, not paying attention—“

The corner of Louis’ mouth perks up. “So what’s a ball or two to the face? Been there done that, am I right?”

Harry opens his mouth to protest, but Louis cuts him off again. “It wasn’t your fault, H. Sometimes shit just happens.”

2001

Dial once. Dial twice. Dial three times. Nothing. Nada. No.

And Harry’s still not panicking, but he might finally be in that strange stage between denial and fear.

Looking back, he’ll realize that he’d never actually known what true fear was.

But he’s still not panicking, so he gets up from his swivel chair and grabs his coffee cup, figures he’ll hit two birds with one stone: get caffeine and the scoop in the break room. He makes it fifteen feet from his cubicle when he hears the words, “—heard it was a jumbo jet.”

But Zayn had said it was a small one.

So, he continues on the trek for coffee.

There’s already a small crowd in the break room, all gathered around the 24 inch mounted in the corner, tuned into ABC. Except it’s 8:55 and Good Morning America is supposed to be on and, okay, yes, Diane and Charles are indeed on the screen…but they aren’t smiling and it’s barely nine on a Tuesday morning in September, so, theoretically they should be talking about something inane, right?

But they aren’t smiling and the air in the break room is static and nothing else. Buzzing and murmurs. Diane comments that the size and type of plane is still unconfirmed, and then a grainy, bright image fills the screen: smoke against a clear blue sky. A caller comes on and starts rambling about jets and missiles and how he grew up on a military base, so he knows what jets and missiles sound like, and according to him, this was one of the two. Harry hears, “I wonder if they’re evacuating?” somewhere to his left and his eyebrows furrow.

Diane launches into what sounds like a recap, and then the caller claims that it was the west tower that was attacked, and Harry frowns, confused, because there’s a north and a south, as far as he knows, no west?

“Think he means the north tower,” someone says, and Harry feels himself release the breath he hadn’t even felt himself holding.

Wrong tower.

“If he can’t even get the tower name right, what’re the odds that he knows the fucking difference between a missile and a jet,” someone else mutters behind him.

Wrong information.

Harry rocks back from the balls of his feet, finally turning to go get that coffee.

Selfish relief.

Not that he had really been panicking or anything.

More and more people wander into the room, mostly people Harry recognizes from accounting and HR and what not. Everyone else is probably running around downstairs. Fact checking and making calls. Setting up interviews and getting crews ready.

He sees Zayn tucked against the back wall, mug in hand, watching silently. He crosses over and asks, “Shit. Can you believe it?” Whatever the circumstances, NYC plane crashes are certainly a tragic departure from the ordinary.

Zayn just shrugs, and Harry wonders if he’s just imagining the uncertainty in his voice when he says, “Could be worse, I guess.”

2000

“I feel like I’m supposed to carry you over the threshold or whatever.”

The ugly blue door to Apartment 608 is swung wide open, exposing the empty shoebox masquerading as their new home. Louis’ got his arms filled three boxes high and Harry’s got the aquarium perched precariously on top of a laundry basket filled with VHS tapes and books. Two small turtles lounge on their bed of rocks, blissfully unaware that they’ve just crossed six states in a crappy ’87 Volvo.

“I think that only counts for the first house, babe. And for like…married people,” Louis laughs, nudging Harry inside with a hip check.

“Hey!” he shouts, indignant. “Careful there! I’ve got precious cargo here, you know!” He shifts the laundry-aquarium combo protectively. “Your precious cargo, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Yes, well, you usually are, so,” Louis says, following behind. With some effort, he sets the boxes down just inside the door and then stands up straight, hands on his hips, taking in the room.

Harry places the basket on the floor and then lifts the aquarium onto the counter of the kitchenette, crosses back over to his boy the moment his hands are free, and wraps himself tight around his shoulders. “It’s small,” he mumbles into Louis hair. It still smells like salt and earth. They’ve only been out of Charleston twenty eight hours. He wonders how long the scent will last.

Normally Louis would grab any chance to make the obvious “you’re small!” retort, but this time he just places his hands on top of Harry’s and tucks his thumbs under Harry’s palms, leaning back into his embrace. “We don’t need much space, though,” he says, and Harry can hear the smile in his voice although Louis’ back is to his chest. “We’re always all on top of each other anyways.”

And maybe Louis was able to restrain himself from the innuendoes, able to at least try to make this an intimate, meaningful moment.

Harry just drops his hands from his shoulders and gives Louis’ ass a good grab. “Always on top of each other, eh?” He kicks the front door shut with his foot and turns his boyfriend around with a wicked grin. “Prove it.”

2001

At 9:01, Harry considers heading back to his office to try to call Louis again, just to hear his voice, ask him if he knows any better what’s going on. It had been confirmed just moments ago that it was a commercial jet, knocking all lingering confusion of maybe it was a mistake? straight out the window. They announce that both towers are officially being evacuated and he has to physically turn himself away.

He needs to get out of this room, away from this TV. Good Morning America has been replaced by the more straightforward ABC News Live, and his heart is finally starting to race; there’s no need to watch the same plane crash into the same building on loop.

How will the people above the crash evacuate?

He shuts the thought down immediately.

At 9:02, he says crosses over to Taylor, tells her the summary will be on her desk in five minutes, and goes to the coffee pot to grab one more for the road. A voice on the TV is saying, “—does not appear that there is any kind of effort up there yet. Now remember— Oh My God.”

At 9:03, gasps and groans stream out from the screen, from the people working on the live cast itself. The noise in the break room doubles—triples—and someone shouts. Harry’s eyes dart to the screen in alarm and all he sees is fire. A huge, angry red cloud is engulfing the skyline and then a fumbling, slow voice announces, “That...looks like a second plane…just hit…”

His coffee falls to the floor, and scalding liquid seeps through the tops of his canvas shoes.

He doesn’t feel a thing.

1999

On July 3rd, 1999 there was a fire across town. Faulty wiring or something. Harry was never too clear on the details. The house went up in flames at 3 AM. A mom and two kids. The smoke detector never went off. The dad was away on business.

Apparently one of the kids was in the same grade as one of Louis’ younger sisters. His mom knew the mother from PTA and book club.

On July 6th, Harry put on a suit, leant Louis a black tie, and together they went to the wake for a family they did not know, but whose absence stung all the same.

When they left, they saw the father sobbing in the passenger’s seat of a mini-van.

They kept walking. Said nothing on the way home.

In bed that night, Louis had whispered, “If I were him, I’d wish I hadn’t survived.”

2001

Harry’s on autopilot as he beelines back to his desk.

Call Louis. Give him a call. Call Louis. Give him a call.

He knows that no matter what ( no matter what.) he probably won’t answer. Both towers are being evacuated and he’s most likely long gone from his office. He tries to remember how many floors there are in the South Tower (110.) He tells himself that Louis isn’t up too high (67), that they probably started evacuating long before it was announced on TV, that Louis’ definitely already out of the building.

He also knows that he’s wrong.

This is where the panic starts.

9:08 finds Harry sitting at his desk, dialing Louis’ extension over and over and over again. Ring. Disconnect. Redial. Ring Disconnect. Redial. He doesn’t know what else to do; his vision is fuzzy and his ears are ringing and he’s vaguely aware that he’s holding his breath, but he’s suddenly too afraid to exhale. What if he breathes and the sound is so loud that he misses it when Louis picks up the phone to tell him he’s alright?

9:15 finds Harry sitting at his desk, phone in hand, shaking. Basic instinct says that in the event of an emergency, humans choose either fight or flight. Harry dials the extension again.

Through blurred out eyes he sees Zayn approaching his cubicle, opening his mouth, shaking his head, clearly terrified.

“—they’re already saying it’s us. Marcus downstairs said—he already accused— Ben wants our group to go, but I’m— if— I’m—“

He’s red faced and ranting and Harry forces himself to tune in because this is Zayn and Zayn is probably the only person he can call a friend in this whole entire building. He’s trembling, voice low, like he doesn’t want to be overheard.

He can’t bring himself to speak yet, but he musters the strength to make eye contact. A silent what?

“Ben is sending our team down, but I can’t go,” Zayn whispers. His face is drawn, eyes wide, lips tight, looks guilty for some reason. When Harry doesn’t respond, he says, “People are already saying it was the Middle East.”

He hears the words, but they takes several long seconds to process. “You need to go home,” is all he manages to say. And then, “Louis works on the 67th floor,”

Zayn looks stricken.

A current whips through Harry’s body, straight down his spine. He doesn’t think, doesn’t plan. Fight or flight. “I gotta go.” Zayn stares at him, throat visibly swallowing. He stands, clutching on to any fleeting semblance of action ricocheting through his veins. “Go home. I’m gonna go find Louis.”

Early 2001

Text books and loose papers litter the tiny two-person table, highlighters and pens and a half-drunk cup of coffee scattered between them. The windows are open, the soft breeze rustling the edges of the packet hanging halfway off the table, and the room is absolutely freezing. Louis’ constantly complaining about drafty windows— unless he’s studying. He always opens the windows when he’s studying.

Harry wakes up because it’s so damn cold. He kicks off the blankets and squints at the clock: 2:52 AM. He pads into the living room/kitchen/entire rest of the apartment, ready to haughtily ask how opening the windows at ass o’clock in the morning is any different than Harry opening the windows at noon just to air the place out, but the words drift off the moment he catches sight of his boy.

He’s slumped over at the table, the blanket he’d wrapped around his shoulders hanging on by just a corner, and he just looks so…small.

And Louis has always looked small. It was one of the first things Harry’d ever noticed about him, one of the first things he found adorable, one of the first things he’d teased him about. He loves that Louis is small.

But tonight it’s different because it’s April and it’s freezing, and Louis’ only a week away from a major deadline for his dissertation— Nutrient and energy transport from marine to terrestrial ecosystems by loggerhead sea turtles— and he’s just about worn thin between class, writing, and his shitty, horrible, absolutely terrible reception job at Morgan Stanley Investment. He’d come home earlier that evening, hungry and cranky, and had barely even said hello before microwaving a packet of Ramen and cracking open his notes.

Harry sighs softly and crosses the room in all of four steps, places a hand on Louis shoulder and gently jostles him awake. “Come on, baby. Let’s go to bed,” he whispers.

It takes a second, but Louis finally cracks open his bloodshot eyes, wide and confused for a moment, before bolting upright. “Did I— how long have I— fuck , fuck, I needed to fin—“ he fumbles around for ten seconds or so before suddenly succumbing to tears.

“Hey, hey,” Harry crouches down in front of him, gathering Louis’ hands in own. “Baby— Louis, it’s okay! It’s okay, babe—“

Louis frantically shakes his head, tears pouring down his face. “No. I— I’m so far behind and I need to get this done, and—“ He checks his watch, choking out another sob when he sees the time. “It’s already 3 fucking AM and I need to be up for work in 3 hours and then I have class tonight and, and—“

Harry pulls him in tight to his chest, wraps his arms as hard as he can around his back and just lets him cry. He’s exhausted, he knows. Louis’ always been a tired crier and at the rate he’s going it’s a wonder he doesn’t break down more frequently.

Louis chokes out something about ‘tomorrow at work’ that Harry isn’t quite able to make out, and all he can do is pull him even closer. His boss is a dick and the pay is absolute shit for everything they ask him to do…but it’s the only place he could find on short notice that would accommodate his crazy class schedule.

In Charleston, Louis’d been part of a research team, getting paid to do what he loved everyday. There’d even been talk of the program paying for his Master’s in a year or two.

Harry stares at the soles of Louis’ bare feet, at the scuffed up linoleum beneath them.

He wants to go home.

He thinks he’s wanted it since the day they arrived, since he realized the “Editing Assistant” position he’d been offered contained far less editing (read: zero) and far more assistant. But Louis had made the best of things, applied for a grad program before they’d moved and all.

So, they’re stuck.

No matter how much they both regret the astronomical rent and hazy pollution and— fuck, fuck, fuck this is all Harry’s fault. Louis working himself to the bone in a job he hates, for a degree he should’ve done somewhere else is his fault. They can barely afford to live here, and they’re both so sick of mac and cheese and frozen pizza that Harry thinks he could cy. He should’ve turned down the position. They should’ve stayed in Charleston.

He hugs Louis until he stops crying and then helps him to bed. He wraps his ankles around Louis’ calves and threads his fingers through Louis’ hair.

He promises himself he’ll find a way to make Louis happier.

2001

Outside is quiet chaos.

For the amount of people that seem to have flooded the streets in the last few minutes, it’s eerily hushed. People talk in low voices, in small groups bunched together. Strangers and coworkers and friends alike face north, all eyes cast upwards.

Two stains of grey rise high above, huge, silent, and shattering, and all Harry can see is a light blue button down and a dark blue tie. Electric blue eyes staring across the room. Clear blue sky framing the love of his life through the open window.

He exhales through his nose, long enough that his chest shakes, unable to empty itself any further.

And then he walks.

1995

“What song do you want them to play at your funeral?"

They’re on their fourth date, and they’ve only known each other four days. The wind on the beach is just short of gusty, and it’s still early enough in the season that the sand isn’t yet overridden by tourists and townies alike.

Louis’ stretched out on the blanket he’d stolen from his roommate, a supposedly hilarious kid named Niall, and Harry’s stretched out on Louis, calves crossing his shins, shoulder tucked into the crook of Louis’ arm.

“Excuse me?" Harry laughs, his shoulder bouncing into Louis’. He reaches up with his free hand to shield his eyes from the sun.

“What song do you want them to play at your funeral?” Louis repeats, earnest, although they both know Harry heard him perfectly fine the first time.

Graduation was only four days ago, and they’re both still jobless and invincible, still in that strange little bubble where summer means vacation and the idea of planning your own funeral seems like a thousand years away.

“I don’t know,” Harry laughs again. He wishes he’d had the foresight to count the number of times he’d laughed every day, starting way back before he’d ever met Louis, just so that he could compare it to now. He’s more than sure that that graph overtime would be a steep positive slope and then exponential, exponential, exponential growth. “I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it.”

“Well, I have,” Louis says, and he rolls over onto his side, so that the arm propping his head up pins Harry’s down and their legs stay tangled. The little triangle of freckles on his cheek is right at Harry’s eye level, and all Harry can think is: how have I not always been right here?

“‘Good Riddance.’ Off the new Green Day album,” Louis says. “I want people to cry,” he adds somewhat belatedly. He must misinterpret Harry’s silence as judgement so he pinches his upper arm. “It’s a funeral!”

Harry props himself up on his elbows. “I don’t think you’ll have any trouble,” he says. He tugs at a strand of Louis’ hair, right at the front where it’s longer than all the rest. “I mean from joy? Sure. Tears of sadness, however—”

“Hey!” A handful of sand goes flying.

Harry covers his eyes and sputters, shrieking with laughter. “Just kidding!” He slowly lowers his arm, gauging the threat of another attack, and Louis glares at him, lips pursed tight against the smile fighting to break free.

“Well, what would you choose, loser?”

When faced with the serious, expectant eyes of the cutest, brightest, warmest person he’s ever met, Harry is, apparently, unable to think of a single song to have ever existed. He flounders. “Maybe… something by The Beatles? I don’t know.”

Louis’ glare softens, and Harry sort of melts, right through the blanket. Right into the sand. “We’ll work on it, yeah?”

Harry nods and lets his head loll back. Up above, a pair of seagulls swirl between each other, weaving curves and spirals below the clouds.

“‘Good Riddance,’” he says. “I don’t think I’ve heard that one...”

“Lucky for you, I’ve got the album, a stereo, and Niall’s out of town. Wanna come over and listen?”

2001

This is the extent of Harry’s plan: Walk. Find Louis.

He’s swimming against the current, sweeping past the petrified eyes surrounding him on all sides, past the stock-still shoulders hunched forward, past the feet rooted to the cement.

He walks, and he walks, and at some point he realizes his button-down his soaked through, so he loosens his tie, undoes the neck, and rolls up his sleeves, never breaking pace.

There’s a man with a camera on the corner of 14th street and Horatio. A video camera. He’s panning the crowd, and Harry’s just swinging around him when he hears, “Get that thing out of my fucking face, you asshole.” He falters, automatically glancing around for the source of the voice.

There’s a woman toe to toe with the cameraman. She’s shirking, hand raised to block off her eyes, but the man doesn’t turn away. “Seriously! Stop!” she shouts, and Harry pivots.

Leave her alone!” The camera swings towards him this time. “What the fuck, dude?”

The man stares at him. In his jeans and Mets cap, he doesn’t look like a professional. He doesn’t look older than 23. “Someone has to record this.”

Harry pulls back. “People have loved ones up there, man. Just— just leave her alone.”

As he strides away, he hears, “Do you?”

1996

Louis squares his jaw and crosses his arms. “You’re a dick. Did you know that?”

“What?” He’s just barely awake, and his mouth tastes sharply of garbage and Fireball.

“You and fucking Nick—”

“What?” he demands, shocked. “I’m a dick because I was hanging out with Nick?”

“Oh, you were hanging out—”

“Yeah, we were hanging out. What? I’m not allowed to have friends now?”
“Oh, fuck off—”
“Don’t tell me to fuck off!”

“Fuck off!

Harry’s still sprawled out on his bed. Possibly still a little bit drunk. Definitely still wearing the clothes he fell asleep in.

“My mom’s expecting us at the restaurant in fifteen minutes, and you fucking reek of beer and—” Louis picks a pillow up off the floor and throws it at him. “—puke!”

It hits Harry in the face before he can bat it away. “Puke? What puke? I didn’t puke!”

Louis sneers. “Maybe you should check on Nick then.”

Harry stares back at his boyfriend, seething— beyond seething— until: “Wait— your mom?” The scowl slips off his face. Louis stalks out of the room. Lunch. “Fuck.”

Harry’s off the bed in seconds. He has to steady himself because, yep, he’s still a little drunk from $1 pitchers, but as soon as the wall stops swaying, he’s out the door, chasing after Louis. “Baby— Louis. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Louis’ standing with his back to him, arms still crossed. Harry wraps himself around his back. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He shuts his eyes. “I’m sorry. I forgot.”

They stand there in silence, and Harry is positive he couldn’t sink further into the ground.

“I’m a dick,” he whispers, “but I swear I didn’t do it on purpose— not that that’s— I swear I just forgot. Which is still really bad, I know— but I—”

Louis turns in his arms and presses his forehead to Harry’s shoulder. “You’re a dick,” he says into Harry’s t-shirt. “And you really do smell like beer.”

“I can shower in two minutes.”

“Please make it five.”

Harry pulls back. “Are you actually mad about Nick?”

Louis doesn’t look up, nose still pressed against Harry’s shirt. “Can we talk about that later?”

“I’d really rather we talk about it now.”

“You’re not a dick.”

Harry tightens his arms around Louis’ waist. “No, I definitely am. Just— not about Nick.” Louis exhales and the wet heat of it has Harry’s skin prickling. “Never about Nick. Unless… you don’t really think that I’m—”

“No,” Louis cuts him off. “I was just mad.”

“Can we still talk about it later?”

“Later.” Louis squeezes him once and backs up, cheeks pink. “Now? Shower.”

2001

He didn’t buy milk last night.

He didn’t make the bed like Louis’ always on him to do.

He didn’t kiss him goodbye.

“See ya!” “Love you!”

He didn’t say I love you, too.

1995

“Dude, that movie was fucking awful—”

“I love you.”

Louis freezes and then turns just his head, eyes the size of sand dollars. They’re just steps outside the theater, so he’s half lit in the yellowy light of the marquee behind them, half cast in shadow by the sky fading purple up above. Harry’s got one hand in his pocket, and the other wrapped around a mostly eaten bucket of over-salted popcorn— Louis’ favorite— and he didn’t think he was going to say those words right here, right now, since he’s just sat through an hour and a half of fighting and blood and fucking Braveheart, and they’ve only been dating, like, what? Five months? But—

“I love you,” he repeats, and something in Louis just cracks right in two, a dumb, goofy grin spreading out, slow as can be.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Harry confirms, and he feels his palm start to prickle with sweat against plastic-paper of the popcorn bucket.

Louis reaches in and grabs a kernel. “Well. I love you, too.” He pops it in his mouth, grins, and starts off down the street.

It’s just about perfect.

2001

The white plumes have sunk into a dark, dense grey.

There’s a man in a suit sitting on the curb crying, and Harry runs right past him. He runs past someone shouting that a bomb went off in DC. He runs past a pair of young women trying to get a cell phone to work.

It’s been thirty five minutes, and the world is suspended, dangling off the end of a frayed thread. Spinning, twisting, on the verge of falling.

There’s a cop in the middle of the street, waving everyone off, shouting for people to head out, to go home, and Harry wants to grab him by the collar and scream, “He is my home!” but he doesn’t.

He keeps running.

He’s looking up when the world snaps off the string.

He’s staring straight at it when the first tower falls down.

2000

“Is this what purgatory feels like?” Louis asks.

They’re supposed to be at some killer dinner spot Zayn had recommended the other day, but instead they’re standing shoulder to shoulder on a subway platform. Which one, Harry couldn’t say. That’s sort of the problem.

They’ve just ridden the train in the (presumably) wrong direction three times in a row, gotten out of the whole station, walked a quarter mile, scurried into a different station, walked back up again when they realized they were on the wrong side of the tracks, and ultimately come to the conclusion that they are small, hillbilly children, completely and utterly incapable of completing even the simplest of tasks in New York City.

Harry drapes his arm over Louis’ shoulder and slumps into his side.  “This isn’t purgatory, babe. This is hell.”

Louis reaches up, lacing his fingers through Harry’s, and sighs. “I think my stomach is eating itself. How set are you on this place?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever been less set on anything in my life,” Harry says immediately, and Louis laughs, turning into his side just so he can wrap his arms around Harry’s waist.

“Wanna see if there’s anything else nearby?”

Harry presses his mouth to Louis’ ear. “Pizza, pizza, pizza, pizza, pizza—” he chants, and Louis laughs louder, pushing him away.

“Okay, okay . Come on.”

They wander back up the stairs, make a random left, and walk out into the night. Harry still doesn’t know where they are, but he’s got Louis, so. It’s really okay.

2001

He can feel his jaw stretched wide, can feel his vocal chords straining, but he doesn’t hear his own scream. All he hears is blood pounding in his ears, and he’s still running, but then his knees are giving out, and then he’s scraping against the concrete, nails scratching into the stone.

He’s still staring at the sky when someone grabs him by the bicep and hauls him to his feet. He registers an arm pointing at a cloud of grey off ahead, and he can feel bodies pushing past him as they scramble away from it, but when the hand releases him, he doesn’t start running again.

He turns around and walks, slowly, back towards where he came.  It’s not long before a layer of dust settles over him.

He keeps walking in silence.

1999

“So, my mom’s pregnant again.”

Harry’s fork dangles in front of his mouth, pasta slipping back onto his plate. “What?” So, this is why Louis’d been off all morning, ever since he’d gotten off the phone. “Oh, my God.” Harry blinks rapidly, and Louis’ equally shell-shocked face curves up into a little smile. Harry can feel his own grin forming. “Oh, my God.”

“Yeah, that pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?”

Harry drops his fork and reaches across the table to grab Louis’ hand. “That’s—  that’s great. How far along is— what did she say?”

Louis slumps back in his chair, his bed-head still ruffled every which way, and exhales deeply. “Three months, she said.” He pauses for a moment, and then looks Harry dead in the eye. “And it’s twins.”

“Again?” Harry demands, smile now so wide it almost hurts. “ Johanna! What is it with you Tomlinsons!”

Louis leans back forward, resting one elbow on the table, hand coming up to cup his eye. He’s grinning like a maniac, a perfect picture of stunned elation. “Big brother times six, right?”

“Think you’re up for the task?”

Louis just laughs, both hands now rubbing at his eyes. “Probably not, but. What’s another two, you know?”

It’s the week before their third anniversary, and they’re only twenty four years old. Too soon to be talking about kids, too soon to be dreaming about kids, too soon to even consider themselves not kids.

All the same, Harry teases Jay on the phone that night, “So. Is this twin nonsense something I should be prepared for?”

Louis may or may not tackle him to the bed with kisses not long after.

2001

Bile smacks against the pavement, bits splashing back up at him. On his hands and knees, Harry heaves again— a hard, wrenching pull that leaves him gasping for air. He sits back on his calves, shaking. He stares at his thighs, dusted in grey and specks of white, and heaves again. He doesn’t cry.

He doesn’t know how far he’s walked. He doesn’t know how much time has passed. The only thing he sees when he blinks is smoke and fire, and his ears are ringing from the sirens and shouting.

A woman squats down beside him and shoves a water bottle into his hand. “Here,” she says. She doesn’t say anything else, but she stays there with her hand on Harry’s shoulder until he stops gagging.

This time, he doesn’t see it when the tower comes crashing down.

1999

It’s New Year’s Eve, everyone is trashed, and the world is supposedly going to end pretty soon. Niall’s got his shirt off. Lottie and a friend are doing Stan’s makeup, faces screwed up in concentration, laughing hysterically whenever their hands slip. There’s people scarfing down chips in the kitchen, and someone’s got sparklers out in the backyard. Y2K is awesome.

Harry is standing on the table, screaming-singing along with Whitney Houston.

“And IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIiiiiiIIIIIIIIIIIIIi—” He breaks off and takes a deep, heaving breath. “—will always love YOUUUUUUUUUuuUUUUUUUuuuuu!”

Louis is standing below him, bent over at the waist, laughing so hard that no sounds even comes out. Harry tosses his hair dramatically and absolutely screeches the highest note in the song, and then Oli’s throwing an empty beer can at home, which prompts everyone to start throwing beer cans, and Louis ends up tugging him off the table, shouting, “We’re under attack!” When Harry topples into him, he’s breathless with laughter and more than a little sticky with beer.

“You’re my favorite,” he says into Louis’ hair. “You’re my favorite person. Favorite being. Favorite organism.. Did you know that?”
“I did know that,” Louis agrees, and Harry all but nuzzles his face in his hair like a dog. “We’ve only got—” Louis looks at his wristwatch, “two minutes until the end of the world. How do you wanna spend it?”

“Kissing you,” Harry says immediately. “If I die, wanna die with you. Wanna die kissing you.”

Louis wraps his hands around his neck and pulls his face down, mashing their lips together. It’s sloppy and drunken and perfect.

Niall stumbles over, slapping Louis on the back repeatedly. “Where’s the remote, dude? We gotta turn on the ball drop. Wanna see it if the whole world goes to shit on live television!” Louis flicks him off, but Harry waves vaguely in the direction of the coffee table, never breaking from Louis’ lips.

When the time comes, the whole house screams the countdown. “Five— Four— Three— Two— ONE!”

The world doesn’t end.

Nobody dies.

“Happy 2000,” Louis says, starry-eyed.

“Welcome to the future, babe,” Harry says and dips Louis backwards into another kiss.

2001

They’re both gone.

Harry doesn’t start walking again for a very long time.

The Night Before

It’s a boring Monday night. They eat spaghetti for dinner and watch a Friends rerun in bed, ankles twisted together. Louis lays on his side, his head resting on Harry’s chest. Harry’s arm falls asleep under his weight, and he wiggles away after a while. Louis just slinks down to rest his head on his stomach instead, and Harry cards through his hair as Joey gets ordained online so that he can officiate Monica and Chandler’s wedding when the time comes.

It’s not the first time Harry thinks about having some sort of commitment ceremony for he and Louis. It’s not even the hundreth.

But there’s something about the mundaneness of the night— spaghetti, beer, and TV in bed with the man that he loves— that has him thinking that he would very much like for this to be his forever.

Soon, he says to himself. We’ll get on that soon.

2001

The nation is under attack. The nation is under attack, and Louis is missing. He isn’t gone. He’s missing.

He’s missing, Harry thinks. As he walks, he tries to say it out loud, tongue thick in his mouth. “He’s missing.” It’s quiet, and his voice is hoarse, but he repeats it, over and over again, every few minutes or so, as he drags his feet, following the mass of bodies ahead of him.

“Hey.” Harry jerks, startled out of his reverie, to find a man gripping his upper arm as they walk. His brown buzz cut is speckled with dust, but his tie and shirt sleeves are still perfectly done up. Harry stares at the man, and the man stares back, round and alert.

“What?” Harry finally says, because the man’s just looking at him, hand still tight on his arm as they walk, never breaking from the slow march of the crowd.

He can see the man search his face, eyes etched with concern. “Are you okay?” the man asks.

That’s when Harry realizes he’s currently sobbing.

He doesn’t reply, just finds himself staring back at the man, fully aware now of the noises ripping from his throat, of the tight swelling in his eyes. The man doesn’t say anything else, but he doesn’t walk away either.

They walk together in silence for a mile or so until the man suddenly turns to him and says, “I’m Liam. We’re gonna be okay.”

1996

In the span of sixth months, Harry:

  • Totals his car
  • Is laid off from his first post-grad job
  • Gets strep throat (twice)
  • Feels on several occasions like he is just barely keeping it together in all realms professional, social, mental, and physical.

He fully attributes any and all successes from this past year to Louis Tomlinson— the man to take him to work every day for three weeks while he figured out his car situation. The one to tear his resume to shreds and piece it back together again when he was job searching. The one to bring him gatorade, to drag his ass out of bed when he was moping, to leave him silly notes when he was feeling down, to constantly remind him that being kind to others also means being kind to himself.

So, the night before Louis’ twenty-second birthday, Harry finds himself in a mess of glitter, glue, sharpies, and construction paper. The final result is a card, or maybe more of a poster; the front is into a collage of photos and magazine cut outs. There’s a picture of them dressed up as Dorothy and Scarecrow from this past Halloween, and one of Louis, eyes wide, tongue out, jumping into the air at the beach. There’s hearts and glittery blobs that were supposed to be sea turtles, and the whole thing probably looks pretty juvenile, but it’s Harry’s heart in craft form, and call him cheesy, but that seems much better than a video game or watch.

Inside, it says:

Dear Louis,

I love you. A lot. More than a lot. I love you to the moon and back and then right back to the moon again and back to Earth and on and on and on and, you get what I mean. You’re my boyfriend and my best friend and the person in my life that’s best at the actual act of being a friend.

I wouldn’t be who I am without you. I couldn’t be who I am without you. You have changed my life so completely, that I can’t even imagine a future without you in it.

Please always be my big spoon. Please always be my anchor.

Love you endlessly,

Harry

  1. Sorry for making you think we all were busy for your birthday. Niall swears you’ll love the surprise when it’s all over, but I’ve been sweating non-stop for the past week worried that you feel awful. You matter so much it’s ridiculous.

 

PPS. I don’t think I could do any of this without you. And I wouldn’t want to, even if I could.

2001

There’s paper dotting the sidewalk outside their apartment. Most of it is singed at the edges. On the block before theirs, Harry finds a scrap of a photograph. The top is torn off, leaving just the bottom portion of the faces of an elderly couple, only their noses and teeth showing, and then Harry can suddenly see it so clearly. The life he was supposed to live. The miracles they were going to make.

He sees Louis at nineteen, and Louis at twenty five, and Louis at thirty, and Louis at fifty, and he sees Louis with a baby that should have been theirs, and Louis blowing out the candles on their twentieth anniversary cake. He seems himself old and ugly and so incredibly in love after all that time, and he sees Louis laying beside him, hair gone white, but eyes as blue as they day he’d met him. He sees his life crumbling all around him, and he sees what could have been-- what should have been-- and he doesn’t think he can make it through the next five minutes alone, let alone the rest of his life.

He stands now in front of their building, expressionless. Exhausted, layered with ash. Shaking.

He can’t go inside his building. He can’t unlock the door and step into silence. He can’t stare at the answering machine. He can’t deal with the dozens of people undoubtedly calling.

He can’t sleep in that bed tonight, alone.

Maybe Louis is inside. It was a constant thought on the walk over. Maybe he’s home. Maybe he’s left a message.

Maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybemaybemaybemaybemaybemaybemaybe

But he can’t check.

He hates this building. He hates the six floors he has to walk up and down every day. He hates their absent landlord, who never wants to fix anything. He hates the mice and the earwigs. He hates that it only takes about fifteen steps to cover their entire unit. He hates how stuffy it is in the summer and how the windows never completely block out drafts in the winter.

He hates it and he hates this city and he hates himself and he--

He can’t go inside and face the beginning of the rest of his life.

So, he sits on the curb and takes off his shoes. He peels off his socks and ignores the bloodied blisters littering his feet.

And then he puts his head on his knees and cries.

2000

They’re at Louis’ mom’s house, every friend they have crammed around folding tables and camp chairs. There’s hotdogs and music and beer and balloons, and Harry’s a bit tipsy, but just happy more than anything. The car’s packed up, and the lease in the city’s been signed, because tomorrow’s the day. Tomorrow they drive up to New York.

“Ah-hem,” Louis coughs, clapping his hands obnoxiously. “Ladies and gentlemen. Your attention please!” With a little wobble, he steps onto the nearest folding chair and raises his beer up high. “Thank you all for coming out tonight. It means the world. We’re going to miss you assholes so fucking much.”
“Louis,” Jay warns.

Louis grimaces and then shrugs, the crowd laughing. “Sorry, mom, sorry… Anyways. We love and we miss you, blah blah blah. I really just wanted to take this moment to say congratulations real quick to our boy here—” he nudges Harry’s waist with his foot “—for getting the job of his dreams and being a good enough sugar daddy to move me all the way up to New York City!” There’s some hooting and clapping, and Niall slaps Harry’s butt, and Harry grins, shaking his head.

“Oh, fuck off,” he smiles up at Louis.

“Never,” Louis promises. And then he raises his beer even higher. “A toast, okay? To Harry— The love of my life. The greatest guy I’ve ever known. ”

The sun’s just fading, and everyone they love is here with them. It’s the end of an era and the start of something so insane, so far-reaching, so off from where they thought they’d be even just a few months ago.

Louis grins down at him, winks and blows a kiss before taking a pull of his drink, and Harry thinks to himself:

How do I get to be this lucky.

2001

He thinks he might vomit again as he forces himself up the stairs. Two different neighbors had come out to check on him, but he’d brushed them off wordlessly, shaking his head, eyes closed. He can’t bear to go inside, but he can’t handle conversation or sympathy either, and he knows the longer he sits, the more likely someone else will try to reach out.

He counts to a thousand as he climbs the stairs, and then he starts again when he reaches his door.

It’s seven o’clock. The time he’d told Louis he’d be home.

It’s ridiculous, but there’s a sharp pang in his gut when he realizes— he forgot the milk again.

 

Chapter Text

He’s digging his keys out of his pocket when the door flies open.

 

It was hysterics when he sobbed on the walk home. It was grief when he cried on the curb out front. These tears now are worse than both of those combined. They’re hot and streaming, and it’s either been a minute or an hour, but neither of them has said a single word, incapable of anything but crying and gasping for air. Louis’ cheek is pressed tight against Harry’s eye, and their tears are sticking them together, salty and warm and never ending.

He can feel Louis’ heart beating against his own chest, and he digs his fingers into his arms, pulling him closer, almost painfully so, and he pushes out, “I thought-- I thought--”

“I wasn’t inside—  I was late— I was late— I was late— I was late.”

On the kitchen counter behind them sits an empty Starbucks cup.

 

It was a Starbucks kind of morning.