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The sun is mocking him, setting so slowly Harry’s sure it can’t actually be in real time. It’s pleasantly warm, especially for late afternoon; a few short weeks ago it would still be boiling outside from the heat of high noon. Harry’s back is sore, though, and he’s bored half to death by the dull, monotonous conversation of the men he’s with. He’s forced to come to these insufferable golf retreats with his uncle’s work associates to keep up relations for the benefit of the company, which means that every two months, he finds himself here, at a beautiful, expensive golf resort a few hours north of London.

Harry’s spine isn’t much for the amount of stooping over his golf club he’s been doing the past three days, and even though this is the third retreat in the six months since his uncle died, Harry’s sure it’ll never get any easier. The grief is one thing, but these retreats might be worse than the pain of losing ten loved ones, if only because of Richardson and Jenkins’s constant moaning about their wives and entitled children and whatnot.

On the other hand, though, it is quite nice to get out of the house. Harry’s been living in his uncle’s estate since he passed away in March, when he inherited just about everything his uncle owned. His estate and half of his savings went straight to Harry, and his sister Gemma inherited the other half of the savings and a few other various assets. Harry also inherited Spark, the online marketplace that his uncle started when Harry was young. It’s massively successful, was a hit straight off the bat and has only continued to grow at unprecedented rates over the years.

Harry loved his uncle to bits, spent at least one night a week at his house until the age of eighteen, and he misses him dearly. He’s not entirely convinced that he’s left the house, though; Harry hears footsteps and movement all the time, bumping and thumping that sounds suspiciously like his frail, clumsy old uncle, but every time Harry goes to investigate, he finds nothing amiss.

Gemma’s told him time and again that ghosts aren’t real, and Niall and Liam insisted just last month that they have a seance in the house to help his uncle move on, but Harry is kind of comforted by his presence. It’s unsettling sometimes, sure, like when Harry’s in bed at night and he swears he can hear a toilet flush downstairs, but knowing that the person Harry grew up loving so dearly maybe isn’t as far away as they all thought is soothing in a weird way.

The only aspect of the house that does ring alarm bells in Harry’s head a bit is the locked door on the main level. It’s the door to the guest wing of the house, which consists of a den, a bedroom, and a bathroom, and it’s been locked since the day Harry moved into his uncle’s estate. It was never locked in his childhood, as his uncle never had anything to hide from him and Gemma; he was never married, had no children, and he loved Harry and sister like they were his own kids. He gave them free roam of the house whenever they stayed over, no area was off limits, so Harry finds it odd that he might have locked the door to the guest wing at some point and hidden the key before he died. Harry hasn’t been able to get into the guest wing since he moved in, and he’s mostly given up, though he’s still incredibly curious as to what’s hidden in there. Part of him suspects that it’s his uncle, craving the privacy he never got in his life as one of the most successful and influential businessmen in the United Kingdom, but he supposes he can deal with not knowing.

He also supposes he can deal with getting out for one week every two months to keep a good relationship with all his colleagues in the company he now owns, even if it means he’ll be bedridden for at least a day when he gets home because his back is so bad. He’s only on day three of this particular retreat and he’s already having trouble getting out of his plush hotel bed in the mornings, his spine protesting another day spent hunched over the golf club out on the course.

Harry’s just lining up his next shot, keeping all of his old man groans and whimpers inside lest the other actually old men judge him, when Jenkins’s phone starts ringing loudly from his pocket. He rolls his eyes and curses his wife’s name as he steps away to answer the call, leaving Harry and the other three men standing by the tee while Harry attempts to gain enough control over his limbs to hit the ball in at least vaguely the direction of the red flag waving in the distance.

He winds up and makes his shot, not even bothering to watch the ball as it soars over the grass. The men cheer for him quietly, but Harry’s too focused on forcing his back to straighten up again, he can’t be arsed to check where his ball’s gone.

“Sorry, gentlemen,” Jenkins says, trudging back over from the golf cart with his phone in his hand. “That was my wife on the phone, her sister’s come down with some kind of ailment, which is nothing new, but is apparently enough of an emergency that she needs me home immediately. Looks like we’ll have to cut this trip short,” he says gravely.

Harry groans loudly in relief, gaining himself the attention of all four men. He turns it into a sympathetic sigh, leaning heavily on his golf club. “Sorry to hear that, Jenkins,” he says. “Shall we head out, then?”

“Well, we could finish this hole,” Richardson says, gesturing to the ball still in his left hand. “I mean-”

“No, no, Jenkins said he has to go,” Harry says, doing a marvelous job of pretending that that’s the reason he wants to stop playing so urgently. “We don’t want to keep his lovely wife waiting, do we, gentlemen?”

“Lovely,” Jenkins scoffs. Harry very carefully resists the urge to roll his eyes. Straight people and their lack of respect for their spouses, Harry just doesn’t understand it. If Harry had a spouse, or a significant other of any variety, he can’t imagine giving them anything less than unconditional love. “But Styles is right, lads, I can’t afford to waste any time. Sharon is already owed my head on a platter for being out of town when her sister got ill, or at least that’s how she sees it.”

With that they all pile into the golf cart, and Patterson drives them all the way back to the resort. Of all of his colleagues, Harry thinks Patterson is his favorite. He’s quiet, endlessly respectful, and though he’s a bit on the conservative side, Harry thinks they see eye to eye on a lot of matters. O’Sullivan is very much the same way, though he’s much more liberal, much more on Harry’s side of the table than everyone else. Richardson and Jenkins are in a league of their own, probably the two most obnoxious men Harry’s ever met. They’re older than the others, the same age as Harry’s uncle, the two people closest to his uncle other than Harry himself. They helped him start Spark back when they were all in university together, and Harry hates that he can’t stand them, but they make it so hard to feel otherwise.

“Women fucking suck,” Jenkins moans, looking sour as they climb out of the golf cart and head into the resort. “I hate my stupid wife, ruining my only time out of my prison- I mean home.”

“I think it’s sweet that she wants your comfort in a time of distress,” Harry says, once again resisting the urge to tell Jenkins to choke on his own fat tongue. “She obviously loves you very much.”

“Hah!” Richardson honks, slapping his knee. Harry blinks, breathing deeply. “Isn’t that nice, he’s young enough to still believe love is a real thing. One day you’ll learn, Styles, that the world just wants to fuck you over, and then you die.”

“Charming, Richardson,” Harry says distantly, helping their caddy lad load all of their equipment into the back of Patterson’s car. Richardson and Jenkins keep moaning and cussing about women all the way back to their rooms, and Harry’s sure he’s never been this happy to see a golf retreat come to an end.

The drive back to London is just as excruciating as the rest of the trip, but Harry manages to tune everyone out from the backseat. He’s crammed all the way in the back row of Patterson’s SUV, mostly because the others still see him as a child, as less than them, even though he technically is their superior. He’s not the CEO, and he doesn’t even have very much involvement with the inner workings of the company, but he does technically own it, and he decides what happens to everyone within it. He would never dream of abusing that power, would never even consider thinking that he has any idea what’s best for Spark. He mostly just handles the financial aspect of owning the company, gets paid whenever the company makes money, like he’s the biggest shareholder, which is really all he is, at the end of the day. This is hardly his dream job, but it does give him enough time to pursue his actual dream job of being a novelist, even though he has nothing to write about yet, and no ideas to make an actual novel out of. He’s got a few things that interest him, mainly the concept of wealth and the way it makes society behave, but he hasn’t a single idea of how to turn that into a novel.

He’s the first one to be dropped off at home, and typically he would invite the men in for a drink just to be polite, but since Jenkins has got somewhere to be, he supposes it’s alright to just say goodbye and head inside.

The silence of his house is the most welcome sound he’s heard in days, and he basks in it for a moment once he’s dropped his bag by the front door. He thinks he’ll go upstairs and have a long, hot shower, and when he’s done he’ll make himself some dinner and eat it out in the sunroom, where he can watch the sunset through the trees. He loves his house so much, and not only because his uncle built it; it’s in a perfect location, close enough to the city that he doesn’t have to go out of his way to go out, but far enough away from the hustle and bustle that the neighborhood is completely quiet, more trees than anything else. It’s so peaceful, so lovely, he thinks he could spend the rest of his life in the sunroom with its floor to ceiling windows and skylights and die happy.

He doesn’t bother taking his bag when he sets off up the stairs, because he doesn’t really want to deal with unpacking yet, or lugging it all the way up the stairs. He’s so caught up in thinking about how nice his evening is going to be that he almost doesn’t notice that the door beside the stairs, the door to the guest wing, is open.

He freezes, hunching down a little to peer down the hallway over the railing of the stairs. He’s not imagining it; the door is definitely open, wide open, and Harry can see straight down the hallway into the guest den. He blinks and then creeps back down the stairs, deciding to use this rare opportunity to investigate.

It doesn’t make any sense. The door has been locked since the day Harry moved in here, and to his knowledge, there isn’t a key. The door latches from the inside, and there’s no visible damage to anything on the door, so it doesn’t seem like someone broke in. He moves silently down the hallway, peeking into the bathroom on the way, only to find that absolutely nothing is amiss.

The den looks exactly how he remembers it, albeit a bit dustier and quite dim. Harry cut the electricity to this wing of the house when he realized he had no access to it, so there’s no lights or heat or anything, but it’s still light enough outside that he can see everything, and warm enough that he’s comfortable in his polo and jeans. One of the windows at the back of the house is broken, a football sized hole in the glass, of which he has no memory. There are still shards of glass littering the floor beneath the window, apparently undisturbed. He peeks into the bedroom around the corner, and he has nothing to compare it to, as he hasn’t been in here since before his uncle died, but the bed looks a bit messed up, slept in. It wouldn’t be unlike his uncle to leave a bed messy before he died, but Harry does find it odd that the housekeepers wouldn’t have cleaned it up.

He hears careful footsteps coming down the staircase, then, and he darts into the bathroom, holding his breath. If the intruder comes into the guest wing, they’ll walk right past him, and once they’re in the den Harry can escape to the main den and call the police. He’s half expecting to see the ghost of his uncle go floating by, but he’s shaking with fear regardless, hiding in the shadows as the footsteps grow closer.

Someone comes through the door into the guest wing, shutting the door silently. Harry stays perfectly still, still not breathing, as the person passes the bathroom, footsteps light as air as they head for the den. The person’s hands are full of food, a few slices of bread and cheese and a pear that Harry recognizes from his own kitchen, and Harry watches carefully as the person sets it all down on the table at the far side of the den.

He’s skinny, the guy, absolute skin and bones and so fragile looking it makes Harry want to cry. His hands tremble as he moves, like he’s starving, and he stuffs half a piece of bread in his mouth before he’s even finished putting everything down.

He doesn’t look like a threat, Harry thinks, watching as the guy turns his back to him and tears off another piece of bread. He doesn’t appear to have anything but the clothes on his back, and Harry thinks that even if he did try to attack him, Harry could easily overpower him.

He gathers up all of his courage and steps out of the bathroom, puffing out his chest as he blocks the entrance to the hallway. He’s carefully positioned between the windows and the door, so even if the guy tries to run, he has nowhere to go.

“Hey,” he says, just as the boy picks up the pear to take a bite. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

The boy shouts in surprise, dropping the pear and whirling around. He looks terrified, eyes wide, but also shocked, caught off guard, with no clue as to what to do next. He doesn’t say anything, just continues staring at Harry in terror, until Harry raises an eyebrow at him.

“Well?”

The sound of his voice seems to kick the boy into gear, and he takes off. He somehow manages to duck past Harry toward the door, and Harry tries to catch him, but the boy slips out of his grasp like sand through his fingers. He fumbles once he gets to the door, getting caught up trying to unlatch the lock with his shaking hands, and Harry manages to stop him and cage him in against the wall before he can get out.

“Stop, hey,” Harry soothes, grabbing the guy’s wrist and pressing to his own chest, feeling his heart rabbiting under his knuckles. “Relax, I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to know who you are,” he says, trying to meet the boy’s eyes. “And why the hell you’re in my house.”

“I’m sorry,” the boy says, voice thick and panicked, his entire body shaking like a leaf. He’s so weak, so underweight and malnourished, if Harry’s not careful this boy might just go into hypoglycemic shock right in front of him. “I’m so sorry, please just let me go, I swear I’ll never come back.”

“You don’t have to go anywhere,” Harry says, speaking calmly to hopefully calm the other boy, who is still shaking so hard Harry’s afraid his knees are going to give out. “Just tell me your name?”

The boy holds his breath, eyes scanning Harry’s face for a second. Harry gives him a patient smile, like his heart isn’t threatening to beat out of his own body in terror as well; his brain is slowly putting two and two together, and he figures that this boy is probably living in his house, and might have done for a while, now. Harry hasn’t noticed any missing food, but then again, he’s never really had to pay attention to things like that. When he runs out of something, he buys more of it, and he’s never had to think about budgeting and rationing his food before, never had to think about not having enough of something. It makes him feel like shit, frankly, that he’s always been able to afford to not keep inventory of his pantry, while this boy probably never knows where his next meal is going to come from.

“Louis,” the boy says finally, his voice hardly there, like his throat is closing up. He doesn’t say anything else, clamping his mouth firmly shut, and Harry releases his hold on his wrist while still keeping him trapped against the wall.

“Louis,” Harry says, shifting his weight a little and watching Louis curiously. “My name is Harry. Now, what on Earth are you doing in my house?”

Louis frowns a little, matching Harry’s curious expression. “Your house?” he asks, sounding doubtful.

“Yes,” Harry says, frowning. “This is my house.”

“I thought this house belonged to the old man,” Louis says. “I thought he lived here alone.”

Harry’s heart pangs, and he swallows quickly. “That was my uncle,” he says, voice a little softer than it was before. “He passed away a few months ago, and he left the house to me. But, I believe I’m the one asking questions here,” he says, quickly regaining the upper hand. Louis looks down, looking mortified.

“I’m sorry,” Louis breathes, refusing to meet his eyes, probably just waiting for Harry to let him go. Harry knows that he’s going to bolt the second the second Harry moves, though, so he stays put, watching Louis’s face.

For some reason, probably a misjudgement on Harry’s part, he wants to trust this boy. He wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, wants to make sure he’s okay, that he’ll be okay. He decides to give him one chance to redeem himself, to make this all look like an accident, so he ducks his head down to meet Louis’s eyes and gives him another patient smile.

“Were you a friend of my uncle’s?” he asks, watching Louis’s face change before his eyes.

Louis thinks about lying to him for a moment, Harry can see his brain working, but finally Louis swallows and shakes his head, looking down.

“Did you know him at all?” Harry asks hopefully, trying and failing to meet Louis’s eyes again.

Louis shakes his head again, staring resolutely at his feet and clenching his jaw.

Harry purses his lips, closing his eyes for a moment to regain his composure. “How long have you been living here?” he asks finally, watching Louis’s face. Louis doesn’t say anything, looking slightly panicked again, but Harry’s not going to go easy on him now. “Answer me,” he says lowly, “and I won’t call the police.”

Louis’s eyes go wide, his breath catching in his throat. “About as long as you’ve been living here, I reckon,” he says, barely above a whisper.

Harry frowns, wondering what that means, but something else clicks in his brain first. “Oh my god,” he mutters, staring at Louis’s downcast eyes. “You’re the ghost.”

Louis frowns, looking back up at Harry’s face. “I’m- what?”

Harry can’t help but laugh, one startled chuckle, and the sound of it makes Louis jump. “All this time I thought there was a ghost living here,” he says. “Making noises, locking doors and all that, but it was just you,” he says.

“Oh no,” Louis breathes, eyes wide again. “I’m so sorry, I swear I never meant you any harm or, like, to scare you,” he says. “I’ll go, just please let me go and I’ll never come back ever again, I swear, I promise,” he pleads.

Harry swallows, watching his face, staring into Louis’s eyes for a long moment. It might be something in the universe making Harry feel like this boy isn’t meant to leave right now, or maybe it’s just poor judgement, but Harry doesn’t feel right at all about letting Louis go without knowing what will happen to him.

“You don’t have to go,” he says softly, making Louis blink in confusion. “You don’t have to leave, I mean, this house is plenty big enough.”

Louis freezes, blinking again, and then once more. He frowns, shaking his head. “I- what?”

“I mean, you can stay, if you want to,” Harry shrugs. “You’re not really a bother, obviously. You’ve been living here for months without me even knowing. I just wish I’d known you were here. I mean, you’re not doing anything bad in here, right? Like, you’re not, like, a junkie, or a prostitute or something, right? You’re not going to bring me any trouble?” he asks.

“No,” Louis says, still looking shocked. “I truly have nothing, and no one, and no trouble or, like, bad things.” His voice is shaking, like he’s absolutely terrified, and his words come quick, rambly. “But, really, you don’t have to feel bad for me. I’ll just leave, I’ll find somewhere to sleep, I’ll be alright,” he says.

“Do you have somewhere to go?” Harry asks. “If you leave here right now, do you know where you’ll go?”

Louis hesitates, and then looks down. “No,” he admits quietly.

“What will you do?” Harry asks. “Break into someone else’s house? Steal their food and amenities for a few months until you get caught, and then move on to the next place?”

Louis doesn’t say anything, but the way he shrinks in on himself tells Harry everything he needs to know. “I don’t know,” he says, like a child that’s been scolded.

“It’s the end of September,” Harry sighs. “It’ll be cold soon. I’ll never forgive myself if I kick you out now and you freeze to death in a few weeks,” he says.

“I’ll be fine,” Louis promises. “I’ve survived lots of winters on the streets.”

“I cannot, in good conscience, kick you out on the street knowing it’s going to be cold soon,” Harry says. “I can’t. Please stay here, at least until it’s not cold, or you have somewhere else to go.”

“You’re just going to let me live here?” Louis asks skeptically, a little more brave now that he seems to be getting over the initial shock of getting caught.

“Not forever,” Harry says. “I mean, I’m not offering you a home. But, well, I’m all alone here in this giant house, and you’re all alone with nowhere else to go. I’ve got room and food and I’m willing to share it with you,” he says. “Look, I don’t mean to be harsh, but I don’t think anyone else would be offering this to you right now. Any other person would have called the cops on you the second they saw you. Any sane person would have, anyway, and what am I doing? Offering to let you stay. You’d be crazy to turn me down, quite frankly,” he says.

“What do you want from me in return?” Louis asks, crossing his arms over his chest defensively.

“What?” Harry blinks, caught off guard.

“What do you want?” Louis asks again. “I don’t have anything to give you, I don’t have any skills or anything to offer, you’re getting nothing out of this. What’s in it for you?” he asks.

“Oh,” Harry frowns, looking down. “Uh, well, I don’t know. I’ve kind of always wanted someone around? Like, I’m all alone in this house, I don’t have a significant other or a lot of friends that come over often, so I guess it’ll be nice to, like, have someone to bake for, and just to have someone around,” he shrugs. “I get lonely.”

Louis scoffs, still looking skeptical. “So, you’re just going to let me stay here for free? And you’re going to bake for me and all I have to do is keep you company?”

“I guess so,” Harry shrugs again. “Right?”

Louis gives him a look like he can’t believe what he’s hearing, and even when Harry gives him a friendly smile, Louis just shakes his head.

“Would it make you feel better if I asked for something in return?” Harry sighs finally, shoulders slumping.

“Honestly, yes, it would,” Louis says. “But, like I said, I have nothing to offer you.”

“Well, alright,” Harry mutters. “I guess I’ll think of something.”

Louis blinks at him, like he’s waiting for Harry to think of something on the spot, so Harry puts his head down and thinks. He’s got this boy here who has nothing to give him, no skills to offer him, who is probably scared out of his mind thinking Harry’s a creep, that Harry’s going to ask him for sexual favors in return for a place to sleep, or something equally as horrible. He lets his mind wander to things he could possibly ask for, and suddenly it all comes together.

“Oh!” he says, perking up. Louis jumps so hard he nearly hits his head off the wall, and Harry pats his shoulder quickly in comfort. “So, like, I’m kind of a novelist, right? And I’ve been really struggling to come up with an idea to write about, but I’ve always been interested in the concept of wealth and poverty,” he says. “Maybe, if it’s okay with you, I could, like, study you, kind of? Learn from you, collect some of your world view and, like, shape a character out of you? I feel like you could be inspiring to me,” he says.

Louis pauses a moment, looking thoughtful. “You want to… study me?” he asks, skeptical.

“Yeah,” Harry says, smiling. “If that’s alright.”

“So,” Louis shakes his head, looking down. “I get to live here, eat your food and be your friend, all for absolutely free, and all you want from me is to base a character off of me?” he clarifies.

Harry considers, nodding slowly. “Yeah,” he says again. “Yeah, that’s all, I think. Do we have a deal?”

Louis blinks at him once more, and then offers a small, slow smile. “We have a deal,” he says, extending his hand for Harry to shake. Harry’s hand wraps all the way around Louis’s when he takes it, Louis’s skinny fingers still trembling in Harry’s grip even though he has no reason to be afraid anymore.

“Good,” Harry says, finally backing away an inch, giving Louis some room to breathe so he’s not trapped against the wall anymore. Louis straightens up slowly, like his body doesn’t quite know how to be relaxed. “Well, I was just going to make some dinner,” he says, “do you like chicken and rice?”

Louis nods, giving Harry another small smile. He still seems wound up tight, ready to run at any moment, but he follows Harry to the kitchen and sits with him the entire time Harry cooks, engaging in quiet, shallow conversation, though he only speaks when spoken to.

Harry has no idea what he’s doing, what on earth he’s gotten himself into. After dinner Louis quietly excuses himself and disappears back into the guest wing, the door latching with a soft click behind him. It’s a bit disappointing, the thought that Louis still feels like he needs to lock himself away from Harry, but he supposes it’s going to take more than one night and one simple conversation to get Louis to trust him, and maybe he should consider being a bit more careful with his own trust, as well.

-

Harry wakes up early the next morning, but he doesn’t get up right away, rolling onto his back and listening for a moment. He can’t hear Louis moving around at all downstairs, and as hard as he tries, he can’t convince himself that he does.

It’s a little unnerving, the idea that someone has been living in his house right under his nose for six entire months, and he had absolutely no clue. He thinks that, in retrospect, he knew deep down all along that there was no ghost in his house, that his uncle wasn’t actually sticking around. He thinks maybe if he’d been a bit smarter and broken the guest wing door down the day he moved in, none of this would be happening. He isn’t quite sure how to feel about that yet.

He rolls out of bed after a few minutes and pulls on his dressing gown, tying the sash around his waist as he shuffles down the stairs. The house is eerily quiet, the guest wing door still closed and locked, so Harry makes a little extra noise as he rounds the corner into the kitchen to get started on breakfast.

He makes enough eggs and toast for two, and he has no idea if Louis even likes tea, but he boils enough water in the kettle to make a second cup if Louis wants it. He’s a lot louder than is strictly necessary, hoping to draw Louis out of his cave and into the light, and it works just as he’s finally fixing his tea and plating his food.

The latch on the guest room door clicks quietly, but it makes Harry tense up like a gunshot. He got what he wanted, but he’s feeling a little more apprehensive about the situation this morning than he was last night, so he’s careful when he turns to look at Louis over his shoulder.

“Good morning,” he says, nodding at the food left on the counter. “Help yourself.”

Louis smiles tightly, waiting until Harry has taken his seat at the table at the far end of the room before he slowly moves to the counter and makes himself a plate. Harry tries not to watch him too obviously, but he’s so intrigued, so mystified by Louis as a person, curious about him like he’s a brand new species entirely.

“How’d you sleep?” he asks after a moment, after the silence has become unbearable.

“Alright,” Louis says, shrugging one shoulder. He looks tired, eyes saggy and dull, his hair dirty and his skin shiny and unclean. He’s in the same clothes he was wearing last night, Harry notices, but he pretends not to.

“You can come sit, you know,” Harry says, nodding to the empty chair across the table from him. “I won’t bite.”

Louis gives him another awkward little smile and shuffles over, sitting down stiffly across from him. He looks tense, rigid, ready to flee at any moment, but Harry supposes he’d be the same in Louis’s position. He must feel so uncomfortable right now, sharing a meal with the man he’s been stealing from for the past six months. Harry doesn’t want him to be uncomfortable but, the truth is, he’s a little uncomfortable, too, and he doesn’t know what to do about it.

“So, what do you want to know?” Louis asks, so quietly Harry almost asks him to repeat himself. His voice is so fragile, like if he spoke any louder it would break, and Harry frowns.

“What do you mean?” he asks, putting down his fork as Louis pushes some eggs around his plate.

“You said you wanted to study me, or something,” Louis says, still not quite looking up at him. “So, what do you want to know about me?”

“Oh,” Harry says, frowning down at his plate for a moment. “Oh, um, alright… I guess I’ll start with, like, where do you come from? Where’d you grow up?”

“Around here,” Louis says, shoveling a forkful of eggs in his mouth as soon as the words are out. He doesn’t offer anything more, so Harry blinks and carries on.

“But like, where? In London? Or, like, outside of the city?” he fishes.

Louis just shrugs, taking another bite of his food. He doesn’t seem terribly willing to open up, despite being the one to introduce the topic, so Harry chews his lip for a moment and decides to try a different angle.

“How- um, how did you end up homeless?” he says carefully, watching Louis’s face.

Louis’s expression does not betray him at all, remaining completely unreadable. “Shit happens, I guess,” he says, shrugging again.

“How long have you been homeless?” Harry asks, trying to ignore the passivity of Louis’s answers.

“A while,” Louis says, around another bite of food.

Harry can’t help but laugh a little, scrubbing his hands over his face. “This is incredibly insightful and all, but do you think you could maybe be a little more specific?”

Louis freezes a little, before resuming chewing slowly. He considers for a long minute, swallowing his food and scratching at his cheek, probably painfully aware of the way Harry is cataloguing every single one of his movements.

“It’s been three years since I’ve had a proper hot meal,” Louis says finally. “I have no idea where my family is, or if any of them are even still alive. The only reason I’ve been able to keep myself alive for as long as I have is because I keep to myself, stay guarded, stay hidden. It’s the only way I know how to live,” he says.

Harry wants to cry, but he tries to put on a brave face when Louis finally meets his eyes. “You’re safe here. You don’t have to be so guarded around me,” Harry says quietly, earnestly.

“That’s very sweet of you,” Louis says, putting his fork down. “But yes I do. Especially around you.”

“Why?” Harry frowns, a pang of hurt twinging in his chest.

“Because,” Louis shrugs, looking down to his plate again, picking up his toast to take a bite. “You’re the only one who’s ever actually asked any questions.”

Harry has no idea what to say to that, so he says nothing, sitting quietly while Louis finishes his breakfast. He takes both plates to the sink and leaves them for later, grabbing two mugs from the cupboard and turning to look at Louis. “Tea?”

Louis follows him out to the sunroom once Harry’s fixed him a cup of tea, and Harry settles on the sofa at the far side of the room, but Louis wanders to the desk set up in the opposite corner, holding his tea close to his chest while he looks over the notebooks and the typewriter on Harry’s messy writing desk. Harry just watches him, still making mental notes of every move he makes, and eventually Louis turns around and leans against the desk, taking a sip of tea.

“What do you do?” he asks, cocking his head at Harry. “You have this huge house, and all this money, but I've never been able to figure out what you do. You said yesterday you’re a writer, but surely you can’t make this much money just writing books,” he says. “Who are you, like, Robert Frost?”

“He was a poet, actually, and he’s dead,” Harry says. “And, uh, I’ve actually never written a book,” he admits. “It’s just a dream of mine, something I’m working on. As for the money, I own a company — a fairly successful one — and that’s where all of this came from,” he says, with a sweeping gesture of his hand to the house.

Louis frowns, looking skeptical. “You can’t be older than twenty-two,” he says. “How do you own a company?”

“I’m twenty-four,” Harry says, smiling at the way Louis frowns a little more. “I inherited Spark from my uncle, who passed away recently. He started the company, built it up from the group to where it is now, and now I’m just in charge of keeping it going,” he explains.

“Your uncle,” Louis says thoughtfully, eyes stuck on Harry while he takes another sip of tea. “This was his house.”

“Yeah,” Harry says, throat tight. “This was his house.”

Louis’s quiet for a moment, glancing down at his feet and then out the window. Harry follows his line of vision, watching the trees dancing in the early morning breeze beyond the massive glass wall of the sunroom.

“He was kind to me,” Louis says after a bit, voice soft with nostalgia. “Your uncle.”

Harry doesn’t say anything, pursing his lips and looking down. He’s got a lump in his throat the size of a golf ball, and he’s afraid that if he tries to speak, he’ll just cry.

“One time he caught me picking through someone’s trash, looking for something to eat, and he scared me half to death but he told me not to move. I thought he was going to call the police on me, but he just shuffled back into his house and brought me out a whole loaf of bread, hadn’t even gone off yet, and he said there was no chance he was ever going to finish it, so I could have it,” Louis says, smiling fondly out the window. “He was so, so kind.”

“Sounds like him,” Harry chuckles softly, swallowing the lump in his throat and feeling it sit heavy in his chest.

“You’re a bit like him, I reckon,” Louis says, glancing over at Harry. Harry meets his eyes, wondering if Louis knows just how much that means to him.

“Yeah?” he asks hopefully.

“Yeah,” Louis says. “You’re generous, and kind, gentle, all that. You have the same twinkle in your eyes when you smile, like him,” he says, watching Harry’s face for a moment.

Harry looks down, smiling at his knees. He takes a long sip of tea, and Louis mirrors him, and then they sit in silence for a while, listening to the muffled sound of the trees rustling outside.

“Thank you,” Harry says eventually, once he’s finished his tea, his chest still full with the pleasant weight of Louis’s words. “For saying that.”

Louis smiles at him over the rim of his mug, but he doesn’t say anything, apparently just content to keep watching Harry quietly. Harry thinks he could spend the rest of the day like this, in his peaceful sunroom, learning about Louis in pieces and fragments until he can put together some semblance of a whole and pretend he knows anything about him at all, but he’s got to go into the office today, and at this point, he’s probably going to be late.

“I’ve got to go to work today,” he says, standing up from the sofa and collecting his dirty mug. “Feel free to help yourself to anything in the house, I mean it, including anything in my closet if you want to change, or anything in the bathroom if you have a shower,” he says.

Louis just nods, looking away, so Harry considers the conversation over and heads back into the kitchen. He washes the two plates in the sink and his mug, leaving everything out to dry before he goes upstairs. Once he’s changed and washed his face, he’s got a little while to spare, so he grabs his notebook and sits at the top of the stairs, hidden out of sight but with a clear view of the kitchen and living room.

Louis comes back into the kitchen from the sunroom a few moments later, his footsteps so quiet Harry feels like he’s watching him on mute. He washes his mug very carefully, just as quietly as he does everything else, and then dries it thoroughly with a tea towel. He opens the cupboard it came from and puts it away without making a sound, glancing over his shoulder every few seconds like he can tell he’s being watched, or maybe he’s just paranoid. Harry wonders if that’s an inherent trait, the nervousness, or whether it’s an instilled trait from poverty, or if maybe it’s just Harry’s presence making him so skittish. He thinks the silence and care in every one of his movements must be learned behavior from hiding in plain sight for so long; he’s incredible at it, managed to live in Harry’s house without raising a single alarm for six months, and Harry thinks if he wasn’t watching it with his own eyes, he never would have been able to tell that Louis was in his kitchen at all.

He creeps quietly back to the guest wing when he’s done in the kitchen, and Harry loses sight of him once he passes the stairs, but he hears the lock click quietly, and then it’s absolute silence until Harry gets up to finally go downstairs.

He leaves for work feeling a bit like he’s in the twilight zone, like nothing has quite seemed real since he came home yesterday and discovered a stranger living in his house. He half expects to come home today and find that he dreamt the whole thing up, that Louis isn’t real after all, he’s just the strangest dream Harry’s had in years.

-

It takes a few days, but eventually Louis starts to come out of his shell a little more. He lets himself be seen between meal times and even initiates conversation sometimes, though he never tells Harry anything personal or too deep. Nevertheless, Harry feels like he’s starting to get to know Louis as a person, despite the fact he still knows close to nothing about Louis’s history.

He’s in the kitchen one afternoon having lunch, sitting at the table with his notebook open in front of him. He’s scrawling random notes, thoughts that might be useful later, when he eventually figures out what his novel is going to be about.

The concept of wealth and poverty interests him a lot, the thought of a life so wildly and incredibly different to his own. He doesn’t quite understand it, but he wants to, wants so desperately to learn more about it. It fascinates him, in the most objective way, that people have to work all day, all week, just to put a little bit of food on the table for their family. Some people don’t even have houses, have to live on the street because they don’t have a single other place to go, while Harry lives in his big, fancy house all by himself, with so much more than he could ever need. It makes him feel sick if he thinks about it too long, makes him want to tear the house down and donate every dime of his inheritance to charity. He does donate to charity, of course, quite often, and he always gives to beggars, but none of it ever feels like enough, probably because it isn’t. It’s part of the reason he wants so desperately to get to know Louis, to fully understand his life and his struggle, so that maybe he can finally figure out what role he can play in helping those less fortunate than him.

He looks up from his notebook when he hears Louis come into the kitchen, clicking his pen closed and putting it down. Louis jumps a little at the sound, glancing over at him sheepishly, like he didn’t know Harry was in here. To be fair, Harry spends a lot of time out in the sunroom, but he wants Louis to stop feeling like he needs to hide all the time, like he can’t let Harry see him.

“Hungry?” Harry says, watching Louis hesitate after starting toward the fridge. “You can have the other half of my sandwich, if you want. I won’t finish it. There’s also some soup left in the pot on the stove.”

Louis gets a bowl and helps himself to what’s left of the soup, but he doesn’t immediately take the sandwich Harry offers him when he sits down at the table. Harry goes back to writing in his notebook, making a few more observations about the way Louis acts around him when he’s not prepared to interact, and eventually Louis picks up the sandwich and peers at him over the top of it.

“What are you writing?” he asks, taking a careful bite.

“Just notes,” Harry says, glancing up at him. “Just keeping track of my thoughts in case they come in handy later.”

Louis hums, putting the sandwich down and shifting a little in his chair. Harry goes back to writing, until Louis clears his throat quietly.

“Are you writing about me?” Louis asks, looking uneasy. “Are your notes about me?”

“Some of them,” Harry admits. “You are the subject of quite a few of my thoughts, as of late,” he says.

Louis blinks, looking taken aback. “What?”

“Well, recently I discovered that a man has been living in my house, unbeknownst to me, for six entire months, and then I suggested he live with me in favor of writing a character based on him,” Harry says. “Can you see how that might take up a good chunk of my thoughts?” he teases.

Louis looks sheepish again, eyes dropping to the table. “I guess so,” he says, lips quirking up only slightly.

Harry grins, elated every time he so much as gets a smirk out of Louis. Something about Louis is just so charming, so sweet and gentle and pure, Harry just wants to make him happy. Maybe it’s the charity worker in Harry talking, but he thinks Louis deserves to be made happy as often as possible.

“Can I ask you something?” Harry asks, once Louis has resumed eating. Louis just looks up at him, so Harry takes it as an invitation to ask away. “What do you like? Like, what makes you happy?”

Louis frowns, glancing down and then back up to Harry’s face. “Happy?” he asks around a mouthful of food.

“Yeah,” Harry says. “Do you have hobbies? A favorite band? Anything?”

Louis thinks for a long moment, staring down at the table. He’s silent for so long that Harry thinks he’s just not going to answer, until finally he speaks up, voice soft.

“I used to read a bunch,” Louis says. “The library was one of the only places they couldn’t kick me out of, at least not during open hours, so I spent a lot of time there as a kid. I always liked comic books. Spider-Man was my favorite, I think,” he says.

Harry thinks it’s interesting how Louis speaks about his past like he’s talking about someone else, not about himself. He thinks Spider-Man was his favorite; what a peculiar way to phrase a memory, Harry thinks, and he jots it down quickly.

“What about now?” Harry asks, fiddling with his pen to make it seem like he’s not hanging on Louis’s every word, like he is. “Do you still like to read?”

Louis frowns, still staring at the table. His lunch is apparently forgotten, but he’s still gripping his sandwich so hard Harry thinks he’s going to squish it.

“I haven’t read in ages,” Louis says. “I stole a couple books from this bookstore a couple years ago, but I didn’t read them all. I tried, but there’s too many words I don’t know,” he says. He looks upset suddenly, shoulders slumping a little. Harry wants to change the subject, make it better, but Louis apparently isn’t finished. “I mean, I know how to read, I stayed in school until I was like, maybe ten? I’m just not that good at it, and I’ve never really had the time to get better.”

“Why’d you stop going to school?” Harry frowns, his head buzzing with all the questions he has, all the things he doesn’t know how to ask.

“Didn’t like it,” Louis shrugs. “Mum never noticed.”

Harry wants more, wants to keep asking questions, but he can already feel Louis retreating from the mindset that makes him open enough to share as much with Harry as he just did, and he knows that any further questions will just make Louis retreat further. Harry may not know Louis very well yet, but he’s getting to know his patterns, his moods, his limits.

“I have a whole library upstairs,” Harry says, catching Louis’s attention immediately. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it. It’s mostly full of my uncle’s books, but a few of my favorites are in there, as well. I don’t think there’s many comic books, but maybe I could find a few for you next time I’m out,” he says.

“No,” Louis says quickly. “I don’t want you to buy things for me. It’ll make me feel weird. But, can I maybe have a look around the library sometime?” he asks hopefully.

“Any time you want,” Harry says. Louis smiles at him, looking genuinely excited for the first time since Harry’s known him, and Harry feels like his heart could burst from pride.

They sit quietly while Louis finishes eating, which takes a while, because Louis eats like he’s savoring every bite, like every meal he eats might be his last. Harry makes a few more notes in his notebook, careful not to let Louis see what he’s writing, and then closes it and puts his pen down.

“You said you stole a few books from a bookstore,” Harry says, looking up at Louis’s face. Louis’s eyes go wide, like he’s expecting to be scolded, but that’s not what Harry’s thinking. “Do you still have them?”

“Yeah,” Louis says, frowning a little. “Why?”

“Could I see them?” Harry asks, hopeful. He’s never seen Louis with anything except the clothes on his back, and suddenly he’s curious to find out what else Louis has, whether he has anything at all, anything that he cares about enough to keep with him.

Louis nods, confused, and leads Harry out of the kitchen, down the hallway into the guest wing. Harry leaves his notebook on the table, doesn’t want Louis to think he’s taking excessive notes about him, though he’ll probably go back and add a list of everything Louis has later.

“I keep everything in here,” Louis says, leading him into the guest bedroom. The bed is messy, and a shirt that Harry recognizes as the shirt Louis was wearing the day Harry discovered him is crumpled on the floor. Come to think of it, Harry thinks he’s only ever seen Louis in two different outfits, and he makes a mental note to figure out how to get Louis some more clothes without making him feel like a charity case.

Louis opens the closet opposite the window, revealing a pair of tattered jeans in a ball on the floor, and a dirty, ruined looking backpack that doesn’t appear to be full of very many things. Louis grabs the backpack and plops down on the bed, pulling open the zipper and rummaging around for a moment.

Harry sits down beside him gingerly, getting a closer look at the backpack. There are a few faded patches on it, and a few buttons, a rusty key chain hanging from the zipper. Harry can only make out one of the patches, a dirty, discolored arch, which Harry thinks maybe used to be a rainbow. There are three buttons beside it, one that reads “Marlborough”, one with a picture of a paw print, and an enamel pin in the shape of a skateboard. It’s an odd assortment of things, but then again, he supposes it must sum Louis up pretty well, a mystery of a man made even more complicated by a mysterious bunch of pins and patches.

“Here,” Louis says, tugging three books out of the backpack and handing them over to Harry. “I only ever tried to read the top one, but I couldn’t get through more than a few pages.”

Harry smiles, thumbing through the book on top of the pile. It’s a good selection, a couple of classics, but Harry doesn’t blame Louis for not being able to read them, especially if he left school at the age of ten.

Beloved by Toni Morrison,” Harry hums, looking up at Louis. “What made you choose this one?”

“I liked the way the cover looked,” Louis shrugs. “I like the color red, and the word beloved is pretty.”

“This is an amazing book,” Harry says. “Haunting. It’s quite difficult, though, I can see why you didn’t have much luck with it.”

“Maybe I’ll try again at some point,” Louis says, taking the book back from Harry and flipping through the pages.

Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins,” Harry says, amused.

“Liked that cover, as well,” Louis says, shy. “Birds are cool, I think. And he’s got a match in his mouth, I wanted to find out why,” he says.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver,” Harry says, holding up the last book. “What attracted you to this one?”

“The title,” Louis says. “I dunno. It just looked interesting.”

“It’s brilliant,” Harry says. “These all are. You’ve got good taste,” he says.

“If only I could actually read them,” Louis huffs, rolling his eyes. “Think I’m just too stupid to understand them.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Harry frowns, handing the books back and forcing Louis to meet his eye. “You’re not stupid.”

“Thanks,” Louis says, but he doesn’t sound convinced, stuffing the books back into his bag. “Do you have some easier books in your library? Maybe I could start with those,” he says.

“I think you could find something,” Harry says. “What else have you got in that bag?”

Louis sighs, dumping the contents out on the bed. There’s a bit of loose change, some empty candy wrappers, a box of matches. Harry’s eyes go to the pocket knife resting next to his knee, but Louis picks it up before Harry can say anything.

“Don’t worry, it’s not even sharp enough to cut butter,” Louis says. “It’s hardly a weapon. I found it in a dumpster, I only picked it up to scare off anyone who wanted to attack me,” he says.

“People attacked you?” Harry asks, his heart aching.

“Only a few times,” Louis shrugs. “Mostly just people who caught me snooping through their garbage. And a couple dicks who thought for some reason I had anything they could take from me,” he says, rolling his eyes.

Harry swallows hard, looking away from Louis’s face. He can’t imagine all the things that Louis has been through, and trying hurts his head and his chest, so he decides to move on. There’s really nothing else of value, just a mostly empty bottle of water and some more rubbish. Louis starts scooping things up to dump them back into his bag when Harry doesn’t say anything else, and Harry just watches until he’s finished.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Louis says idly, zipping up his bag and hugging it to his chest. Harry frowns, so Louis rolls his eyes and continues. “You’re feeling bad for me because this is all I own, while you have a whole mansion all to yourself. You’re feeling guilty for being fortunate, feeling like you don’t deserve what you have the same way I don’t deserve what happened to me.”

Harry blinks, speechless. He definitely wasn’t thinking that in so many words but, yeah, Louis seems to have found a way to describe the sinking feeling in Harry’s stomach.

“I don’t know what to say,” Harry says, looking down at his lap. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Louis says, getting up to toss his backpack back into the closet, closing the door and then leaning against it. “It’s not your fault, same way my situation isn’t my fault. It’s just the world we live in.”

Harry frowns, but he can’t even meet Louis’s eye right now, much less argue. He thinks that Louis should be angry, should be cursing the world, cursing it for dealing him such a terrible hand while Harry’s sitting on a mountain of high cards. Maybe he is, deep down, but he doesn’t want Harry to know, wants to be strong because he thinks he has to be, because he thinks he still needs to protect himself from Harry. Harry thinks that Louis doesn’t know how not to protect himself, how to be open and vulnerable and just feel the things he’s feeling without immediately telling himself that things could be worse. Things absolutely could be worse, but they also could be better, and all Harry wants is to figure out how to help Louis make them better.

“I’m a bit tired,” Louis says after a few minutes. When Harry looks up, Louis is focused resolutely on his own feet. “Do you mind if I have a nap?”

Harry gets the hint, taking a deep breath to center himself as he stands. He almost wants to take a few steps forward and hug Louis, pull him in and hold him for just a few minutes, but he’s not sure Louis would like that, so he refrains. Instead, he turns to walk away, but he stops when he gets to the door.

“If it means anything to you,” he says, meeting Louis’s eyes over his shoulder, “I’ve met a lot of impressive people, self-made billionaires, celebrities of every variety, but I think you’re the most remarkable person I’ve ever met.”

Louis smiles, looking down, but Harry walks away before he can react further. He closes the door to the guest wing on his way out but he doesn’t make it past the first step of the staircase before he has to sit down, burying his head between his knees and focusing on his breathing for a long few minutes, until he’s completely regained control of himself.

He sits there for a while, listening, waiting, forehead resting on his own knee, but Louis never comes to lock the guest wing door.

-

The conversation weighs heavily on Harry’s mind the next few days, and even though Louis said that he doesn’t want Harry to buy him things, he can’t help but feel like he needs to help Louis out, even just by giving him some new clothes.

Louis only has two different outfits, and while Harry does recall thinking he’s heard the washing machine running in the middle of the night before, he’s sure it can’t be very hygenic to only wear the same few articles of clothing over and over again, especially since Louis has probably had them for years.

He knows Louis won’t let Harry take him shopping, and Harry isn’t sure if it’s because of his pride or he thinks he doesn’t need it, but all he wants is to help him out a little. He could probably give Louis a few things from his own closet under the guise of not wanting them anymore, and maybe, hopefully, Louis will accept them and learn to take better care of himself. That’s all Harry really wants, anyway; Louis seems like such a lovely person, and he’s had such a shit go at life, Harry wants to give him the tools and the launching pad to give himself another shot.

He wakes up Sunday morning with a plan in his mind, grabbing a clean laundry bag and dragging it into his closet.

It’s very rare that he cleans out his clothes and refreshes his wardrobe; he loves fashion and playing with his style, but he also loves every article of clothing he owns, and he always has a hard time parting with them. His wardrobe only ever grows, and he hardly throws things out, but he supposes he can make an exception for the boy downstairs who’s been wearing the same outfit for three days in a row.

He went out yesterday and bought a couple packages of boxers and socks, and his plan is to give them to Louis and tell him that they were gifts from his mother, but that they’re not the kind of pants and socks he prefers. That’s sort of his plan with the clothes, as well, he’ll just tell Louis he’s going to donate them anyway, so Louis can have whatever he likes.

He spends a few hours going through his clothes, and he can hear Louis moving about downstairs, probably wondering what on Earth Harry’s doing and why he hasn’t come down for breakfast yet, but he’s focused.

From his very limited perception of Louis’s fashion sense, he likes things that are comfortable, things he can move in and that won’t be too stiff or too restricting. He picks out a couple of comfy jumpers, a few hoodies, some soft, slightly worn t-shirts and undershirts, a couple of band shirts, and one of his softest knit sweaters. Once he’s made a good pile he moves on to trousers, adding two pairs of joggers, a pair of worn in jeans, a pair of Adidas trackies, and a pair of ripped skinny jeans for good measure.

Once his laundry bag is full nearly to the brim, he drags it back out of his walk in closet and down the hall to the stairs, lugging it all the way down to the first floor. Louis isn’t in the living room, and the door to the guest wing is open, which probably means he isn’t in there either, but Harry doesn’t worry about trying to find him, dragging his bag to the coat closet to have a look at some of his coats and shoes.

It’s only October, but it’ll start to get cold soon, and Harry didn’t see a single jacket or coat in Louis’s possession when he was in the guest bedroom with him the other day. He finds a parka that Gemma gave him a few Christmases ago that never fit quite right, and a lighter denim jacket that will probably be a bit oversized on Louis, and he adds them both to the bag. He has no idea what size Louis’s feet are, and any of Harry’s shoes will probably be too big on him, but there’s a pair of trainers that his friend Niall left here ages ago and never picked up, so Harry supposes Louis can make use of those.

When he finally emerges from the coat closet, laundry bag overflowing, he finds Louis standing in the doorway to the kitchen watching him curiously.

“Hey,” Harry says nonchalantly, like he hasn’t just spent hours curating Louis a new wardrobe. “Morning.”

“Morning,” Louis says, eyes wandering down to the bag Harry’s still dragging behind him. “The hell are you doing?”

“Bit of spring cleaning,” Harry says, and then frowns. “Fall cleaning? Doesn’t have the same ring to it. Anywho, I’m just clearing out some things I don’t need anymore,” he says.

“Oh,” Louis says, unconcerned. “Clothes and things?” he asks, turning to walk back into the kitchen.

“Yeah,” Harry says, huffing as he trails behind, dragging the laundry bag with him to the kitchen. “Clothes, shoes, coats, all that. Probably just going to donate them,” he says. “You can have a look through them, if you like? Take what you want?” he suggests, like he’s just now thinking of it.

“Cool,” Louis says, like he doesn’t see right through Harry’s scheme, but Harry can tell that he’s already caught on. “That would be good, actually, I haven’t got much of me own.”

“Well, it’s all here for the taking,” Harry says, nudging the bag toward him with his socked toe. “There’s also some unopened packages of pants and socks in there, mum bought them for me and I never got around to returning them,” he says.

“Okay,” Louis smirks. Harry knows he’s definitely been caught, but Louis doesn’t seem to mind, seems almost touched by the concept, and it makes Harry’s stomach flutter and his chest light and airy in a way he didn’t expect. “I made some eggs, they’re not quite as good as when you make them, but I didn’t know when you were coming downstairs,” he says.

“Thanks,” Harry smiles, eyeing the pan of eggs still on the stove. He goes to make himself a plate, and Louis plops right down on the floor to sift through his new bag of things, and Harry does his best not to watch him so intensely while he looks at everything.

“This is all really nice stuff,” Louis says, once Harry’s sitting down at the table against the wall. “You sure I can have it?”

“Of course,” Harry says. “I’d just be getting rid of it, anyway,” he says, and he probably doesn’t need to keep up with the lie anymore, but Louis grins all the same.

“Cool,” Louis says softly, hugging one of the jumpers to his chest. “Got meself a proper wardrobe now.”

“You like everything?” Harry asks, unable to keep the hopeful note out of his voice.

“Haven’t got much room to be picky, have I?” Louis says, stuffing the jumper back into the bag and standing up from the floor. “But it’s all really nice, thank you,” he says, talking to Harry’s chest like he can’t quite meet his eyes while being so earnest.

“Thank you,” Harry says, shoveling some eggs into his mouth. “Saves me a trip to Oxfam.”

Louis shakes his head, grinning, and grabs the laundry bag by the handle to drag it out of the kitchen and into the guest wing. Harry hears him bumping about for the next few minutes, putting all of his new things away, and Harry finishes his breakfast with the brightest glow of warmth in his heart.

He heads out to the sunroom when he’s finished eating, plucking his notebook up off the desk and settling down on the sofa with it. He’s comfy in his joggers and t-shirt, and the leaves on the trees outside are just beginning to change color for the autumn, and he’s feeling quite inspired as he clicks his pen open and starts writing.

He writes about Louis, of course, about how happy he seemed to have some new clothes, to have some things that belong to him. Harry has no idea what Louis’s life was like growing up, he’s only mentioned his mother once, but Harry wonders if Louis ever received any gifts, if he was ever made to feel like he really mattered, like he was loved and worthy of having nice things. He doesn’t have a single clue why he feels like he wants to be the one to give Louis all of those things, but he does, he wants it so bad he could cry. The look on Louis’s face earlier, when Harry told him he could have whatever he wanted, Harry wants to keep the image of that expression in his mind forever. Maybe it’s just the thrill of being charitable, the endorphins that come from making someone else happy, but Harry kind of never wants to stop making Louis that happy, kind of wants to keep giving Louis all of the things he never thought he’d have.

It’s weird, something he’s never experienced before. He hardly even knows Louis, and for all he knows, Louis could be lying through his teeth every time he speaks, but Harry’s got this feeling in his gut like he’s not, like he’s just a gem buried under mountains of misfortune, and he just wants to dig Louis out and let him sparkle in the sun the way he’s meant to. This doesn’t feel like charity, doesn’t feel like a project, it feels like fate, like maybe they’re just meant to be in each other’s lives from now on, like maybe they both have a lot to learn and take from one another. Harry, for one, knows he has a lot to give, and he’s happy to give it, and if all he gets back is Louis’s happiness, well, he thinks it’s well worth it.

Louis finds him a few hours later, dressed in Harry’s old Manchester United FC jumper and a pair of heather gray joggers, crisp new socks muffling the sound of his footsteps as he shuffles over to where Harry is sitting. Harry looks up at him, chest tightening happily at the sight of Louis looking so comfy and warm in his new outfit, and smiles.

“Hey,” he says, shifting so that Louis can sit down next to him on the sofa. “Cool outfit.”

“Thanks,” Louis says, a bit shy, smiling at his knees. “I just wanted to say thank you, for the clothes, and for everything else. I don’t think I’ve properly thanked you for everything you’ve done for me.”

Harry blinks, closing his notebook to give Louis his full attention. “You’re welcome,” he says, his voice so soft he almost doesn’t even recognize it. “It’s my pleasure, honestly.”

“Yeah, but you don’t have to do any of the things you’ve done for me,” Louis says. “I don’t know for sure if you cleaned out your closet for my benefit or not but I kind of suspect that you did, and I just… no one’s ever been that kind to me before. Strangers have shown me kindness, of course, and people have tried to help me in little ways, but you’ve welcomed a street rat into your house when everything in you was probably telling you to kick me out, so, thank you. You might have already guessed, but it really means a lot to me,” he says to the floor.

Harry feels choked up, watching the side of Louis’s face while he talks. He wants to hug him, but he doesn’t know if he’s allowed, so he just nudges him with his elbow and smiles when Louis smiles. “You’re worth it,” he says quietly. “You deserve all of it.”

Louis huffs a laugh under his breath and glances over at him. His eyes aren’t quite wet but they’re shiny, so sparkly in the afternoon sun streaming through the glass walls. He doesn’t say anything, just leans in to hug Harry sideways, pulling away just as fast. Harry wants to scream, he’s so happy, because he feels like he’s really making a difference in Louis, getting a hug out of him when just last week Louis hardly wanted to be seen at all.

“I don’t get sappy often, but I think this is a good excuse,” Louis laughs, meeting Harry’s eyes for only a moment. “I just really like being able to put things in that closet in my room, you know? It doesn’t feel so much like I’m living in someone else’s house anymore, I don’t know. Like, yeah I’ve been sleeping in there for months now, and the few things I own have been in there too, but now that I have, like, a closet full of clothes that are mine, I don’t know, it just feels really good,” he admits. “I haven’t had that in a long time.”

Harry feels like he’s vibrating, like if he jumped maybe he could fly. His chest feels like it’s going to burst, and he can’t help himself. “Can I hug you again?” he asks, laughing a little. “You’ve gone and broken a dam, now.”

Louis laughs too, turning to face him. Harry reaches out and hugs him tight, hooking his chin over Louis’s shoulder, squeezing him until he feels like, by social law, he has to let go.

“I’ll let you get back to writing,” Louis says, a rosy blush on his cheeks as he pulls away and stands up. “Do you want some tea?”

“I’d love some tea,” Harry says, stretching out on the sofa again. Louis gives him one more little smile and then bounces off to the kitchen, and Harry can hear him putting the kettle on through the open sliding door.

He opens his notebook again, but he doesn’t know what to write now, too many words buzzing around in his head. He feels like he could write sonnets about this feeling, but instead he just doodles a bit on the page he’s been working on, drawing pictures of little shining suns, tea cups and smiley faces until Louis comes back with his tea, settling down on the floor beside the sofa and gazing out the window with his own mug in his lap.

Harry finishes his last doodle and then starts writing again, doing his best to describe how incredible this feeling is.

-

October carries on gracefully until the world is a patchwork of reds and yellows, Halloween costumes in all of the shops and the near constant scent of pumpkin spice and cinnamon filling Harry’s house. Louis recently discovered the autumnal themed K-cups forgotten in the pantry and he’s been experimenting with them ever since, drinking a new flavor every morning while Harry has his tea and giving him a full review.

“Never thought I’d be one to get so excited over seasonal drinks,” Louis muses, staring into his mug for a moment. “Who’d have thought warm spicy apple and pumpkin would taste good?”

“Certainly not me,” Harry says, narrowing his eyes at him. “God knows how old those things are, Louis, I don’t even remember buying them.”

“Harry, I’ve eaten rubbish straight out of the bin before,” Louis says, taking another long sip of his drink while he stares Harry down, “I think I’ll be fine.”

Harry pulls a face, turning his nose up a little. “Well, don’t come crying to me when you’re shitting liquid later on.”

“I think that may be the grossest thing you’ve ever said to me,” Louis says softly, like he’s touched.

They’re both stretched out on the sofa in the den, Louis with his back resting against the armrest, feet facing Harry where he’s lounging on the chaise. Harry’s meant to be writing a little bit before he goes into work but he’s mostly just distracted by Louis, who most certainly is going to end up sick.

“Right, well, on that note,” Harry says, closing his notebook and tossing it onto the coffee table. “I’m going to be late for work.”

“Wait,” Louis says quickly, sitting up a little. Harry glances at him, but Louis looks conflicted, slumping a little. “Actually, never mind. It’s silly.”

“What?” Harry asks, watching Louis shrink in on himself a little more.

“No, it’s- no, nothing,” Louis says, waving him off. “Go to work.”

“Not until you tell me what’s on your mind,” Harry frowns. “And why you look like you’re about to cry.”

Louis rolls his eyes, not quite looking at Harry’s face. “I was just thinking, like, there’s a lot I missed out on as a kid, you know, like, a lot of typical kid things that I just never did. I never got to play in the leaves, because our garden was such a safety hazard we could hardly walk in it, and mum never had money to waste on pumpkins for us to carve, stuff like that,” he shrugs. “I guess I was gonna ask if we could carve pumpkins sometime, but like, it’s dumb, just forget it,” he says.

Harry blinks, watching as Louis reaches for the TV remote and starts flipping through the channels, effectively ending the conversation. He gets up and heads to the coat closet to get his shoes on, lost in his own head, and calls out a distracted goodbye to Louis before he goes out the front door.

He can’t stop thinking about it all day at work, about what Louis said, about growing up without all the things that make being a kid fun. It breaks his heart, as most facts about Louis’s past do, and even though Louis thinks it’s silly that he wants to carve a pumpkin, Harry will be damned if he can’t make at least that dream come true.

He stops at the shop on the way home, picking out every pumpkin that catches his eye, in all different shapes and sizes. He ends up with ten massive pumpkins in the boot of his Range Rover and he drives all the way home grinning, thinking of how happy Louis will be when he sees that Harry doesn’t think his request was silly at all.

Louis’s nowhere to be seen when he gets into the house, but the guest wing door is open, so he must be around somewhere. Harry doesn’t bother calling out for him, just starts trekking back and forth from the car with all of his pumpkins, lining them up on the kitchen table for Louis to take his pick of them.

Louis catches him around the sixth pumpkin, peeking his head into the kitchen from the sunroom with a frown on his face. The frown melts away instantly when he sees all the pumpkins, replaced with this soft, surprised expression that makes Harry’s chest ache.

“Help me with these, will you?” Harry says, a little out of breath. “There’s a couple more in the car.”

Louis grins and runs after him, helping him carry the last four pumpkins into the house. He still hasn’t said anything, but he’s still grinning, so Harry supposes he can count it as a win.

“I didn’t buy any carving kits,” Harry realizes, running his hand through his hair, mussed from the exertion of going back and forth from the car eight times with the massive pumpkins. “Suppose we can just use kitchen knives, yeah?”

“Are these,” Louis cuts himself off, huffing a breathy laugh. “Is this because of what I said this morning? You didn’t have to do this!”

“Who says this is for you?” Harry says, but he’s teasing, and they both know it. “Maybe you just reminded me how much I love carving pumpkins, and I’m gracious enough to let you join me,” he says.

Louis looks so happy he could burst, shaking his head. “Well, either way, thank you,” he says, quietly. “How do we start?”

Harry gets a couple of knives from the cutlery drawer and hands one to Louis, showing him how to cut around the stem to pull the top of the pumpkin off to gut the inside. They spend a few hours working, laughing, making an absolute mess of the kitchen, flinging little bits of pumpkin guts at each other and criticizing each other’s artistic abilities. They end up with five rather ugly pumpkins each, and Harry opens a package of tea lights to put in them so they can put them out on the front stairs.

Louis spends about fifteen minutes rearranging the pumpkins, making sure they’re perfect, and then Harry lets him light each of the tea lights with a match. Harry just stands back and watches, content to let Louis do whatever he wants so long as he keeps smiling, and eventually Louis comes to join him on the walkway, admiring his work.

“Those are the worst fucking pumpkins I’ve ever seen,” Harry says, laughing brightly. “Good work, Lou.”

“They are pretty ugly, aren’t they?” Louis says happily, looking up at him. “They’ll scare all the trick or treaters away.”

“Oh, I don’t know if we’ll get any trick or treaters anyway,” Harry says, shrugging one shoulder. “I kind of can’t be bothered to actually decorate, you know? My uncle used to make it so amazing, like a real haunted mansion, it was the best house in the neighborhood. I don’t think I could do justice to that, I’m not even planning on trying,” he admits.

Louis looks affronted, mouth wide open in shock. “You can’t just not decorate for Halloween!” he shrieks, startling a few birds out of the bushes next to the walkway. “Halloween is the best time of the year! The only good time of the year! The only day that you’re allowed to take things from strangers, and they’re happy to give it to you!”

“I didn’t know you were so passionate about Halloween,” Harry says, amused.

“I love Halloween!” Louis says, still shrieking a little. “My sisters and I used to just go out and wander the neighborhood in our regular clothes, and people just assumed we were dressed up as zombies, or hobos, and they’d give us candy and tell us we looked great. We looked forward to it all year, made our candy last until Christmas, and we’d save each other’s favorites to exchange as gifts,” he says, voice growing softer as he speaks, expression growing fond.

Harry doesn’t know what to say to that. He doesn’t think he’s ever heard anything so sad in his entire life, but Louis looks about ready to weep like these are some of his happiest memories. Harry wants to go back in time and help him, give him all the goddamn candy in the world, and proper costumes for him and all of his siblings.

“Well, maybe I’ll see if I can dig out the old decorations,” he says, wondering where on earth they’d even be. “But you’re helping me decorate.”

“I would love to,” Louis says, already giddy. “Mum and Mark never let us decorate for anything. We had this plastic bat that we taped to the front door sometimes, but that’s all. What kind of decorations did your uncle have?” he asks, glancing up at the house like he’s imagining how spooky it could look.

“He’d cover the whole thing in cobwebs, make me get up on a ladder and do the whole house with them. He had all these iron archways that he’d put along the walkway to the front door, as well, and we’d cover them in cobwebs, too, and put little motion activated noise traps in the bushes so they’d go off as people walked by. We did it differently every year, so no one ever knew what to expect, but it was absolutely magical when it was all done,” Harry says. “My uncle liked to make everything feel like magic. He just loved to make people happy, to give them something to smile about, even when it was at his own expense,” he says.

Louis smiles, looking over at Harry for a long moment. “Yeah,” he says, nodding once. “I know the type.”

Harry blushes, smiling at his feet. “It’s cold out,” he says after a minute, wrapping his arms around himself. “Let’s go inside. Let’s see if we can’t find all those decorations.”

Louis races him inside at that, like a giddy child, far too excited about Halloween for a grown man. Harry finds it endearing though, like everything else about Louis, and suddenly he feels like he could fill an entire notebook with all of Louis’s little complexities. For now, though, he just follows Louis down into the basement, dragging out the dozen or so boxes full of decorations and letting Louis convince him to start putting them out in the morning.

-

By the following week, they’ve completely decked the front garden out with decorations. It’s somehow even better than Harry’s uncle’s old haunted mansion, probably because Harry went out on his own and spent about three hundred pounds on more props just to make sure it would all be perfect. It’s well worth it, he thinks, standing at the edge of the grass when they’re finally finished, the house absolutely covered in spooky props.

The house is twinkling orange and green, all covered with spider webs and plastic spiders, rubber bats hanging from the trees. They’ve put the arches up and absolutely covered them in cobwebs and lights, creating a spooky, twinkling tunnel straight to the front door. It’s magical, and it’s definitely the best thing Harry’s ever seen.

Louis looks mystified by it, even though he’s the one who did most of the work. He looks like he’s never seen anything better, like this might be his dream come true as he meanders up the walkway to the front door, the lights reflecting off him and making him glow. Halloween isn’t until tomorrow night, but Louis’s already beyond prepared, delighted at the idea of handing out candy to the children.

“We should go buy some candy,” Harry calls to him, watching him turn and scuttle back down the walkway. “Before all the shops run out.”

“You want me to come?” Louis asks, peeking out from the archway.

“Yeah?” Harry frowns, “why not?”

“I’ve never gone anywhere with you,” Louis says, shrugging. “I’ll go get my shoes.”

He turns on his heel and darts up to the door, bare feet slapping on the brick walkway. Harry thinks about it, and Louis’s right; Harry never taken him anywhere, never even offered to, and it makes him feel a bit shit. He hopes Louis hasn’t been thinking that Harry’s ashamed of him, or something, or that he just doesn’t want to take him out. He’s just never even thought of it, truly, never seen or pictured Louis outside of his own house.

Louis comes back hardly a minute later with Niall’s trainers on, Harry’s keys in his hand. Harry leads him to the car and takes the keys from him, still cursing himself for never having thought to take Louis out of the house before now.

“Wow,” Louis says, climbing into the car. “I’ve never been in a car this nice.”

“It’s not that nice,” Harry shrugs. “It’s a few years old, haven’t had it cleaned in ages.”

“Still the nicest car I’ve ever been in,” Louis mutters under his breath. “Mum drove the same Subaru from the seventies until Mark sold it when I was fourteen. It was disgusting, hardly even ran, I think he only got like fifty pounds for it.”

“Mark?” Harry asks gently, as he backs out of the driveway. Sometimes Louis lets little pieces of his past slip, like just now, but when Harry asks him to elaborate, he usually shuts down and changes the subject. Harry’s only ever been able to get tiny pieces of information out of him, like that he had a sister called Lottie and some others whose names he wouldn’t give up, and Harry’s dying to have enough puzzle pieces to put together some semblance of an image.

“My stepdad,” Louis says, voice quiet. He doesn’t offer anything else, but Harry doesn’t need anything else, so he doesn’t ask. He wants it all, wants every story Louis’s got bottled up in his brain, but he doesn’t need to know if Louis doesn’t want him to, so he just nods and focuses on the road for a little while.

“What kind of candy is your favorite?” Harry asks, pulling into a parking space when they reach Tesco and looking over at Louis. “We can buy some extra to keep for us.”

“Anything, really,” Louis says. “As long as it’s got sugar in, I’ll eat it.”

They take a trolley on their way into the store, and Louis follows along quietly to the candy aisle. Harry gets the feeling that he’s uncomfortable, eyes darting around, hands clasped firmly in front of himself.

“You alright?” Harry asks, voice low.

Louis jumps a little, looking up at him. “Yeah,” he says quickly, grabbing at the trolley with one hand. “Just… haven’t been to a grocery store recently without stealing anything,” he says. “I’m used to being chased out of places like this.”

It makes Harry’s stomach twist uncomfortably, the idea of Louis having to steal and run just to be able to eat. “Well,” he says, elbowing Louis’s side gently. “You’re fine now, we’re not doing anything wrong. Just buying some Halloween candy.”

Louis nods, but the tension doesn’t completely leave his body, even when Harry asks him to pick out a few bags of candy. The shop has a pretty good selection for the day before Halloween, and it takes Louis a little while to work out which kinds he thinks they should buy, but Harry convinces him to just get one of each kind, which Louis thinks is brilliant.

They pick up a few more groceries, and Harry lets Louis pick out some things he wants, as well. Louis still isn’t crazy about the idea of spending Harry’s money, though, so he just picks out a bag of crisps to appease him, and then they’re on their way.

The ride home is quiet, until finally Louis turns to him, the quiet radio in the background doing nothing to hide his voice.

“You can ask me,” he says, talking to Harry’s chest when Harry glances over at him. “I know I avoid your questions a lot, and I’m trying not to, but you can ask them anyway. It’s not like I don’t want to tell you. Just, sometimes I don’t really know,” he admits. “Sometimes I don’t know the answers myself. But you can still ask. We can figure it out together,” he says.

Harry nods, his mind buzzing with questions suddenly. He has so many, he doesn’t know which to ask first, which to save, which to let Louis tell him on his own time. There’s one pressing question, though, one that he thinks of frequently and can’t get out of his head, especially in the past few days.

“Were you happy?” he asks, glancing over at Louis again. “As a kid? Were you happy with life?”

Louis sighs a little, staring out the window. “I didn’t know what happy meant,” he says. Harry wants to cry. “But on the bright side, I didn’t know what unhappy meant, either.”

It hangs there in the air for the rest of the ride home, and Louis helps Harry carry the grocery bags inside and they leave the candy on the table to separate into bowls for tomorrow and then Louis disappears into the guest wing to have a shower and Harry grabs his notebook just to stare at it, feeling like Louis’s simple answer to such a simple question has left him dumbfounded in a way he doesn’t know how to make sense of.

What even is happiness, anyway? Especially when you have no grounds to be happy? What is happiness when you have no concept of the way things should be? What is happiness when you don’t know what unhappiness is, either? Is unhappiness the result of a lack of happiness? Not necessarily, not really. What constitutes unhappiness, then? What constitutes happiness?

Harry finds himself writing his stream of consciousness in hopes that a future Harry will be able to decipher it, but it’s really all just a list of questions he can’t answer. He spends a long few minutes pouring over it, trying to work it all out, but he can’t understand it.

He thinks it comes down to hope. If Louis, as a child, had something to hope for, he might have been unhappy when he continued to not get it. Was he hoping for anything, though? Did he even know what to hope for? Did he know what hope was, if he didn’t know what happiness was?

He closes his notebook when Louis comes shuffling out into the sunroom in a new set of clothes, his hair damp. He plops down on the sofa across the room from Harry’s desk and stares up at the sky while the sun sets, like he has no idea what his words have done to Harry’s world view.

“I’m gonna make some dinner,” Harry says, pushing himself back from his desk and standing up. “Any requests?”

Louis hums and shakes his head, still watching the sky. Harry watches him for a long minute, still thinking about happiness, about how part of him wants to teach Louis everything that happiness means, and part of him wants Louis to be able to figure it out himself. Louis glances over at him after a minute and Harry blushes, ducking out of the sunroom and into the kitchen to get some pasta on the stove.

Maybe he’ll figure it out someday, the odd feeling Louis sets stirring in his stomach with just the simplest of gestures, but for now, he thinks he just needs to stop trying to define everything.

-

Harry feels like a child tonight, dumping all of the candy he and Louis bought into plastic bowls and leaving them out on the front step, where he and Louis will be sitting all night to greet the trick or treaters. Louis insisted that they dress up, but they ran out of time to go get costumes, so they’ve both made due with what they have. They’re both in plain white t-shirt and jeans, and they spent nearly thirty minutes carefully dribbling grenadine down each other’s mouths, chins and chests to achieve the perfect vampire look. Harry’s just finished slicking his own hair back with gel and now he’s helping Louis do the same, since Louis has no concept of how to properly do his own hair.

“Never gotten me hair done in me life,” Louis says, watching in wonder as Harry carefully sculpts his hair, smoothing it back away from his face. “Mum always did all our hair cuts with rusty kitchen scissors. I didn’t mind it, until Mark got out his electric clippers in the summer and shaved my head nearly bald. The girls would laugh at me and mum would cry, but I was the only one who finished every summer holiday without a case of lice,” he says.

“That’s,” Harry frowns, confused as to what to make of the story, “beautiful? Tragic? Disturbing?”

“Yes,” Louis says, grinning at him in the mirror. “Are you nearly done? When will the trick or treaters come?”

“Don’t worry, you won’t miss them,” Harry says, smoothing a few more pieces of Louis’s hair into place and then stepping back to admire his work. “You could really use a trim, your hair is so long,” he says.

“Can’t remember the last time I cut my hair,” Louis says, admiring himself in the mirror for a moment. “Kinda gave up on it at some point last summer. Just not worth the fuss,” he shrugs.

“I’ll take you to my hairdresser soon,” Harry says. “She does lovely work.”

Louis just hums, squirming around Harry and out of the bathroom, successfully avoiding the topic. Harry pretends not to notice, following him out into the den. “I think we should go outside, it’s going to start getting dark soon,” Louis says, peeking out the window excitedly.

“Alright, you can head out without me, I’ll be there in a few minutes,” he says, watching Louis shuffle excitedly out onto the front step.

Harry goes to the sunroom to grab his notebook, uncapping his pen with his teeth to jot something down quickly. He wants to make note of how little Louis seems to care about his appearance, how easily he can talk about certain parts of his childhood, like his traumatic haircuts, while other parts of his life seem like classified secrets. He writes about how Louis seems like a bottomless well of complexities, a corn maze of secrets and surprises, and all Harry wants to do is keep rounding the corners, keep hunting for the bottom, the middle, the heart of the boy that keeps him on his toes every single day.

He brings his notebook with him when he finally goes outside to find Louis, keeping it beside him when he sits down on the step, holding a bowl of candy in his lap. He thinks he’ll let Louis do most of the giving of the candy and interacting with the children, since he seems so excited about it, and it’ll be a good opportunity for Harry to be able to just sit back and admire what he’s like while Louis has such a good distraction.

The kids start coming slowly, and Harry’s almost afraid Louis’s going to pounce on them and scare them away out of excitement, but Louis is his lovely, calm, gentle self, giggling as he tells the children how wonderful their costumes are and carefully drops a few pieces of candy into each of their baskets. He’s perfectly wonderful to each of the children that stops by, it makes Harry’s heart feel so full it could burst.

“This is the best thing ever,” Louis says to him, as another group of children flits back down the walkway to the street. “I haven’t even a clue what most of them are dressed as, I haven’t been to the cinema in years, but this is everything I hoped it would be.”

“Yeah?” Harry asks, heart dancing at the notion that he’s making at least one of Louis’s dreams come true.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Louis grins at him. “I love kids. I think there’s nothing more special than being a child, being so full of wonder and so completely unaware of how fucked up the world is. I always hated the idea of growing up, and I was right, because the second I hit double digits in age, the whole world turned against me. I’d do anything to go back,” he sighs wistfully, peeking out over the hedges to watch for more children coming.

“Even now?” Harry asks, heart sinking a little. “Even in this moment right here?”

Louis considers for a second, glancing over at Harry. “Well, I guess not,” he says. “I guess this part is alright.”

Harry smiles, looking down and fidgeting with the candy bowl in his lap just for something to do with his hands.

They don’t say much to each other until a child walks up sniffling, spooked by the lights and sound effects and props covering every inch of Harry’s front garden. Louis reacts flawlessly, his voice gentler than Harry’s ever heard it when he addresses the girl.

“What’s wrong, love?” Louis says, waving her closer. “Aren’t you having a good Halloween?”

“I’m scared,” the girl says, matching Louis’s hushed tone. “And my brothers won’t slow down and mummy says I’m acting like a baby.”

“Well, I don’t think so,” Louis frowns. “I think you’re the bravest little butterfly I’ve met tonight.”

The girl smiles, despite the tears still shining in her eyes. “I’m a bee, mister.”

“Oh, my apologies, little bee,” Louis grins, dropping a few extra pieces of candy in her basket. “Please don’t sting me.”

“I won’t sting you,” she says, backing away slowly. “Happy Halloween!”

“Happy Halloween,” Louis and Harry call in tandem. The girl seems distracted from her troubles momentarily as she turns to go, but she triggers one of the sound traps on her way back down the walkway and drops her whole basket of candy in fright.

Louis doesn’t miss a beat, scurrying over to her and helping her put all of her candy back in her basket. “Can I walk you back to the street?” he offers, extending his hand to the girl and letting her huddle into his side as he guides her back down the walkway to where her family is waiting for her.

Harry scrambles for his notebook, putting the candy bowl down beside him while he fumbles to open his pen. He’s so inspired, almost overcome with it, he feels like he can’t write fast enough. It’s just, there’s this boy, this selfless, careful, lovely boy who has nothing, absolutely nothing to his name, and he’s sitting here giving things away to other people, children he’s never even met, escorting them all the way down to the street just so that they won’t be frightened. Harry feels like he could write an album inspired by the chord that strikes in him, the way it makes his chest feel tight like his heart is trying to burst right through his skin.

Louis comes jogging back to the front step, still grinning, plopping down beside Harry and hugging his bowl of candy to his chest. Harry’s still scribbling away, thinking Louis’s not paying him any mind, until Louis leans close to his side, so close Harry can feel his breath on his shoulder.

“What’re you writing?” Louis asks curiously, frowning at Harry’s chicken scratch handwriting. “Is- is that English?”

“Sorry,” Harry chuckles, finishing his last thought and putting his notebook back down beside him. “Inspiration struck.”

Louis hums, seeming content with that answer, but when Harry looks over, he’s smirking a little, like he knows exactly what Harry was writing about. It makes Harry’s chest glow bright, not embarrassed but just happy, happier than he thought inviting a stranger into his home ever would have made him.

They stay outside until nearly eleven o'clock that night, long after the trick or treaters have all gone home, talking and laughing and snacking on the leftover candy. They bought far too much, they’re realizing now, even though it seems like they must have greeted over a hundred kids tonight.

They only decide to call it a night once it gets too cold to keep sitting out in the dark, and Louis’s shivering in his thin t-shirt and Harry can’t really feel his fingers and toes. Harry heats up some apple cider and they warm up for a bit in the den, until finally Louis puts down his mug and yawns.

“Well, bedtime for me, I think,” he says, voice soft and tired.

“Goodnight,” Harry hums, curling up a little more on the sofa, content to sit here by himself until he’s good and ready to go to sleep.

“Harry?” Louis says, stopping in the doorway of the guest wing. Harry peers over the back of the sofa at him, and Louis smiles down at his toes. “Thank you.”

Harry just smiles, can’t think of anything to say that would convince Louis of just how happy he is to do anything that would make Louis happy.

Louis closes the door after himself and Harry stays up for another few hours, finishing his cider and scrawling lazily in his notebook, already itching to get another chance to show Louis how wonderful life can be.

-

November tumbles into England with an icy cold front, chilling the entire country to its bones. Harry keeps a cozy fire burning in the fireplace constantly and fixes the heat in the guest wing, even though Louis assures him he doesn’t need it, he’s spent blizzards in worse conditions before.

The guest wing has become irrevocably Louis’s, and though Harry never spent time in there to begin with, he hardly ever steps foot in there now so that Louis can have the privacy he deserves. He lets Louis control his own thermostat and doesn’t think about the guest wing otherwise, except for when Louis is being antisocial and Harry has to knock on the door to tell him that dinner’s ready.

Ever since Halloween, Louis’s been so much happier, smiley and bubbly when before the most he would give Harry was a slight smile or frown to indicate his emotion. Now he’s loud, expressive, energetic and loud, like Harry’s finally earned that side of him. Harry can hardly believe his luck, getting to witness the full range of Louis’s personality like this; it’s like he’s found a key to a door he didn’t know he was looking for, and now it’s wide open and the absolute treasure that is Louis’s company is finally showing its full potential.

It’s Wednesday today, a full week since Halloween, and Harry’s working from home because he can’t bear to get dressed and go out in this weather. He wants warm socks and tea on tap, and maybe to spend the day writing instead of pretending to be supervising people that are older and much smarter than he is.

As time goes on, he’s starting to dislike his job more and more. The money is lovely, of course, but he doesn’t feel like he deserves it, certainly doesn’t feel like he’s earned it, and he’s starting to wonder what exactly he’s doing with his life. He doesn’t want to sell the company, necessarily, but he also doesn’t really want to be in charge of it anymore. He supposes he can’t have one without the other, though, so he’s just muddling through, going to work every day to sit in his uncle’s office even though he isn’t even technically the CEO of the company. At this point, he isn’t even really sure what his role is, and he’s too afraid to ask.

He sleeps in, since he made the decision to work from home last night, and by the time he rolls out of bed, the sun is high in the sky, though it’s completely hidden behind the clouds.

Louis is almost never awake before Harry is, but the past week, he’s been in the kitchen or the den every morning when Harry comes downstairs. Harry doesn’t question it, just enjoying Louis’s company early in the morning as he’s getting ready for work, but he does keep meaning to ask if everything’s okay, if Louis’s sleeping alright.

Today when he comes down the stairs, though, he finds Louis curled up on the sofa in the den, in front of the dying fire, sound asleep. He’s all cuddled up under the duvet from the guest bedroom, looking soft and peaceful, so Harry doesn’t dare disturb him, even though he’s very curious as to why Louis’s sleeping in the den instead of his bedroom.

He creeps past the sofa into the kitchen to have some breakfast, but his toast hasn’t even popped up from the toaster by the time Louis comes shuffling into the kitchen, sleep soft with his duvet draped over his shoulders.

“Morning,” Louis hums, going straight for the kettle.

“Morning,” Harry echoes. He watches Louis for a long few seconds, until the toaster pops and distracts him. “Why were you sleeping on the sofa?”

“Warmer out here by the fire,” Louis shrugs. “It’s too cold in the guest wing sometimes.”

“I told you to adjust the heat however you like,” Harry frowns. “Why don’t you turn it up?”

“I did, but the window in the den is still broken, all the heat just goes out,” Louis says.

“Shit, I forgot about that window,” Harry says, buttering his toast hastily. “I’ll call someone and have it fixed as soon I can, yeah? And in the meantime, I have more bedrooms upstairs,” he says. “You can stay in one of those, they all have private bathrooms and everything.”

“It’s not that big a deal,” Louis says, smiling like he really believes it. “I don’t need to take up any more of your space, anyway. Unless you don’t like me sleeping on the sofa? I didn’t even-”

“No, it’s not that,” Harry says, before Louis can convince himself he’s a burden. “I just think it must be uncomfortable.”

“It’s not so bad,” Louis shrugs. “I guess I could move upstairs, though, just until the window is fixed.”

“I’ll call about it today,” Harry says, taking a bite of his toast while Louis waits for the kettle to boil. “Shouldn’t be more than a few days, I think.”

“Don’t you have work today?” Louis asks, catching sight of the time on the stove.

“Working from home,” Harry says, winking when Louis looks up at him. “Which means movie day, if you ask me.”

“You can do that?” Louis asks skeptically. “Just skip work and watch movies and no one will question you?”

“I don’t have anyone to question me,” Harry says. “I’m the boss.”

“Your life is weird,” Louis mutters, pouring the water into his mug once it boils and popping in a tea bag.

“You’re not wrong,” Harry says, chuckling quietly. “Will you make me a tea?”

Louis hums, filling another mug with water and popping in another tea bag. He gets out the milk and sugar, as well, making Harry’s tea exactly how he likes it, which makes Harry’s chest feel all tight and funny for whatever reason. They’ve lived together for two months now, Louis bloody better know how Harry likes his tea, but it still just makes Harry happy to see him do it.

“What are you doing today, then?” Harry asks, once Louis’s handed him his tea.

“Aren’t I invited to movie day?” Louis teases, smiling at him over the top of his mug. “Or is it not bring your homeless friend to work day?”

“You are absolutely invited to movie day,” Harry says. “In fact, you can be in charge of movie day, if you want. Pick any film you’d like.”

Louis grins like Harry’s offered him the world, sipping quickly at his tea to hide it. Harry feels like he’s glowing, finishing his breakfast and then leaving his plate in the sink to deal with later.

They move Louis’s things from the guest wing to one of the spare rooms upstairs, mostly because Harry’s afraid that if they don’t do it now, they’ll forget, and Louis will keep suffering in silence in the guest wing until Harry gets around to fixing the window. Louis chooses the room directly across the landing from Harry’s room, which is just a slightly smaller mirror of Harry’s own room. There isn’t much to be moved, so it doesn’t take long to get Louis’s clothes hung properly in the closet and his few other possessions neatly stored away. Louis drags him back downstairs once they’re finished, and they spend the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon on the sofa.

Louis picks mostly superhero movies, mostly the Spider-Man films, because he grew up loving the comics and never got the chance to go to the cinema to see the films when they came out. Harry makes a mental note to take him to the cinema sometime soon, the next time a Marvel movie comes out. Louis is so blown away by them, so utterly fascinated and enthralled by them, Harry wants him to experience them in a real cinema.

Harry forgets to call about the window, but that night when he and Louis head upstairs together to go to bed, he thinks he might push it off a little longer anyway. It’s nice, in a weird way, to say goodnight to Louis at the top of the stairs before they go to their own separate rooms. It’s also nice, in maybe a weirder way, to know that Louis is just across the hall from him, warm and comfortable and safe. Harry sleeps easier tonight knowing Louis is so close, and maybe that’s something he should look into, but for now, he’s just gonna take it for the warm feeling in his chest and leave the psychoanalysis for tomorrow.

-

It takes Harry a few more days to actually have the window fixed, but Louis doesn’t say a word about it. He keeps hanging out in the guest wing despite how cold it must be in there, probably because it’s the only place in the house where he can be alone in a space that feels like his own, but as far as Harry can tell, Louis really enjoys his new bedroom upstairs. In the week since Louis moved upstairs, he’s been waiting up for Harry every night so that they can go upstairs together and say goodnight from the doorways of their own rooms. Harry suspects that Louis secretly likes the routine of it, maybe likes the idea that they’re so close the same way Harry does.

Louis stays upstairs the morning the men come to replace the window, but they’re in and out in under an hour, and Louis comes shuffling downstairs into the kitchen a couple minutes after they’ve gone. Harry’s working on some eggs for breakfast, and Louis hoists himself up to sit on the worktop next to him.

“Good morning,” Louis says, peering into the pan on the stove.

“Morning,” Harry hums. “The window’s fixed in the guest wing. We can move your stuff back later, if you want,” he says.

“Oh,” Louis says, swinging his feet so they bump against the cupboard a little. “Cool.”

“I’ll be home around five, if you want to wait for me to help you,” Harry says. “Not that there’s terribly many things to move.”

“Yeah,” Louis says, seemingly uninterested. “Do you want a tea?”

“Yes, please,” Harry says, getting the impression that Louis doesn’t really want to discuss the issue of moving back downstairs. Harry kind of doesn’t want to discuss it either; he really has enjoyed Louis sleeping upstairs the past few nights, and even though nothing is different except knowing Louis is that much closer, he kind of doesn’t want to go back to the way things were.

He plates the eggs, one for Louis and one for himself, and goes to sit at the table while Louis finishes making two cups of tea. Louis sits down with him once they’re done, folding himself up in the chair directly across the table from Harry and eating quietly.

Breakfast with Louis is one of Harry’s favorite things, he thinks. It wasn’t too long ago that Louis took ages to finish anything because he was too nervous to eat in front of Harry, too nervous to be too comfortable around him, but now Louis sits with one knee folded up into his chest, hair still messy from sleep, the picture of comfort. Harry does his best to keep his thoughts hidden, the way Louis does, but he wonders if Louis can still tell how happy it makes him when Louis actually acts like he belongs here, like he likes being here as much as Harry likes having him here.

Harry leaves his plate in the sink when he’s finished eating and takes his tea upstairs with him while he gets dressed, and when he comes back down, Louis is just finishing the washing up, leaving the plates in the drying rack on the worktop. Harry gets the urge to kiss his head and tell him to have a good day, which is alarming, and he freezes in the doorway to the kitchen to process it.

Louis glances at him over his shoulder, giving him a funny look. “What are you doing?” he asks, checking the time and then waving Harry out of the kitchen with one dainty hand. “Go on, you’ll be late!”

Harry makes a low sound of acknowledgement in his throat and turns, grabbing his coat on his way out the door and shrugging it on as he walks to his car.

He can’t push the thought out of his head all day at work, along with the accompanying confusion. As much as he tries to convince himself otherwise, he definitely wanted to press a kiss to the side of Louis’s head, maybe give him a sideways hug, and tell him to enjoy his day until Harry saw him again. Maybe he just got caught up in the domesticity of everything, eating breakfast with another person, having someone to make him a tea in the morning and do the washing up. It’s all messing with his head, is all, or at least that’s what he’s going to keep telling himself until he has time to sit down and really work it all out.

He finds Louis in the library when he gets home that evening, curled up in the armchair by the window. He’s under a blanket, but Harry can see his thick wool jumper and a pair of cozy socks where the blanket doesn’t quite cover.

“You can light a fire, you know,” Harry says from the doorway, startling Louis nearly out of his skin. “Or turn up the heat. It’s freezing in here.”

“Jesus, Harry,” Louis grumbles. “If I wanted to be snuck up on like that I’d get a bloody cat,” he says.

“I wouldn’t mind a cat,” Harry says, settling down in the chair opposite Louis, closer to the dormant fireplace. “What are you reading?”

“Harry Potter,” Louis says, showing Harry the cover of it. “I remember the girls in school always loved it, never could get me hands on a copy. You’ve got the whole series, though, so I thought I’d take a crack at it. It’s meant to be a children’s book, but that’s about all I’ve got the brain for, at the minute,” he shrugs.

“I love Harry Potter,” Harry says. “When you’ve finished, we can watch the films.”

“How many times in your life have people said to you you’re a wizard, Harry?” Louis asks, smirking at him over the top of this book. “Because I’m rather amused by it.”

“More times than I can count,” Harry rolls his eyes. “Just be thankful you don’t share a name with any beloved fictional characters, it’s more of a curse than a blessing, especially as a child” he says.

“Trust me, didn’t need to,” Louis says. “You get your own host of problems growing up with a name like Lewis.”

“Lewis?” Harry frowns, watching Louis’s face go scarlet.

“Um,” Louis says, staring blankly at the book in his hands for a moment. Harry can see the wheels in his head turning; he looks like he’s trying not to look panicked. “It’s how it’s spelled,” he says, but he still looks embarrassed, awkward. “Nevermind. I’m starving.”

Harry feels like he’s got whiplash, watching as Louis slams his book closed and stands up. “I was planning to make some pasta for dinner,” Harry says, pushing the Lewis thing out of his head, at least for now, just to spare Louis what seems to be a touchy subject, or something. He’s definitely going to have to ask Louis about it at some point, but he doesn’t know how to backpedal from here, so he decides to just file it away for later.

“Pasta’s good,” Louis says, leading the way out of the library and down the stairs.

They don’t do very much talking about anything for the rest of the evening, because Harry’s still caught up and confused about about everything that’s happened today, and Louis’s doing that thing where he shuts himself down after he says something he doesn’t mean to say, lets Harry know something he’s not supposed to know.

Harry spends the rest of the night out in the sunroom writing in his journal, trying to work out the mess inside his head of what happened this morning, and what it is his brain and heart seem to be in disagreement out, and the significance of the Lewis incident in relation to all of that.

For the first time since Louis agreed to stay here, Harry’s feeling a little unsure of everything. There’s a good chance Harry’s going to end up having some feelings he didn’t anticipate, and while he might’ve been alright with that under different circumstances, the Lewis incident was a brutal reminder that Harry still knows little to nothing about Louis, knows hardly anything about his past, where he came from, who he even is. At this point, he hasn’t a single clue if Louis is even Louis’s real name, and for the first time in the several weeks since Louis’s been living with him, that terrifies him.

When he goes upstairs to bed that night, he catches Louis in the hallway leaving the bathroom, heading back to the guest room. He’d forgotten to ask about moving Louis’s things back down to the guest wing, and it looks like Louis didn’t do it on his own; he’s in his pajamas, heading into the guest room to sleep, and Harry can only assume that that means he doesn’t want to move back down to the guest wing after all.

Louis gives him a tiny smile and ducks his head, shuffling quietly into the guest wing and closing the door behind himself. Harry goes to his own room in a haze, brushing his teeth and changing out of his clothes and climbing into his bed, mind still working in overdrive.

At the end of the day, he finds, he still likes the idea that Louis is so close, just across the hall. Even with the confusing mix of thoughts and emotions and urges, even with the uncertainty and the hiding and the secrets, Harry still feels comfortable falling asleep as close to Louis as he can get.

All he can determine before he falls asleep that night is that things are probably going to get a whole lot messier before they come to any sort of conclusion.

-

Things mostly go back to normal in the morning, meaning that Harry wakes up to Louis making him a cup of tea before work, and they don’t discuss anything that happened yesterday. Louis seems to have completely moved on, acting like his normal chipper, sweet self, but Harry still feels like he’s lost in a puzzle inside his own head.

He spends another day bumbling his way through work, avoiding everyone the best he can so that he can sit in his office and try to figure everything out. He has so many questions, so many things he’s dying to ask Louis about, but he doesn’t know how to. These are the types of questions that Louis avoids, talks Harry in circles instead of giving him a real answer, and Harry’s not sure he’ll ever be able to get the truth out of him. He doesn’t know why something as simple as the pronunciation of Louis’s name is enough to send him into a tailspin like this when Harry knew full well what he was getting himself into when he invited a scared, skinny, dirty homeless boy to live with him, but he thinks it might have something to do with the fact that he maybe kind of wants to keep Louis forever, and he’s not sure if Louis will let him.

That’s it, he thinks, the real reason he’s so freaked out suddenly. The urge he felt yesterday to kiss Louis’s head and call him love before he left for work, it never fully went away. It turned into a desire to kiss him on the mouth after dinner, to hold him by his hips and feel his skin under his hands, to cuddle up to him in bed and fall asleep beside him. Harry’s never felt like this about anyone before, and he’s quite certain he’s not allowed to be feeling this way about Louis, but he can’t help it, can’t make it go away, no matter how much he keeps telling himself that he doesn’t even know Louis, doesn’t have a single clue who he really is.

He leaves work about an hour early, too antsy and on edge to keep sitting in his office pretending he’s doing anything. He spends the entire drive home worrying about seeing Louis, worrying about what other kind of urges are going to plague him when he walks through the door.

He finds Louis in the kitchen, dressed in his soft gray joggers and one of the oversized jumpers Harry gave him, a pair of clean white socks covering his feet. His hair is damp, like he just got out of the shower, and it’s so long it nearly brushes his shoulders, curls against the base of his neck, and the way he’s standing, slightly hunched over the worktop making himself a cup of tea, Harry can see the sharp dip of his spine, the way his hips curve down into his behind. He’s so pretty, good lord, Harry is so fucked. He has to hold his own hands behind his back to resist the instinct to reach out and touch Louis, clearing his throat to announce his presence.

Louis only jumps a little, glancing at Harry over his shoulder. “Oh,” he says, turning fully to face him, holding his tea with both hands in front of his chest, steam rising into his face. “You’re home early.”

“I am,” Harry says, frowning a little. “Did you use my body wash?”

Louis blushes, looking down. “Uh, yeah, I did. Sorry. It’s probably really expensive, I didn’t mean to-”

“No, it’s okay,” Harry cuts him off, before Louis can spiral. “I don’t mind.”

He does mind. He minds because Louis smells like him right now, dressed in clothes that used to belong to Harry, and Harry feels disgusting for even thinking it, but Louis looks and smells like his and god, Harry wants him to be. It comes out of nowhere, this crashing wave of desire, and he has to turn away.

“I ran out of soap,” Louis says, quietly, like he still thinks Harry is annoyed. “And yours smells so good, I just thought I’d take a little, I didn’t think you’d notice,” he says sheepishly.

“I can buy you some of your own, if you’d like,” Harry says.

“Oh,” Louis says, a little surprised. “Well, I- I don’t think I’ve ever owned anything that nice, especially not, like, soap,” he says. “Thank you.”

I want to give you everything, Harry thinks, busying himself with tidying up the worktop, everything, anything, whatever you could possibly want. “That’s okay,” he says instead. “I’ve never had anyone to spoil before. I kinda like it.”

Louis’s quiet for a minute, sipping slowly at his tea. Harry finishes arranging and rearranging the small pile of mail on the counter and then glances over at Louis, finding him studying his tea with a tiny frown.

“You know you don’t have to, right?” Louis says, not daring to look up at him. “I’ve told you before, I don’t want you to do things for me. I don’t want you to spend your money on me, or your time, or anything. I never wanted that.”

“I know,” Harry says. “But you like it, don’t you? You like nice things? It’s okay, I do too. It’s okay to want expensive things, to love the things you have. I’m willing to give you those things, hell, I want to give you those things,” he admits.

Louis shakes his head, looking down at his feet. “Not where I come from,” he says. “It’s not okay to want those things where I come from. When you grow up like I did, you grow up dreaming of having nice things, but never wanting them, never hoping for them. I appreciate the things you do for me, Harry, I really do, but I can’t get used to them. One day you’re going to get tired of me, you’re going to get bored of this project, and I’m going to have to go back to where I came from. Thank you for allowing me to enjoy your fancy things, for letting me pretend for a while, but if you start giving me things of my own, it’s only going to make it harder for me to give it all up eventually,” he mutters.

Harry is speechless, can’t do anything more than shake his head, staring at Louis’s downturned face. Louis just smiles sadly at him and puts his tea down on the worktop, shuffling out of the kitchen and into the guest wing, the door closing softly behind him.

Louis is not a project, he’s not a stray, not to Harry. Harry feels sick even thinking about the fact that Louis feels that way about himself, that he’s living day to day waiting for Harry to get sick of him, to send him on his way, send him back to a world that sucks all the loveliness out of him and treats him so horribly. Admittedly, Harry never really considered the long term outcomes of offering to let Louis stay with him when he did it; he was impulsive, and scared, and he felt guilty sending Louis back to the streets when he could so easily provide for him here. He never considered what would happen in a month, six months, a year, ten years. He still hasn’t considered it, if he’s being honest, but never once did the idea even enter his mind that he would send Louis away once he was finished with him. Harry doesn’t think he’ll ever be finished with him, doesn’t even know what that means, doesn’t know how Louis could think so lowly of Harry, of himself, that he thought he deserved to be tossed away like that, that Harry could ever do that to him.

It breaks his heart, quite frankly, that the reason Harry still doesn’t know shit about Louis is probably because Louis still thinks he’s going to end up back on the streets, living in people’s spare rooms until someone else shows him kindness, or has him arrested, or kills him. He wishes he knew how to articulate to Louis that he can stay here for as long as he wants, that Harry isn’t offering him a halfway house, he’s offering him a home. He wasn’t before, when they first negotiated all of this, but now, Harry thinks he’s ready to let Louis make a home here. As it is, though, he doesn’t even know how to articulate that to himself, to wrap his head around the fact that he’s really willing to let Louis stay with him forever, that he’s already dreading the possibility that someday Louis might leave.

He can’t stop thinking about what Louis said. When you grow up like I did, you grow up dreaming of having nice things, but never wanting them, never hoping for them. It makes him think about what Louis said before about happiness, about his own conclusion that maybe Louis was never happy or unhappy because he didn’t know the difference, didn’t have any reason to hope for anything because he didn’t know he had the option to. Now, he thinks he understands that Louis did know he had the option to hope, but he chose not to out of self preservation. That’s a lot for a child to handle, and it’s something Harry’s still not sure he can completely comprehend. All he knows for sure is that it makes him respect Louis so much more and, in turn, makes him absolutely certain that he never wants to let Louis get anywhere near that place again, if he can help it.

He picks up the mug Louis left in the kitchen and pops it in the microwave for a few seconds, making sure it’s good and warm before he heads to the guest wing. He never disturbs Louis when he’s in the guest wing, usually, because he doesn’t ever want to infringe on Louis’s space, but today it feels important that he gets through to Louis, especially in the place in Harry’s home where he’s come to feel the safest.

He knocks quietly, but the door is unlocked, so he cracks it open and peeks his head inside. “Lou?” he calls, peering down the hallway. “Can I come in?”

It takes a moment, but Louis’s head pops out from around the corner, looking confused. “Of course.”

Harry steps through the door awkwardly, opening it only enough to get in, and shuts it behind himself. There’s no one else here, no one to overhear anything either of them says, but he still feels weird about leaving the door open once he’s inside.

“You left your tea in the kitchen,” Harry says, shuffling down the hallway to offer Louis the mug. Louis still looks confused, but he accepts it.

“Thank you,” he says, watching Harry carefully.

“I know you’re probably not going to believe me when I tell you this, or you’re not going to allow yourself to believe it for some reason, but you’re not a project to me,” he says, his eyes locked with Louis’s. Louis blinks, looking down, but Harry’s not done yet, steps a little closer to regain Louis’s attention. “You’re not a charity case, and you’re not a game. You’re not a pet, you’re not a burden, nor are you something I’ll ever regret.”

Louis looks like he wants to flee, like he can’t stomach hearing what else Harry has to say to him, like he already needs to go erase the memory of this conversation to keep himself from getting attached. Harry’s already attached, though, and he’ll be damned if he can’t get Louis to feel the same way.

“I can’t understand that,” Louis admits, looking down. “I will never understand why you show me so much kindness. But thank you,” he says.

Harry wants to hug him, but he resists, backing away from him and turning to leave. Louis stops him, though, with a hand on his elbow, and Harry feels like his skin is burning under the contact.

“What are you going to do now?” Louis asks curiously, still clutching his tea with one hand.

“I was going to go sit in the sunroom,” Harry says, “maybe do some writing.”

“Can I come sit with you?” Louis asks. Harry’s stomach flips happily, absolutely thrilled that Louis would rather spend time with him than locked away in the guest wing for the rest of the afternoon.

“Of course you can,” Harry says, smiling warmly.

After disappearing for a couple of minutes, Louis follows him out to the sunroom, and Harry does his best to pay him no mind. He’s stretched out on the sofa, writing in his notebook, when Louis finally steps through the sliding glass door, closing it behind himself.

He stretches out on his stomach on the soft rug beside the sofa, and when Harry looks down, Louis’s got his Harry Potter book open on the floor in front of him, sipping awkwardly at his tea without taking his eyes off the page. Harry has to turn away to hide the full force of his grin, but he’s struck with inspiration, and he spends the rest of the afternoon scribbling away in his book.

He doesn’t even know what this feeling is, but the more he thinks about it, the less scared he is of it. He was a bit worried before that these newfound feelings for Louis were bad, that Harry was taking advantage of him by thinking like this. After all, Louis is only staying here because he has nowhere else to go, at least as far as Harry knows. The more he considers it, though, the more sure he is that what he’s feeling for Louis is pure, wholesome, and even if Louis never feels the same, he thinks that’s alright. He just wants to give Louis the world, and maybe a kiss here and there, maybe a cuddle every now and again, but even without all of that, he thinks that all he really needs is for Louis to stay in his life. Even if they never amount to more than housemates, Harry thinks, all he really wants is to never have to say goodbye.

-

The bi-monthly golfing trip sneaks up on Harry, and he almost forgets about it until the night before he’s meant to leave. He never wants to go on these trips, but now he especially doesn’t, because he knows Louis will just be here all by himself for a week, and Harry going to be out suffering with his uncle’s friends the whole time.

“I’ll be fine, seriously,” Louis assures him, while he’s helping him pack up his bag. “I’ve managed in much worse conditions,” he says.

“Are you sure you aren’t going to need me?” Harry says, pleading, even though he’s smiling. “Just say the word and I’ll stay home. Seriously. Say the word,” he begs.

“Stop,” Louis laughs, throwing a pair of balled up socks at him. “You know you can’t skip this.”

“God, the winter ones are the worst,” Harry whines, picking up the socks and stuffing them into his duffel. “We don’t even golf. We just sit in the hotel bar and drink and talk about how much we hate our wives.”

Louis frowns, blinking slowly. “You don’t have a wife.”

“Exactly,” Harry sighs, plopping down face first on the bed.

“It can’t be that bad,” Louis says, sitting down next to him. “They’re just a couple of harmless old men, how bad can they really be?”

Harry turns his face out of the duvet just to give Louis the dirtiest look he can manage, earning himself a scoff and a tiny giggle. “I think Donald Trump has the right ideas,” Harry says, his voice all slow and deep, mocking. “I also think slavery was ok, and we should take back women’s right to vote.”

“God, nevermind,” Louis says, rubbing at his face a little. “I already have a headache.”

“So do I,” Harry mutters, turning over onto his back and stretching his arms up over his head. “I want this week to be over already.”

Louis doesn’t say anything, so Harry just sighs very slowly and turns his head to look up at him. He catches Louis turning his head away quickly, cheeks pinking a little bit as he reaches forward to drag Harry’s duffel into his lap, mumbling to himself about wanting to make sure Harry has everything he needs.

If Harry didn’t know any better, he’d think he just caught Louis checking him out. He becomes very aware of his position, his arms up over his head so the bottom of his cotton jumper is ridden up over his hip bones, trackies loose around his waist. He pulls his jumper down and sits up, forcing his mind away from the idea that Louis might find him attractive, too.

“You’re missing your toothbrush,” Louis says, glancing over at him.

“I’ll pack it in the morning,” Harry says, watching Louis’s face. “I’ll be out of here pretty early, so I might not see you before I leave. I’ll leave some money in the kitchen so you can get food or something while I’m gone, if you want,” he says.

Louis just hums quietly, zipping up Harry’s duffel halfway and then pushing it off his lap. “Well, have fun,” he says, climbing off of Harry’s bed and standing awkwardly at the foot of it. “I might miss you, a bit,” he jokes, smirking up at Harry from under his hair, which is lying soft and feathery over his forehead.

“I might miss you a bit, too,” Harry says, but it just makes his chest ache a little. “Call me if you need anything, yeah?”

“Haven’t got a phone,” Louis shrugs. “But I’m sure I’ll be alright.”

Harry blinks, frowning at his lap for a second. For some reason he never considered the fact that Louis doesn’t have a phone, or anything else, really, and he wonders if he should get one for him or if that’s too far outside of Louis’s comfort zone.

“You can use the landline,” Harry says, like it’s what he meant all along. “I’ll leave my number by it.”

Louis nods, backing toward the door. “You can call me too then, I guess. You know, if you want to,” he says.

“Yeah,” Harry smiles, nodding once. “Goodnight, Louis.”

“Night,” Louis says softly, pulling the door closed behind himself before he shuffles across the hall to his own room. Harry waits until he hears Louis’s door close and then gets up to get changed, moving his duffel bag to the floor by the door before he climbs into bed.

He can’t stop thinking about Louis as he tries to fall asleep, about how much he doesn’t want to spend an entire week knowing he’s just alone in the house. He already hated these golf retreats, but now he hates them even more, because they’re cutting into his precious Louis time.

That, he thinks, is a thought he doesn’t need to read into.

-

He leaves two hundred pounds on the counter for Louis to use while he’s gone and leaves a sticky note with his mobile number and a smiley face beside the landline, and then at eight o'clock he collects his things and heads out to the car that’s just pulled up to take him away for the week.

The drive there is bearable, mostly because it’s early, and no one is in the mood to do very much talking. Richardson and Jenkins both make a few distasteful comments here and there, but that’s par for the course, so Harry doesn’t let it get to him.

They get to the resort around lunchtime, and just like Harry predicted, they head straight to the bar. Everyone perks up a bit once they’ve got some food in their system but, unfortunately for Harry, Richardson and Jenkins only use the energy to be more and more annoying.

“We better have some good weather this week, I’m not freezing my balls off trying to golf in this shite,” Richardson moans, finishing off his second beer and waving the bartender over for another.

“Global warming my ass,” Jenkins adds. “England has never been this goddamn cold.”

“Actually,” Harry says, against his better judgement, “global warming is a misnomer. Climate change is a better term, because while the Earth is getting warmer in some place, specifically the poles, Europe is actually getting colder, because-”

“Christ,” Richardson cuts him off. “You sound like the fuckin’ lying scientists.”

Harry frowns, shaking his head. “Why on Earth would scientists lie about something like this?” he asks.

“I dunno, but they are,” Richardson says. “I believed in bullshit like that too, when I was your age, but someday you’re gonna grow up and realize that everyone is lying all the time, Styles.”

Harry manages not to roll his eyes, chugging the rest of his beer and tuning out of the conversation. He’s positive that his uncle was nothing like these men, and he has no idea how he put up with them for his entire adult life. Harry’s only twenty-four, and he already feels about ready to retire after this conversation alone.

He makes it the rest of the day without ever actually listening to anything the other men say, which means that when he climbs into his stiff hotel bed that night, he’s feeling pretty okay, and like maybe he’ll be able to survive the next four days without wanting to die too often. He thinks about calling Louis before he goes to sleep, but he doesn’t know if he’s allowed, if Louis will think it’s weird or not.

As it is, though, he can’t stop thinking about Louis. It hasn’t even been a full day, and already Harry’s counting down the hours until he can go home and laugh with Louis about something trivial while they eat their breakfast together. He wonders what Louis’s doing right now, if he’s thinking about Harry too, or if he’s just happy to have the house to himself for a few days and not have to worry about Harry sneaking up on him and asking him questions he doesn’t want to answer.

Part of him suspects sometimes that Louis only puts up with him so patiently because Harry is offering him kindness that he knows he’d be foolish to deny. He tosses and turns for hours, for the second night in a row, digging himself a deep, deep hole in his mind.

By the time the sun comes up, Harry’s just about convinced him that when he gets home, Louis will be gone. For all Harry knows, Louis could have just been waiting for him to go on this golf trip so that Louis could pack his things and slip out without having to say goodbye or tell Harry where he’s going, and when Harry gets home, Louis will already be long gone, and Harry will never see him again.

He gets up early, once he’s completely given up on sleeping, and has a long shower, trying to talk himself out of the idea that Louis’s already gone. It doesn’t work as well as he hoped, though, so as soon as he gets out of the shower he slips on his dressing gown and sits down on the edge of the bed, wet hair dripping in his face as he grabs his phone and dials his own home phone number.

Louis answers on the fourth ring, just when Harry’s stomach is starting to twist with dread. It’s early, probably much too early to be calling, but every doubt in Harry’s mind finally hushes when the line connects.

“Hello?” Louis says, his voice sleepy and soft.

“Hey,” Harry says, letting the tension release from his body. “It’s Harry.”

“Is everything alright?” Louis asks. “It’s, like, six in the morning.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Harry says, glancing at the clock on the bedside table. “Shit, I didn’t realize it was so early. Sorry, go back to sleep.”

“It’s okay,” Louis says, sounding amused. “What are you doing?”

“I just got up,” Harry says. “I’m trying to mentally prepare myself to spend the entire day with these meatheads, and then do it again for three more days,” he says.

“God, that sounds rough,” Louis says. “Maybe you can fake an illness? Back in primary school, I used to mix milk with red jello and then spit it up on the lunch table, got me sent home every time,” he says proudly.

“Jesus, Louis,” Harry laughs. “Your poor teachers must have thought you were dying.”

“They didn’t care, they probably hoped I was,” Louis says passively. “You should try it, though. Or just, like, tell them you’ve got a sore throat, or something.”

“Maybe I’ll save that for day three, or something, when I’m more desperate for a break,” Harry says. “Well, I’ll let you get back to sleep. Sorry for waking you.”

“It’s alright, I had the phone by my bed, anyway,” Louis says. “You know, just in case.”

Harry’s chest goes all warm and staticky at that, knowing that Louis was sleeping next to the phone in case Harry called. He’s so glad Louis’s not within physical reach right now, because Harry doesn’t think he’d be able to resist this overwhelming urge to hug him.

“Have fun golfing,” Louis says, after Harry hasn’t said anything for a minute. “Try not to kill yourself, yeah? Call me later,” he says, and then the line clicks dead.

It takes Harry a few seconds to pull the phone away from his ear, Louis’s voice still echoing in his head. Not only did Louis sleep beside the phone so he wouldn’t miss Harry’s call, but he wants him to call again later, which definitely means he’s not planning on running away any time soon. Harry feels completely at ease, but he’s also incredibly tired suddenly, now that the stress and tension of uncertainty isn’t keeping his mind working overtime.

He’s meant to meet his associates for breakfast at eight o’clock in the function room, so he can’t go back to sleep, but he does spend the rest of his free time lounging on the bed, smiling at the thought of Louis all cuddled up in bed, sleeping soundly, with the phone on his bedside table.

He gets up at the last minute and gets dressed, his hair still a little damp when he heads down to the function room for breakfast. He’s probably got another day of ignoring stupid comments and pretending to laugh at offensive jokes in front of him, but the thought of calling Louis later is appealing enough to get him through it all without a worry.

-

Friday can’t come soon enough. They don’t do very much golfing, like Harry predicted, but they do spend a lot of time inside the resort, in the bar, by the pool, even a rather emotionally scarring trip to the spa in which Harry had to see a lot of things he’ll never be able to unsee. By the time Friday rolls around Harry feels more like he’s been run over by a truck than been on holiday, and he’s just ready to go home.

Louis said he’d call this morning when he woke up, but it’s nearing noon by now, and Louis still hasn’t called. Harry keeps checking his phone obsessively, and it’s starting to get on everyone’s nerves, but Harry’s worried.

“Honestly, fuckin’ millenials and their phones,” Jenkins grumbles, after Harry’s checked his phone for the third time within the same minute while they’re at lunch in the hotel bar. “Can you hear me, Styles, or should I text you?”

“Sorry,” Harry says, laughing it off even though he’d like to poke Jenkins’s eyes out. “I’m waiting on a call from a friend, is all.”

“A friend, hm?” Richardson says suggestively. “A lady friend?”

“Get out while you can,” Jenkins says. “Trust me. Women are nothing but trouble. Expensive trouble.”

“Hush, lads, it’s sweet,” O’Sullivan chimes in, nudging Harry with his elbow. “The boy’s in love.”

“No, no, no, it’s nothing like that,” Harry says quickly, but he can feel himself blushing. “We’re really just friends.”

“So, who is she?” O’Sullivan asks, still nudging him. Harry wants to melt into the floor. “Where’d you meet her?”

“Uh,” Harry says, checking his phone again, willing it to ring. “It’s, uh, kinda a long story.”

“A long story,” Richardson chuckles, winking at Harry. Harry’s stomach turns. “We know what that means, don’t we lads?”

“Good on ya, Styles,” Patterson says, reaching around O’Sullivan to give him a firm pat on the shoulder.

Harry feels a bit like crying, nodding once and staring at his phone for a long minute. Miraculously, it lights up, and Harry snatches it and scrambles out of the booth before anyone can say anything.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” he mutters awkwardly, all but running from the bar and out into the lobby. “Hello?”

“Hi,” Louis says, sounding chipper. “How’s the last day of your trip going?”

“Literally the worst,” Harry says. “God, I wish you’d called five minutes earlier.”

“Sorry, I slept late. I finished the fourth Harry Potter book last night, but it took me until, like, five in the morning. Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, fine,” Harry says. He carefully doesn’t mention anything the guys said, partly because he doesn’t want to make Louis uncomfortable, but mostly because he’s already uncomfortable, himself.

“Well, I’m glad, because I’ve got some bad news for you,” Louis says. Harry’s heart falls out of his ass, but Louis doesn’t give him much time to worry. “You’re missing the fifth Harry Potter book, and I’m absolutely distraught about it.”

Harry huffs a laugh, rubbing at his face. “There’s a bookstore a couple blocks away,” he says. “Do you have any money left from what I left you? You can take a walk and pick it up.”

“Oh,” Louis says, like he wasn’t expecting that answer. “Well, I can just wait for you to get home.”

“I won’t be home until dinnertime,” Harry says. “The shop will be closed by then. How much money do you have left?”

“Uh, all of it,” Louis says, sounding a bit awkward.

“Why haven’t you spent anything?” Harry asks, alarmed. “Have you had enough food and everything?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” Louis says. “I don’t like spending your money. I’ve told you that.”

“Louis, seriously,” Harry says, “I’m asking you to spend it. Go buy the book, and something else, too. There’s a bakery down on that corner, and a coffee shop, as well. Please go treat yourself, I feel so bad for having left you there all alone, it’s the least I can do.”

“Maybe,” Louis says, and then there’s some rustling the background. Harry suspects that he’s only just getting out of bed, and the thought that the very first thing Louis did when he woke up was to call him makes his heart do a full flip. “When will you be home?”

“Hopefully around seven or eight tonight,” Harry says. “As soon as I can drag these assholes away from the bar. We’ve golfed a total of nine holes this entire week.”

“Let them be, Harry, they’re old, if they go outside their thin old blood might freeze up,” Louis jokes.

“Kinda wish it would, sometimes,” Harry mutters. “God, they’re so awful. I think I might fake my own death just to get out of the next trip.”

“Well, that would pretty effectively get you out of all the rest of them, wouldn’t it?” Louis says. “Oh, let’s stage a murder. You can be an urban legend, a young, hot, rich bachelor, murdered in cold blood, without a single clue as to who did it. We can run away to Australia, or something, live in the desert and laugh at the news as they try to solve your murder.”

“Did you just call me hot?” Harry asks, because his brain kind of short circuited after that bit and he had trouble hearing the rest of it. Louis called him hot.

“I also just laid out a very intricate plan to get you out of all your responsibilities for the rest of your life,” Louis says, unfazed. “I’m a little upset you’re not focusing on that.”

“I’m a little concerned about how excited you are to stage my murder,” Harry says, cracking a smile. “So forgive me for changing the subject.”

“I think we should go with a kidnapping,” Louis says. “That way they won’t question the lack of a body. You’ll just vanish into thin air, and the world will be left wondering what ever happened to pretty little billionaire Harry Styles.”

Harry laughs, his stomach doing a happy little flip at Louis calling him pretty. “Well, color me terrified,” he jokes. “You seem to have given this a lot of thought.”

“You can write books under a pen name, tell the world the story of what happened, but change our names so they’ll never know for sure,” Louis says. “Oh, imagine the conspiracy theories! I’ve always wanted to be on the inside of a conspiracy theory.”

It sparks an idea in Harry’s brain, an idea he can’t believe he didn’t think of sooner, and suddenly he’s itching for his notebook.

“Odd dream,” Harry says, heading for the elevator. “Listen, I’m about to get into the lift, so I might lose you. I’ll see you tonight, yeah? If there’s not takeaway waiting for me when I get there I’ll cry, consider yourself warned.”

“Alright, alright,” Louis says. “I’ll see you tonight. We’re having pizza. Bye!”

Louis hangs up before Harry can say anything else, and Harry steps into the elevator chuckling. He all but runs to his room when the left stops on his floor, grabbing his notebook and flopping down on the bed.

He’s hardly touched his notebook all week, he’s been so uninspired by the idiots he’s with, but he thinks Louis might be onto something, thinks he might have found the real inspiration for his novel, finally. He flips back through the pages and pages of notes he’s taken in the past two months, and he’s thrilled to find that he thinks he could make it all work, so long as he plays it off right.

He spends a few minutes jotting down ideas, unable to stop them coming now that they’ve started. He’s really never felt this excited about an idea in his life, and he thinks he could kiss Louis for giving it to him. In all honesty, he thinks he could kiss Louis anyway, but that’s a can of worms he still hasn’t found the time or courage to really open.

He only allows himself about ten minutes to get all of his thoughts down on paper before he has to go back to lunch, because with every second that he stays away from the bar he’s adding to the ration of shit the men are definitely going to give him the entire ride back to London. He leaves his notebook tucked into his bag when he leaves to go back downstairs, but his mind is still buzzing, and it’s thrilling.

-

Somehow, Harry manages to survive the rest of the day unscathed. By the time he’s finally dropped off at home, he’s ready to lock himself in his house for the entire weekend and speak to no one except Louis until Monday morning. He does have other friends, and he should probably call them sometime soon, but the idea immediately slips from his mind when he lets himself in the front door and immediately spots Louis on the sofa, curled up in a blanket reading with a fire crackling in the fireplace.

“Welcome home,” Louis says, twisting his head to look at Harry over his shoulder. “You survived!”

“I survived,” Harry confirms, dropping his bag by the door and shuffling over to the sofa. Louis makes room for him and Harry collapses beside him, stretching out on the chaise end of the sectional.

“There’s pizza in the kitchen,” Louis says, nudging his shoulder with one socked foot. “I bought an extra one, because I know you like to eat it cold for breakfast sometimes.”

“Thank you for supporting my gross habits,” Harry sighs happily, patting Louis’s foot before pushing himself up off the sofa and heading to the kitchen. He grabs the pizza box and brings it back to the den, settling back down beside Louis and glancing at what he’s reading.

Harry’s heart does a little flip when he realizes that Louis’s got the fifth Harry Potter book in his hands, because that means Louis actually went down to the bookstore and treated himself. Harry’s so happy he could kiss him, but then again, he’s starting to realize how many things make him want to kiss Louis recently.

They’re quiet while Harry eats, mostly because Harry’s starving and Louis’s totally immersed in his book. It’s so peaceful, so good, Harry feels like he can breathe for the first time all week.

He brings the pizza box back to the kitchen to throw it out once he’s finished, sticking the other untouched pizza in the fridge for tomorrow. There’s a pile of money on the counter when he turns around, and he checks to make sure Louis is still distracted before he picks it up to count it.

There’s only a little less than forty pounds missing, which means Louis really did only buy himself the book and the two pizzas. He’s a little bit disappointed that Louis didn’t spend any money until Harry explicitly told him to, but on the bright side, he supposes this means he can be sure that Louis really isn’t using him for his money or anything, though Harry never really had any doubts about that, anyway.

He leaves the money on the counter in hopes Louis will get the hint that Harry means for him to spend the rest of it, as well, and then heads back to the den to sit with Louis a little while longer. Louis hardly even glances at him, too caught up in the story he’s reading, but he lets Harry steal a bit of his blanket and doesn’t protest at all when Harry turns the television on, just shifting a bit so he can lean back against Harry’s side with his book tucked up in his lap.

If Harry moved his arm to drape it across Louis’s shoulders the way he so desperately wants to, this could probably be considered cuddling, and he wonders if Louis’s as painfully aware of that fact as he is. Louis keeps squirming a little every now and again, getting closer and closer to Harry each time, so Harry thinks it’s safe to assume that he’s doing it on purpose, that he wants to be held as badly as Harry wants to hold him.

Finally Harry moves his arm to the back of the sofa just so that his elbow isn’t digging into Louis’s spine, and Louis slots perfectly into his side, his back against Harry’s ribcage, head resting sideways against Harry’s shoulder. Harry lets his arm fall from the back of the sofa until it’s draped over Louis’s chest, and Louis just snuggles in a little closer and keeps reading.

They stay like that for ages, until Harry’s shoulder has gone a bit numb but he’d still rather die than move, counting Louis’s gentle breaths as they expand and deflate Louis’s chest under Harry’s fingertips. He’s not even watching what’s on the telly, much too focused on how nice it feels to be so close to Louis, until Louis’s book slips out of his grip and falls closed against his stomach.

The sound of it startles Harry, and he quickly glances down at Louis’s face, finding him fast asleep on his shoulder. Harry can’t help but grin, can’t be blamed for the long few seconds he spends just watching Louis’s eyelashes flutter in his sleep.

He reaches awkwardly for the book in Louis’s lap and picks it up carefully, folding the corner of the page Louis’s finger is stuck in and then tossing the book onto the coffee table. He shifts a little to get more comfortable, already resigned to the idea of sleeping on the sofa tonight, and rests his head against the top of Louis’s.

Louis wraps both of his arms around Harry’s arm, hugging it to his chest in his sleep. It makes Harry’s heart feel like it’s going to burst out of his chest, and even though he knows he’s going to wake up with a crick in his neck and a knot in his back, he never wants to move from this position.

He falls asleep slowly, Louis’s even breathing seeping into his subconscious and relaxing him enough to have him drifting off, face pressed into Louis’s hair. It’s the best night’s sleep he’s had in ages, probably the best he’s going to have in a while, and he thinks it has everything to do with the sweet, soft boy all tucked up and snoring under his arm.

-

The first day of December brings the first snowfall of the year, which is unarguably one of Harry’s favorite things. Louis doesn’t seem to understand just how special the first snowfall of the year is, but Harry will be damned if Louis doesn’t get excited. He makes him a tea as incentive and then drags him out to the sunroom, telling Louis to bring as many blankets and cushions as he can carry. Louis follows grudgingly, probably due in part to the fact that it’s way too early and Harry dragged him out of bed for this.

Louis claims the entire sofa in the sunroom to himself, forcing Harry to curl up in his desk chair on the other side of the room with his tea cradled between his knees. They’re quiet for a bit, just watching the snow begin to collect on the windows. There’s not a lot of it, and most of it melts as soon as it touches the ground, but it’s so peaceful to just watch it float down around them while they’re safe and warm in their little bubble.

“Is this it?” Louis asks after a while, looking unimpressed. “You dragged me out of bed for this?”

“It’s beautiful!” Harry argues, pouting. “What do you have against snow?”

“It’s cold, and it’s wet, and it’s not that pretty when you don’t have a warm place to sleep,” Louis shrugs. “You learn the dark sides of pretty much everything when you’re living on the street, and they tend to stick with you,” he says.

Harry mulls that over for a minute, taking a long sip of his tea and watching the snow that’s swirling just outside, just beyond the glass that’s keeping the cold out, and the warmth in. He’s somehow managed to learn to not be so shocked whenever Louis says things like that, but it’s still jarring, still upsetting to think about Louis out on the streets, cold and alone, shivering and sad.

He looks over to watch Louis for a few minutes, peering at him over the top of his mug. Louis doesn’t seem to notice, eyes half closed as he stares up through the glass ceiling.

Eventually Harry shifts to uncurl in his chair, placing his tea down carefully on his desk and reaching for his notebook. He keeps an eye on Louis as he scribbles away in his book, watching as Louis drifts in and out of consciousness, eyes falling closed and then snapping open over and over again. He looks so soft and sweet all cuddled up in his blanket, lengthwise on the sofa, snoozing like he hasn’t a care in the world.

Louis drifts off for good after a little while, and Harry doesn’t bother to pretend that he isn’t staring. He keeps writing, keeping a record of his stream of consciousness, but most of it is about Louis, about how things seem to have shifted in their dynamic within the last few days.

Ever since they woke up curled together on the sofa, Harry’s noticed that Louis isn’t afraid to get close to him anymore, to poke him and touch him and tease him in ways that he didn’t before. Harry’s noticed a shift inside his own head as well, though, in that he never wants to be anywhere that Louis isn’t, never wants to do anything that Louis can’t do with him, never wants to let Louis out of his sight purely because he’s afraid he’ll miss looking at him. It’s like the five days apart made them both realize something, and Harry doesn’t know exactly what is it that Louis’s realized, but Harry himself has realized that he is truly, deeply, intensely fucked.

Louis naps for about an hour, and when he finally blinks awake and rolls over on the sofa, Harry’s still writing, his leg folded up into his chest so he can rest his chin on his knee while he hunches over the notebook lying open on the desk.

“You’re gonna give yourself carpal tunnel, or something,” Louis mumbles, sounding soft and barely half awake. “You never stop writing in that bloody book.”

“Snow is inspiring to me,” Harry shrugs. It’s not a lie, he thinks snow is one of the most beautiful and enigmatic features of nature, but it’s also not the thing that has him so deep inside his own head right now.

“What are you even writing, anyway?” Louis says. He sits up a little, resting back against the armrest of the sofa, watching Harry with sleepy eyes.

Harry looks down at his notebook, reading over a few of the things he’s jotted down in the past hour. They’re all about Louis, every single one of his notes, about the way Louis looks, the way he acts, the way he makes Harry feel. “Uh,” Harry says, wondering if there will ever a come day that he lets Louis read these. “Nothing terribly substantial. Just my thoughts, mostly.”

Louis hums, curling up into the corner of the sofa and glancing out the window. The snow is hardly piling up, but there’s a bit of it collecting at the very bottom of the windows, a thin layer of it dulling the light from the glass ceiling. “Don’t you ever get tired of thinking?” Louis asks, eyes trained determinedly on the snow swirling outside.

“Sometimes,” Harry says, letting it hang in the air for a moment before he caps his pen and flips his notebook closed. “I guess I could use a break.”

Louis smiles at him and lifts up the corner of his blanket in offering, so Harry eases himself out of his desk chair and shuffles over to the sofa. The tile floor is absolutely freezing, even through Harry’s thick wool socks, and he probably should turn up the heat out here, but instead he just climbs onto the sofa beside Louis and curls up beside him, tugging the blanket over himself.

Louis pulls him a little closer and tucks the blanket around him more securely, so that Harry is snug against his side with the blanket carefully covering every inch of both of them, Louis’s arm coming to rest around Harry’s back, his hand finding a resting place on Harry’s hip.

It tickles a little, the weight of Louis’s hand on his hip, even through his jumper and undershirt. Louis’s fingers dig in a little, like he’s also painfully aware of where his hand is, but Harry gets the feeling that he likes it, isn’t afraid of liking it.

They’ve never really been this close, with the exception of when they slept on the sofa in the den the other night, but that was different. That was unconscious, not a decision they both made to be so close and spend the whole night sleeping pressed together like lovers. This, now, this is different, this is completely on purpose, this is calculated and intentional; Louis’s cold little fingers finding the one sliver of Harry’s skin that’s exposed, Harry shivering and snuggling deeper into Louis’s chest, it’s all real and it all has to mean something, and Harry’s going to cry if he doesn’t figure out what it is soon.

They stay like that for a little while, Louis warming his fingers on Harry’s hot skin, Harry’s mind racing itself even as he closes his eyes and tries to focus on the way Louis’s heart beats steady under his ear. He’s so warm, so comfortable, so absolutely out of his mind with how badly he wants to exist solely in this moment for the rest of time, that the rest of the world just seems to drift away, covered in a light dusting of powdery snow, a blank canvas for him and Louis to paint their very own world together, if they choose.

The thought has him itching for his notebook, but he knows that Louis will protest if he gets up, so instead he just turns to look up at Louis’s face, wanting to memorize the exact shade of his eyes so he can use it to fill in the bleak gray sky as soon as he gets the chance. When he looks up, he finds those beautiful eyes already trained on him, and his stomach swoops so violently he’s almost positive Louis can feel it through his skin.

Louis blinks at him like they’re living in slow motion, his eyelashes casting the briefest hint of shade over his cheeks before it’s gone again, replaced only with light, brighter than Harry’s ever seen, and he feels like a moth drawn to the flame that’s burning inside of Louis, leaning up and in without bothering to ask the rational part of his brain for permission.

Louis meets him halfway, using the arm that’s still curled around Harry’s back to pull him even closer so they’re pressed together everywhere, leaving the slightest hint of fingerprint bruises on Harry’s hipbone that he already knows he’s going to want to keep forever. Harry reaches up to get his arms around Louis however he can manage and presses even closer, unable to stand the thought of even a molecule of air between them as he kisses Louis’s lips like he’s trying to press himself inside, trying to become a part of Louis that will stay with him forever.

He tastes like tea and sleep and sunshine on the darkest day of the year, so warm and sweet Harry could swear he’s kissing the sun itself. Louis keeps pressing closer and closer, as well, holding Harry so tightly Harry thinks maybe he’s the best thing Louis has ever tasted, as well.

They make out like that for ages, but the feeling of being completely overwhelmed doesn’t go away for even a second, making Harry so dizzy and blissfully outside of his head that he can’t do anything except for what he’s doing, fingers curling into the long bits of hair at the back of Louis’s head just for something to hold onto, for something to tether him back to the earth in case he’s actually floating away like he suspects he is.

He only pulls away when the dizziness becomes more from the lack of oxygen than from the excess of sensation, keeping his eyes closed as he presses his face into Louis’s collarbone to catch his breath. Louis whines a little, barely even a sound, and tries to pull him back up, but now that Harry’s got some oxygen to his brain the reality of what they’re doing starts flooding in.

“Wait, wait, wait,” he breathes, still mostly out of breath, laying a hand over Louis’s chest and forcing Louis to meet his eyes.

“What,” Louis breathes back, eyes a little bit wild, like he’s as desperate to get his mouth back on Harry’s as Harry is desperate to let him do it.

“Why are you kissing me?” Harry asks, because if he doesn’t ask now he never will, and he needs to know the answer.

Louis frowns, shaking his head slightly in confusion. “Because I want to,” he says, trying once more to pull Harry back in. “Let me, please.”

“Wait,” Harry says, but he lets Louis get him a fraction of an inch closer anyway, because he’s having trouble resisting, as well. “It’s not because you feel like you owe me, right?”

“I do owe you,” Louis says, still frowning. “I owe you everything.”

“Woah,” Harry says, the spell effectively broken. He pulls away fully, slipping out of Louis’s grasp, sitting up on his knees with Louis still spread out and confused in front of him. “I’m not- I don’t want you to feel like that. Especially not right now. I’m not looking for you to, like, pay me, or something, with sexual favors or whatever else. I don’t want that at all. I’m kissing you because I’m genuinely, like, really into you, I think you’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen and I’ve been thinking about this for weeks, but I’m absolutely not going to do this if you’re only doing it to pay me back for something you don’t actually owe me,” he says.

“What?” Louis blinks, looking genuinely dumbfounded. “I- what?”

Harry doesn’t know what else to say, leaning back a little more on his heels and pushing his hair out of his face. “I just don’t want us to be in this for different reasons,” he says, shrugging one shoulder. “I don’t expect anything from you, and I don’t want you to feel like I should.”

“Jesus, Harry,” Louis says, sitting up and huffing a tiny laugh. “I’m not- what the fuck- I’m kissing you because you’re fucking hot, you’re like all my wildest dreams wrapped up in one fucking beautiful package and you kissed me first, and that’s way more than I ever thought I was going to get from you, it’s all I’ve ever wanted. Trust me, if I thought you expected me to pay you with sexual favors for even a minute I’d have been out of here a long time ago, but it just so happens I’m really fucking attracted to you, too,” he says, reaching out for Harry’s hips again.

“Wait, really?” Harry smiles, letting Louis pull him close again. “You’ve been attracted to me this whole time?”

“The first time you pinned me against the wall in the guest wing, if I hadn’t been so fucking terrified, I probably would’ve come in my pants,” Louis admits. “I feel like I’ve been dreaming for the past two months. I’ve been so terrified of messing it all up.”

“God, here I was thinking I was a pervert for wanting you so badly,” Harry laughs, leaning in to nip at Louis’s lips a little bit. “Thought it would be taking advantage of you to act on it, and come to find out you were into it the whole time,” he says, cupping Louis’s cheeks and kissing him again.

Louis tugs him down until Harry’s fully lying on top of him, Louis’s hands resting spread on Harry’s lower back. Harry doesn’t know how much he’s allowed to ask for, how much he’s allowed to take, so he settles for just enjoying what he’s being given, licking all the taste of tea out of Louis’s mouth so he can find out what Louis tastes like on his own, and it’s quickly becoming one of Harry’s favorite flavours.

“Can we- god, can’t believe I’m about to ask for this,” Louis pants, breaking away from Harry’s mouth to speak. “Can we go up to your bedroom?”

Harry pulls back, looking down at Louis’s face for a long few seconds. “You really wanna?” he asks, trying not to look too hopeful.

“God, yes, I’ve fantasized about asking you that question for weeks,” Louis says. “Thought about being in that big bed with you every night for, hell, I don’t even know how long.”

“Fuck,” Harry says, shoving the blanket off of himself and stumbling off the sofa. Louis follows him immediately, grabbing Harry’s hand and dragging him out of the sunroom and through the house, up the stairs, and then collapses on Harry’s bed.

Harry doesn’t bother closing the door, crawling up on top of Louis and carrying on kissing him like they never stopped, until Louis’s wrapped his entire body around Harry’s and he’s starting to get huffy, pulling at Harry’s jumper.

Harry chuckles and pulls back, tugging his jumper and undershirt off over his head in one movement. Louis makes a tiny, strangled noise, clenching his hands together above his head.

“Oh my god,” he breathes, eyes sweeping over Harry’s chest. “Oh my god, this is my literal dream come true.”

Harry barks a laugh, blushing as he leans back in to hover over Louis’s face again. “You’re inflating my ego quite a bit here, love,” he hums, reaching down to slip a hand up under Louis’s jumper. “Tread carefully, else I won’t be able to fit my head through the door.”

“That’s okay,” Louis says, reaching up to get his hands on Harry’s shoulders. His fingers are still cold, but Harry thinks that might just be a constant thing for Louis, and he kinda likes the way it sends goosebumps exploding all over his skin. “We can just stay here forever.”

Harry laughs again, leaning in to nose at Louis’s cheek before he kisses him again. “I’m alright with that,” he says, kissing down Louis’s jaw to his neck. “I want to give you everything you’ve ever dreamt of,” he says, right into Louis’s ear, grinning at the way Louis shivers beneath him.

Louis manages to squirm out of all of his clothes without getting out from under Harry, and Harry loses his trousers in the shuffle, and then they’re both down to just their pants, and Harry takes a moment to admire Louis in this state, this form he never thought he’d get him in.

He remembers how skinny Louis was when they first met, when he was living off of stolen food and one shower a week. He’s still skinny, but he doesn’t look quite so sick anymore, his skin soft and firm when Harry runs his hand across Louis’s stomach, making all of his muscles jump. Harry’s never seen Louis without his shirt on, but he remembers being able to see Louis’s bones even through his t-shirt, and now he’s got some more meat on him, his body curvy and lean and healthy. Harry wants to kiss every bit of him.

They spend the rest of the day like that, wrapped up in each other and the bed sheets with the snow still falling lazily outside, building up to hardly an inch over the course of the entire day. Harry forgets about all of it, can’t think of anything except Louis, the way he feels, the way he sounds, the way he reacts when Harry finds all the parts of him that feel good when Harry touches them, all of it clouding up his mind the same way the world is just a hazy white when he happens to glance out the window.

Hours later, when he’s stretched out on the bed tired and sweaty and panting, his body pleasantly sore and glowing, he takes a minute to just gaze out the window and wonder for a little while. Louis curls up on his chest, equally tired and sweaty and panting against Harry skin, and Harry combs his fingers through Louis’s hair and down his spine and smiles at the way Louis shivers and mouths against his chest like he can’t help himself, all worn out but still unable to get enough.

He doesn’t know what this means for them, for the way they live, the way they treat each other. He doesn’t know if this is ever going to happen again, but he wants it to, more than he wants to keep breathing in and out, more than he’s ever wanted anything. He wonders if they’re going to talk about this, if they’re going to discuss what it means, or what it doesn’t mean, or whatever. He wants it to mean everything, wants it to mean that he gets to keep Louis forever, that Louis wants to keep him, too, but he doesn’t really know how to ask.

They fall asleep on top of each other, still naked and tangled up in Harry’s bed sheets, and they sleep straight through until dinnertime. They don’t talk about it when they wake up, or while they’re eating, or when they’re snuggled up together on the sofa in the den watching a film after dinner. Louis has a shower and Harry spends a while writing in his notebook and when they go to bed that night, they go wordlessly to their own rooms, but it doesn’t feel awkward, doesn’t even feel wrong, it just feels natural.

Louis smiles at him from the doorway to his bedroom, looking soft and clean and cozy, and Harry wants to kiss him goodnight, but Louis closes the door before he gets the chance. Despite the fact that Louis is across the hall sleeping in his own bed instead of tucked up in Harry’s arms where Harry’s beginning to suspect he actually belongs, Harry sleeps like the dead, dreaming of Louis with the comfort of knowing that Louis is probably dreaming of him, too.

-

It snows a few more times over the next couple of days, building up to a couple of inches on the ground and effectively shutting down the city. If there’s one thing London is never equipped to deal with, it’s snow, so Harry decides to use it as an excuse to take a few days off of work to stay home with Louis and enjoy the miserable weather.

Louis’s been rather grumpy with all the snow, but Harry’s quite enjoying it, because Louis has been extra cuddly and soft and he keeps stealing all of Harry’s warm clothes, layering up his jumpers and shuffling around the house in Harry’s big fluffy socks. Harry can’t tell if it’s the weather or if it’s because they’ve finally stopped tiptoeing around the fact that they’re attracted to each other, but Louis has hardly left his side in days, and Harry’s loving it.

They haven’t slept together again since the first time, but it’s not because either of them doesn’t want to. Harry’s been incredibly inspired lately, spending all of his time out in the sunroom or in his bedroom writing in his notebook, and though Louis tries valiantly to drag him away from it, Harry’s too caught up in his thoughts to stop. His writings have hardly turned themselves into a novel yet, but he thinks that with a little rearranging and rewriting, he might have a bestseller on his hands. If only he could figure out where the story will end.

The late morning sun is bright, shining in through the glass ceiling of the sunroom and making the pages of Harry’s notebook glow. He’s clicking his pen incessantly with his thumb, reading and rereading the last few sentences he’s written and trying to figure out how to go on. He thinks he might need some Louis time to refresh his inspiration pool, but before he can make the conscious decision to go find Louis, the man himself comes bouncing into the sunroom to snatch the pen out of his hand.

“I can fucking hear that clicking from all the way across the house!” Louis says, faux cheerfully, waving the pen in Harry’s face. “Oh my god, Harry, I’m going to lose my mind!” he says in his sarcastically sweet voice, grinning maniacally as he drops the pen on the desk.

“Sorry,” Harry laughs, leaning back in his chair and rubbing at his face. “I’m a bit stuck.”

“Can I help?” Louis asks, sitting up on the edge of Harry’s desk. “What are you writing about, anyway? You never let me read anything.”

“It’s nothing good, not yet,” Harry says, reaching out to flick his notebook closed. “I’ll let you read it the second I write something worth reading.”

“I’m sure it’s all worth reading,” Louis says, eyeing the book but leaving it where it is. “But I’ll be ready and waiting when you decide you want to show me.”

Harry grins, letting his hand settle on Louis’s knee. “Could use a break, I think,” he says, drumming his fingers on Louis’s knee, fingers pressing into his soft joggers. “Let’s go make a snowman.”

“No,” Louis says immediately, narrowing his eyes at Harry. “Absolutely not.”

“Why not?” Harry whines, leaning forward to rest his chin on Louis’s knee instead, gazing up at him.

“It’s cold out,” Louis says, rolling his eyes. “You’ll drag me outside and I’ll get cold and then I’ll get cranky and you’ll have to spend the rest of the day dealing with a cold and cranky Louis,” he says matter of factly.

Harry pouts, standing up and moving his body between Louis’s legs, wrapping his arms around him and getting right up into Louis’s personal space. “What if I promise to warm you right up the second we come inside?” he says suggestively, sliding his hands down Louis’s back to his waist.

Louis shivers, leaning into Harry’s touch instinctively. “Ugh, fine,” he says, but he makes no move to get up, just puts his hands on Harry’s hips and tries to pull him closer.

“Yay!” Harry cheers, pulling away before Louis can do anything else. “You can borrow my old ski pants and jacket, they’re a bit small on me, so they’ll probably fit you perfectly. C’mon!”

He drags Louis upstairs to dig through his closet, handing him his old set of ski clothes and ushering him out into the bedroom to change. Harry pulls on his ski pants and a thick jumper, because he wants to be able to move freely and it’s not cold enough to warrant such a big coat, anyway. Louis goes all out, though, pulling on the ski pants, coat, and nicking a hat, scarf and a pair of gloves from the downstairs closet on their way back down.

They go out through the big folding glass doors in the sunroom, down the few steps and onto the patio, which is covered in snow. The patio is level, about a foot lower than the house, but the rest of the back garden slopes down away from the house, a gradual decline to the treeline.

“I don’t think I’ve ever really made a proper snowman,” Louis says, voice muffled by the scarf he has pulled up over his mouth. “I always made little ones in the garden with my sisters, but we never made a proper big one.”

“That’s tragic,” Harry says, trudging through the snow to the side of the yard, where the ground is the most even. “We must remedy that immediately.”

Louis rolls his eyes but follows, watching as Harry drops to his knees in the snow and starts packing it together to form a ball. “What do I do?”

“Get some snow and make a ball for the torso,” Harry says. “I’m doing the bottom, so yours should be a bit smaller than mine.”

Louis sets off to do as he’s told, gathering some snow a few feet away. Harry focuses on making the sturdiest bottom he can manage, but the snow is pretty powdery, doesn’t really want to stick together.

Louis rolls his ball over after a bit, but the second they try to pick it up, it crumbles through their fingers. Harry huffs in frustration, but Louis just giggles, getting down on his knees to try and pack the snow together again, more tightly this time.

They keep at it for about half an hour, until they’re both panting a little bit and the snowman just won’t hold. Louis’s laughing, and the sound of it is keeping Harry sane, but all he wants is to help Louis build the best snowman he’s ever seen.

It’s easier said than done, he’s realizing, because they either can’t get the balls to stay packed together, or they roll away down the hill the second they’re done and end up dissolving at the bottom of the garden. Finally Harry plants himself on the ground, building up a big ball of snow for the base of the snowman and holding it in place.

“Right,” he calls to Louis, gaining his attention from where Louis is still giggling at nothing, kicking around in the snow. “I’m going to hold this in place. You make a ball for the middle and very carefully put it up on top,” he says.

Louis salutes him and begins rolling another ball, being very careful to make sure it all stays together. He picks it up in a bear hug once he’s done and trudges over to where Harry’s sitting hugging his own ball, but he sets it down with just a bit too much force, and the whole thing just explodes in Harry’s lap.

Harry shrieks, looking down at the pile of snow in front of him and all over his jumper and ski pants. He’s so startled he tips backwards a little, quickly losing his balance, and he ends up rolling backwards down the hill until he tumbles to a stop about halfway down.

He looks up to find Louis laughing so hard he’s doubled over, holding his stomach as he gasps for breath. Harry just pouts at him, sprawled out on his back in the snow, the cold wetness seeping into his jumper and dripping down the back of his neck.

“I swear I didn’t mean for that to happen,” Louis giggles, shuffling down the hill once he’s gotten a hold of himself. He reaches out to help Harry up, but Harry’s already missing the sound of his laughter, so instead of accepting his help he just reaches up and pulls Louis down with him, sending them both rolling a few feet more down the hill.

Louis screams, but he’s laughing again, shrieking and gasping and laughing so hard it’s infectious, Harry finds himself giggling along too. Harry ends up on top of Louis in the snow, their legs slotted together and Louis’s arms splayed out by his sides, his head tipped back as he keeps laughing up at the sky.

Harry wants to swallow him whole, wants to wrap him up in his arms and keep him forever, spend the rest of his life listening to Louis’s laughter, the happiest sound Harry’s ever heard. Instead, he just leans in to kiss him, swallowing the sweet sounds still spilling from Louis’s mouth.

Louis keeps giggling against Harry’s lips for a while even as he kisses back, getting his arms around Harry and holding him tight. Harry cups Louis’s cheeks and smiles into his mouth, kissing him until Louis turns his face away, teeth chattering.

“I’m fucking freezing,” Louis says, his entire body trembling under Harry’s. “And soaked. So much snow went down my trousers when we started rolling down the hill.”

“Let’s head inside,” Harry says, but he’s still kissing at Louis’s jaw, his skin icy. “I’ll make some hot chocolate.”

He climbs off of Louis after another moment and then reaches down to pick Louis up out of the snow, smiling at the imprint their bodies left on the ground. Louis immediately burrows into Harry’s chest so Harry holds him close, shifting him to the side so they can walk back up to the house.

Louis strips out of his ski clothes immediately inside the sunroom, shivering violently as he takes off his wet socks and drops them into the pile. His clothes are soaked even though he was covered from head to toe, and Harry frowns as he watches him dripping on the floor.

“Why don’t you go have a shower to warm up?” Harry says, stripping out of his own wet snow clothes. “I’ll have some hot chocolate waiting for you.”

Louis nods, scurrying quickly from the sunroom and up the stairs. Harry goes to light a fire in the den and then hangs up all of their wet snow gear in front of it, and then he heads up to his bedroom to change into some dry clothes since his jumper is still damp and cold.

Once he’s warm and dry he heads back to the kitchen to make some lunch, popping two mugs of hot chocolate into the microwave as soon as he hears the shower shut off. Louis comes back down the stairs a few moments later, just as Harry’s plating two cheese toasties and pulling the hot chocolate out of the microwave.

They eat quietly at the kitchen table, Louis staring into space and Harry staring at Louis. When they’re finished they move into the den with their hot chocolate, curling up on opposite sides of the sofa. Harry rests his head back against the cushion and stares out the window for a bit, watching the snow in the trees sparkle as the wind blows, until finally Louis moves to put his empty mug down on the coffee table.

“I guess snow isn’t so bad,” Louis says quietly, settling back into the sofa cushions. When Harry looks over, Louis’s already looking at him, a shy smile on his face.

Harry grins so hard his cheeks hurt, and he moves immediately to put his half empty mug down on the coffee table so he can crawl over to Louis. Louis uncurls so that Harry can settle down on top of him, both of them stretching out lengthwise on the sofa.

“I knew I could get you to like it,” Harry hums, leaning in to kiss Louis softly. Louis chuckles against his lips, slipping his hands up the back of Harry’s crew neck and spreading his fingers over Harry’s skin.

“I think I could grow to like anything so long as you’re the one with me,” Louis says, pulling back and tipping his head back so Harry will kiss at his neck.

Harry just hums again, kissing slowly down the column of Louis’s throat. Louis makes all these delicious little noises and Harry can’t be blamed for the way he’s gagging for it, testing out every inch of Louis’s skin to find the sweet spots that make him particularly noisy.

Eventually Harry makes his way behind Louis’s ear and bites down, reveling in the gasp he draws out of Louis. “Harry,” Louis whines, scratching at Harry’s back a little.

Harry grins into Louis’s skin and lifts his hips a little so he can get a hand down between them, pulling at the waistband of Louis’s trackies and glancing up at Louis’s eyes.

“Yeah, yeah,” Louis says quickly, pushing his hips up into Harry’s hand. “Yeah, please.”

Harry goes back to sucking at Louis’s neck and sticks his hand right down Louis’s pants, finding Louis already hard as he gets his hand around him.

He takes his time, makes it last, waits until he has Louis shaking and whimpering before he finally gives Louis’s neck a break, still admiring all the marks littered over Louis’s skin as he moves down his body to pull his pants down just enough to get his mouth on him.

Louis only lasts a couple of seconds before he comes in Harry’s mouth, throwing his arm over his face and trembling through it. He hardly makes any noise, but Harry’s noticed that he never does, and he thinks that one of these days, next time he gets a chance, he wants to see just how loud Louis can be. He gets the feeling that Louis is holding back, even still, and he hates it, wants all of Louis open and bare and all for him, but he supposes he hasn’t earned that yet.

Once Louis comes to his senses a little bit, he drags Harry back up to his mouth to kiss him hard, shoving his hand down his pants and making quick work of him.

Louis is sloppy and fast and doesn’t have very much technique, but Harry is desperately into it, burying his face in Louis’s shoulder and whining into his skin. Louis runs his free hand through Harry’s hair, tugging gently without even meaning to, and Harry comes in his hand, moaning deep and low as his brain whites out for a second.

They spend the rest of the day on the sofa, hardly moving except to keep kissing and touching each other softly, both of them warm and happy and at peace. They watch a couple films without really paying attention and giggle endlessly into each other’s skin at nothing, and by the time the sun goes down, it feels like no time has passed at all.

After they’ve had dinner and gotten ready for bed, Harry’s just about to climb under his sheets and pass out, but there’s a quiet knock on his door just as he’s pulling the covers back. He opens the door to find Louis standing sheepishly in the hallway, his smile half awkward, half soft.

“Alright?” Harry asks, voice low even though there’s no one else in the house.

“Yeah,” Louis says, eyes dropping to Harry’s chest and then over his shoulder. “Um, I was- can I, like, sleep with you tonight? My room is really cold,” he says.

Harry frowns, waiting for Louis to meet his eyes again, but he doesn’t. “You can turn up the heat,” he says, confused. “Or, like, there’s extra blankets in the closet.”

“Oh,” Louis says, blushing. “Um, okay-”

“Or,” Harry cuts him off quickly, his brain finally catching up to what Louis really wants. “You can sleep in my bed. With me. That would be cool,” he stutters awkwardly.

Louis smiles, finally meeting his eyes again. “Yeah,” he says, hardly a breath. “Cool.”

Harry steps back to allow Louis into the room, closing the door after him and then hesitating. Louis goes straight for Harry’s bed, climbing in and under the covers, watching as Harry’s heavy legs finally move to drag the rest of his stupid body over to the bed.

He climbs under the covers too, shifting until his head is resting on his pillow, lying on his side to face Louis. Louis lies down opposite him, their faces inches apart, and they both spend a few seconds just watching each other.

Finally Louis moves forward, draping one arm over Harry’s hip and tucking his head under Harry’s chin. Harry holds him instinctively, slotting their legs together like second nature, like they belong like this, like they were created to fit together so perfectly.

It doesn’t take long to drift off to sleep with Louis pressed against his chest like this, the scent of his hair damn near intoxicating where Harry’s got his nose pressed to the top of Louis’s head. It very well might be the best night’s sleep of his entire life, the warm body in his arms keeping him comfortable and at ease the entire night through.

-

It’s been a month since Harry left Louis all alone in the house for a week, and he’s about to do it again. He feels terrible, but there’s no way he can bring Louis home for Christmas without raising a few eyebrows, and Louis keeps saying he understands, but Harry feels horrible regardless. He doesn’t know how he’s meant to just leave Louis here by himself during the happiest time of the year, but he doesn’t really have an option other than not seeing his family at all, and he isn’t sure which is worse.

“I will be absolutely fine,” Louis assures him yet again, digging Harry’s duffel bag out of the closet and dropping it on the bed where Harry’s curled up, moping. “I’ve spent every Christmas alone since I was about seventeen, it doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. Not that it meant much to begin with.”

“That’s all the more reason why this Christmas should be special,” Harry argues, but he doesn’t protest when Louis starts collecting some socks to stuff into the duffel. “I just feel awful.”

“Why?” Louis asks, like he genuinely can’t understand. “I’ll be here, in this big, beautiful house, warm and safe and dry with a comfy bed and all the free food I could need,” he says. “I don’t know why you think that’s anything less than perfect.”

“Your standards are way too low,” Harry says. “Let’s at least put up a Christmas tree before I leave, please?”

“How do you know I even celebrate Christmas?” Louis says, giving Harry a look over his shoulder as he starts rummaging through Harry’s closet.

Harry frowns, realizing suddenly that he doesn’t actually know that Louis celebrates Christmas. He also realizes then, for the first time, that he doesn’t even know Louis’s last name, let alone what religion he practices. “Oh, are you Jewish?” he asks dumbly, feeling like an idiot.

“No,” Louis says pointedly, rolling his eyes. “But, you know, I could be. You can’t just go around assuming things about people, Harry.”

Harry nods, hanging his head for a moment, before he frowns and looks up at Louis again. “Wait, that’s not what we were arguing about,” he says, earning himself a frustrated huff from Louis.

“You’re learning all my tricks,” Louis says, throwing a jumper at Harry’s head so it covers his face until Harry grabs it and sits up to fold it neatly. “Too smart for me.”

“Stop,” Harry says, catching Louis’s wrist when he comes over to toss something else into Harry’s bag. “Can we have one serious conversation, please?”

“I hate serious conversations,” Louis mutters, but he flops down on the bed anyway, turned mostly away from Harry.

“Will you really be okay alone during Christmas?” Harry asks, not bothering to try and make Louis look at him. He supposes that if he’s going to make Louis have a serious conversation, he’s going to have to do it on Louis’s terms, or else he’s never going to get a straight answer.

“I will be fine,” Louis says, but his voice is quiet, and he’s still not looking at Harry. “You could lock me in the bathroom like a pet cat on your way out the door and it’d still probably be the best Christmas I’ve had in ages.”

Harry wants to cry, wants to reach out and tug Louis into his arms and tell him nevermind, that he’ll stay, that he’ll make this the Christmas of his dreams, but instead he just sighs very slowly and gets up to finish packing his bag.

Louis hangs out on the bed until Harry’s finished packing, but neither of them say much. Harry’s got a lump in his throat the size of a football and he’s afraid he’ll just start crying if he opens his mouth, and Louis’s too busy playing with a loose string on the hem of his sock to do anything else, anyway.

Eventually Harry zips up his bag and drops it on the floor by the door, rubbing at his eyes and glancing over at the digital clock on his bedside table to see if it’s a reasonable hour to go to sleep yet. He’ll leave for his family house in the morning, and he doesn’t have to be up too early, but he thinks every moment of sleep he can get will be helpful in his goal to not cry when he says goodbye to Louis.

“Can I sleep in here tonight?” Louis asks, like he’s reading Harry’s thoughts. “As I might miss you?”

They’ve been sleeping together more and more in the past few weeks, even when they haven’t had sex beforehand; Harry just happens to love falling asleep with Louis pressed up against him as close as he can get, and Louis seems to enjoy it a good deal, as well.

“Yeah,” Harry says, stripping off his jumper and jeans and pulling on a soft long sleeve t-shirt and a pair of old, worn flannel pants.

Louis’s already in his pajamas, since pretty much everything he wears could double as sleep clothes, anyway. He has such an affinity for soft things, comfy materials and loose clothing. Harry has a feeling Louis just likes feeling small, likes to be swallowed up and swimming in whatever he’s wearing. It’s such an adorable thought it makes his heart hurt.

He climbs under the covers on his side of the bed and Louis crawls up right beside him, pulling the sheets up and over himself so gently he almost doesn’t make a sound. Harry extends an arm for him and Louis curls right into his chest, draping one arm over his hip and fisting his hand in the back of Harry’s shirt.

Harry never feels safer, warmer, and more at peace than when Louis’s holding him like this. Sometimes they fall asleep spooning, Harry’s back to Louis’s chest with Louis’s arms all wrapped around Harry and caging him in, and sometimes they fall asleep with Louis curled up like a kitten on Harry’s chest, Harry’s legs spread wide and his arms draped heavily over Louis’s lower back. Harry’s never had a bad night’s sleep with Louis in his bed, like Louis is the best sleep medication Harry’s ever taken, like Louis can just take all his worries and discomforts and banish them outside the bedroom door for the night, and Harry thinks maybe he does that for Louis, as well.

In the morning, Harry’s going to drive up to Holmes Chapel and stay there for a week, and he’s going to have to fall asleep every night in his childhood bed while Louis sleeps here, alone and cold with no one to slip their warm hand up the back of his shirt and stroke gently over his spine until he’s snoring quietly into his pillow. That’s the thing that makes Harry want to stay more than anything, but he also knows that he doesn’t have a choice, and that’s the worst part of it all.

Someday, when they figure all of this out, Harry’s going to give Louis the best Christmas he ever could’ve hoped for, with all the presents and food and family he’s never gotten. He’s going to spoil Louis rotten the second he figures out how exactly they’re supposed to fit into each other’s lives, and Louis will never spend another holiday alone and clinging to the comfort of the fact that it could be worse, that it has been worse.

For now, though, Harry can only just keep rubbing Louis’s back, drifting off to sleep to the rhythmic sounds of Louis’s gentle breathing.

-

Harry wakes up early the next morning to make a big breakfast before he leaves, tucking Louis carefully in the covers before he heads downstairs. He brings his bag so he won’t have to go back upstairs when he heads out, and then goes to the kitchen to get started on a full English.

About fifteen minutes later, when Harry’s got everything cooking, he hears Louis’s quiet footsteps shuffling around upstairs. He smiles to himself, tracking Louis as he comes out of the bedroom, but then Louis starts running, his footsteps thumping quickly down the stairs.

“Harry?” Louis calls out, sounding nervous, but he freezes in his tracks once he gets to the kitchen and finds Harry stooped over the stove. “Oh.”

“Alright?” Harry frowns, glancing over his shoulder.

“I was worried you’d already left,” Louis says, scratching at the back of neck awkwardly. “Thought I’d missed my chance to say goodbye.”

“I’m not leaving for another few hours,” Harry says, giving Louis a soft smile. “Hungry?”

“Yeah,” Louis says, walking over to stand too close to Harry’s side. Harry elbows him a little when he goes to turn the sausages over, but Louis just sways with the movement, doesn’t back away an inch.

“Are you okay?” Harry asks again, trying to meet Louis’s eyes. “You seem off.”

“Fine, I’m fine,” Louis says, giving him a toothy grin as if to prove it. The dullness in Louis’s eyes leaves Harry unconvinced, though.

Harry just hums noncommittally, because if Louis doesn’t want to get into it, Harry’s not going to make him. They stand in silence for a few more minutes, until finally Louis nudges himself into Harry’s side and demands a hug.

“Is it silly that I’m really going to miss you?” Louis asks, speaking directly into Harry’s shoulder.

“No sillier than me already missing you,” Harry says, wrapping his arms around Louis and holding him for as long as Louis lets him. “I told you I’d stay here with you.”

“I don’t want you to, though,” Louis says. “You’ll miss your family, and I’ll feel bad. You’ll be back soon enough, anyway,” he shrugs.

Harry nods, resting his chin on the top of Louis’s head until Louis finally pulls away and goes to sit at the table. Harry spends another couple minutes finishing up breakfast and then brings it all to the table, sitting down across from Louis and making a plate for each of them.

“Did you have holiday traditions with your family growing up?” Harry asks, pushing a plate across the table to Louis.

“Mum used to buy us each a Christmas cracker and a scratch card,” Louis says, his expression mostly blank as he pushes his food around his plate. “She always said that whoever won the jackpot first could pick out the dream house we’d move into. None of us ever won, needless to say.”

Harry blinks, taking a bite of his food so he doesn’t have to say anything in response. It makes him want to cry, inexplicably, the thought of a young Louis and all of his siblings hoping year after year to win anything, to make a better life for their family. Harry wants to go back in time and give them all the winning tickets, give them the life they deserve.

“What about you?” Louis asks, after an uncomfortable amount of time has passed. “What were your traditions?”

“We always buy our tree on Christmas Eve, spend the whole day decorating it and baking cookies, and then go to bed way too late. Growing up, I was always the first one out of bed in the morning, and I’d drag my sister and my parents downstairs to open presents before anyone was fully awake, and we’d spend the day in our pajamas watching films and playing with our new toys,” he says. “Now we usually spend Christmas day watching old home movies and catching up with each other. Still just as lovely, but in different ways.”

“That sounds so nice,” Louis says, smiling down at his food. “God, I’d have given anything for a functional family growing up.”

Harry doesn’t know what to say, so he stays quiet, keeping his eyes downcast as he finishes his breakfast. Louis doesn’t say much else, either, and they eat in silence for a bit, until Harry’s phone ringing from the worktop startles the both of them nearly out of their skin.

Harry jumps up to go answer it, leaning back against the cupboards and watching Louis collect their empty plates. “Hello?”

“Harry!” Harry’s mum says, sounding cheery and bright, perfectly Christmassy. “You haven’t left yet, have you?”

“No, wasn’t planning to leave for another hour, or so,” he says. Louis checks the time on the clock on the stove, swallowing hard. Harry has to look away lest he cry. “Why?”

“I wanted to remind you to bring my cardigan that I left there last time we visited. You still have it, right?”

“Yeah, I have it,” Harry says. Louis leaves the dirty dishes in the sink and then sneaks silently out to the sunroom, closing the door behind himself. “I’ll bring it.”

“Thank you, Harry,” his mum says, but Harry’s already stopped listening, already desperate to go after Louis and make sure that he’s really going to be alright. “Can you also-”

“Yeah, I have to go,” Harry says, before his mother can even finish her thought. “I’ll call you when I get on the road.”

He hangs up without another word, dropping the phone onto the counter and rushing out to the sunroom. He expects to find Louis in some state of distress, crying or something, or maybe just hiding, waiting for Harry to just go, but instead he finds him curled up on the sofa with a book, reading like he hasn’t a care in the world.

Harry has no idea why, but he’s almost disappointed to see Louis looking unaffected, even though he knows Louis is sad too. Maybe he’s just looking for one more reaction, one more gentle hint that Louis doesn’t want him to leave so that Harry can call his mum back and tell her there’s an emergency at work, he can’t possibly make it up for Christmas, but he’ll call on Christmas morning and he’ll see her sometime soon. Louis looks fine, though, like he’s completely pulled himself together, and Harry feels silly for being so worried about it.

Louis looks up at him over the top of his book, raising his eyebrows expectantly. He’s on the seventh Harry Potter book now, Harry’s so proud of him, he’s going to buy all the films on DVD on his way home from his mum’s so they can have a movie marathon after the holidays.

“I’m gonna go have a shower before I leave,” he says, just to at least make it seem like he had a reason for bursting out into the sunroom like this. “Do you need anything?”

“Think I’m good,” Louis says, smiling politely. Harry hates how distant he seems suddenly, but he’s used to it, recognizes it as Louis’s favorite defense mechanism for protecting his feelings.

He turns on his heel and marches back into the house, heading straight up the stairs to have a shower and hopefully clear his head a little. He thinks he’ll leave as soon as he’s finished, because the sooner he leaves, the sooner he can come back and have this all over with; he just needs to rip the bandaid off.

Once he’s dressed and ready to go nearly an hour later, he heads back downstairs and out to the sunroom, finding Louis in pretty much the same position, reading on the sofa with the snow sparkling through the windows behind him. He looks so soft, so pretty, Harry wants to curl up with him and forget about Christmas entirely, but he’s already steeled himself in preparation to say goodbye, and he’s not wasting that emotional energy.

“I’m heading out now,” he says, gaining Louis’s attention from the doorway to the sunroom. “I’ll call you tonight, yeah?”

“Yeah, alright,” Louis says, looking back down at his book like the conversation is over, and Harry doesn’t get a hug or anything.

“Right,” Harry says, turning away before he dissolves into a puddle on the floor and begs for Louis’s attention for just another moment. He makes it almost all the way to the front door before Louis comes darting after him, catching him in a bear hug from behind and just about squeezing the life out of him.

“Have fun,” Louis says, voice vibrating against Harry’s spine. “Merry Christmas, and all that.”

Harry turns around in Louis’s arms and hugs him back just as tight, burying his face in Louis’s neck and holding his breath so Louis won’t realize how shaky it is. “Merry Christmas, Lou,” he says, holding on for much too long before he finally pulls away.

Louis gets the door for him on Harry’s way out, and Harry manages to keep himself together until he’s all the way down the walkway and safely in his car. Louis closes the door slowly and Harry turns the car on, letting only a few tears fall between his driveway and the highway.

-

Harry spends his entire first day at home thinking about Louis, wondering if he should just bite the bullet and tell his family about him. He thinks Gemma would understand, at the very least, and his parents are always supportive, he’s sure they would be supportive now, too. The thing is, though, Harry doesn’t even know how to bring up the subject, doesn’t even know what exactly the subject is. He has no idea what label he can put on the role Louis plays in his plays in his life, or how to name the feelings he has for him. He still isn’t even entirely sure inside his own head whether or not his feelings are actually romantic or not, or what to make of the sex, but he eventually decides that he should keep it to himself until he figures it all out.

It’s the day before Christmas Eve, and there’s a Christmas market in the village center, so he and Gemma spend a few hours meandering around, supporting local business, and all that. It’s so nice to be away from the hustle and bustle of London for a bit, to be out in the fresh air with his sister, to have nothing to worry about for a little while. He doesn’t regret much about his life, doesn’t resent his uncle or the company for a second for the success it’s brought to him and his family, but being a public figure does start to get on his nerves sometimes. Being the head of one of the UK’s biggest companies gives him a lot of attention from the media, and while he usually doesn’t pay any attention to it, sometimes the bad press days creep in and it can be more than a little discouraging.

It’s days like those that make him cherish days like this, where he can escape all of it and not think for a little while. He loves this time of year so dearly, even when Gemma scoops up a handful of snow and puts it down his back for absolutely no reason.

“Gemma!” he shrieks, jumping around to get the snow to fall out the bottom of his coat. “Why!”

“You seemed distracted,” Gemma shrugs, like the two of them haven’t gained the attention of everyone in the vicinity.

“So tap my shoulder!” Harry growls, shivering and glaring at her. “God, you’re the worst.”

“Love you too, bro,” Gemma says, grinning as she slings an arm over his shoulder. “What are you thinking about in that giant head of yours?” she says. “You’ve been on another planet all day.”

“Just a lot going on,” Harry says, probably too quickly. “Lots of, like, stuff to do when I get back.”

“Mm, stuff,” Gemma says, rolling her eyes. “Sometimes I swear you’re just a badly programmed robot.”

“You’re mean,” Harry laughs, shoving her away a bit. “What’s up with you, though? Anything new?”

“Nope,” Gemma says. “Same job, no boyfriend. So, same as you, I reckon,” she teases.

“Yeah,” Harry agrees, his mind going straight to Louis. He thinks he plays it off well, thinks he manages to not let Gemma notice the way he’s suddenly itching for his phone, desperate to call and check in with Louis just to have a chat.

“We should head home soon, probably,” Gemma says, pulling out her mobile to check the time. “Mum will have dinner waiting.”

Harry keeps his cool all the way home, consciously making an effort to not mention Louis, even though everything reminds him of him. Harry loves Christmas, but he can’t bloody wait for it to be over, to get back to Louis and finally figure this all out.

-

Christmas morning is as lovely as it always is, and Harry allows himself until noon to just be with his family, enjoying the time he gets to spend with them. He sneaks out to the back garden before lunch, though, huddled up in his coat with his mobile in his pocket. He makes sure no one is going to follow him and then dials his own home phone number, bouncing on the balls of his feet while he waits for Louis to answer.

“Hi,” Louis says after a moment, sounding sleepy. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas!” Harry says. It’s freezing outside, but the sound of Louis’s voice instantly fills him with warmth. “What are you up to?”

“Nothing,” Louis says. “Just woke up a little while ago.”

“What did you do last night?” Harry asks. “Anything special?”

“Uh,” Louis says, hesitant. “No, nothing.”

“Why did that sound so suspicious?” Harry asks, frowning.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Louis says. He sounds so nonchalant Harry’s almost convinced he imagined the weird note in his voice, so he decides not to question it further. “What are you going to do with your family today?” Louis asks.

“Probably just watch films and eat a lot,” Harry shrugs. “That’s kind of what we do every Christmas.”

“Sounds fun,” Louis says distantly. “Well, I’ll let you get back to it.”

“Wait, we’ve only been talking for a minute,” Harry says. “I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to call yesterday. Was a bit busy.”

“That’s okay,” Louis says. Harry’s not sure that it is. “I understand. Um, I’ve got breakfast on the stove, so I should go. You’ll be home tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah,” Harry says. “I’m going to leave after breakfast, so I should be home around lunchtime. I’ll see you then, okay?”

“Yeah,” Louis says, still sounding distracted. “Okay. Bye, have fun with your family.”

Louis hangs up before Harry can say anything else, and Harry almost wants to call back and ask him again if he’s okay. He resists, though, mostly because he can see Gemma peeking out the window at him, and he can’t justify another phone call.

He spends most of the rest of the day just wishing he could go home early, because he has a weird feeling in his gut that Louis isn’t actually okay, and Harry’s desperate to find out what’s wrong so he can fix it. He just keeps telling himself that he’ll be home tomorrow, and they can figure it out then, but it takes a lot more strength than he thought it might to keep himself from running to his car before the following morning.

-

Harry gets home earlier than he expected to the next morning, since he decided to leave before breakfast instead of after and managed to miss all the rush hour traffic. He drops his bag by the door and then freezes in his tracks, looking around the house.

Louis must not be out of bed yet, because there’s no sign of him anywhere, and the house is an absolute disaster. It’s not trashed, by any means, but usually Louis is meticulously neat by nature, cleans up after himself immediately after using something, but now there are dirty dishes all over the den and the kitchen, the rubbish bin is full to the brim, and there’s an empty bottle of vodka on the kitchen table that Harry knows was full when he left.

It makes his heart ache, the thought of Louis being that distressed while he was gone, and he sets about clearing up with a lump in his throat. He takes the empty vodka bottle and hides it in one of the cupboards so he can confront Louis about it when he gets up, though he’s not quite sure how he’s going to do that without crying.

Louis comes downstairs about a half hour later, looking like a deer in the headlights when he finds Harry cleaning up the mess in the den. He looks absolutely mortified, his face pink, but Harry just smiles gently at him.

“You’re home early,” Louis says quickly, voice nervous. “I’m sorry about the mess, I swear I was going to clean it up before you got home, you said you weren’t going to be here until lunchtime-”

“Hey, it’s alright,” Harry says, giving him another patient smile. He sets off for the kitchen with the stack of dishes in his hands, his heart in his throat. Louis follows him quickly, watching over his shoulder as Harry places the dishes into the sink.

“I’ll clean them,” he says, voice a little frantic. Harry hates how scared Louis sounds, like he’s afraid Harry’s going to be angry with him. “Please, let me clean them.”

Harry steps aside easily, letting Louis take over the washing up. His hands are trembling a little, and Harry feels incredibly guilty about what he’s about to do, knowing he’s only going to make it worse, but he can’t just not bring it up.

“Um,” he says, opening the cupboard next to the fridge and getting the empty bottle out. “I’m not angry, I’m just worried, Louis, are you alright?”

Louis glances over, his face going pale when he sees the bottle in Harry’s hands. He looks like he’s going to be sick, reaching up slowly to turn off the tap. “Fuck.”

“Did you drink this whole thing yourself?” Harry asks, unable to keep the sadness out of his voice.

“Yes,” Louis says, looking down. “I’m sorry. I’ll replace it, or-”

“That’s not what I want,” Harry says, putting the bottle down and taking a step closer to Louis. Louis doesn’t move a muscle. “When did you drink it?”

“Christmas eve,” Louis breathes. “I got sad. I’m sorry.”

Harry wants to cry, tugging Louis into his arms and holding him until Louis hugs him back. “Why didn’t you call me?” he asks, voice quiet so it won’t break.

“You were with your family,” Louis says, voice muffled in Harry’s shoulder. “I was afraid I’d mess something up.”

“You could never,” Harry says, pressing his face into Louis’s neck. “You could never mess anything up.”

Harry keeps holding him until he doesn’t feel so much like crying anymore, pulling away to look at Louis’s face. Louis still looks upset, but not quite so frantic and anxious anymore, just sort of lost.

“Can I ask you something that’s been bothering me?” Louis asks, meeting Harry’s eyes for only a split second before focusing on something behind him.

“Anything,” Harry says, pushing the hair out of Louis’s face. Louis needs a haircut so badly, but at the time time, Harry thinks it’s kind of cute that Louis’s hair is nearly long enough to tuck behind his ears.

“I’m not, like, mad about it, or anything,” Louis says, still not looking at Harry’s face. “More just confused, I guess?” He hesitates before continuing, lowering his eyes to Harry’s chest. “Why don’t you want your family to know about me?”

The question catches Harry off guard, and it takes him nearly a full minute to even process it. Louis looks a fraction more dejected with each passing second, and Harry feels like his heart is going to crawl out of his chest and slap him across the face for doing this to him.

He’s never explicitly said that he doesn’t want his family to know about Louis, but it’s not untrue. He’s not ashamed of Louis, not afraid of anyone knowing about him, not really. He doesn’t really know what his problem is, if he’s honest.

“I don’t know how to tell them about you,” he says finally, when he finds the first string of words that feel true.

Louis looks up at him, confused, but still hurt.

“I mean, I want to tell them,” Harry says, shrugging one shoulder. “You’re a really big part of my life, obviously. You’re my housemate, you’re pretty much my best friend, at this point, and… whatever else,” he says awkwardly. “But what am I going to tell them? That a homeless man broke into my house and stole from me for months without me knowing and the second I found out my first instinct was to invite him to stay?”

Louis blinks, still looking just as confused as before. “Well, that’s what happened, innit?”

“Well, yes,” Harry huffs, swiping his hand through his hair quickly. “But you have to understand, my family is extremely traditional, and we’re also pretty well known in the public eye, especially me. If I had a scandal like this on my hands, I could be in big trouble, and so would the company.”

“Scandal,” Louis mutters under his breath, the corner of his mouth quirking up in a sad smile. “I get it.”

“I don’t think you do,” Harry says, reaching out to touch Louis’s shoulder. Louis doesn’t pull away, just looks up at him sadly.

“I told you, I’m not upset,” he says, shrugging the shoulder that Harry’s still gripping. “Just curious.”

Harry watches him for a long minute and then pulls him back into his arms, hugging him tight. Louis hugs him back, lets Harry keep holding him for as long as he wants, but when Harry pulls back a bit to try and lean in and catch his lips in a kiss, Louis goes a bit limp and drops his head.

“I’ll finish the washing up,” he says, pulling away from Harry and going back to the sink. Harry feels like he’s been slapped, but he thinks he deserves it, a little, so he doesn’t do anything else.

“Right,” he says, voice breaking a little. “I’m going to go unpack and do some laundry.”

With that he sets off, all but running from the kitchen and grabbing his duffel on the way up the stairs. He spends the rest of the morning fucking about, starting a load of laundry and hiding in his room, trying to ignore the urge to just climb into bed and cry for a while.

When he eventually emerges from his bedroom and goes downstairs to have some lunch, the guest wing door is closed, which is a sight he hasn’t seen in ages. It makes him feel a bit like he can’t breathe, so he just makes a sandwich and goes to the sunroom to spend the rest of the day pretending that nothing else exists.

He falls asleep on the sofa after lunch, spends a few blessed hours unconscious and untroubled, until Louis wakes him up after the sun has gone down with a bowl of pasta and a nervous expression.

“Didn’t want you to miss dinner,” Louis says, sitting down on the rug on the floor even though Harry sits up to make room for him on the sofa. Harry accepts the bowl of pasta silently, and Louis digs into his own immediately.

They’re quiet for a bit while they both eat, and Harry’s aching to say something to make this a little more bearable, but he doesn’t know what to say. The ball is in Louis’s court simply because Harry has no idea what’s going on inside his head, and he doesn’t want to make it all worse by saying the wrong thing.

When Louis finally speaks up, his voice is loud and confident like he’s been building up his courage for ages, and it startles both of them. “Earlier,” he says, holding his breath for a moment when Harry jumps, “earlier, you said I was your best friend.”

Harry blinks, slowly swallowing the bite of pasta in his mouth. “I did say that,” he confirms, unsure of what Louis’s waiting for.

“Did you mean that?” Louis asks, his voice almost uncharacteristically soft, so hopeful it makes Harry want to cry all over again.

“Of course I did,” Harry says. “I love your company.”

Louis sniffs, nodding once and looking down. They both eat a few more bites of pasta, and then Louis puts his empty bowl down on the floor in front of himself and stares down at his hands, twiddling his fingers in his lap.

“You don’t even know me,” he mumbles. “You consider me your best friend, and you hardly know a thing about me.”

Harry doesn’t know what to say, so he doesn’t say anything at all. Louis looks like he’s not finished speaking, and Harry prays that he isn’t, prays that Louis is finally going to knock down a wall and let Harry see even a fraction of what he’s hiding.

“My biological father walked out on my mother before I was born,” Louis says, still staring down at his hands. Harry very carefully sets his bowl down on the sofa beside him, sitting perfectly still and giving Louis his undivided attention. “She never told me his name, or any of his information, for fear I would try to contact him to help us out, or to yell at him, or, I don’t know what else.”

Harry already wants to cry, but Louis isn’t finished yet, and Harry wants to hear every single word he has to say, so he doesn’t dare make a sound.

“She was delusional, my mother,” Louis says, smiling sadly at the floor. “She thought we were going to win the lottery somehow, and she wasted every penny she made cleaning houses on lottery tickets and, spoiler alert, we never fucking won. I begged her constantly to — just once — buy groceries instead of lotto tickets, and she never did. She never fucking did. It was always my job to do the rounds to all of the restaurants in the area to steal food from their fucking dumpsters and bring it home, just so we’d have something to eat. And then she went and married my dickhead stepdad, who has a gambling problem and the same stupid sense of optimism as mum. Sometimes he’d win enough to put food on the table for a week, but usually he’d just spend whatever he won trying to win more, and it never worked out. My sisters and I were always in charge of taking care of each other, and ourselves, and our parents, but when I was, like, sixteen, our house got foreclosed. We got kicked out, and my parents were deemed unfit to raise children, so we all went into the system. The second I turned eighteen, I fought like hell to get custody of my sisters, but I couldn’t, since I didn’t have a place to live or a way to provide for them, and I couldn’t get a job because no one wants to hire a street rat, and every job I tried I got fired from for not being good enough because, when you’re a street rat, people will do just about anything to make sure you stay away from them. So, finally, I decided to just give up. My sisters will age out of the system eventually. Lottie’s already out by now, but I have no idea where any of them are now, or if they’re still together, or looking for me, or anything. I just- I felt so guilty about not being able to save them, I couldn’t face them. So I just ran away,” he says. He sounds exhausted by the time he’s done speaking, his voice quiet and strained, and Harry’s shaking with the effort to hold in his tears.

He pushes Louis’s bowl out of the way with his foot and then sinks to the floor in front of Louis, reaching out to tug him into his arms. Louis goes easily, melting into Harry’s chest, pressing his face into his neck and letting himself be held. Harry gathers him into his lap like a rag doll and holds him until both of them can breathe again.

“You’re the bravest person I’ve ever met,” Harry breathes, when Louis’s gone completely soft and calm in his arms. “You are the bravest, most incredible person I’ve ever met.”

Louis doesn’t say anything, just sniffs quietly, his breath warm against Harry’s skin.

They head up to bed eventually, after what might’ve been a couple hours of just sitting on the floor holding each other. Harry’s ass is completely numb when he finally climbs to his feet and drags Louis up with him, keeping him close under his arm as he leads him up the stairs and into bed.

Louis sleeps with his back to Harry that night, like he’s reached his quota of vulnerability and he needs some space to recharge. Harry happily gives him his space, lying awake for most of the night staring at the ceiling, wondering where on Earth they’re going to go from here.

-

For the next few days, things are as good as they’ve ever been, and the tension from Christmas has completely disappeared by New Year’s Eve. They haven’t really talked about it, any of it, but everything seems alright for now.

They’ve decided to stay in for New Year’s Eve, mostly because Louis isn’t terribly keen on the idea of going out. It’s been so long since he’s been able to be in a group of people without worrying for his own safety, and he’s also not sure he’s ready to be completely immersed in that aspect of Harry’s life yet. If he’s being completely honest, Harry would rather keep Louis all to himself while he can, anyway, so he’s not too upset to have to make an excuse to keep Niall and Liam at bay when they invite him to a New Years party.

He brings Louis to the grocery store and leaves him in charge of getting the snacks while Harry picks out a bottle of fancy champagne, and then they head home to spend the last few hours of the year lounging on the sofa, watching the fireworks on TV.

They’ve been so close the past few days, and Louis has slept in Harry’s bed every single night since Harry’s been home, but they haven’t touched each other below the belt since before Christmas. It makes the whole concept of falling asleep beside Louis every night feel a lot more pure, but also a lot more powerful and meaningful, and Harry has absolutely no idea where they stand, now more than ever. They haven’t discussed it, and Harry hasn’t even let himself think about it for fear he’ll come to a very scary conclusion, but he thinks that maybe, on some level, they both want more than just casual sex, but they’re both too afraid to admit it.

He’s not even really sure why the idea is so scary, anyway; they already live together, share absolutely everything, spend every moment of every day that Harry isn’t at work together. They have a good time together, too, especially recently, since Louis’s apparently not so afraid anymore to open up to Harry. Harry thinks it has everything to do with him finally admitting that he sees Louis as his best friend, and Louis finally feels like he isn’t just a charity case.

Louis flops down on the sofa beside him with the shopping bag full of snacks, the bottle of champagne and two flutes already laid out on the coffee table. Harry gets to work pouring them each a drink while Louis settles back into the sofa with a bag of crisps.

“I’ve never seen the fireworks in real life before,” Louis says, popping a crisp into his mouth. “My sisters and I begged, but mum would never let us go out to see them on New Year’s Eve.”

“I’ve been a few times, but I prefer to watch them from home,” Harry says, handing Louis a glass of champagne and settling in beside him. “But maybe we can go see them next year.”

Louis smiles, looking extra soft when Harry glances over at him. “I’d like that,” Louis says, leaning into Harry’s side a little. “If only the girls could come, as well.”

Harry doesn’t say anything for a moment, letting Louis’s words hang in the air between them for a moment with the sounds of the celebration from the TV. There are so many people, and they’re all so happy, singing and dancing along with the entertainment as everyone waits for midnight.

“Do you ever wonder about them?” Harry asks, not daring to look at Louis’s face. “Your sisters?”

“Every day,” Louis says wistfully. “I think about them all the time. I’d do anything to know where they are now.”

“Tell me about them,” Harry says, sipping at his champagne.

Louis doesn’t seem to have heard him, so Harry decides to drop it, in case it’s something Louis doesn’t want to talk about. After a minute, though, Louis shifts, putting his head down on Harry’s shoulder and eating another crisp very slowly.

“I’m the oldest,” he says, voice quiet. “My mum’s only son. She and my biological dad were never married, and after he walked out on her, she met Mark, and they raised me together. They got married after mum got pregnant with Lottie, which was about seven years later. Then they had Fizzy a couple years after that, and then the twins, Daisy and Phoebe, and by then our tiny house was so crowded they had to put a stop on all the baby making. I loved each of them so much, was the first to hold every new baby after my mum, and as we all started to grow up and mum’s delusions got worse and Mark’s gambling problem really started making life difficult, we all raised each other. They’re all so strong, the girls, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that they’re all doing fine, wherever they are. I just hope that things have gotten easier for them,” he mumbles.

“What about your mum?” Harry asks, curling his arm around Louis’s shoulders so that Louis can be as small as he wants. “And Mark? Do you know where they are now?”

“Not a clue,” Louis breathes. “Mum tried to contact me for the first time after I aged out of the foster system, but I never responded. I haven’t seen her or spoke to her or Mark since the day the social workers took us out of the house,” he says.

It makes Harry want to cry, imagining being taken from his house and not speaking to his mother and father since the age of sixteen. He imagines not knowing where Gemma is, not knowing if she’s okay, and the thought hurts his heart so much he can’t even bear to entertain it for more than a moment.

“Have they tried to contact you since?” Harry asks. “Do you think you’d respond now, if they did? Has anything changed?”

“I don’t know,” Louis says. “I have no way of knowing if they’ve tried to contact me, or if they’re looking for me. I don’t have a phone, or a stable address, they have no way of contacting me, anyway. And if they did, I mean… I don’t know. I’m curious what’s come of everyone, but I’d rather spend my life not knowing than go looking for them only be sucked back into all the dysfunction,” he shrugs.

“I get that,” Harry says. “I think. Still can’t be easy, though.”

“No, it isn’t,” Louis admits. “But it’s easier than it could be. I don’t exist on paper; I’ve been completely off the grid since I left foster care. No phone, no credit card, there’s no record of me anywhere. I could be dead, for all anyone knows. Maybe it’s best that they think I am. I don’t think there’s any missing persons reports for me, I’ve never been approached by any cop, or anything, except for when I’ve been caught doing something I’m not supposed to do. But I’ve never been arrested, never been fingerprinted, no one knows who I am. Except you,” he says.

Harry thinks about it for a moment, thinks about all the things he’s learned about Louis in the past few months, wonders if he’s actually the only person on Earth who knows for a fact that Louis exists. “I don’t even know your last name,” Harry whispers, but he tugs Louis closer, anyway, never wants to let him go.

They’re quiet for a while, the subject successfully dropped, and Harry’s willing to let it go until finally Louis says, so quietly Harry hardly even hears him, “Tomlinson.”

“What?” Harry asks, looking down at him.

Louis doesn’t repeat himself, just blinks and keeps focusing on the TV, like he didn’t say anything at all. Harry gets the hint, doesn’t press any further, just puts his head back against the sofa cushion behind him and stares blankly at the TV.

Tomlinson. Louis Tomlinson. Or Lewis, if Harry considers that one piece of information Louis let slip that one time, but Harry’s not entirely convinced that he didn’t dream that, so he doesn’t let it affect the excitement from finally having a name, a full name, for the boy sitting beside him. It feels good, exciting, like some kind of resolution, even though Harry’s absolutely positive that this is hardly the ending to their story.

He itches for his notebook, but he’s far too comfortable to get up to go grab it, so instead he just traces the words with his finger tip against Louis’s shoulder, disguising his thoughts as gentle, unconscious touches. Louis shivers against him, leans into the touches, and Harry wonders if he feels trapped under the weight of Harry’s thoughts. He looks as comfortable as ever when Harry looks down at him, and Harry thinks that’s good, likes the idea that Louis isn’t burdened by the role he plays as the sole occupant of so many of Harry’s thoughts.

They don’t talk much for the rest of the evening, only making comments here and there about the musical performances happening on TV. Harry’s so comfortable he nearly drifts off a few times, but Louis’s little remarks and jokes are enough to keep Harry up to hear the rest of them.

All too soon, the clock strikes 11:59, and the countdown to the new year begins. Louis sits up a little to count with the crowd on the TV, but Harry just sits back to watch him, heart swelling with each second Louis announces.

“Three, two, one, happy new year!” Louis cheers, turning around with the brightest smile Harry’s ever seen.

Harry can’t help himself, surges forward so quickly he nearly spills his champagne as he curls one hand around the back of Louis’s neck and kisses him hard.

Louis kisses him back immediately, like he was waiting for it, expecting it. Harry puts his champagne down on the coffee table without breaking away from Louis’s lips and then forces Louis backwards, until Louis’s flat on his back on the sofa with Harry hovering over him, kissing the life out of him.

Harry slots himself between Louis’s legs until they’re as close as they can be, every inch of their bodies pressed together, and Louis’s making all these little sounds and Harry can’t help himself, can’t control himself, pinning Louis’s wrists down to the sofa and kissing him until Louis pulls away to desperately suck some more air into his lungs.

Harry moves to keep kissing down Louis’s neck, licking and biting at the dip of his collarbone. Louis pushes his hips up against Harry’s, releasing the softest, sweetest sound into Harry’s ear where his mouth is pressed against it, and Harry nearly topples over in his haste to grind down against Louis in return.

“Can we, mm,” Louis trails off with a moan, curling a fist into the back of Harry’s shirt. “Can we go upstairs?”

“Don’t wanna,” Harry mutters, grinding down again. “Don’t wanna stop.”

“I want more, I want-” Louis stops himself, panting a little. Harry glances up at him, and Louis blushes. “I want- Can I fuck you?”

Harry whines, burying his face in Louis’s neck and twisting his hips a few more times, so hard suddenly that it hurts. “Yeah. Yes.”

Louis’s hands wander down Harry’s back, finding his arse and squeezing. “Here? On the sofa?”

“Yeah,” Harry says again, finally pulling away enough to let his brain work properly. “I’ll go, um- lube, and condom,” he says. Maybe his brain still isn’t working properly, on second thought.

Louis nods, so Harry scrambles up and off of him, running up the stairs to his bedroom and digging through his bedside drawer for a bottle of lube and a package of condoms. He takes a moment, while he’s by himself, to stop and consider what’s happening, what they’re about to do.

They’ve been sleeping together for weeks, of course, but they’ve never actually done this, never actually gone all the way. They’ve fooled around with their hands and their mouths but that’s it, they’ve never gone further than that, and now they’re about to do it after an entire week of not touching each other at all. It feels significant, like a big step for them, especially after the conversation they had earlier, and Louis finally telling Harry his last name. Harry thinks about calling Louis upstairs after all so they can do this properly, but in a way, it feels like too much, like letting Louis fuck him in his own bed is too significant for where they are right now.

He jogs back down the stairs with everything he needs, finding Louis exactly where he left him, watching him over the back of the sofa. Harry smiles at him and climbs back on top of him, and Louis immediately starts tugging at his t-shirt until Harry takes it off.

They lose the rest of their clothing slowly, reluctant to stop kissing once they’ve started again. Louis fishes for the bottle of lube where it disappeared between the sofa cushions, and then pushes Harry back a bit so he can get the bottle open and coat his fingers with it.

Harry lets him have control over the situation, wondering distantly how many people Louis has done this with before. He’d never ask, but he’s curious to know if Louis ever got close to anyone on the streets, if he’s ever been in love, ever touched anyone the way he’s touching Harry now. Part of Harry likes the idea of being the first, but Louis seems to know what he’s doing when he leans up to catch Harry’s lips again as he reaches down to slide one finger against Harry’s hole, and every thought that doesn’t have to do with the immediate situation slips from Harry’s mind.

Louis fingers him slowly, taking his time, even though Harry’s shaking with anticipation, chewing on Louis’s lips and whining like an animal with every minute shift Louis makes. Harry suspects that Louis is enjoying this a lot more than he’s letting on, keeping all of his movements slow and languid even as Harry gets himself so worked up he’s just about crying.

Eventually Louis pulls his fingers out, wiping them clean on his own bare thigh and reaching for a condom from the box Harry left on the back of the sofa. Harry presses his face into Louis’s neck and lets Louis push him around however he needs to, and then finally Louis grips his hips and presses a kiss to his shoulder.

“Ready?” Louis hums, pulling Harry’s hips down a fraction of an inch. Harry nods frantically, so Louis gets to work, sliding into Harry slowly, carefully, perfectly.

Harry closes his eyes and lets himself love it, moving his hips in tiny circles until he gets used to the feeling of Louis inside him. Louis lets him set the pace, fingers pressing divots into Harry’s hips but doing nothing to alter the way Harry’s rocking back and forth on top of him.

Once Harry’s gathered all the pieces of his mushy brain into something he can work with, he sits up a little bit and sinks down all the way on Louis’s cock, breathing out hard. Louis appears to be holding his breath, and Harry just wants to make him lose it, so he uses every bit of his self control to drag himself up very slowly before dropping himself back down. It punches a moan out of both of them, but Harry doesn’t have the strength to do it again, so he settles for just fucking himself brutally, planting his hands on Louis’s chest and rolling his hips quickly, tipping his head back and letting his eyes fall closed.

Louis is everywhere, inside of him and filling up every hollow space within him, hands touching every inch of his skin that he can reach. Harry feels like his entire body is buzzing with electricity, like every place Louis touches him is a live wire, every fibre of his being threatening to burst into flames at any second.

They’re both too worked up and lost in it to make it last very long, and when Harry comes, he whites out so blissfully he almost can’t even feel Louis coming into the condom, breaking apart like glass beneath him, sharp and loud and beautiful, so beautiful when Harry forces his eyes open to watch him.

They lie there for a while after they’re done, Louis’s fingers tracing gentle patterns up and down Harry’s naked back. Harry’s spread out on top of him, probably crushing him half to death, but Louis doesn’t seem to mind; Harry can see his eyes drooping from where Harry’s head is resting on his chest, head tilted up so he can watch him instead of the fireworks that are still on the TV in the background.

Eventually Harry sits up just to get his clothes back on, because it’s well past midnight by now and the fire died a long time ago and it’s getting cold, even with Louis’s body heat under him. Louis shivers when Harry moves away from him, pulling on his pants and then grabbing the blanket off the back of the sofa to wrap around himself.

They finish the bottle of champagne slowly, neither of them too eager to get up and go to bed, especially once Harry himself down on Louis’s chest again and wraps the blanket snugly around both of them.

Louis falls asleep first, still mostly naked with his arms wrapped around Harry, face buried in his hair. Harry’s never been more comfortable in his life, curled up between Louis’s legs with his head pillowed on Louis’s soft chest, and he drifts off too, eventually. Somewhere, subconsciously, he already knows that this is going to be a great year.

-

Louis finishes the Harry Potter series about halfway through January, and immediately starts demanding that they watch all of the films. He doesn’t believe Harry that the films could possibly be any better than the books, and Harry’s eager to blow his mind, so he buys the box set of DVDs on Amazon and changes all of his plans in favor of spending the whole weekend watching movies with Louis.

Harry’s friends are definitely going to start getting suspicious soon, because Harry hasn’t tagged along on a night out in months and he keeps finding weirder, worse excuses to stay in every time they call. Harry doesn’t go out with them very often, anyway, because he’s an introvert and much prefers his own company and a film in bed, but he usually makes an exception at least once a month, and he’s been MIA on lad’s night for almost four months in a row now.

It’s not that Harry doesn’t like his friends; he adores them, actually, has known Liam and Niall since they were all in school together as children. The group changes and evolves every now and again, but Liam and Niall have always been Harry’s closest friends, and he feels bad avoiding them so much lately, but he doesn’t know how else to deal with this.

The thing is, Harry still doesn’t know what to tell anyone about Louis. It’s the same as with his family, he thinks, in that he wants so desperately to tell any and every stranger he meets about the wonderful boy he’s got living in his house, but he doesn’t know how to, and he might be a little afraid of what people will say. It’s not that he’s ashamed of Louis, or that he’s afraid of the people he loves judging Louis, but he’s so desperate for everyone to see him for all of his goodness and beauty that he’s afraid to say anything at all.

He knows it’s not a sustainable solution, that at some point he’s going to have to tell someone, and then everyone, especially if he’s really going to keep Louis around. He’ll figure it out eventually, or at least that’s what he keeps telling himself, but for now there’s a cozy looking Louis with a massive bowl of popcorn getting comfy under a blanket on Harry’s sofa, and Harry’s got eight entire movies to show him.

“Come on, then,” Louis calls from the sofa, stuffing a handful of popcorn in his mouth. “I’ve been waiting ages for this.”

“You just finished the books yesterday,” Harry says, pulling the plastic wrap off of the DVD case and putting the first disc into the DVD player.

“Yeah, I’ve been waiting a whole day,” Louis says, letting Harry under his blanket and moving the popcorn bowl between them. “These movies better be as good as the books were.”

“They are,” Harry says, letting himself lean into Louis’s side, resting his head on Louis’s shoulder.

“Hush, it’s starting,” Louis says, batting weakly at Harry’s shoulder.

“I didn’t say anything-”

“Hush!” Louis says, snaking his hand around Harry’s shoulders and covering his mouth. Harry grins against his palm and goes quiet and still, not even minding that Louis’s cold, greasy fingers are clamped tightly over his face.

Louis drops his hand eventually, but his arm stays around Harry’s shoulders, to Harry’s delight. It feels so nice, so natural, to be tucked under Louis’s arm like this, and it’s hardly the first time they’ve done it, it’s hardly the most Louis’s ever touched him, but somehow it means as much to Harry as anything else.

Harry makes it through a film and a half before he passes out on Louis’s shoulder, but Louis wakes him up at the end of the second film with a gentle poke to his cheek.

“Harry,” Louis sings quietly, poking his cheek again. “Wake up, sleepyhead.”

“I’m awake,” Harry says, looking up at him. “I wasn’t asleep.”

“Sure, love,” Louis says sweetly, petting at his hair. “Let’s call it a night, hm?”

“Yeah,” Harry says, sitting up slowly, all his joints cracking as he moves.

Louis leads the way up the stairs, disappearing into his own bathroom to get ready for bed. Harry leaves his bedroom door open a crack for Louis and changes into his pajamas, not bothering to brush his teeth before he starts peeling back the covers to get into bed.

Louis peeks his head through the door just as Harry’s climbing into bed, the light from the hallway spilling in around him and blurring Harry’s sight of him.

“Goodnight, Harry,” Louis says softly, pulling the door closed on his way out. Harry tracks the sound of his footsteps all the way across the hall, waiting to hear the sound of his door being pulled shut before he exhales.

Part of him can’t help but wonder why Louis doesn’t sleep with him every night, why they only fall asleep together sometimes. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it, doesn’t seem to be a pattern to the days that Louis decides to sleep in Harry’s bed instead of his own. Harry wonders if Louis feels everything as intensely as he does, wonders if the few hours they spent cuddled up on the sofa together tonight had him feeling like a burning fire as well.

As always, it’s enough knowing that Louis is just across the hall. Harry supposes he doesn’t need to fall asleep curled around him every night so long as he knows that he’s just a couple doors away, and that he always will be. Maybe someday that won’t be enough, when these feelings finally come to a head and start to boil over, and Harry won’t be able to contain the fizzing feeling in his chest every time Louis is close to him, and the empty feeling every time he isn’t.

They’ll wake up tomorrow and watch a few more films, skip meals in favor of snacking all day long, and then maybe when nighttime rolls around again Louis won’t have had enough of him yet, and Harry will get to spend a blessed night beside him, or maybe he won’t, and that’ll be okay too. Harry thinks he’s ready for whatever happens, at least for now, and he’s willing to keep letting Louis call the shots until Harry figures out what any of this means.

-

As much as Harry prays that it won’t, the golf trip comes around again at the end of the month, and he finds himself quickly throwing together a bag the night before while Louis sits rather unhelpfully on his bed.

“I just don’t understand why they happen so often,” Louis says, frowning at each article of clothing Harry puts in his duffel.

“The last one was two months ago,” Harry says.

“Exactly!” Louis huffs. “What could you possibly need to discuss that often?”

“I think it’s just the opportunity for the guys to get away from their wives, if I’m honest,” Harry says. “But I can’t call it off, it keeps morale high.”

“But you hate them,” Louis says, frowning. “Why can’t you just stop going?”

“It’s tradition,” Harry says, shrugging as he packs away his socks.

“Bad reason to do something that doesn’t make you happy,” Louis mutters, looking away as Harry finishes packing.

Louis’s words keep echoing in Harry’s head for the rest of the night, even as they curl up together under Harry’s bed sheets. Louis drifts off with his face pressed into the back of Harry’s neck and Harry lies awake for hours, staring out the window into the dark, wondering why he does anything if it doesn’t make him happy.

His ideal life, of course, would be to publish a novel, to be able to call Louis his boyfriend, and to be able to sell the company and take care of Louis for the rest of their lives off the profit of his books. That just isn’t feasible, though; he can’t sell the company, can’t do that to his uncle, give up the one thing that meant the world to him. His uncle would be turning over in his grave if he knew that Harry was even considering letting the company out of the family, Harry’s sure of it, and he can’t bear the thought of disappointing his uncle.

He doesn’t get very much sleep that night, which means he’ll be starting the golf trip off grumpy and tired and miserable, which means he’s going to have an even worse time than usual. Usually, when he can’t sleep, he’d sneak downstairs for his notebook and spend a few hours writing about what’s on his mind, but he doesn’t want to disturb Louis, and he also isn’t really sure that any of this needs to be in writing just yet.

-

The second Harry leaves the house the following morning, he already wants to be back in bed, in Louis’s arms, in the little bubble he’s allowed to pretend he lives in every time they’re alone together behind closed doors. It’s January, and there’s still snow on the ground, which means that there will be absolutely no golfing done this weekend, and Harry plans to use every second of free time he can manage to work on writing.

It’s like the further away from Louis he gets, the more inspiration is piling up in his brain, things he needs to get down on paper the moment he’s able. He spends most of the drive to the resort typing away in the notes on his phone, and once he’s checked into his room, he spends the afternoon getting all of his thoughts out.

At this point, the story is writing itself. It’s a heavily fictionalized version of events, obviously, but Harry feels like an idiot for not realizing that the story he needs to tell has been right under his nose since the second he found Louis in his guest wing. All this time, Harry thought he was only using Louis as a source of inspiration, but Louis has been the entire story all along.

There’s a moment of fear when Harry thinks about how the story will end. Will it end? He hopes it doesn’t, he hopes he never has to finish the chapter of his life that involves Louis. In terms of the novel, though, the story needs to end at some point, and Harry’s a little bit terrified at what that point might be.

For now, he supposes, he can just enjoy the story, let time and fate design the plot however they will. Maybe someday, if everything goes wrong, Harry can find a way to change the stars and get the happy ending he so desperately wants.

Much to his colleagues’ chagrin, Harry spends about seventy percent of the trip with his head in his notebook, or on his phone, scribbling away and never letting anyone get a glance at what he’s working on. He earns himself a lot of questions and obnoxious prodding but it’s worth it, he thinks, because by the time they get back in the car to head back up to London at the end of the week, he’s more confident than he’s been in weeks.

-

There’s an unexpected amount of traffic on the way home, and Harry doesn’t end up getting back to his house until late. The lights inside appear to already be off, so he sneaks in as quietly as he can in case Louis is already asleep, leaving his shoes by the front door and creeping silently up the stairs with his duffel.

He lets himself into his bedroom and closes the door behind himself with hardly a creak, and then flicks the light on. He jumps when he spots a figure in his bed, but it’s just a very sleepy and rumpled Louis blinking up at him from under the covers.

“Oh,” Harry says, unable to help the smile that twitches at his lips. “Hi.”

“Sorry,” Louis says, sitting up quickly and looking away from Harry’s face. “I was- you’re late.”

“Traffic,” Harry says, shrugging one shoulder. “I would have called, but the guys would have started asking questions they don’t need the answers to. I wasn’t expecting you to be in here, though, I figured you’d be in your bed,” he says.

“I missed you,” Louis says, quietly, like he’s embarrassed. “Sorry.”

“You don’t have to be sorry,” Harry frowns, but Louis’s already climbing out of bed, fidgeting and pulling at his pajamas like he doesn’t know what to do with himself. “Hey-”

“No, it’s weird,” Louis says, scoffing a little like he can’t believe himself. “It’s weird.”

“It really isn’t,” Harry says, trying to catch him as Louis shuffles by on his way to the door. Louis slips right out of his grip, though, and just like that he’s gone, pulling the door closed behind him.

Harry knows better than to go after him, because when Louis feels awkward like this, he becomes a ghost for days, and Harry won’t see him until Louis feels like everything has blown over. He can already tell that he’s not going to be able to talk about this with Louis until after the weekend, at least, so he resists the urge to go follow Louis into his bed and curls up in his own bed, instead.

He doesn’t sleep well, ends up digging his notebook out of his duffel in the middle of the night and stays up writing his thoughts down until the sun starts to rise. By then his eyes are burning and his head feels a little foggy, but he likes to be up already when Louis gets up, so he pulls on a hoodie and a pair of socks and heads down to the kitchen to get breakfast started.

As predicted, Louis doesn’t show his face the entire time Harry’s eating, so once he’s cleaned up his mess Harry takes his tea and his notebook out into the sunroom to allow Louis the opportunity to eat without being seen. Harry hates this, absolutely hates when Louis reverts back to his old, sneaky, silent ways, but he understands that it’s what makes him feel safe, and if there’s anything in the world that Harry wants Louis to feel, it’s safe.

Harry spends the majority of the day doodling in the margins of his notebook instead of actually writing anything, and there’s a million things he should be doing, but he can’t be bothered. With every passing day Harry’s realizing more and more how little everything matters in comparison to the boy that’s hiding from him right now, the boy that’s got all the stories Harry could ever imagine wrapped up in one complicated, confusing, intricate person.

It comes to a head much sooner than Harry expected. That night, when Harry finally closes his notebook and leaves the sunroom, he finds Louis in the kitchen making himself some dinner. Louis startles when he hears Harry sliding the sunroom door shut, but he doesn’t otherwise react.

It’s like, hell, Harry has so many thoughts swirling around in his head, so many declarations and proclamations he’s not even sure he’s ready to make to himself yet, but they’re all in there, bumping and fumbling around each other fighting to get out, and Harry wants Louis so badly it physically aches, right there in the pit of his stomach, in the hollow part behind his chest bone, where the air keeps getting caught in his throat. He walks over without meaning to, finding himself standing way too close to Louis, and Louis doesn’t even seem to notice.

Finally Louis puts down the butter knife he’s using to spread peanut butter on his sandwich and goes to reach for something else, but the realization that Harry is two inches behind him makes him jump again, his hip knocking the butter knife off the counter and sending it clattering across the floor to rest under the kitchen table when Louis whirls around.

“Jesus,” he breathes, clapping a hand over his heart and making determined eye contact with Harry’s clavicle. “You’re like the weirdest, lankiest cat sometimes-”

Harry can’t help it, surges forward and cuts Louis off right in the middle of his next word, hands cupping his jaw while his entire body aligns with Louis’s, pressing him back into the cupboards behind him and sucking the air right out of his lungs. Louis melts into it, lets Harry lick greedily into his mouth and clutches uselessly at his hips, tugging at his hoodie like he wants to simultaneously drag Harry impossibly closer and push him away. He doesn’t do either, though, just holds him tight, and lets Harry kiss him until neither of them can breathe.

“Bed,” Louis says, clawing at Harry’s chest as soon as Harry pulls away to suck down some air. “Bed?”

Harry just hums his noncommittal reply, latching back onto Louis’s mouth as soon as he can. Louis keeps pushing at him, though, so eventually they manage to stumble up the stairs together, and Harry ends up on top of Louis on his own bed, trying to pull Louis’s clothes off his body without breaking away from his mouth.

After a few minutes, it clicks, and Harry sits up to get all of Louis’s clothes off. Louis allows it happily and then silently demands Harry follow suit, and once they’re naked, Harry takes a moment to just sit back in his place on Louis’s lap and admire him, stroking his fingertips down Louis’s stomach lightly just to see his muscles jump.

“I like this,” he says, watching Louis’s face. “You.”

Louis blinks and then gives him the tiniest, most unsure smile Harry’s ever seen on him, and Harry lays his hand flat over Louis’s stomach.

“I like you in my bed. I like you all the time, in all the places, but I really, really like you here. I want you to stay here,” he says quietly, hand gently sliding up to rest over Louis’s heart.

Louis lays his hand overtop Harry’s, heartbeat stuttering under Harry’s palm. “Okay.”

Harry gets busy, then, moving himself between Louis’s legs and spreading Louis out wide, allowing him to let go of anything and everything. He spends the rest of the night hell bent on his mission, making Louis feel good with his mouth, his fingers, and then his entire body, hips working tirelessly until Louis can’t even keep his eyes open anymore, one arm thrown over his face and the other digging his nails hard into Harry’s shoulder, bringing Harry there, too.

Harry lays down right on top of him when they’re finished, pressing his face into Louis’s neck and catching his breath lazily. They’ve made a mess of the bed, and they’re going to have to clean it up at least a little bit before they can even think about going to sleep, but then Louis wraps his arms around Harry and holds him so tight Harry thinks Louis’s afraid he might just disappear.

The only thing that happens for a while after that is Louis’s fingers tracing up and down Harry’s spine, and Harry’s lips mouthing gentle kisses into the patch of skin on Louis’s chest that he’s getting all damp with his breath.

“I meant what I said,” Harry says, voice croaky with exhaustion.

“Hm?” Louis hums, sliding the hand that’s been rubbing his back up into Harry’s sweaty hair, massaging his scalp.

“I like having you in my bed,” Harry says, nuzzling a little deeper into Louis’s neck.

Louis doesn’t say anything for a moment, and Harry almost thinks they’re done talking, until Louis presses a sideways kiss to Harry’s forehead. “Good,” he whispers. “Because I really like being here.”

Harry grins, using every ounce of his remaining strength to pick his head up and press a kiss to the corner of Louis’s mouth.

Louis takes the corner of the duvet and cleans them both up as best he can, and then carefully maneuvers them both beneath the covers without ever displacing Harry from the comfy spot he’s found curled up on Louis’s chest. Louis keeps playing with Harry’s hair long after Harry’s completely passed out in his arms, and when Harry wakes up in the morning, Louis is still in his bed with him, still holding him like he’s afraid to let go, even in his sleep, and Harry realizes for the thousandth time that he’d do anything, anything, to be able to keep this boy.

-

On the first of February, Harry wakes up to the sound of his bedroom door creaking open, followed by quiet, thumping footsteps. He rolls over slowly, opening his eyes to find Louis standing over him with a tray in his hands. Louis smiles and nods his head sideways, so Harry sits up and makes room for him to sit down on the mattress.

“What’s this?” Harry asks, letting Louis settle the tray in his lap on top of the covers. There’s some very ugly, lopsided pancakes on a plate, and a little glass gravy boat full of syrup.

“Happy birthday,” Louis says, pressing into his side. “Sorry the pancakes are so ugly. I’ve never made them from scratch before.”

“How’d you know it was my birthday?” Harry grins, pecking a kiss to Louis’s cheek in thanks.

Louis blushes a little, handing Harry his own mobile phone. “I swear I wasn’t snooping,” he says. “Your phone was buzzing like crazy, and it woke me up, and I only looked quick to make sure there wasn’t some urgent emergency, or something, but it was just about a million happy birthday messages. I put it on silent but I couldn’t go back to sleep so I decided to just get up and make you some breakfast, instead,” he says.

“Aren’t you sweet,” Harry says, amused. He doesn’t bother reading any of the messages on his phone, tossing it to the foot of the bed and picking up the fork Louis put on the tray. “Have you already eaten?”

“I was hoping you’d share,” Louis says, producing another fork sheepishly.

Harry would share the very breath in his lungs, if he were able, would share every drop of blood in his veins and every cent in his wallet. “Of course,” he says, pushing the plate to the left of the tray to give Louis better access.

They eat in comfortable silence for a few minutes, and though Louis’s pancakes are hardly the best Harry’s ever had and Louis drowns them in enough sugary syrup to rot every tooth out Harry’s head, it might be his favorite birthday breakfast in recent memory. The weather is a dreary mix of snow and rain and it’s coming down hard outside the cozy nest of Harry’s bedroom, the rhythmic pitter-patter on the window making just enough white noise in the background of Harry’s mind that it takes him a while to find his next question.

“When’s your birthday?” he asks, pushing the tray onto the bed once they’ve finished eating. He snuggles under Louis’s arm, but Louis’s still on top of the covers, the duvet creating an annoying barrier between them.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” Louis shrugs, pulling Harry a little closer as if to distract him from the conversation. “What do you want to do today?”

“Wait, yes it does matter,” Harry frowns, pinching Louis’s thigh. “When is your birthday?”

“Why do you need to know?” Louis asks, slightly teasing. “I don’t want you buying me presents or anything, you know that.”

“I know,” Harry says, though it makes his heart sink a little that Louis doesn’t want to be spoiled the way Harry wants to spoil him. “But you’re my friend, and friends are supposed to know each other’s birthdays.”

“I didn’t know today was your birthday until this morning,” Louis argues. “Makes me kind of a shit friend, no?”

“You’re not a shit friend,” Harry says, rolling his eyes. “But you know it now, don’t you? So now you should tell me yours, so that I’m not a shit friend, either,” he says.

Louis sighs, playing with the hem of Harry’s shirt sleeve where his arm is wrapped around his shoulders. “Christmas Eve,” Louis finally mumbles. “I was born on Christmas Eve.”

It makes Harry’s heart warm to know it, to think that Louis really is God’s gift to the world. Then, when it processes in Harry’s mind that Christmas Eve has already passed, he wants to cry.

“Oh,” he says, sitting up and turning to face Louis. Louis looks like he already knows what Harry’s going to say, but Harry doesn’t even know that himself yet, so he just watches Louis avoid his eye.

“I knew you were going to make that face,” Louis laughs, but it’s sad, Harry’s so sad. “It’s fine, honestly.”

“No, it’s not fine,” Harry says. “Not only did I abandon you on Christmas, but your birthday, as well,” he breathes, stomach twisting with guilt.

“You didn’t know,” Louis says, poking at Harry’s cheek to get him to lighten up a little. It doesn’t work. “I never told you because I didn’t want you to feel guilty about spending Christmas with your family instead of with me, because if you had spent it with me then I would’ve felt guilty about keeping you from them.”

“But,” Harry pouts, watching Louis’s face for a minute. “Is that why you were so upset on Christmas Eve? Is that why you drank all that-”

“Stop,” Louis says, reaching out to pull Harry into his chest. Harry goes easily, hugging him tight around his waist. “It’s not your fault. Besides, it’s hardly the worst birthday I’ve ever had. Actually, it probably could count as one of the best, as far as I’m concerned. I honestly don’t even remember what it’s like to not be alone on days that are meant to be special,” he shrugs.

It breaks Harry’s heart, absolutely and completely, but he doesn’t say anything more. He keeps cuddling Louis for as long as he can, until his bladder is really starting to mourn the skipping of his morning wee and he finally gets up to actually start his day.

He spends the rest of the day responding to birthday wishes and returning phone calls, and later that night, Louis helps him make a roast for dinner and they spend the evening curled up together on the sofa watching all of Harry’s favorite films. It’s probably the loveliest birthday Harry’s ever had, but all he can think about as he cuddles up naked and exhausted beside Louis that night is that Louis deserves the very best birthday Harry can give him, and he intends to make that a reality the second he figures out how.

-

Harry goes out the following night to celebrate with his friends, but he makes it short and sweet so he can get home and continue planning Louis’s very belated birthday. Despite what Louis said, Harry’s already ordered him a few gifts that should be arriving any day now. He’s got the whole thing planned out in his head; he just needs to wait for a night when Louis falls asleep in Harry’s bed so Harry can make sure he won’t wake up and ruin the surprise.

That night comes at the end of the following week, when Harry’s acquired all of the supplies he needs to make the best Christmas in February that Louis’s ever seen. Harry’s never pulled off a successful surprise in his life, but Louis doesn’t seem to have a clue as to what’s to come, so he thinks he might be able to make this work.

He makes a roast dinner on Friday night, and they eat together in the formal dining room, because Harry knows that Louis likes how luxurious that room feels, and Harry would quite literally do anything for him. He makes sure to get at least two glasses of wine in Louis during dinner, but Louis goes for the third of his own volition after they’ve finished, and Harry would be lying if he said he doesn’t enjoy how giggly and cuddly Louis gets when he’s happy and full and pleasantly tipsy.

They turn in early that night, cuddling up together in Harry’s bed just after eleven. The alcohol puts Louis out like a light, but Harry keeps cuddling him for a while, partly to make sure that he won’t wake up when Harry gets up but mostly because he can’t bear to leave him when he’s so soft and sweet like this.

He manages to get up eventually, though, and tucks Louis carefully into the covers before he sneaks out of the bedroom and down the stairs. He heads straight to the basement, where he’s hidden everything he needs for Louis’s surprise, and drags it all upstairs without making too much noise.

He works until the sun has nearly risen, assembling the plastic Christmas tree and stringing lights all over the living room, covering the tree in garland and baubles and all the glitter from the bottom of the cardboard box everything was stored in. He delicately wraps all of the gifts he got for Louis and leaves them under the tree, and then flops down on the sofa to admire his work. It’s taken hours, since he had to be so sneaky and quiet about it, but it’s absolutely worth it, he thinks; he can already imagine the smile on Louis’s face when he comes downstairs in the morning and sees it all.

He passes out on the sofa by accident, even though he had every intention to go back upstairs and get a few hours of well deserved sleep beside Louis. It’s only a few hours before he’s being poked awake, though, and he blinks his eyes open to find Louis kneeling on the floor beside the sofa, looking overwhelmed and every bit as happy as Harry imagined.

“Good morning,” Harry grins sleepily, sitting up and pointing to the tree. “Merry Christmas!”

“Is,” Louis pauses, glancing at the tree and then back to Harry, blinking quickly. If Harry didn’t know any better, he’d say Louis’s eyes are a bit wet. “Is this for me?”

“Yeah,” Harry says, folding his hands in his lap. “I know it’s not quite as special as a real Christmas, or birthday, but I wanted to help make up for lost time,” he shrugs.

Louis beams, scrambling up off the floor and throwing himself at Harry. Harry catches him instinctively, cherishes every second Louis keeps hugging him, and then pinches at his hip.

“I know you said you didn’t want me to give you presents,” Harry says, “but I couldn’t resist.”

“You wanker,” Louis says, laughing giddily, sliding off the sofa and back onto the floor. “Should I open them?”

“No,” Harry says. Louis gives him a look, unimpressed, and Harry grins. “Yes, obviously.”

Louis turns back to the tree and takes a few moments to just look, a soft smile still stuck on his face. Harry doesn’t rush him, understands that Louis is probably incredibly overwhelmed.

Eventually Louis crawls a little closer to the tree, reaching for the smallest box and pulling it into his lap. He angles body mostly away from Harry, probably a little embarrassed, but Harry can still see what he’s doing as he slowly, carefully unwraps the gift.

Harry tried to stick to mostly practical things when he was picking out presents, because he thought Louis might appreciate those things more than flashy, expensive things, though he couldn’t resist getting Louis a couple of those, as well.

Louis pulls out the package of socks in the first box and laughs, hugging the package to his chest. “I’ve finally received socks as a Christmas present. I feel like I’m living in every coming of age Christmas movie at once.”

“You’ve never been gifted socks for Christmas? It’s, like, the quintessential bad gift,” Harry says, pulling a pillow into his lap and hugging it to his chest to appease the urge to hug the life out of Louis.

“We never really did Christmas gifts in my house,” Louis shrugs, smile slipping as he puts the socks down on the floor beside him. “Mum always just said we didn’t need material things, we should just be thankful we had each other. And that was fine, until we didn’t even have that anymore.”

Harry wants to cry immediately, feeling like he’s watching television as he watches Louis reach for the next gift. He has no idea what to say, so he just stays quiet, but Louis doesn’t seem to mind, or even notice, happily pulling open the second box.

It’s just a hoodie, the softest one Harry could find in the shop, forest green with a yellow Adidas label on the chest. Louis looks delighted, pulling it over his head quickly and looking at Harry, the hood mostly covering his eyes.

“How does it look?” he asks, pushing the hood off of his head and grinning up at Harry. Harry wants to kiss him so bad his entire body aches with it. The sweatshirt is a little oversized, exactly how Harry pictured it, and Louis looks so fucking cute Harry thinks he might burst into flames.

“Beautiful,” Harry says, biting down on the corner of the throw pillow in his arms when Louis blushes and turns away to open his next gift.

Louis pulls a pair of classic black and white old school Vans out of the box, and he instantly lights up, looking up at Harry again. Harry knew he liked them, because Harry’s got the same ones and Louis’s always eyeing them, but Harry’s shoes are much too big for Louis to borrow. Louis never even asked to borrow them, much less voiced his want for his own pair, but Harry likes to think he knows him well enough at this point that he knew exactly what he would like.

“Harry, these are expensive,” Louis admonishes, as soon as he gets over the shock of having pulled them out. “I’ve seen them in the shops before.”

“They’re not expensive at all,” Harry says. “Even if they were, I knew you’d like them.”

“Much more expensive than anything I’ve ever owned,” Louis says. “I think my priciest pair of trainers were, like, fifteen pounds.”

“You’re worth it,” Harry says automatically. “You’re worth the priciest trainers in the world.”

“That’s just blatantly untrue,” Louis chuckles, reaching for the last box under the tree. “But thank you, Harry, really.”

“You’re welcome, really,” Harry says, smirking as he watches Louis unwrap the last gift. “If you thought the Vans were expensive, you’re going to kill me for this one.”

“Harry,” Louis growls lowly, giving him a look before he’s even got the box open. Harry just gives him his goofiest grin and waits for Louis to lift the top off the box, and then Louis falls completely silent.

“Do you like it?” Harry asks, watching Louis’s face nervously. “I can return it, if you don’t, it’s not a big-”

“No,” Louis says, still just staring into the box. “No, I love it.”

“Oh,” Harry says, waiting another few minutes before cocking his head and frowning. “Why haven’t you said anything?”

“It’s silly,” Louis says, finally cracking a smile. “Because this is probably no big deal to you at all, right? You probably looked at this and thought eh, might as well, right?” He looks up at Harry, eyes shining. “I remember being young, back when I was in school, looking at things like this in magazines and on TV and thinking how cool it looked, and mum said that someday I’d be able to buy whatever I wanted, to own all the dumb ugly things I liked,” he chuckles.

He finally removes the top of the box completely and lets it fall to the floor, pulling out the folded material inside the box. It’s a full Adidas tracksuit, just basic black with white stripes, and it only cost about a hundred and fifty pounds in total, but Louis touches it like it’s precious silk.

“She was always so sure that someday we’d strike it rich, and I never really believed her, but it was fun to dream,” Louis says, mostly to himself, holding the track jacket to his chest like he never wants to let go of it.

Harry has to blink back tears just watching him, because he cannot imagine what this must feel like for Louis right now. He’s right, Harry really didn’t think much about it, just had a feeling that Louis would enjoy feeling like an expensive housewife in athleisure clothes. He had no idea it would be so significant, that it would make Louis give him the soft, beautiful he’s giving him now.

“I,” Harry croaks, clearing his throat quickly. “I’m glad you like it.”

“I really do,” Louis says, carefully folding the jacket back into the box and climbing to his feet, shuffling over to bury himself into Harry’s side on the sofa. “Thank you. For all of this. You really didn’t have to.”

“I know,” Harry says, rubbing Louis’s back over his soft new hoodie. “But, like I said, you’re worth it.”

“I told you I didn’t want anything from you,” Louis says, pressing his face into Harry’s shoulder. “I never wanted anything from you.”

“I know, I know,” Harry says. “I was only going to get you practical things, like the socks and some more clothes, but I couldn’t resist. They’re gifts, anyway, I want you to have them, and I don’t want you to feel weird about accepting them. I’d be more hurt if you refused them,” he says.

“I feel bad, though,” Louis says. “I didn’t get you anything.”

Harry just smiles, wrapping his arms around Louis and holding him tight for a moment. He doesn’t tell Louis that he’s already given Harry so much more than he could ever know, doesn’t tell him that he’s everything Harry ever wanted, doesn’t tell him that the only thing Harry’s still aching for is to be able to keep him forever.

“You could go make breakfast while I have a nap and we’ll call it even?” he says instead, smiling back when Louis smiles up at him.

“Works for me,” Louis says, pecking a kiss to Harry’s cheek and then climbing off the sofa, disappearing into the kitchen.

Harry gets about another hour of sleep before Louis wakes him up with another, slightly more successful batch of pancakes, and they spend most of the day cuddled up on the sofa, worried about nothing except keeping all of their toes warm and tucked under the blanket they’re sharing.

-

It’s a rainy, miserable Friday afternoon, and Harry’s only just left the office when his phone starts buzzing from the cupholder where he dropped it when he got into the car. He picks it up without looking, expecting it to be his mum calling to chat and ask what he’s up this weekend, or Louis asking when he’s going to be home.

“Hello?” he says, as soon as the call connects through the bluetooth in his car.

“Harry!” Niall’s voice cheers, sounding surprised. “Christ, you answered on the first ring. Is the world ending?”

“Hi, Niall,” Harry rolls his eyes. “What’s going on?”

“Liam and I want a lads night out,” Niall says. “There’s a pub that just opened near Liam’s office, come with us.”

“Uh, I guess I can make an appearance,” Harry says, glancing at the time. He doesn’t want to be out late, mostly because Louis only sleeps in Harry’s bed when Harry goes to bed at the same time, otherwise Louis just goes to his own bed, and Harry was really looking forward to falling asleep next to him tonight. Maybe he should look into the fact that he’s most definitely addicted to falling asleep in Louis’s arms, but for right now it’s a pleasure he’s going to keep letting himself indulge in for as long as possible.

“Blessed are we,” Niall deadpans. “Meet us there at eight.”

“Can we make it seven? I’ve got to be up early tomorrow,” Harry lies.

“You need to stop spending so much time with old men, you’re getting boring,” Niall says. “Fine, see you at seven.”

That only leaves Harry a little over an hour to get home and change and beg Louis to wait up for him, but he’s sure it won’t be a problem. He knows that Louis will go out of his way to sleep in Harry’s bed just like how Harry will go out of his way to get him there, and he doesn’t think Louis will mind him having a night out, because he hardly ever goes out, anyway.

Louis is in the living room when Harry gets in, curled up on the sofa with a new book that he apparently dug out of the depths of the library. He looks up as soon as Harry walks in, smiling at him over the top of his book.

“How was work?” he asks, putting his book down on the coffee table when Harry shuffles over and attempts to curl up in his lap like a kitten. “Long day?”

“It was alright,” Harry says. “But I’ve been coerced into joining my friends for lads night tonight.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Louis shrugs. “Sounds quite fun, actually.”

“You can come,” Harry says, perking up to look at Louis’s face. “You should come! We can just tell the lads you’re a friend from work, or something.”

“No, that’s alright,” Louis says. “I don’t have any money, and I’d feel weird having you pay for me. I like the idea of going out, and everything, it just seems a little, I don’t know, frivolous, I guess, for me.”

“You know I don’t mind paying for you,” Harry says, gently, because he knows it’s a delicate topic. “Not like a couple of drinks is going to do me in.”

“I know, sugar daddy,” Louis teases. “It’s also, kind of, being around so many people makes me a little, like, uneasy, I guess. I’m so used to hiding, staying out of crowds, things like that, I don’t want to be seen or questioned or really noticed at all,” he says.

“That makes sense,” Harry says, putting his head back down in Louis’s lap for a moment, because Louis always plays with his hair when Harry does this and Harry can’t resist it. Louis doesn’t disappoint, burying his fingers in Harry’s hair and massaging his scalp sweetly.

“Shouldn’t you be getting ready?” Louis says, but he scratches at the back of Harry’s head just right so that Harry’s eyes roll back in his head.

“I don’t wanna go out,” Harry sighs. “I don’t need friends, anyway.”

“Go see your friends,” Louis laughs, pushing Harry out of his lap. “You turn them down every time they call, they’re going to think you’re being held captive, or something.”

“How do you know I turn them down?” Harry asks, sitting up tiredly.

“Because you’re young, you’re likeable, you’re fun to be with, it isn’t hard to imagine people constantly knocking your door down trying to hang out with you, and you never leave, so you must be turning someone down quite often,” Louis says. Harry frowns at him, so Louis shrugs. “Also, you talk quite loudly on the phone.”

“You had me going for a minute. Thought you were a detective or something,” Harry laughs. “Louis Sherlock.”

“It would be Louis Holmes, actually,” Louis says. “Sherlock is his first name.”

“Alright, brainiac,” Harry says. “Guess I’ll go get changed, then.”

Louis just hums, reaching for his book again and resuming his position curled up on the sofa as Harry sets off up the stairs.

Harry sheds his tailored work suit and makes his hair look a little less formal, running his fingers through it a few times to disturb the gel in it and let his curls fall free. He takes his time picking out his outfit, because it isn’t very often he gets to dress the way he wants to, and when he does, he likes to make a statement. He goes with a baby pink sheer blouse with a sash around the neck, only buttoning it up about halfway and leaving the sash tied loosely around the opening. He picks out a pair of plain black jeans to go with it, just because Niall will absolutely laugh at him if he goes too far, and they’re only going to a pub, anyway.

He finds his favorite pair of loafers and a black suede coat, faux fur lined to keep him warm. There’s nothing worse than a February night in London, he thinks, tucking a pair of gloves into his coat pocket and heading back downstairs.

“Wow,” Louis says, watching Harry over the back of the sofa. “You clean up good.”

“Thank you,” Harry grins, leaving his shoes and coat by the door and strutting over to the sofa, doing a twirl when Louis just keeps staring. “Sure you don’t want to come out? We could pretend we don’t even know each other, I’ll pick you up at the bar and buy you drinks and take you home with me, and everyone will think I’m the casanova the media likes to pretend I am,” he jokes.

“I’m tempted,” Louis says, sighing wistfully. “But no. Still don’t like the idea of having drinks bought for me, even if I’m being picked up by some mysterious, gorgeous stranger,” he says.

“Gorgeous, hm?” Harry says, swiping the book out of Louis’s hands and straddling his lap. Louis laughs, holding Harry’s hips and watching him with sparkling eyes. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were flirting with me right now,” he says.

“Good job you know better, then, huh?” Louis teases, pinching Harry’s hip. “Get off me, you weirdo.”

Harry hums, swooping down to steal a kiss before climbing gracelessly off of Louis’s lap.

“Right, I’ll try to be home by eleven, or so,” he says, slipping his shoes and coat on by the door. “I’ll have my mobile, so call me if you need anything. My card is saved in my laptop if you want to get pizza or anything,” he says.

“Okay, dad,” Louis says, already ignoring him. “Have fun.”

Harry rolls his eyes, blowing Louis a sarcastic kiss and then letting himself out the front door. He jogs down the walkway to his car, his fingers already frozen, and spends a moment just sitting in the heat blasting through his air vents, warming up a bit before he even puts the car in reverse. His uncle built this massive, stupid house from scratch, and still didn’t add a garage, Harry thinks bitterly. Maybe in the spring Harry will have a garage put in so that he doesn’t keep freezing his arse off every winter for the rest of his life.

He arrives to the pub a few minutes early and takes it upon himself to get a table near the back, where it’s quiet and a little bit less crowded. As much as he enjoys going out with his friends, he does enjoy it so much more when he can actually have a conversation with them without having to yell.

Niall and Liam arrive a few minutes after seven, both of them plopping into the booth opposite Harry.

“Harry!” Liam cheers, reaching across the table to pinch Harry’s cheek. He’s like a nan, honestly. “Where have you been, mate? We haven’t seen you in ages!”

“Oh, you know, just, busy,” Harry says, sipping gingerly at the drink in front of him. “Running the company, and all that.”

“What do you even do there that keeps you so busy?” Niall asks. “I thought you just own it. You know, signing shit and whatever.”

“I do a lot more than signing shit, Niall,” Harry says, unimpressed. “I make a lot of important financial decisions, manage the annual budget, keep the shareholders and investors up to date-”

“Sounds like a lot of signing shit to me,” Niall says. “But I guess I wouldn’t know. Never run a worldwide online marketplace, have I?”

Harry smiles, turning his attention back to his drink, but Liam snorts.

“I think he’s keeping something from us, Ni,” Liam says. Honestly, fuck Liam and his big mouth. “Some mystery man, or something.”

Harry chokes on his drink, nearly spitting up on the table. He breaks into a rather unattractive coughing fit, and by the time he calms down, Niall and Liam are both just staring at him.

“Oh my god,” Niall says. “Who is he?”

“Who?” Harry splutters. “What? Who says I have a mystery man, that doesn’t even make sense-”

“You totally do!” Liam says, much too loud. “Look, Niall, he’s blushing!”

“I’m not blushing,” Harry hisses.

“He’s blushing,” Niall says. “Holy shit, he’s got a boyfriend.”

“No!” Harry says, giving them both the most stern look he can muster. “Shut up.”

“Maybe we’re wrong,” Niall shrugs. “If he was getting laid regularly, he wouldn’t still be like,” he gives Harry a very judgmental onceover, “that.”

“Hey, fuck you,” Harry says. “Getting laid regularly doesn’t mean I have boyfriend.”

“So you are getting laid regularly?” Liam says, shocked. “Wow, Harry, I never pegged you as a friends with benefits type of guy.”

“Oh my god,” Harry says, “this isn’t happening.”

“I hope you’ve never pegged him at all,” Niall says, pulling a face. “Jesus, are you the mystery man?”

“No,” Harry says loudly, reaching over to clap his hand over Niall’s mouth. “Liam, do not say anything.”

“I’m not, but I kind of wish I was,” Liam says. “No strings attached sex with Harry Styles? Girls worldwide are fainting-”

“Liam, what did I just say,” Harry sighs.

Niall pries Harry’s hand off of his mouth, cackling. “Tell us who he is!” he demands. “Or at least what he looks like. I’m still picturing you and Liam and, honestly, it’s not as pretty as it could be.”

“Hey!” Liam says, looking genuinely hurt. “That’s bloody rude.”

“Jesus, I’m not drunk enough for this,” Harry mutters, rubbing at his eyes.

“Well, c’mon then, lad, bottoms up,” Niall says.

“I told you, I have to be up early tomorrow,” Harry says. He doesn’t, really, but he doesn’t want to be smashed when he gets home to Louis, and he also doesn’t really want to be hungover tomorrow, or he won’t get any writing done.

“So?” Niall says, already getting up to pay the bartender a visit. “First round’s on me.”

Harry sighs, because he knows that that means there’s no way he’s getting out of here anything less than tipsy. He doesn’t completely throw caution to the wind until round three, though, and by then he really can’t be held accountable for anything, and by the time they all decide to call it a night, Harry’s resigned to ordering an uber because he can hardly even walk in a straight line, let alone drive home himself.

Waiting outside in the cold for the car brings him down a few levels, and after Liam and Niall have both been dropped at home, Harry finds himself trudging up the walkway to his own front door, giddy at the fact that the light is on in the living room, which means that Louis is still up. It’s not even midnight, so he’s got no reason to think that Louis waited up for him, but the idea of getting to see Louis right now is sending his drunk brain into happy spirals all the same.

He closes the door a little too loudly behind himself, and Louis’s head peeks up over the back of the sofa quickly. He’s still curled up in a blanket, like he was earlier, book in his lap, but he’s switched positions and there’s a closed pizza box on the coffee table, so Harry’s got reason to believe that he moved at least a few times while Harry was gone.

“Hi,” Louis says. Harry can’t see his mouth, but his eyes crinkle and go all squinty, so he knows he’s smiling. “How was your night?”

Harry doesn’t answer immediately, wrestling his coat off and shedding his shoes on his way over to the sofa. He climbs right into Louis’s lap, knocking his book to the floor and probably losing his page, but Louis doesn’t seem to mind.

“I love my friends,” Harry says. “They’re dickheads, but they make me laugh.”

“That’s good,” Louis says, petting his head sweetly.

“I want you to meet them someday,” Harry says. “You’d get on so well.”

“Invite them over sometime,” Louis says. “Maybe I’ll get over my fear of people. Well, people who aren’t you,” he says.

“No,” Harry pouts, hugging Louis around his waist.

“No?” Louis asks.

“Changed my mind,” Harry says. “Gonna just keep you.”

Louis laughs quietly, slipping one hand up the back of Harry’s blouse to rest over his skin and combing his other hand through Harry’s hair. “I’m not a pet, Harry,” he says fondly.

“Yes,” Harry giggles. “You are. You’re my little house cat,” he says, amused.

“Not a cat,” Louis informs him regretfully, tugging at his hair a little.

“Then why are you soft?” Harry asks accusingly.

“God, you’re so drunk,” Louis laughs. “C’mon, let’s get you upstairs, yeah?”

Louis manhandles Harry off the sofa, but Harry leads the way after that, dragging him right up the stairs and to his bedroom. Louis shows absolutely no signs of wanting to go to his own room, but Harry keeps an eye on him anyway as they change and climb into bed.

Harry cuddles straight into Louis’s chest, wrapping his whole body around him carefully. He’s always been a cuddly drunk, but he’s never wanted to cuddle someone as bad as he always wants to cuddle Louis. They’re quiet for a bit, Louis’s hand finding its way back into Harry’s hair, but Harry can’t fall asleep.

“Hey, Lou?” he says, looking up at Louis’s face. Louis twists his head a bit to look down at him, humming quietly. “Sorry about what I said.”

Louis frowns, hand stilling. “What did you say?”

“I know you’re not a cat,” Harry says. “When I said you were my house cat, I didn’t mean that. You’re not a pet.”

“I know,” Louis laughs, pressing a quick kiss to Harry’s forehead.

“I just don’t want you to think that I think I own you, or something,” Harry says, close to tears suddenly for no reason. “I respect your autonomy, and I want you to know that.”

“I do know that,” Louis says.

“I know that I don’t have to take care of you, that you don’t even want me to. I know you’re strong, the strongest person I’ve ever met, and you can take care of yourself and you don’t need me at all, but you stay anyway. You can leave, obviously, whenever you want to, but please don’t. Please let me keep you,” he whispers.

“Where is this coming from?” Louis asks, stifling a laugh. “I’m not leaving. I’m not going anywhere.”

“I just really like having you here,” Harry says. “And I’ll be okay if you go. But I really don’t want you to.”

“I promise I’m not going anywhere, Harry,” Louis says. “I’ll stay for as long as you’ll have me.”

“Forever,” Harry says quickly. “I’ll keep you forever. But, like, not as a pet.”

“Jesus Christ,” Louis laughs. “Can you shut up and go to sleep?”

“Okay,” Harry says, snuggling down into Louis’s chest. “Wait, one more thing?” he says, looking up again.

“Yes?” Louis asks, patient as ever.

“If you were a cat,” Harry mumbles, eyes mostly closed, “I’d totally adopt you.”

“That’s creepy,” Louis says sweetly. “You’re so drunk and weird, please go to sleep now.”

“Okay,” Harry whispers, pressing his face into Louis’s neck and finally letting his eyes fall all the way closed. Louis keeps him close, doesn’t seem to mind at all that Harry is drooling on his neck, and keeps playing with Harry’s hair until Harry passes out.

Harry will wake up tomorrow with a headache and a stiff neck and a stomach ache, but he’ll wake up still wrapped up in Louis’s arms, so it’s really not that bad. He could probably write entire novels about how good this feels, about how lovely it is to be so close to Louis’s heart, how lovely it would be to be welcomed in someday. Maybe he’s already welcome, maybe he’s already made a home in there without even knowing it, and that’s why being held like this feels so much like coming home after years at sea. He thinks he’s got time to figure all that out, though.

-

When inspiration hits, it hits hard, and once the weather starts warming up from the dreary, slushy sleet hell that was February, Harry’s ability to string words together starts coming back, as well. He’s able to begin the process of turning all of his notes and rambling streams of consciousness into an actual story, and it’s starting to take up all of his time, because for the first time in a long time, he loves what he’s writing, and he finds it difficult to stop once he’s gotten going.

It’s one of those days today, because the sun is making a rare appearance over London and Harry can’t get enough of the way it lights up the sunroom, how warm it feels on his skin even through the glass. Louis must be starting to feel a bit neglected since Harry’s been spending his every free moment alone and writing, and he brings him a fresh cup of tea every few hours, even though Harry hardly drinks them. Louis never interrupts him, just switches out his cold tea for a new one and leaves quietly, closing the door behind him on the way out. Harry appreciates him so much, thinks he should absolutely tell him the second he comes up for air, but he’s far too busy now.

Harry thinks Louis understands how distracting he is to Harry, has seen how frustrated Harry is at the end of an unsuccessful day of writing and knows that he should leave Harry alone when he manages to get himself in the zone. Harry still finds himself getting distracted sometimes, even when Louis is nowhere near him; sometimes just knowing that Louis is somewhere in the house, doing whatever it is that he does when Harry isn’t looking, is enough to make Harry feel like he needs to take a break just to go look at him.

When Louis comes in with the third cup of tea for the day, leaving it quietly on the corner of Harry’s desk, Harry drops his pen and calls out before Louis can get far. Harry’s mostly moved from handwriting his notes to using his old typewriter now that he’s moved on to writing actual narrative, because he can type faster than he can write and it’s much more legible in print.

“Wait,” he calls to Louis, reaching out for him. Louis stops at the door, looking surprised, but he comes shuffling back to the desk when Harry keeps reaching for him.

“Hm?” Louis hums, moving Harry’s tea out of the way before sitting down on the edge of the desk.

“Thank you,” Harry says, resting his head on Louis’s thigh. “I keep meaning to tell you thanks for the tea, so, thanks for the tea.”

“You’re welcome,” Louis chuckles, running his fingers through the hair at the back of Harry’s head. “Are you having a productive day?”

“Yes,” Harry says, turning his head the other way to look at his notebook. Louis keeps playing with his hair, and he can’t stifle the yawn it drags out of him, as hard as he tries.

“Well, don’t work too hard, okay?” Louis says, smoothing down Harry’s hair and then patting his head to tell Harry to move so he can get up. “You’ve been pulling a lot of late nights.”

He’s not wrong; Harry’s been staying up until nearly sunrise almost every night the past week, just trying to get down everything in his head. He’s been working from home more often than not lately, but he does still have to go into the office a few times a week, and it’s really starting to get in the way of his creative process. He never knew he even had a creative process, but he does, and it’s solely comprised of sitting at this desk from the moment he wakes up until the moment he goes to sleep.

“I’ll try,” Harry says, sitting up and reading over the few lines he wrote last. Louis leaves quietly, taking all the warmth in the room with him, so Harry cradles his new tea in his hands for a few minutes and waits for the words to come back into his head.

Contrary to Louis’s wishes, Harry spends the rest of the evening working, skipping dinner and working straight into the night. He doesn’t know what it is about this story, but he can’t wait to tell it, can’t wait to put it out into the world and let everyone read it.

When he finally reaches a comfortable stopping point, somewhere around midnight, he stores his finished pages neatly away in his desk drawer and heads to the kitchen to have a piece of toast before he goes upstairs, finding Louis already fast asleep in his bed.

It’s not surprising anymore to find Louis in his bed, but Harry thinks there will never come a day that it doesn’t warm his heart. Ever since he told Louis that he likes sleeping beside him, Louis’s been spending more and more nights in here, especially on the days when they haven’t seen each other much, because Harry’s been working or writing or otherwise distracted. It’s like Louis misses him, wants to be next to him whenever he can, even if they’re both asleep, and it makes Harry so happy he could cry just thinking about it.

He changes into his pajamas and brushes his teeth quickly, and then climbs into bed beside Louis and wraps himself around him, because the bed is always so cold when he gets in and Louis is always so nice and warm.

Louis blinks awake, like he usually does when Harry cuddles up to him like this, and turns over, giving him a sleepy smile. He’s such a light sleeper, which Harry hates, but he’s always so sweet when he’s just woken up, even if he’s not completely awake.

“How’s the book coming along?” Louis asks, nuzzling into Harry’s chest slowly. “I told you not to work too hard.”

“Sorry,” Harry chuckles quietly, pressing a gentle kiss to the top of Louis’s head. “I couldn’t help it. I’m really happy with it.”

“Well, good,” Louis says, pecking a kiss to Harry’s collarbone, because it’s all he can reach, and then promptly goes back to sleep.

Harry grins, pulling him a little closer and hooking his chin over his head, listening to Louis’s steady breathing as he slowly drifts off to sleep, too.

-

Weekends are Harry’s favorite time, because he can spend as much time alone in the sunroom writing his book as he wants without having to worry about work or any other commitments, except for Louis. Louis knows better than to try to bother him, though, because Harry’s too deep in his head to even hear him, usually, and Louis would rather just be elsewhere than be ignored.

It’s all fine, until late Saturday afternoon, when the past six months finally, inevitably come to a head. Harry’s written almost an entire chapter of his book today, and he’s still going strong, until Louis comes running to the sunroom.

“Harry,” he says, wincing apologetically when Harry looks up. “There’s someone at the door.”

“Who is it?” Harry asks distractedly, finishing the sentence he’s writing.

“I don’t know,” Louis says, bouncing over to Harry’s desk and trying to pull him out of his chair. “I don’t like to answer the door, you know that.”

“Can you please just answer the door?” Harry says, shaking him off. “It’s probably just the mailman, or something.”

“Harry,” Louis whines, pulling at his arm again. “I’m not comfortable opening the door. This isn’t my house. What if it’s someone who isn’t supposed to know that I’m here?”

“Fine,” Harry sighs, finally letting Louis pull him up and out of his chair. “But you’re coming with me,” he says, grabbing Louis’s hand and dragging him to the front door.

“No!” Louis shrieks, but he’s laughing, weakly trying to pull his hand out of Harry’s. “Let go of me!”

“Nope,” Harry grins, holding Louis’s hand tighter as he reaches for the door handle. Louis nearly twists his arm off in an effort to hide behind him when Harry opens the door, and the second he does, he wishes he’d let Louis go and hide like he usually does when there’s someone at the door.

“I knew it!” Niall shouts, but all Harry can hear is blood rushing in his ears, and he drops Louis’s hand so quickly Louis almost falls over.

“Uh,” is all Harry’s able to produce, staring in shock at his two best friends who are staring in equal confusion at the boy cowering behind Harry, all traces of laughter gone.

“I knew you were seeing someone!” Niall says, pointing at Louis. Harry whips around, finding Louis looking like he’s going to be sick. “That’s why you haven’t spoken to us in fuckin’ ages!”

“Niall, stop,” Liam says, always the calmer of the two. “We just wanted to check on you, Harry, make sure you weren’t dead, or anything. You haven’t answered our texts in a week,” he says, though his eyes are also stuck on Louis.

“Sorry,” Harry says quickly. He realizes he doesn’t even know where his phone is, let alone how many texts he’s accidentally ignored. “I think I lost my phone? I’ve been busy, also,” he stutters, making himself look just as guilty as he feels.

“Typical,” Niall says, rolling his eyes. He peers around Harry, then, at where Louis is still standing like a deer in the headlights. “Hi, I’m Niall,” he says, extending his hand to Louis.

Louis blinks, looking up at Harry quickly before pulling himself together just enough to speak. “Louis,” he says quietly, shaking Niall’s hand weakly.

“I’m Liam,” Liam says, shaking Louis’s hand as well. “I’d say Harry’s told us all about you, but that’d be a lie, honestly.”

“Why don’t you come in?” Harry says quickly, before Liam can say any more embarrassing things.

Niall and Liam accept the invitation happily, heading for the living room while Harry closes the door after them. Louis immediately makes for the guest wing door, but Harry catches his arm before he can get far, tugging him into his side.

“Please,” Louis breathes, eyes wide with panic. “I want to go hide.”

“I know you do,” Harry says lowly, “but please don’t. It’s going to be so much more awkward if you’re not with me right now.”

Louis whines a little bit but lets Harry drag him to the living room, where Niall and Liam are already settling on the sofa.

“So,” Harry says, clinging to Louis’s hand even when Louis tries to tug it away. “Uh, what’s up with you guys? Did you want to hang out?”

“Sure,” Liam says, “we haven’t seen you in ages.”

“Shall we go to the pub?” Niall suggests happily.

Louis squeezes Harry’s hand so hard Harry has to fight to not wince, glancing over at Louis.

“Uh, actually,” Harry says, staring at Louis so the guys won’t be able to see the gears turning in his head, “Louis was just saying he wasn’t feeling very well, right, Lou?” he says, a hint of desperation in his voice that he hopes only Louis can detect.

“Right,” Louis croaks, still squeezing the life out of his hand.

“Maybe we can just stay in?” Harry suggests. “Order in, watch a film?”

“Or,” Louis says quickly, forcing a manic little smile. “You could just go out without me?”

“We wouldn’t leave you when you’re feeling poorly, love,” Harry says, squeezing back when Louis digs his nails into the back of Harry’s hand. “Would we, lads?”

“Guess not,” Niall frowns, giving Liam a sideways glance. Liam looks just as confused, but he nods, so Harry tosses them the remote.

“Great,” he says, “you guys pick a film, and Louis and I will go make some popcorn,” he says, dragging Louis to the kitchen.

“I thought we were going to order in?” Niall says, giving Liam another look.

“Right, order whatever you want,” Harry says. “This’ll just be an appetizer.”

With that he disappears into the kitchen with Louis, finally allowing Louis to rip his hand away from Harry’s.

“What the fuck,” Louis says, voice low.

“Please just pretend,” Harry says, reaching out for him. Louis steps back quickly, giving him a look.

“I want to go hide,” Louis says, crossing his arms over his chest. “I don’t like this.”

“I know,” Harry says, dragging Louis as far away from the doorway as possible so that Niall and Liam won’t hear them. “But if you do that, I’m going to have to tell them everything, and I don’t know how that’ll end, especially for you,” he says. Fear flashes in Louis’s eyes, and Harry feels horrible, but he needs Louis to understand the gravity of the situation. “Or, you could come sit with us and watch a movie and we can kick them out as soon as it’s over,” he says.

Louis sighs, rubbing at his face a little. “I don’t like this,” Louis says again, but he lets Harry hug him this time, so Harry thinks maybe they’re getting somewhere.

“It’ll be fine,” Harry says. “We just have to act like a couple in front of them so that they don’t ask any questions, okay? They think you’re my secret boyfriend, so let’s just keep them thinking that, and we can figure it out later,” he says.

Louis blinks, nodding belatedly. Harry gives him a quick hug and then rushes to make some popcorn, even though he feels like if he eats anything right now he’ll just sick it back up out of anxiety.

Niall and Liam are bickering when Harry finally drags Louis back into the living room, popcorn in hand. They’re scrolling through Netflix, arguing about which film to choose, and Harry settles down on the opposite end of the sofa and pulls Louis down to cuddle right under his arm.

“Niall already ordered several pizzas,” Liam says, rolling his eyes. “We hope that’s alright with you guys.”

“I love pizza,” Louis says, suddenly as perky as Harry’s ever seen him. Harry glances over at him, surprised, and Louis just gives him the most sickly sweet smile he’s ever seen and pinches his hip way too hard.

Harry assumes that means the show is starting now, so he does his best to not look as terrified as he is of what Louis is going to do tonight.

As the evening goes on, though, Harry realizes he has absolutely nothing to be scared of. Louis is perfectly lovely, as charming as ever, and he’s got both Niall and Liam wrapped around his finger before the pizza even arrives. Harry’s also enjoying the feeling of being cuddled up with him like this much more than he probably should be, but it feels so good to hold Louis against his side like this, to not have to worry about going too far, because he can just blame it all on wanting to be believable. Louis doesn’t seem to mind, either, going as far as to trace little patterns on Harry’s thigh through his joggers even when the others aren’t looking.

“So,” Liam says, after the pizza is gone and the film is almost over. “Why haven’t we heard about you at all? You’ve been keeping Harry under lock and key, hm?”

Harry’s heart seizes up, but Louis plays it off perfectly, laughing and squeezing Harry’s thigh. “Quiet, this one, isn’t he?” he hums, smiling fondly at Harry. If Harry didn’t know any better, he’d think it was genuine. “I’ve been begging him to introduce me to his friends, but I guess I’m just a dirty little secret after all, huh?” he says.

There’s some bite behind his words, something Harry absolutely needs to read into later, but for now he just laughs awkwardly, pinching the back of Louis’s arm out of sight.

“How did you two meet, anyway?” Niall asks, spread out on the sofa like he owns the place. He’s got one leg draped over Liam, and Liam keeps trying to push him away, but Niall doesn’t seem to be getting the hint.

Before Harry can panic about the question, Louis giggles quietly, running his hand through Harry’s hair and tugging just a little bit as if to tell him to stay quiet.

“Well,” Louis says, like he’s about to tell a very long and complicated story. Harry is terrified. “My father owns a small chain of hotels throughout the UK, and we have a location in West London, where Harry’s company happened to be having a conference in our function room one random weekend. I happened to be visiting my father while mum took my sisters for a girls’ holiday in Ibiza, which I was very rudely not invited to, but I was scoping out all of the daddies at the conference thinking I’d just have myself an ogle, but then I found myself in the toilets at the same time as our lovely Harry. He might have splashed a bit of wee on me while he was staring at me instead of paying attention to his business and, well, long story short, it was love at first sight,” he says, smiling sweetly at Harry.

“Classic Harry, gets a boyfriend by pissing on him,” Niall snorts. “That’s cute, though. Happy for you two.”

Harry just smiles, entirely bewildered, and Louis leans in to kiss his cheek once Liam and Niall look away. “Looks like I’m not the only storyteller here, hm?” he murmurs against Harry’s skin, winking when he pulls away.

Harry would be lying if he said he wasn’t impressed, but he’s also a little bit intimidated, and a lot confused by how easily and seamlessly Louis was able to pull that story out of his ass. Something about it seemed rehearsed, like Louis has imagined that scenario in his head before, and Harry adds it to the list of things he’s going to have to ask Louis about later.

They finish watching the film quietly, but Harry isn’t even paying attention, his brain hyper focused on the finger Louis keeps distractedly tracing up and down his thigh. When the film finally ends, Louis, like the perfect little actor he apparently is, shifts a little bit like he’s uncomfortable and presses his face into Harry’s neck with a quiet whine.

“We should go, Niall, Louis doesn’t look so good,” Liam says, finally succeeding in shoving Niall’s leg off of him.

“Sorry for dropping in, lads,” Niall, giving an almighty stretch before getting up off the sofa. “We really just wanted to make sure Harry wasn’t dead, but it was nice meeting you, Louis. We should hang out again sometime.”

“Absolutely,” Louis says, but he stays curled up on the sofa even when Harry gets up to see Niall and Liam out.

Louis is spread out on the sofa when Harry comes back, arm draped over his face dramatically. Harry snorts and lies down on top of him, kissing the bottom of his chin, because it’s the only part of him he can reach.

“Thank you for indulging them,” Harry says, kissing at Louis’s neck a little. “They never would have taken no for an answer.”

“Mm,” Louis hums, moving his arm to glare down at Harry. “You owe me. That was so stressful.”

Harry laughs, sitting up and pulling Louis up as well so he can hug him properly. Louis melts into him, tucking his head under Harry’s chin so Harry will keep cuddling him.

“What the hell was that story you told?” Harry asks after a moment, rubbing Louis’s back gently. “It was so intricate.”

Louis freezes up a little, and Harry can feel his pulse stutter against his palm where he’s still rubbing his back. Harry frowns, pulling away to look down at him, and Louis squeezes his eyes shut.

“Woah, what?” Harry asks, because Louis’s already bright red, and Harry doesn’t even know what’s happened.

“This is so embarrassing,” Louis whines, leaning forward again to press his face into Harry’s chest. “God. Fuck.”

“What?” Harry hums, rubbing Louis’s back again.

“That was my imaginary life that I always fantasized about when I was little and life got too hard,” Louis says, voice muffled by Harry’s jumper.

Harry goes soft instantly, hugging Louis a little tighter. “That’s sweet,” he says, even as Louis attempts to bury himself fully in Harry’s chest.

“My name isn’t Louis.”

Harry blinks, panic beginning to creep up his throat, but Louis elaborates before Harry can even react.

“It’s Lewis,” he says. “Louis is all part of the fantasy. Lewis is so lame, so boring, not at all like the fantastic life I imagined for myself,” he says. “In my own little world, I was Louis, cool, exotic, exciting Louis, and when I met you, I hadn’t told anyone my name in years, and I’d been so caught up inside my imagination for so long, Louis was the identity I automatically picked when you asked,” he explains.

Harry pets at his hair, remembering the time a few months ago when Louis slipped and called himself Lewis. It had scared Harry so badly, made him so afraid that Louis was lying to him all along, but the explanation is just as endearing and mildly heartbreaking as everything else Harry has learned about him thus far. “Tell me about that world of yours,” he says, voice soft.

Louis sighs, apparently relieved that Harry doesn’t think he’s crazy. “I always imagined that my father was rich and owned hotels all over the world, and he could afford to take me and my sisters anywhere we wanted to go,” he says. “If we didn’t have a hotel there, he’d open one and take us as soon as it was ready. Mum was a model, and a designer, and she flew all over the world doing photoshoots and having meetings with important celebrities. Our lives were so glamorous and beautiful, and it was just so nice to escape our disgusting, angry little house sometimes and step into a world where, you know, maybe I could be exploring me dad’s new hotel in France, and I’d run into this gorgeous French boy and he’d be so enthralled and fascinated by me, and he would whisk me away and marry me, and he’d have some sort of fancy important job like a CEO or a doctor or something, and he’d be rich too, and we’d travel the world together doing all the anthropologist things I always wished someone would do for me in real life, like open more shelters for the homeless and give more aid to the poor,” he says, mostly in one breath, falling silent once he’s done. “I don’t know,” he says after a moment. “It was just nice to think about.”

It makes Harry a little dizzy to think about. He was growing up in the same city at the same time as Louis, and while Louis was dreaming about all of this, Harry was living it. His family wasn’t always so wealthy, but they were always well off, and when his uncle started Spark, things got a lot bigger a lot faster. Harry only knew wealth from the time he was very young, and he grew up with it, can’t imagine life without it, really, while all Louis could do was imagine a life with it.

“Can I tell you more things?” Louis asks, so quietly, looking up at Harry’s face.

“You can tell me anything and everything, always,” Harry says, combing a hand through Louis’s hair. Louis closes his eyes, putting his head back down against Harry’s chest.

“I started squatting because I wanted so badly to be rich, and to live in these houses that mum always took me by and told me we were going to live in one day. So, when I ran away, I decided I was going to live in them now. I would hide and watch the neighborhood, and I learned everyone’s patterns. I was able to tell when someone was on holiday, and who didn’t have someone house sitting, and how to avoid their security systems, and I figured out how to break in undetected, and then I just pretended to live in their houses until they came back. I never took anything, or touched anything, or did anything at all, I promise, except steal some food sometimes and sleep on top of their guest beds, but it was just so much fun pretending. I loved to walk around in people’s houses and pretend that all of their things belonged to me, even if just for a few hours. I guess it sounds pretty creepy.” he says.

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Harry says, throat tight at the image in his mind of Louis wandering through a random house, looking at things that didn’t belong to him, that would never belong to him, and wanting so desperately for them to be his. It’s heartbreaking, just like a lot of the things Harry keeps learning about Louis, but it only makes Harry want to hold him even tighter and give him the entire world.

“I spent a lot of time in this house,” Louis says, deathly quiet. “Like, a lot of time. Your uncle was never home, and then he stopped coming home altogether, and I figured he either moved or passed away or something, and I knew about the broken window at the back of the house because that was how I always got in. I don’t know why he never got it fixed. I like to think that it was because he knew I was coming in, and he wanted to let me because, like I’ve told you before, he was always so kind to me, he always helped me and gave me food when he saw me, and I don’t know if he knew that I was squatting in his guest wing but, if he did, he was very kind about it. Anyway, I stayed there for a few weeks after he stopped coming home, but then all of a sudden there were noises in the house again like someone was living here, and I figured the old man was back.”

“Me, it was me,” Harry realizes, looking down at Louis.

“Must’ve been, yeah,” Louis says. “I was in the living room the day you moved in, and when you started opening the door I bolted, locked myself in the guest wing and hid in the closet for about eight hours. I was too afraid to leave the house in case anyone was outside, so I just hid and hoped nobody would come into the guest wing. Someone tried the door, but I’d locked it, and they didn’t bother with it after that, so I figured I was safe until nighttime, and once the house was quiet I went out the window and stayed away for days.”

“It was me, I tried the door,” Harry says. “I thought it was so strange that it was locked, but I figured uncle locked it before he died, or he was trying to hide something, I don’t know, so I just didn’t bother with it. The house is plenty big enough without that wing, anyway, I never really needed it,” he shrugs.

“Yeah,” Louis says. “I kept watching the house for a while after that, and I eventually came back, because it was my favorite of all of them, and if I could just stay in the guest wing even when there were people in the house, I could almost pretend I belonged there. I usually left during the day, just in case, but I slept in there every night for months, only used the toilet in the middle of the night so no one would hear, only used the shower when I was sure no one was home.”

It should be creepy, probably, that Louis was living right under Harry’s nose this whole time, but instead all Harry can think is that he wishes he discovered Louis earlier, if only so he could have given him a more comfortable life earlier on.

“Every once in a while someone would try the door, but I always kept it locked, and you never tried very hard to get it open. I figured it was just curiosity that made you try it every now and again, but it scared the hell out of me every time. And there were times you almost caught me stealing food in the middle of the night, or just wandering around when I got too brave. I’m honestly surprised you didn’t catch me sooner than you did,” Louis muses.

“I wish I had,” Harry mutters, pressing his face into Louis’s hair. “I hate the thought of you living like that.”

“Honestly, it was the most comfortable I’d been since I left my foster home,” Louis admits. “But, anyway, I learned your schedule, realized you would leave for a week every two months, just like the old man did, and when you were gone, there was nobody home, and I’d have free roam of the house all week. I never did more than look at things, but I absolutely loved it. You didn’t change much from your uncle’s decor, but you just made everything look nicer, homier, and I loved looking at your things, wondering who you were, what you did, where you kept disappearing to every two months. That’s probably so creepy, even I think it is, but I couldn’t help it. Getting that glance into how you lived your life while I was living a life so completely different in the same house, it was… it was so interesting to me. Until that one fucking day you came home early, and I wasn’t expecting it, I was upstairs pretending to be a rich trophy wife and I heard a car in the driveway and started shitting it, but then I couldn’t hear you in the house, and I thought I was safe, so I grabbed some food and bolted back to the guest wing and you popped out of the bathroom like a bloody nightmare,” Louis says. “But, I suppose you know the story from there.”

Harry doesn’t say anything for a long minute, just keeps absently playing with Louis’s hair, staring into space.

“Sorry,” Louis says, sitting up and pulling away a little. “Sorry, that was probably too much.”

“No,” Harry says, shaking his head and watching Louis’s face for another long moment. “No, I’m really happy you told me, honestly. I’ve always wanted to know, but I never knew how to ask,” he says.

“Well, now you know all my secrets,” Louis says, looking down. “Please be gentle with them.”

Harry can’t fucking believe he’s even real, can’t believe how much he wants to hold onto him and never let him go, so that’s what he does, launching himself forward and hugging Louis so tight, making Louis squeak a little in surprise.

“It is weird that I want to make sure that you never want for anything for the rest of your life?” Harry says, voice muffled into Louis’s shoulder.

“I’m not a charity case,” Louis says, but he doesn’t pull away, just melts a little more into Harry’s arms.

“I know,” Harry says, smiling and squeezing him a little tighter. “That’s why I love you.”

The whole world freezes, including Harry’s heart, and Louis pulls away very slowly. Harry feels like his brain is moving in slow motion as Louis blinks at him, looking shocked and so, so confused.

“Hm,” Harry hums, frowning at Louis’s chest for a moment before looking back into his eyes. “Yeah, I said it. And I think I mean it,” he says.

Louis doesn’t say anything for the longest minute of Harry’s life, breathes in and then out very, very slowly. “Can I ask you something?” he says finally, eye contact unwavering.

“Of course,” Harry says, “anything.”

“Why did you say we had to pretend to be a couple in front of your friends?” Louis asks, his face unreadable.

“So that they wouldn’t ask questions we weren’t prepared to answer,” Harry says, frowning. “Because when they came in they assumed we were dating, and that’s easier to explain than that-”

“No, no, I get that part,” Louis says, looking frustrated. “I just- why did we have to pretend?”

Harry blinks, brain short circuiting. “I,” he says eloquently, frowning and shaking his head. “What are you asking?”

“I mean, I guess I kind of thought we were already, like, you know,” Louis shrugs, blushing and looking down. “I’ve been sleeping exclusively in your bed for, like, a month now, and before that I was sleeping there almost every night anyway and, like, I’ve never been in a real, proper relationship before, obviously, but this is kinda everything I imagined it would be like,” he says.

“Are you trying to tell me you love me too?” Harry smirks, heart threatening to beat right out of his chest.

“Are you trying to tell me we don’t have to pretend to be in a relationship in front of your friends anymore because we actually are in a relationship?” Louis fires back.

Harry can’t help but laugh, scrubbing his hands down his face. He wants to say yes so, so badly, but part of him doesn’t think Louis understands what he’s getting himself into, wants to give him an out in case he doesn’t actually mean this.

“Love,” he says, “do you realize everything that comes along with being in a relationship with me? My friends are going to want to go out sometimes, like, out out, to pubs, and clubs, and whatever else we do on occasion, and being my boyfriend means you’re going to have to come out with us, at least sometimes. And also, like, you’re going to have to be in the public eye; I own one of the biggest companies in the world, people know who I am, people recognize my face, and of course we don’t ever have to actually come out if you don’t want to, hell, I’m not even out to the general public, really, but that’s going to have to be a thing that you’re okay with.”

Louis takes another slow, deep breath, eyes glued to the sofa between them.

“And, like, you’ll also have to meet my parents, and we’ll have to tell everyone the real way we met. You don’t have to tell anyone about your past, obviously, if you don’t want to, but we’re going to have to tell the truth sooner or later,” Harry adds.

Louis chews on his lip for a long moment, thinking it over, and then reaches for Harry’s hand. “But you’ll be right next to me the whole time, right? We’ll do it all together?” he asks, his voice so tiny, so hopeful, it makes Harry’s heart ache.

“Right next to you,” Harry says, squeezing Louis’s hand. “Always, love.”

Louis nods, cracking a tiny smile. “Then, yeah,” he decides, looking up at Harry’s face. “I think I can do anything, in that case.”

Harry beams, rolling his eyes quickly before he leans in and kisses Louis so, so gently, his boyfriend, the one thing he’s been aching for for months now, and he finally gets to keep him.

“I love you,” Harry says, cupping Louis’s face in his hands. “I do. I love you, like, a disgusting amount.”

“Good,” Louis says, laughing brightly. “Because I love you too, like, way too much.”

Harry’s so happy he could scream, but instead he just puts all of his energy into slamming his lips against Louis’s and kissing the daylights out of him. They head up to bed eventually, after cleaning up the pizza boxes and popcorn and everything else, and then Harry falls asleep beside Louis, his boyfriend, the person he loves, and nothing has ever felt so right.

-

Now that things with Louis finally have a label on them, leaving him at the end of the month to go on his stupid golf retreat is absolutely the last thing Harry wants to do. Louis is clingier than ever now that he’s assured himself he’s allowed to be, and Harry is absolutely loving it, even though it means he’s letting Louis distract him from his writing a lot more often now.

It’s one of those days today, the ones where Harry’s been barricaded in the sunroom working for hours and Louis is all but begging at his feet for a second of attention. He should be packing for the trip tomorrow, but he can’t pull himself away from his typewriter for more than the time it takes to use the toilet, and Louis has no qualms about voicing his distaste for the way Harry is spending his time.

“You’re about to leave me for a week,” Louis says, draped dramatically across the sunroom sofa, “and you haven’t even looked at me all day.”

“I’ve looked at you plenty,” Harry says distractedly.

“Harry,” Louis says, unimpressed. Harry doesn’t react, so Louis whines. “Harry!”

“I liked you better when you were afraid to interrupt me while I was working,” Harry mutters.

“I promise I’ll never interrupt you again if you pay attention to me right now,” Louis says.

Harry glances up at him, quirking his eyebrows in disbelief. Louis groans and drops his head back, and Harry ignores the theatrics in favor of writing a few more lines.

Louis gets up off of the sofa then, and Harry thinks he’s finally giving up, but he jumps when he feels Louis come up behind him, wrapping his arms around his shoulders.

“Take a break,” Louis breathes, kissing behind Harry’s ear.

“I’m on a roll,” Harry says, actively fighting to keep his cool.

“Take a break,” Louis repeats, running his hands over Harry’s chest. Harry sighs, trying to sound frustrated, but it mostly just sounds shaky, a little bit resigned.

“You’re ruining my flow,” Harry says, trying to shrug Louis away from where he’s kissing down his neck.

“You’re about to leave me alone in this big, empty house for five entire days,” Louis says, thumbs catching on Harry’s nipples through his jumper. Harry’s breath hitches, so Louis keeps the contact, rubbing his thumbs in hard, tiny circles. “I’m going to miss you so much. Won’t you miss me, too?”

“Course I’ll miss you,” Harry frowns, leaning his head back against Louis’s shoulder. “I miss you when you’re only just in the next room.”

“Then act like it,” Louis says, biting down sharply on Harry’s ear lobe.

Harry yelps, but Louis doesn’t give him much room to react, holding him down with the hands still pressed to his chest and kissing all along the shell of his ear.

“I’m sorry,” Harry says, shivering when Louis nuzzles behind his ear. “You inspire me so much. You put all these beautiful words inside my head, and I just need to get them all out.”

Louis pauses, and then pulls away, leaving Harry cold and startlingly aware of how turned on he is. “Keep writing, then,” Louis sighs, heading back to the sofa.

“Lou,” Harry frowns, worried he might have actually upset him. “I’m-”

“No, keep going,” Louis says, snatching a pillow off of the sofa and walking back to the desk, standing opposite Harry with the pillow hidden behind his back. “Go on. Get them words out.”

Harry smiles confusedly, but Louis just blinks at him, so Harry shakes his head to clear his mind and gets back to work, fingers tapping loudly on the keys. Louis lets him get down a few sentences before he drops to his knees, and Harry looks up just in time to catch him crawling under the desk.

“What on Earth are you doing?” Harry says, pushing his chair out a bit to look down at Louis, who is now kneeling under the desk on the cushion like a cat.

“Ignore me,” Louis says, reaching for the leg of Harry’s chair to pull him back in. “Keep writing.”

Harry waits a few moments to see what Louis will do next, but Louis is completely still and silent, so eventually Harry starts writing again, even though he can hardly focus on anything except what Louis is doing under the desk.

He feels Louis’s hands on his knees first, and he jumps a little, hands stilling on the keys. Louis freezes as well, until Harry starts typing again to finish the sentence he was working on, and Louis’s hands slide up his thighs in perfect time to the clacking of the keys.

Harry catches on quickly, realizing Louis is only going to touch him so long as he’s typing. Part of him wants to switch to a blank piece of paper and type nonsense just so Louis will get on with it, but he thinks half the fun is trying to keep himself together enough to make coherent sentences, so he just takes a deep breath and carries on.

Louis carefully unties the knot of his joggers and then starts tugging them down, which Harry has to lift his hips a bit to help him with. Louis gets his joggers and pants all the way down to his ankles, and Harry feels absolutely bizarre sitting bare arsed in his office chair in the sunroom, exposed from every angle, his cock half hard and a little confused where it’s lying against his thigh.

Louis kisses up and down the inside of Harry’s thigh, and then repeats on the other thigh, until Harry is hard and the words are coming a little slower, his mind a little foggier. Louis slows his pace to match the tempo of Harry’s typing, and Harry desperately tries to get himself together, to get the words to keep coming so Louis will keep going.

He gets to a good bit of action in the plot, much easier to write than trying to come up with pretty description, and he finds that he’s able to pick up the pace again, which Louis rewards him for by licking at the head of his cock, startling a moan out of Harry.

Like clockwork, Louis stops the instant Harry does, so with shaky hands and his brain all fogged up again, Harry keeps writing. Louis swallows him down slowly, his mouth wet and hot around him, and Harry uses every ounce of his energy to focus on continuing to produce words instead of just mindlessly clacking against the keys so Louis will continue.

Louis is good, too good for Harry’s brain to fight against, which means that this quickly becomes the slowest, most teasing blowjob Harry’s ever received. Louis doesn’t fool around, sucks long and slow and hard, pausing every time Harry does. Eventually Harry’s so hard, so turned on he can’t bear it, he drops his hands to his lap to grab hold of Louis’s hair, try to get him to do something, anything, but Louis holds his ground like a pro, sits there with Harry’s cock in his mouth and does nothing, forces Harry to breathe through it and keep writing.

It goes on for fucking ages, stopping and starting until Harry’s got sweat dripping down his spine, fingertips buzzing with the feeling of having been so close for so long, and Louis’s hardly come up for air, Harry doesn’t know how he’s doing it. Then again, though, Harry doesn’t know much of anything right now, including his own name and what the hell comes next in the story he’s writing, but he knows how good it feels when Louis swallows him all the way down and holds him there, warm and wet and unmoving as long as Harry’s fingers are, and Harry wants to cry at how close he’s been for so long now.

“Louis,” he pants, finally, the first word either of them have spoken since Louis first crawled under the desk. “Fuck, I can’t, please-”

Louis just moans around him, giving him one good bob of his head, and then taps his knee to get him to keep writing. Harry sobs, gripping the edge of the desk so hard his knuckles turn white, but Louis’s going to finish what he started, no matter what Harry says.

Harry chokes back another frustrated sob and types out another sentence, gritting his teeth as the slow pace of his fingers dictates the slow suction of Louis’s mouth. Harry’s so close he can taste it, can almost smell it, and at this point Louis is moaning around his cock with every bob of his head, and Harry can’t possibly last another second, can’t write another word-

He finishes his sentence and punctuates it with a gargled scream, his hands slamming down on the desk as he finally comes, hips pushing up into Louis’s mouth. Louis takes mercy on him, blessedly, sucking him fast and hard and letting him twitch through the aftershocks, not pulling away until Harry collapses back in his chair, absolutely spent.

“Fuck,” Harry says, using the last of his brain cells to push his chair back with his toe, looking under the desk at Louis. “Fuck, Louis.”

Louis is a sight to behold, eyes wide and glassy and red, his entire face flushed and sweaty like he’s just run a marathon. His lips are so swollen, his mouth red and wet and so tempting Harry slides right off his chair onto the floor, dragging Louis into his lap and kissing him hard.

He manages to get his hand down Louis’s pants, but Louis doesn’t take much work, whines high and desperate into Harry’s mouth, fingers clawing at his shoulders as he comes into Harry’s hand, hips jerking uselessly in Harry’s lap. Harry strokes him through it, and then some, until it’s almost too much, just to give Louis a taste of his own medicine.

Louis leans back against the front of the desk when Harry lets him go, closing his eyes and catching his breath. Harry slumps forward into his chest and curls up between his legs, hardly even minding that he’s still naked from the waist down on the floor of the sunroom.

They stay like that for a while, Louis stroking Harry’s hair so nicely Harry nearly falls asleep on him, but the cool tile floor under his arse keeps him awake.

“Sorry for ignoring you,” Harry says, voice slurred with exhaustion. “Especially because I’m sure everything I wrote in the past hour is absolute garbage.”

“If what you wrote is half as pretty as the noises you were making, I think you’ve got a bestseller on your hands,” Louis says, pressing a kiss to Harry’s sweaty hairline and running the palm of his hand down Harry’s back.

The sun is starting to set outside the windows, and Harry still hasn’t even thought about packing for his trip, but all he can really think about at the moment is Louis, anyway. He has no idea how he’s going to drag himself out of this boy’s arms in the morning to leave him behind for a week, how he’s going to be able to stay away knowing what he’s missing, but the thought of how sweet it’ll be when he gets to come home at the end of the week almost makes it bearable.

-

It’s not warm out, not in the slightest, but the golf trip is, after all, meant for golfing, and as long as there isn’t any snow on the ground, it’s all anybody wants to do. Aside from Harry, that is, who’d rather be anywhere but here, bundled up to his ears in his warmest winter coat even though it’s not even that cold, Styles, put some meat on those skinny bones and man up.

He’s doing a terrible job of golfing today, but he can’t be bothered to try very hard, because his fingers are nearly frozen solid as it is. He doesn’t know how anyone could find this enjoyable, but he seems to be the only one that minds the cold.

“You’re doing a terrible job, Styles,” Richardson says, leaning on his golf club casually, like the wind isn’t numbing him to the core like it is to Harry.

“It’s bloody freezing, Richardson,” Harry hisses. His teeth are chattering. He wants to go inside.

“It’s eight degrees!” Richardson says. “It’s practically summer!”

“Hardly,” Harry says. “Feels like two degrees.”

“It is quite chilly, I think,” O’Sullivan chimes in. Harry loves him. “Styles is young, Richardson, let him be.”

“Got to make a man out of him somehow, hm?” Richardson says.

“First of all, that’s an outdated concept,” Harry says. “Secondly, you think making me golf in the freezing weather will make a man of me?”

“It’s not the golfing or the cold, Styles,” Richardson says. “It’s overcoming obstacles, doing things that are unpleasant because ultimately the good outweighs the bad, and we’re all just in it for the end goal, aren’t we? Golfing in March might seem trivial to you now, Styles, when you’re still coming down from the high of a fancy business degree and you’ve got no idea how the world works yet, but someday you’re gonna learn that life is just a whole lot of golfing in March for the sake of having a warm house to go home to.”

It’s a load of shit, probably, a lot of words with not a lot of meaning behind them coming from a mouth that doesn’t quite connect to the brain controlling it, but it still gives Harry pause, makes him think for a moment.

Somehow, it makes him think of Louis, of their situation. Right now, the biggest problem on his plate is the issue of coming out, both privately and publicly. Ideally, he’d love to tell his family and friends about Louis as soon as possible, but he doesn’t know how to, doesn’t know what will happen if he does. Similarly, he absolutely wants to be out and proud in the public eye in the near future, but the thought is still terrifying underneath all of the appeal of being a young, successful gay man.

Richardson’s got him thinking, now, that maybe the coming out process is his golfing in March, and being able to be with Louis without having to keep it secret will be the warm house he gets to go home to. For the first time since Harry figured out exactly how Louis fits into his life, he’s realizing they’ve got so much more to figure out, and suddenly the whole world is a lot more daunting than it was a few minutes ago.

“Earth to Styles,” Richardson says, snapping his fingers too close to Harry’s face, making him jump. “Bollocks, the cold’s frozen his brain, now. C’mon, lad, finish this round and I’ll buy you a drink tonight at dinner.”

It’s enough to get Harry to finish the round, but he’s mostly stuck inside his head the entire time. Unsurprisingly, all he wants is to go home to Louis, but it’s only the first day of the trip, and he’s got a lot more of this to do before he can go home and start trying to figure this out with the only person that makes anything make sense anymore.

The men give Harry a little while to thaw once they go inside, and Harry uses the blessed few hours of free time to have a long, hot shower and then curl up in his cold, crisp hotel bed and call Louis.

“International house of pancakes, Robert speaking,” Louis answers the phone.

“Oh, I must have the wrong number,” Harry says, grinning up at the ceiling. “I was looking for my cute, weird boyfriend.”

“Oh, just a moment,” Louis says. Harry hears him put the phone down, make a terrible static sound with his mouth, and then pick the phone up again. “It’s Louis. Go.”

“You’re so bizarre,” Harry laughs. “What are you doing?”

“Very important things, Harry, very important,” Louis says. Harry doesn’t say anything for a minute, and Louis huffs. “Alright, I was eating grapes. What are you doing?”

“Thawing,” Harry says. “It’s freezing out, and they made me play golf.”

“Gross,” Louis says. “Did you win?”

“Not even close,” Harry hums. “I suck at golf, actually.”

“Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me,” Louis says.

“I miss you,” Harry says, ignoring the blatant jab.

“You’ve been gone, like, twelve hours,” Louis says, amused.

“Has it only been that long?” Harry says, glancing over at the clock. “God, I can’t remember a time I wasn’t on this trip.”

“Did you call me just to tell you’re absolutely whipped and missing my dick so much you don’t even know what day it is?” Louis says, munching loudly on what Harry assumes is another grape.

“Actually, I was hoping to talk to you about something,” Harry says, rolling onto his side.

“That sounds ominous,” Louis says. “What’s wrong?”

“Just,” Harry sighs, squeezing his eyes shut as he tries to put his thoughts into words. “Like, I think that we need to finish golfing, even though it’ll be difficult and uncomfortable, probably, because it’s cold and miserable and hard, but we won’t be able to come home until the golfing is done.”

Louis doesn’t say anything for a moment, and Harry’s heart is in his throat, until Louis takes a very slow, deep breath.

“What the fuck are you on about?” Louis asks, but his voice is gentle, which only serves to further jumble the thoughts in Harry’s head.

“Us,” Harry says. “Because we’re together now, properly, and I don’t want it to have to be a secret. So we need to figure out a way to fix that so that we can cross the bridge and come out on the other side.”

“So you want to come out?” Louis says. “Can we speak English here?”

“Sorry,” Harry mumbles, rubbing at his face. “I think Richardson was right when he said my brain froze outside.”

“I’m not afraid of coming out, if that’s what this is about,” Louis says. “I don’t like the idea of people knowing who I am, but I already told you, I could get over anything as long as I know you’ll be there helping me.”

“I know that,” Harry says. “So, maybe this is more just my problem than it is yours,” he sighs.

“Your problems are my problems,” Louis says. “Whatever happens, I’m always going to be here to support you however I can, because I know you’d do the same for me,” he says firmly.

“I love you,” Harry says, smiling a bit.

“I love you, too,” Louis says. “You know this isn’t something you have to do, right? You don’t owe it to anybody to come out, not even your family. You don’t ever have to tell anyone anything, and I’ll never resent you for choosing not to,” he says.

“I know, I know, but this is something I want to do,” Harry says. “Ever since I first accepted myself for who I was, I decided that I wanted to help other people do the same thing. If I can be something for little queer kids to look up to, someone who’s successful and well known and a good influence who’s also openly gay, I want to be that. I wish that I’d had that growing up, and I want to be that for someone else. It’s just- it’s scary,” he admits.

“It’s terrifying,” Louis says. “But you’re the bravest, most amazing person I’ve ever met.”

Harry wants to ask if Louis’s ever met himself, because Harry would kill to be as brave as Louis is, but instead he just accepts the compliment quietly. “Thanks.”

“We can talk about it when you get home, yeah?” Louis says. “Figure it all out together.”

“Yeah,” Harry says. “Right. I should go, I’ve got to make myself look presentable for dinner and I’m currently naked in bed with wet hair.”

“Lovely mental image, I’ll be saving that for later,” Louis says, cheeky. “Have fun at dinner, love, I’ll talk to you soon.”

“Okay, love you,” Harry says, waiting for Louis to hang up the phone first. He spends a long few minutes lying there, staring at the wall, before he finally rolls out of bed to pull on a pair of jeans and a soft knit jumper.

By the time he shows up at the hotel bar, the others have already claimed a table in the corner, so Harry shuffles right over to join them. Richardson makes good on his promise to buy him a drink, which just sets the ball rolling, and within an hour everyone’s on their third drink while Harry’s still nursing his first.

Everyone’s a bit looser with a few drinks in them, and it makes them a little more likely to say whatever they’re thinking, and a little less likely to remember exactly what they said the next morning. Harry thinks he might be able to use that to his advantage, but he waits until round four before he dares to open his mouth.

“Just out of curiosity,” he says, once there’s a natural lull in conversation, “in today’s society, do you think it’s important for people in high positions to be completely honest about who they are? Even if it would tarnish their image in some people’s eyes?” he asks, playing with the corner of his napkin and avoiding meeting anyone’s eyes.

“Depends on the situation, I think,” O’Sullivan says, shrugging one shoulder. “But if it’s something that’s important for the world to know, then I think transparency is very important.”

“What qualifies as important for the world to know, though?” Harry asks. “Like, sexual orientation, for example. Is that something that the world has any business knowing?”

“No,” Richardson says immediately. “I think a lot of the kids your age in the world right now could benefit from sharing a little less about that part of themselves,” he says.

“I disagree,” Patterson says, quietly. “I think it’s important for kids to have good role models who are different, whether it be their sexual orientation, race, gender, whatever. I think it’s good for people to have positive influences who represent them.”

“Don’t you think that that might influence them a little too much, though?” Richardson says. “Like, if they’re looking up to some gay CEO, you think that’s not gonna sway their life choices?”

“No, because I don’t think being gay is a life choice,” Patterson says. “I didn’t really understand it much myself until my nephew came out last year. He’s nearly thirty years old, was married to a woman for years, had two children with her, and it took him until just last year to realize he was gay. He’s still the same person, nothing’s changed about him at all, except that he left his wife and got a boyfriend, and he’s happier than I’ve ever seen him. He swears up and down that he doesn’t regret a thing about his life, but that having someone to look up to and to help him educate himself from an early age would have saved him a lot of grief,” he shrugs.

“That’s beautiful,” Harry says, smiling down at the table.

“Well, I suppose that’s one way to look at it,” Richardson says. “I guess it’s a different world now, anyway. Who am I to say that someone shouldn’t be who they want to be just because I disagree with it?”

“I agree with Patterson,” O’Sullivan says. “From a progressive standpoint, I think it’s crucial for minorities in positions of power to be advocates for their kind,” he says.

“You think they have a responsibility to be vocal about who they are?” Harry asks.

“Not necessarily,” O’Sullivan says. “I think that a gay CEO can be just as good as a straight CEO without the added stress of having to advocate for his community,” he says. “But I also think that the world needs more people who are willing to stand up for the ones that get trampled over.”

“I don’t like it,” Jenkins says from the other end of the table, a sour look on his face. “I think everyone should just keep their heads down and get their shit done, and whatever goes on behind closed doors is their own business.”

“It’s not always just closed doors, though, Jenkins, is it?” O’Sullivan says. “You bring your wife to the company Christmas party every year. By your logic, you should be leaving her home and not mentioning her to anyone ever, because she hasn’t got anything to do with your job.”

“My wife would never be left at home during a party,” Jenkins sniffs. “She’s a horrible gremlin of a woman. If I could leave her home, trust me, I would.”

“As always, Jenkins, you’ve missed the point by a mile, but it was an impressive shot,” Patterson says, mostly under his breath. Harry snorts, taking a quick sip of his drink to hide it.

“I hate to say it, but I think I’m leaning more toward O’Sullivan’s argument,” Richardson says. “We’ve gotten too old for the world, Jenkins. We’re living in the millenials’ world now.”

“I hate it,” Jenkins grumbles. “It’s awful.”

The conversation quickly devolves from there, and as they enter round five of drinks, Harry thinks he’s safe to call it a night, paying his tab at the bar and saying goodnight to everyone before escaping up to his room. He wants to call Louis again just to tell him that he’s feeling about ten percent more comfortable with the idea of coming out, but he doesn’t want to risk disturbing him, so instead he just changes into his pajamas and climbs into bed, spending a little while typing away in the notes on his phone all the thoughts that came to him during dinner. There’s a lot of things bumping around inside his mind right now, and they’re all still very frightening, but Harry thinks that once he’s able to get them all in order, everything will be fine.

-

It seems like the second Harry gets home from the golf trip, the whole world gets a little brighter, a little warmer, a little easier to bear. The warmer weather settles in over London like the cosiest blanket Harry’s felt, and even though it’s not quite warm enough to even be going around without a jumper yet, he’s been leaving the doors open in the sunroom to let the fresh air inside.

Something about the springtime is so inspiring to Harry, the way the breeze ruffles his hair and how the birds sing just out of sight in the trees, calling to one another all day long. Louis flits in and out like a bird of his own kind, slipping silently from the kitchen into the sunroom and straight out the door, disappearing for minutes, sometimes hours on end, only to return with a flush in his cheeks and some leaves and twigs stuck in his jumper and in his hair. He’s like the most beautiful forest nymph Harry can imagine, when he comes back inside after a frolic in the woods and plops down on the sofa across from Harry’s desk for a nap. If Louis was an animal, he’d be a house cat; even as a human, he’s at catlike as anyone, and Harry loves every bit of him.

Harry’s getting close to wrapping up his novel, which is both exciting and terrifying. He still doesn’t know how exactly it’s going to end, but he’s running out of story to tell, and he feels like the natural resolution may be coming sooner than he’s ready for.

Louis keeps asking to read what Harry’s written so far, but Harry doesn’t want him to see it until it’s finished, doesn’t want to even tell him what exactly it’s about until he’s sure he’s completely happy with it. He knows that Louis is going to have a lot of opinions about it, knows that he’s probably going to have to talk Louis into even letting him publish parts of it, but he’s already promised to let Louis be the first one to read it as soon as he’s finished, and Louis’s waiting as patiently as he can.

Since Harry’s been spending so much writing, and Louis can’t distract him with blowjobs as often as he tries, Louis’s been taking up some of the responsibilities around the house. It feels so lovely and domestic to come inside at the end of a long few hours of writing or after work and find that Louis’s cleaned the kitchen, or he’s done Harry’s laundry for him, or made something for dinner. Most of the time, Louis is content to just be in the same room as Harry, but he seems to enjoy the domestic duties as well.

It’s one of those days today, apparently, where Louis just wants Harry’s attention. He keeps wandering in and out of the sunroom, sitting down on the sofa for a few minutes only to fidget and then leave the room again. Harry pays him mostly no mind, until finally Louis just sits down in Harry’s lap, leaving little room for Harry to continue ignoring him.

“Thanks for dropping in,” Harry chuckles, leaning back in his chair to look up at Louis. “Do you need something?”

“I’m hungry,” Louis says, pouting dramatically. “Can you take a break?”

Harry hesitates, and Louis whines theatrically, flopping against Harry’s chest.

“Why don’t you make dinner?” Harry suggests, laughing as he pets at Louis’s back soothingly.

“Because I really want those tacos that you make sometimes,” Louis says. “The little ones with the chicken.”

“The recipe is in the kitchen,” Harry says. “They’re not very hard to make. And we should have everything to make them,” he says.

“You want me to make them?” Louis says apprehensively. “I’m not a very good cook.”

“You’re a fine cook,” Harry says. “Go on. The recipe is in on the shelf above the microwave.”

Louis sighs, sliding off Harry’s lap and trudging into the kitchen like Harry’s sent him off to do chores, or something. Harry watches him go until the sliding door is closed behind him, and then gets back to work, because he knows he’s got limited time until Louis inevitably comes back and makes him come help with dinner.

Surprisingly, Harry gets an entire thirty minutes of peace before Louis pokes his head back through the door. “Dinner’s ready,” he says proudly.

“Was it as miserable as you thought it’d be?” Harry asks, following Louis into the kitchen and allowing Louis to usher him into a chair so that he can serve him.

“Shockingly, no,” Louis says. “I actually quite enjoyed it. I never thought cooking would be fun, but I liked it,” he says, laying out his spread of taco fillings across the table and then sitting down across from Harry. “Think I might do it again sometime. Unless these are gross, in which case I’ll be happy to never touch raw chicken again.”

Harry snorts, grabbing a taco shell and loading it up with a healthy helping of each filling. Louis’s watching him eagerly, even though he’s trying to pretend he isn’t, so Harry makes a bit of a show of taking his first bite, chewing thoughtfully.

“This,” he says after a moment, watching Louis perk up, “is delicious.”

“It is?” Louis asks, quickly making himself a taco. He takes a massive bite, a smile spreading over his face while he chews. “Hm. It is pretty good.”

“I think you should be the resident chef from now on,” Harry says, talking through another bite of his food. “A little practice, you could be a culinary master.”

“Hush,” Louis says, but he’s grinning so brightly Harry feels like melting, and he’s got a bit of a blush high on his cheeks. “They’re not as good as when you make them.”

“I’ve had years of practice,” Harry says. “You think my first batch of tacos turned out this good?”

“Probably,” Louis says. “But then again, I think that everything you do is magic.”

Harry grins, staring down at his plate for a second. It’s not terribly often that Louis says things like that, just randomly and casually throws out a compliment, and it always catches Harry off guard when he does. Louis is always sweet, of course, is always lovely and affectionate and thoughtful, but every time he mentions having feelings that echo Harry’s own, Harry can’t help but feel like he’s flying.

Harry has every intention of going back to the sunroom to do some more writing after dinner, but Louis gets ahold of him before he can go, and they end up curled up together on the sofa in the living room for the rest of the evening. Louis ends up falling asleep right on top of Harry in the middle of a film, and Harry’s far too sleepy to get either of them up the stairs to bed, so he just tugs a blanket over them both and calls it a night, as well.

-

A couple of days later, while Harry’s working on a rather extravagant lunch as an apology for ignoring Louis so much lately, he hears his phone start ringing from the next room. It’s a Saturday, which means it isn’t anyone from work, which, in turn, means that it’s probably an emergency, since no one ever calls him without texting first.

He moves his stir fry off the heat and dashes to the living room to find his phone where he abandoned it on the sofa this morning, answering it immediately.

“Hello?” he says, probably sounding a little too worried, judging by the reaction he gets.

“Hey, it’s me,” Liam says, “is everything alright?”

“Yeah,” Harry says, frowning. “Are you alright? Why are you calling?”

“Because you never answer my texts, and I have a time sensitive question,” Liam says.

“Alright, valid,” Harry shrugs. “What’s up?”

“Niall and I were thinking of having a night out tonight, do you and Louis want to come out with us?” Liam asks.

“Oh,” Harry says, glancing around like Louis will be standing right next to him, even though he knows he isn’t. “Um, I’d love to, I just have to make sure Louis is up for it.”

“Listen,” Liam says, before Harry can say anything else. “I don’t want to overstep any boundaries, because you seem like you’re really into him, and he seems very sweet and very right for you, and Niall and I like him a lot-”

“Out with it, Liam,” Harry rolls his eyes, heading back to the kitchen to keep working on lunch.

“Sorry,” Liam mutters. “It just- it feels like there’s something you aren’t telling us, like you’re hiding something, and we’re worried. I don’t know, something about the situation just seems off. It’s not Louis, not at all, like I said, we both think he’s lovely, but something about the whole situation just seems, like, weird,” he says.

“Fuck,” Harry sighs, not bothering to move his stir fry back onto the heat. Instead, he just turns the stove off altogether, because this is probably going to be a lot longer of a conversation than he was expecting.

“Is everything okay?” Liam asks gently. “Where is he right now?”

“He’s in the shower,” Harry says, scrubbing a hand down his face. “God, alright, it’s happening.”

“What?” Liam asks, bewildered. “Just tell me everything’s okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, everything’s fine,” Harry assures him. “It’s just, okay- we have, like, kind of a weird relationship, I guess? Like, we didn’t meet the way Louis told you we did. It wasn’t like that at all, actually, that was a complete lie,” he confesses. “It was actually really, really weird, and probably kinda stupid on my part, and really dangerous,” he says.

“Jesus, Harry, what the fuck,” Liam says. “What the fuck did you do?”

“Fuck,” Harry groans, quietly. “Alright. He was homeless, and he broke into my house. That’s how we met,” he says.

Liam is deathly silent for a long, tense moment, so long Harry thinks the call must have dropped. Just when he’s about to pull the phone away from his ear to check, Liam shrieks.

What?!”

“Just, listen, okay?” Harry says. “Remember how I thought I had a ghost in my guest wing?”

“Yes?” Liam says, still frantic.

“It was him,” Harry says. “It was Louis. He was living in there for so long, since before my uncle even died, but he wasn’t doing anything, Liam, just sleeping in there,” he says.

“Harry,” Liam says, and Harry can picture him rubbing tiny circles against his temple. “I’m so worried, mate.”

“No, no, listen,” Harry says, but he doesn’t know what else to say, really, feels like he’s just making everything worse the more he talks. “So, in September, when I came home from my golf trip early, I caught him trying to sneak back into the guest wing. We talked, kinda, and he wasn’t doing anything wrong, Liam, honest, he just needed a place to stay,” he says.

“So you let him stay in your fucking house with you?” Liam asks, voice shrill again.

“Yeah, I did,” Harry winces. “We made a deal that I would let him stay here and share meals with me if he would let me study him for a character for my novel. It worked really well, honestly, and now the novel is nearly finished and everything's still fine,” he says. “It’s been months, Liam, and not a single thing has gone wrong!”

“Okay,” Liam says, sighing loudly. “So you’re not actually dating him, right? You were just lying because you didn’t know how else to explain all of this to us?”

“Um,” Harry says, squeezing his eyes shut. “Well, at the time, yes.”

“What the hell do you mean ‘at the time’?” Liam asks lowly.

“Well, after that night we had a discussion, because we were kind of dating, but not really, and I really like him, Liam, and I think I always did, and he felt the same way, and so after you and Niall left we talked and decided we’re kind of already in love, so we decided to make it official,” he explains. “And, like, yeah. Now he’s my boyfriend.”

“Jesus fucking Christ, Harry,” Liam sighs again.

“I swear it’s not as bad as it sounds!” Harry says. He can feel the way his face is flaming, can feel the searing heat of Liam’s disappointment in his gut, and he hates it, wants so badly for Liam to understand this and to accept it.

“Really?” Liam scoffs. “Because it sounds like you’re dating a homeless man who you don’t know, who broke into your house and lived in it for months under your nose, and has now tricked you into thinking you’re in love with him and that he’s in love with you too when, for all you know, he could just be using you for your money and your house,” Liam says.

“No,” Harry says immediately, confidently. “It’s not like that.”

“How can you be sure?” Liam asks. “Harry, do you hear yourself?”

“I’m sure, Liam!” Harry says, all but shouting. “He’s never asked for anything, he gets mad when I spend money on him, he’s uncomfortable all the time when I tell him that what’s mine is his. All he wants from me is to sleep beside me at night, Liam, does that sound like someone who’s using me for my money? Or someone who is dishonest in any way?” he bites.

“No,” Liam says hesitantly. “Not when you put it that way.”

“That’s what I fucking thought,” Harry says. He’s way too defensive right now, should probably just be thankful that Liam cares enough to call him out for what he thinks is dangerous behavior, but Harry will not stand for Louis’s character being doubted like that.

“Just be careful, okay?” Liam says, resigned. “It worries me that you made a decision like that without telling anyone, but I guess I’m happy it worked out.”

Harry goes soft, then, breathing all of his harsh energy out in one long breath. “I really do love him, Liam.”

“Well, if you two were actually being genuine the night Niall and I were there, then it seems like he really loves you, too,” Liam admits.

“He does,” Harry says immediately. “He really does love me too. He’s so sweet, Liam, really. He was kind of putting on an act the night you met him, but only because he was scared, and I told him he had to pretend. But he’s so sweet, and good, and special, and I want you to get to know him so badly,” he says.

“Well, come out with us tonight, then,” Liam says. “Let us get to know the real him.”

“Will you do me a favor?” Harry asks, before Liam can change the subject. “Don’t tell Niall everything I just told you? I shouldn’t have even told you, probably, without making sure it was okay with Louis first. He gets really embarrassed about everything, I think,” he says.

“I won’t mention it,” Liam says. “But you do need to tell him.”

“I will,” Harry says. “I promise. I’ll text you after I talk to Louis, okay?”

“Alright,” Liam says. “I’ll talk to you later, then. I really am happy for you, mate,” he adds, almost like an afterthought.

“Thanks,” Harry smiles. “I’ll talk to you later.”

He hangs up the phone and then drops his head against the cupboard door, letting all his breath out in a long, deep sigh. He has no idea how he’s going to tell Louis that Liam now knows everything, and that it’s still a secret from Niall, and that Harry’s probably just gone and made everything a million times harder than it has to be.

When he turns around, though, Louis is standing in the doorway to the kitchen in a t-shirt and a pair of joggers, hair still wet, looking absolutely scandalized.

“Oh,” Harry says, stomach dropping to his toes. “How- how much of that did you hear?”

“Most of it,” Louis says, voice small. “Mostly you defending me.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry says, rubbing harshly at his face. “Fuck, I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” Louis asks, sounding genuinely confused.

“I shouldn’t have told him all of that,” Harry says. “Especially without checking with you first.”

“Why not?” Louis frowns. “You told me you were going to have to tell them at some point, I should have been ready, anyway,” he says.

“But I should have checked with you first,” Harry says. “I should have made sure it was still okay.”

“What?” Louis says, shaking his head and scoffing a little. “That’s ridiculous. It’s fine.”

“Then why do you look so,” Harry waves a hand through the air, “like, shaken up?”

“Mostly because you told him you were in love with me,” Louis says, dropping his eyes to the floor. Harry’s stomach does a dangerous swoop, his heart stuttering.

“I tell you I love you all the time,” he says, frowning when Louis chuckles awkwardly.

“Well, yeah, but, like,” he swallows hard, still not meeting Harry’s eyes. “I didn’t know you were, like, in love with me,” he says.

Harry blinks, watching Louis for a long moment. “Am… am I having a stroke?” he asks.

“No,” Louis laughs, finally looking up at him. “I just- you’re really, like, serious? About me, I mean? You really love me like that?” he asks hopefully.

“Yeah,” Harry says, nervous. “I mean, you are too, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am,” Louis says immediately. “It’s just good to know I’m not alone in that,” he says, smiling softly.

“You’re never alone,” Harry says. “Never.”

Louis grins, but he looks emotional, gaze dropping to the floor. “Yeah,” he breathes, nodding once.

Harry shuffles over to him where he’s still just standing in the doorway, wrapping his arms around him and tugging him into his chest to hold him. They’re quiet for a few minutes, Harry’s chin resting atop Louis’s head, Louis arms locked low around Harry’s waist.

“That feels good,” Louis says after a while, speaking into Harry’s neck.

“The hug?” Harry asks, shifting to look down at Louis’s face.

“No,” Louis chuckles. “Well, yes, the hug feels good, too, I love when you hug me. But, I meant that it feels good when you say I’m not alone.”

Harry doesn’t say anything to that, because he doesn’t know what to say, so he just tucks his chin back over Louis’s head and keeps holding him.

“I’ve never not been alone, you know?” Louis says, sounding a little choked up. “Never. It’s nice to finally have someone who has my back.”

“I’ve got you,” Harry says, pressing a long kiss into Louis’s hair. “I’ve got every piece of you.”

Louis laughs, but he still sounds emotional, so Harry doesn’t let go, doesn’t plan to let go until every tear is dry.

“I’m so glad you didn’t believe Liam when he tried to tell you I’m only using you for your money,” Louis says. “I’m so fucking glad that you trust me.”

“I do trust you,” Harry says. “You’ve never given me a single reason not to trust you.”

“You’re right to trust me, I swear,” Louis says. “I would love you even if you were poor, too. I don’t love you for your money, I love you for your heart. Even if you were completely broke, I’d still be rich with you, because you have a heart of solid gold,” he says, pressing a gentle kiss right over Harry’s heart.

“That was so cheesy,” Harry says, but he’s grinning so hard his cheeks hurt.

“Fuck off,” Louis sighs, cuddling a little closer in Harry’s arms. “You’re the wordsmith, not me.”

Harry laughs, pulling away a bit just to swoop down and catch Louis’s lips in a kiss. He supposes that this means they’re going out tonight, then, so he’s going to have to get in as much solo time with Louis as he can stand before he’s not allowed to be all over him all night out in public. Something tells him it’ll be fine, that nothing in the world could damage the love he has for this boy, and the love that this boy feels right back.

-

The nice weather doesn’t last very long, and it’s back to rainy, dreary London within the week. The sunshine takes Harry’s inspiration with it when it goes, so he decides to tap into his secondary source of sunshine, which happens to be in the form of the boy that sleeps curled up against his chest every night.

As much as Louis hated the snow during the winter, he loves the rain, loves to curl up in the sunroom with a cup of tea and a book and read while the water rushes over the windows, falling all around him but never on him, like he’s in a cozy little bubble and protected from the world. Part of Harry likes to think Louis likes the rain so much because those are the days that he doesn’t have to compete to be the brightest thing in the world, but they both know there’s never any competition, anyway.

That’s exactly where Harry finds him today, curled up under a blanket on the sunroom sofa with a book in his lap, eating Cheez-Its out of the box. Harry loves him so much he could cry, shuffling over to sit down at the other end of the sofa and manhandling Louis’s legs until his feet are resting in Harry’s lap.

“Can I help you with something?” Louis asks, smirking at Harry over the top of his book.

Harry just hums quietly, sticking his hands under Louis’s blanket so that he can wrap his fingers around Louis’s dainty ankles, thumb rubbing over the bone gently. “What’s your dream holiday?” he asks casually, watching Louis’s face.

Sometimes, when Harry’s bored, he likes to sit around and pick Louis’s brain a little. Louis is so fucking smart, so much more intelligent than he gives himself credit for, and every now and again he says something so profound, so deep and thought provoking Harry can’t stop thinking about it for days.

Louis ignores him for a minute, nose still buried in his book, but just when Harry thinks Louis’s not going to answer the question at all, he puts the book down in his lap and looks up at the ceiling, watching the raindrops as they fall and crash against the glass.

“Mum always wanted to take us to Spain when we were small,” he says, finally, thoughtfully. “She talked about it all the time. She said that as soon as we won the lottery, she’d take us all on holiday to Spain, to the beach and the quaint little Spanish villas.”

“You still want to go to Spain, then?” Harry asks.

“I think I’d be happy anywhere with a beach, if I’m honest,” Louis says. “Even just in England. I think I’d be happiest near the ocean.”

“Have you ever been to the beach?” Harry asks, pressing his thumb into the soft skin underneath Louis’s ankle.

“No,” Louis sighs. “I’ve never even left London.”

“Wait, seriously?” Harry frowns. “You’ve never left the city in your entire life?”

“Never,” Louis says. “I’ve never had a chance, or a reason, really. I was born here, and mum could never afford to take us anywhere outside Whitechapel, and even when I ran away, I couldn’t imagine leaving the city. It’s all I’ve ever known,” he shrugs.

“Wow,” Harry says, putting his head down against the back of the sofa. He tries to imagine staying in one city for his entire life, never leaving the borders of London, and he instantly feels trapped, contained, like he needs to get out.

“I’ve always dreamed of a tropical holiday, though,” Louis says. “White sand beaches, one of those hotel rooms that looks out on the ocean with a big balcony so we can leave the doors open all night while we sleep. We can drink cocktails out of coconuts, and no one speaks English,” he says.

“That sounds lovely,” Harry smiles. It sounds like some of the holidays he’s been on before, and it makes him a bit sad, as usual, to think that he’s gotten to experience something multiple times that Louis’s only ever dreamed of.

“Yeah,” Louis says. “That’s not me hinting that I want you to take me on holiday, by the way,” he says, shooting Harry a playful glare. “I don’t even have a passport.”

“Fine,” Harry sighs dramatically. “What’s your dream house like?”

Louis looks a bit caught off guard, but he doesn’t ask why Harry’s asking, just looks up at the ceiling again and thinks for a moment. “This might sound a bit weird, but this is my dream house,” he says, blushing a little as he looks at Harry.

“Really?” Harry grins.

“Yeah,” Louis chuckles. “I can’t remember if I’ve told you this before, but mum used to take me house shopping all the time, especially before my sisters were born and it was just the two of us. She used to walk me up and down this street, in particular, and point out all the houses, telling me that one day we’d live in one of them. We watched this house being built, and mum said someday we’d build a house just like it. I think that’s why I started squatting in this neighborhood in the first place, because it was fun to pretend I lived in these houses like mum always said we would, but I especially loved getting to explore this one, because it was root of so many of mum’s fantasies,” he says.

“If I’d told you ten years ago that someday you’d be living in this house for real,” Harry says, “would you have believed me?”

“Not a prayer,” Louis smiles wistfully. “I grew up believing that hope was an evil thing, because I saw what it did to my mother. It made her crazy, chasing shadows of possibilities that didn’t even exist. So, I never hoped for anything. I let myself dream, of course, because I’d have gone crazy otherwise. But I never let myself hope for anything, because I didn’t understand how hope could bring anything but disappointment,” he says.

“That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard,” Harry says, squeezing Louis’s ankle.

“My mother spent a lot of time wishing on shooting stars,” Louis says, looking down and playing with the book in his lap to distract himself a little. “But every single star turned out to be a satellite.”

Harry blinks, looking down at the floor. There it is, he thinks, the profound thing that leaves him wondering for days how many more beautiful things are trapped inside this beautiful boy.

“At some point,” Louis continues, “you’ve got to blame something for all your trouble, so you start blaming the satellites, because it’s easier than admitting that you’ve done this to yourself. That was the concept my mother never managed to grasp.”

Harry doesn’t say anything, feels absolutely lost in everything Louis just said. He lets himself wonder, lets himself absorb every bit of the insight Louis’s giving him into his childhood, the rain still pelting down so hard outside the glass walls that Harry can feel it in his chest.

“It wasn’t bad all the time, though,” Louis says, like he thinks Harry feels sorry for him. Harry does feel sorry for him, but he knows that it’s a useless emotion, so he doesn’t ever voice it.

“Tell me about the good parts,” Harry says, shifting to face Louis a little more, Louis’s legs falling open to frame Harry’s thighs.

Louis gets this sad little smile on his face again, and he doesn’t quite meet Harry’s eyes, but Harry keeps watching him all the same. “We had this really old, really shitty telly in the corner of the living room growing up, and Mark sold our sofa to support his gambling problem, so we just had a bunch of blankets on the floor like a giant nest. Mum and I loved it so much, and every week we would make popcorn and cuddle up together in the blanket nest and watch the lottery drawing, and every week she would lose and kiss my head and tell me we’d get it next week, that one of these days it was going to be our turn, and I didn’t believe her, but I told her I did, because she had this sickness called hope and I couldn’t cure it for her, but I could make the symptoms easier to bear, and that was the least I could do for her,” he says.

Harry feels like crying, but he doesn’t, just pulls one of Louis’s feet back into his lap and keeps touching him, stroking the pad of his thumb in small, soothing circles over his ankle.

“Sometimes she would win a couple hundred pounds,” Louis says, smiling a little wider, “and she would convince herself that it was the beginning of her winning streak, and she and I and the girls would get all dressed up in our Sunday best which, mind you, was best by only our standards, and we’d go out for a fancy dinner or a show in west London and people would stare at us like wild animals, this dirty woman with her gaggle of dirty children, but we loved it, we had the time of our lives every time. Mum would spend every dime she won making us happy for an evening, and then we’d all go home and change into our pajamas and snuggle up in the blanket nest in the den to discuss the show we saw, and we’d all fall asleep all on top of each other on the floor even though we all had beds upstairs- well, I had a bed, Lottie and Fizzy had to share a bed in the same room with me, and the twins slept with mum and mark- but, anyway, those were our favorite nights,” he says, his smile turning sad again as he finishes his story.

“What did the girls think of everything?” Harry asks, gently, because he doesn’t want Louis to feel like he’s pushing, doesn’t ever want to make him feel uncomfortable.

“Honestly, they were too young to really know what was going on,” Louis shrugs. “Lottie wasn’t even ten when we all went into the system, and she’s the oldest of them. They didn’t realize that anything was wrong,” he says.

“Well, I suppose that’s kind of nice for them,” Harry says. “At least they didn’t realize they had anything to be wanting.”

“Yeah,” Louis says, distracted. “We were a happy little family, we really were,” he says. “You know, sometimes we’d have to go to bed hungry, and sometimes Mark was a dick, and sometimes mum would lock herself in the bathroom and cry for hours for reasons none of us understood but, other than that, things were never that bad.”

Harry can’t speak around the lump in his throat, can’t believe that even after all these years, Louis is still trying to convince himself that it wasn’t ever really that bad. He seems to know it now, though, if only by the look on Harry’s face, and he sighs.

“Okay, saying it out loud, it does seem pretty bad,” he admits. “But I swear, we were as happy as could be. We loved playing outside, climbing trees and playing football in the garden with Mark’s old deflated ball, and we didn’t have very many toys, but we were amazing at make believe, which we probably inherited from our mother,” he laughs sadly.

Harry smiles too, even though he still feels crying, and shifts around again, moving to lie down between Louis’s legs so he can rest his head on Louis’s stomach. He moves Louis’s book to the floor and steals a few Cheez-Its from the box, closing his eyes when Louis starts playing with his hair idly. “Tell me more stories,” Harry says, munching quietly on another cracker.

“I thought you were the storyteller here?” Louis says, tugging playfully at Harry’s hair. “You tell me a story, you never tell me about your childhood.”

“Uh, alright,” Harry says, quickly racking his brain for stories. “Um, I grew up north of London with my sister and my parents, and we were just a normal family, until my dad’s brother started Spark. My uncle never had any children of his own, because he never married; he was married to the company, which he started in uni. He loved Gemma and I like his own children, though, and he spoiled us rotten, and when he got rich he spent so much money on my sister and I and my parents. I was young enough that I grew up with that, and I never really knew what it was like to not have that much money. I mean, we were never poor by anyone’s standards, but when uncle made it big, it all benefitted us just as much as him, so, like, I was going to fancy events from the time I was six years old because uncle just wanted Gemma and I to have fun. And we always did, really, we loved getting dressed up and going to events and parties and all that. We really just loved uncle, though, like a second father. We spent so much time in this house, just playing in all of the rooms, and uncle loved having us so much. This was like our second home,” he says, grinning at the memories. “It was really hard when he passed away last year, because we were so close. I was so happy when he left the house and the company to me and Gems, though Gemma let me keep all of it because she’s got her life in west London, and doesn’t want the stress of running the company- but, anyway, I was really struggling when I moved in here, because I missed uncle so much and everything was so hectic and hard, but, honestly, you helped me long before I ever knew you,” he says. “I thought you were a ghost, when I heard all the little sounds you made in the night, and I thought that maybe you were uncle, still here with me, still looking out for me, and it helped me just enough to get through the grieving process before I finally met you,” he says.

“I didn’t know any of that,” Louis says, petting at Harry’s hair gently. “You really thought I was the ghost of your uncle?”

“I really did,” Harry chuckles, pressing his face into Louis’s stomach. “I’m so glad you’re not, though, of course.”

“I don’t think I knew any of that about you,” Louis says. “I guess I’m not the only private one, hm?”

“Guess not,” Harry says, relaxing his body on top of Louis when Louis starts scratching gently at his scalp.

They lie there like that for a while, listening to the rain, Harry listening to all of the little sounds Louis’s body makes under his ear. It’s so comforting to be reminded that Louis is human, that he’s real and he’s right here, and Harry never wants to let him go, to stop learning about him, to stop listening to him talk. Louis is the most interesting person Harry’s ever met, and he seems to be out of stories for the day, but Harry knows he’s got a million more somewhere in there that will keep Harry impressed and in love for the rest of his goddamn life.

Louis falls asleep like that after a while, hand still buried in Harry’s hair, but Harry’s got too many thoughts in his brain to doze off with him. He lies awake while Louis naps, replaying Louis’s stories in his mind until he’s got them memorized. He’s inspired again, just like he knew he would be after talking to Louis for a little while, but he’s content to just sit on all of these ideas for a while, to let them be as special to him as they are to Louis. Harry’s so lucky, so incredibly, stupidly lucky to have found this boy, and he’s never going to let him go.

-

“So,” Louis says, plopping down on the sofa beside Harry, nearly knocking the notebook right out of his lap. “I want to meet your family.”

It’s not the first time he’s asked, and it certainly won’t be the last time, but it will be one of the times Harry sighs and tries to avoid it for as long as possible, until Louis asks again. Ever since Harry started telling stories here and there from his childhood, Louis’s been mentioning that he desperately wants in on the family life. Harry’s been ignoring it, though, because he still doesn’t really have a game plan for telling his family about Louis, but Louis has graduated from dropping subtle hints to flat out asking Harry to invite his parents over, and Harry’s running out of ways to weasel out of it.

The thing is, Harry really wants to introduce Louis to his family, wants so badly for them to all like each other, to all love each other as much as he loves all of them. He wants that so much, but he has no idea if it’s realistic, if it’ll ever happen the way he wants it to, the way he knows Louis wants it to. His family is supportive, of course; they always have been, and Harry knows without a shadow of a doubt that they always will be. The thought of disappointing them, though, of bringing someone like Louis into their lives and having them disapprove of him, it would end him.

Louis doesn’t understand that, mostly because Harry’s hesitant to explain it to him. Harry doesn’t know to explain that it’s not Louis himself, it’s the situation, it’s the way they met and the implications behind what Louis did and how Harry responded. Harry’s almost certain that Liam’s knee jerk reaction to be suspicious of Louis will be the popular opinion of anyone who finds out how they met, and he hates the idea of having to fight over and over again to see Louis for who he really is. He’ll do it, of course he’ll do it, he’ll do it every day for the rest of his life if he has to, but it’s so upsetting, so difficult to imagine having to do so much fighting for someone so easily lovable, he wants to avoid it for as long as possible.

“Earth to Harry,” Louis says, lifting up one of Harry’s curls to speak directly into his ear. “Anyone in there?”

“You’re incredibly distracting,” Harry says, batting Louis’s hand away. “Do I not look busy, or do you just not care?”

“The second one,” Louis says, closing Harry’s notebook and tossing it to the floor so he can stretch out dramatically across Harry’s lap. Harry whines, waving his pen in protest, but Louis just snatches that as well and flings it onto the carpet with the notebook.

“Rude,” Harry says, crossing his arms over his chest to make it harder for Louis to nuzzle into his neck the way he’s trying to.

“Look who’s talking,” Louis says, nipping at Harry’s jaw. “C’mon, why do you keep ignoring me? You said yourself that part of being in a real relationship with you was going to be meeting your family and telling them the truth,” he says. “So, why aren’t we doing that?”

Harry shrugs, avoiding Louis’s eyes but finally allowing him to worm his way into Harry’s arms.

“Why do I feel like you’re hiding me from them?” Louis asks, his voice all soft and serious and a little bit sad, because he knows that Harry will never, ever ignore him when he uses that voice.

“I’m not,” Harry says, running his hands down Louis’s spine to rest at the dip of his waist.

Louis frowns, shifting to straddle Harry’s lap, hands coming to Harry’s shoulders to dig his fingertips in a little bit. “Are you hiding them from me, then?”

“I’m not hiding anything!” Harry says, exasperated.

“So then let’s have them over for dinner,” Louis says, smiling hopefully.

“No,” Harry says, looking away again.

“Jesus fucking Christ on a boat,” Louis mutters, “why not?”

“I don’t know,” Harry says, a little bit defensive. “I just- I’m nervous, I guess,” he shrugs.

“Nervous about what?” Louis says, softening considerably, stroking his hand over Harry’s cheek.

“I don’t know,” Harry says again. “All of it?”

Louis goes quiet, hands falling from Harry’s shoulders into his own lap. Harry can feel him spiralling, but he doesn’t know what to say, too scared of saying the wrong thing.

“You don’t think they’re going to like me,” Louis says decidedly.

“It’s not that they’re not going to like you,” Harry sighs, trying to tug Louis a little closer. Louis doesn’t budge, eyes focused on his own hands. They’re finally going to have to have this conversation, then, Harry thinks begrudgingly. “I think they’re going to love you,” he says, “I mean, what’s not to love?”

Louis glances up at him, eyes sad, resigned, but still willing to listen.

“I’m just afraid that they’re going to judge you, I guess? They’re going to judge you too soon, and judge me by extension, and they’re going to mess up their own perception of you before they’ve properly gotten to know you,” Harry says. “I’m just worried that telling them the truth too soon is going to wrongly influence their opinion of you as a person before they’ve gotten to know you,” he says.

Louis nods slightly, playing with his own fingers. “Are they typically prejudiced people?” he asks.

“No,” Harry says, considering for a moment. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Do they tend to judge people based on their social class?” Louis asks.

“I mean, not outwardly,” Harry says. “And not in a negative way, I think.”

“Okay, I clearly can’t read your mind through yes or no questions so could you please just articulate to me exactly how you’re feeling so we can have a real discussion?” Louis sighs, looking up at Harry tiredly.

“I’m afraid that they’re going to think the same thing Liam thought when he first found out,” Harry says, closing his eyes.

“Well, you did a wonderful job explaining it to Liam,” Louis says.

“Yeah,” Harry says, rubbing at his face.

“So, don’t you think you could explain it to your family, as well?” Louis says.

“I can try,” Harry says, pressing his fingers against his eyelids until it almost hurts. Louis wraps his cold, gentle fingers around his wrists and carefully pulls his hands away, not letting go until Harry looks up at him. “It’s just scary. I don’t want to have to argue with them, if that’s what it comes to.”

Louis nods, leaning forward to lay himself against Harry’s chest, head on his shoulder, worming his arms between Harry and the back of the sofa to hold him. Harry locks his arms around Louis’s waist, pressing his face into his neck.

“If they hate me, I promise, I’ll disappear,” Louis says, voice quiet, like he doesn’t want say what he’s saying. “I’ll leave, no questions asked, and you’ll never have to see me again,” he promises.

“What the fuck?” Harry sputters, tugging Louis back to look at him. “What? That’s not what I want at all,” he says.

Louis just frowns, confused, so Harry huffs and pulls him back into his chest.

“They could threaten to hang me for seeing you and I’d still be the most comfortable falling asleep next to you every night for the rest of my life,” Harry says firmly. “I don’t care what they think of you. I don’t care a bit. It’s never going to change my opinion of you. It’s never going to make me want to have you around any less,” he says.

Louis doesn’t say anything, just props his chin up on Harry’s chest and smirks a little bit.

“Fuck,” Harry says loudly, pinching Louis’s side hard. “Alright, you absolute twat, I’ll invite them for dinner this weekend.”

Louis cheers, peppering kisses over Harry’s face and then jumping off of the sofa, doing a stupid, endearing little dance next to the coffee table. “I’ll write up the grocery list!” he says, prancing off into the kitchen and out of sight.

Harry lets out the deepest sigh he’s capable of and throws his arm over his face, dropping his head back against the sofa for a few minutes. He can hear Louis messing about in the kitchen, snooping through the fridge and the pantry, and Harry decides that, yeah, no matter what happens, nothing is ever going to ease the jolt of adoration in his chest that accompanies every move Louis makes.

-

Saturday finds Harry and Louis in the kitchen for most of the day, trying to put together some ridiculously complicated meal that Louis found online and insisted they make for dinner tonight. Harry’s parents and sister won’t be arriving until seven, but they start the dinner prep in the early afternoon, anyway, mostly because neither of them have any clue as to what they’re doing.

It takes several trips to and from the grocery store and more than a few minor substitutions, but finally they end up with something that mostly resembles what Louis had in mind, and at this point, all Harry’s worried about is that whatever he feeds his family is edible.

It’s a roast pork, at the end of the day, covered in mounds of garnish and other rather unnecessary toppings that Gemma is probably going to just pick off and complain about anyway. Louis seems to have it in his head that Harry’s parents are more posh than the queen, so he’ll settle for nothing less than extraordinary, even though Harry’s mum and step-dad would probably be just as pleased with pizza and a beer.

When Harry invited them for dinner tonight, he was sure to be explicit that he wanted to introduce them to his new boyfriend. That way, at least they’ll have a vague semblance of what’s to come, although they’re probably expecting some posh executive's son, or something, and not a homeless boy that Harry literally dragged in off the street.

His parents have always been incredibly supportive, especially when he came out nearly ten years ago. They never questioned him, never tried to change him, only hugged him and immediately started listing off people they knew with single sons. Harry’s never had a proper relationship, never even had anyone special enough to mention to his family, let alone introduce to them, and in his line of work, he doesn’t meet very many young, eligible, gay bachelors. He’s really stumbled upon a miracle in Louis, and his family is probably thinking the same thing. He just hopes they keep thinking that once they know his history.

Louis has a brilliant way of keeping Harry distracted, keeping his mind off of the anxiety threatening to consume him, and as they finish up dinner, Harry’s nearly forgotten what it is they’re even cooking for. Louis’s got him laughing so hard he’s wheezing, flicking crumbs from the mess on the worktop at Louis in a weak effort to make him stop doing the ridiculous little dance he’s doing as he cleans up the stove.

When the doorbell rings, though, Harry snaps back into reality so hard he nearly chokes, breath catching painfully in his throat. Louis smiles comfortingly, darting over to give him a quick hug around the shoulders.

“It’ll be alright,” Louis says, speaking with his mouth pressed right to Harry’s ear.

“I should be saying that to you,” Harry says, because he should; Louis has infinitely more reason to be nervous than Harry does, but he seems as calm as ever, pulling away with a bright smile.

“Go get the door,” he says, poking Harry’s stomach and then snatching the dirty plate out of his hand to bring to the sink. “I’ll tidy up a bit more.”

Harry nods, brushing his hands on his apron and then slipping it off, hanging it over the back of one of the kitchen chairs before heading for the front door. His heart is in his throat, despite how excited he actually is to see his parents, hand shaking a little bit as he reaches for the doorknob.

“Harry!” his mum cheers instantly, pushing the door the rest of the way open herself and plowing her way directly into Harry’s arms. “Oh, it’s so lovely to see you.”

“Hi, Mum,” Harry says, hugging her back warmly. “Was the drive alright?”

“Oh, it was fine,” Anne says, pulling away and peeking around Harry’s shoulder. “Is he here?”

“He’s here,” Harry says, heart swooping at the reminder that everyone’s here to see Louis, here to judge him, to pick apart his life and-

“I thought it would never happen, but my baby brother is in love,” Gemma says dotingly. She steps forward to hug him as well, and Harry pinches her side just a little bit. “Where is the idiot?”

“He’s in the kitchen,” Harry says, pushing Gemma away lightly. “He’s just tidying up a bit. He insisted on making a big dinner and it got a bit out of hand,” he says, smiling at his feet.

“Oh, he sounds like a keeper already,” Anne says, clapping her hands excitedly. “What’s his name?”

“Louis, his name’s Louis,” Harry says, stomach settling a bit just at the sound of Louis’s name. “I think he is a keeper, mum.”

“I have to admit, I was with Gemma on this,” Robin laughs. “I thought you’d never find anyone. You’re always cooped up in this house of yours, hard to meet people without going outside. We underestimated you,” he says.

“Yeah,” Harry says, scratching at the back of his neck. “Uh, you’d be surprised how many things can happen without leaving your house.”

Gemma gives him a bit of a weird look at that, but Anne quickly diverts the attention, perking up at something over Harry’s shoulder. “Oh, hello!” she says, grinning back at Harry quickly.

Harry turns around, spotting Louis standing sheepishly in the doorway to the kitchen, looking happy but undoubtedly nervous. Here we go, Harry thinks, putting on his biggest smile and reaching out for Louis.

“Here he is now, man of the hour,” Harry says, keeping his arms extended until Louis walks over to implant himself into his side. “Everyone, this is Louis,” he says, though he can’t take his eyes off of Louis long enough to even do the introductions properly.

“Hi,” Louis says, extending his hand to Anne first. “It’s lovely to meet you.”

“Oh, come here,” Anne says, slapping Louis’s hand away and tugging him into a hug instead. Louis goes stiffly, and Harry knows how uncomfortable he is around strangers, knows he hates being touched or talked to before he’s gotten to know someone, but Louis melts like butter, hugging Anne back quickly. “I’m so glad to meet you, Louis.”

“I won’t make you hug me,” Gemma says, as soon as Anne lets go of Louis. She holds her fist out instead, and Louis hesitantly touches her knuckles with his own. “You must be pretty special, or pretty stupid. Harry’s never tricked anyone into falling in love with him before,” he says.

“Thanks, Gemma,” Harry grumbles, glaring at her even as Louis laughs.

“I’m Robin, I also won’t make you hug me,” Harry’s step-dad says, extending his hand for Louis to shake. Louis shakes it happily, and then blindly finds Harry’s hand with his own.

“It’s so good to finally meet you all,” Louis says, grinning at everyone. “Harry’s told me so much about you.”

“I wish we could say the same,” Anne says, shooting a quick glare at Harry.

“Uh, anyway,” Harry says, in an effort to change the subject, “dinner’s nearly ready.”

He ushers his family along into the dining room and then drags Louis to the kitchen, cornering him against the pantry door and kissing him quickly.

“Are you doing alright?” he says, brushing Louis’s hair out of his face and tucking the longest strands behind his ear. “Are you overwhelmed at all?”

“No,” Louis says, frowning up at him. “Are you?”

Harry pauses, blinking down at his feet. He was so worried about Louis being uncomfortable he forgot how uncomfortable he was himself. “A little,” he admits, tucking his face into Louis’s neck.

“It’ll be fine,” Louis says, hugging Harry around his waist. “They seem absolutely lovely.”

“You’ve said two words to them,” Harry says. “You can’t possibly know that they-”

“Oh, shut up, honestly,” Louis mutters. “C’mon, you walking tragedy, get the roast and I’ll bring the sides.”

It grounds him a little, how nonchalant and easy going Louis is about all of this. It brings him out of his head a little, makes it all seem a bit less serious, and his heart rate slows back to an almost normal pace as he follows Louis to the dining room with the roast on a platter.

Louis is his perfect, charming, lovable self, polite and proper but not so much that he seems fake, and by the time everyone’s got a helping of food on their plate, Harry’s sure that Anne and Gemma are both already plotting individual schemes to take Louis home in their pockets. Harry gets it, would very much like to stick Louis in his coat pocket on a cold day and have a little dose of sunshine whenever he wants, because that’s what Louis is; he’s warm, funny, can brighten a room better than anyone Harry’s ever met. Harry doesn’t know how anyone could ever meet him and not fall in love him, he has no idea what he was even worried about in the first place.

“So,” Gemma says after a bit, pushing some peas around on her plate. “How did you two meet?”

That. That’s exactly what Harry was worried about. This is it, he supposes, the minute it all comes down to, and suddenly every rational thought vanishes from his head. They planned for this, rehearsed their answer to this question a hundred times to make it sound casual, calm and nonchalant. Nobody was going to have any reason to have any qualms, and they were going to pretend it was all very normal until it was, but now Harry’s panicking, blood pressure already through the roof, and all he can do is look helplessly at Louis.

Instead of taking over for him, giving their very careful account so Harry won’t have to, Louis just smiles and takes Harry’s hand in his own under the table, rubbing the back of his hand with his thumb. “Go on, love,” he says gently. “It’s alright.”

For a moment, Harry’s mortified, can’t believe that Louis is actually going to make him do this when he so clearly cannot handle it. Once his brain gets a little blood in it, though, he realizes that he has to, that this is his golfing in March and he needs to just fucking do it, needs to get through it so they can get past it, and Louis can’t take over for him.

“Um,” he says, staring down at the table. By now everyone’s on edge, including Louis, and it only makes Harry more nervous, all the words jumbling in his head. “Louis broke into my house.”

For approximately three years, the silence in the room is more than tangible, it’s suffocating, seeping into Harry’s lungs and drowning him with every breath he takes.

“Bro,” Gemma says, finally, voice cutting through the air like a knife straight into Harry’s stomach. “What?”

“I know,” Harry rushes, looking up at her. “I know how that sounds. But it’s not like that.”

“What on Earth is it like, then?” Robin says, voice low, hands tensed on the table in front of him.

“Louis was homeless,” Harry says, closing his eyes and just trusting his mouth to do the hard part for him, get out all the words that he knows they need to hear. “He was just looking for a place to sleep. He never stole anything, never put me or anyone else in danger. I didn’t even know he was here, he never made even a sound. He thought the house was empty after uncle died, and that’s the only reason he stayed, but then we ran into each other by accident, by chance, and I couldn’t just kick him out, couldn’t just make him leave and go back to the streets. It was about to be winter, and he was close to death, anyway, I was only being kind and helping someone in need. We never meant to fall in love, honest, I never meant for him to even stay here past the winter, but we started to get to know each other while he was helping me research for my novel and, well, things happened, and, here we are,” he says. He’s so out of breath by the end of it he’s all but panting, but Louis’s still holding his hand, so he focuses on the feeling of Louis’s pulse against his palm and lets himself breathe.

Everyone is silent again once Harry’s nervous rambling has ended, and when Harry finally opens his eyes to assess the damage, all eyes are on Louis.

Louis swallows like he’s going to be sick, and then lowers his head, apparently unable to bear the judgement he can feel in everyone’s stare. Harry squeezes his hand, but Louis only barely squeezes back, keeping his eyes trained on his own lap.

“Harry, sweetheart,” Anne says patronizingly, after much too long. “Can I see you in the living room for a moment?”

Harry feels like a fucking dumbass. He feels so fucking stupid dropping Louis’s hand and following his mother out of the room, like she’s just caught him doing something shameful and now she’s going to teach him a life lesson, make him realize how fucking stupid he is. He feels like a child, and he loathes it, because he’s not a child, he knows what he’s doing, and he’s willing to fight for it.

“Harry,” Anne says, her voice soft as she reaches out for him, pulling his limp body into her arms and holding him for only a second. “Love, I trust you, and I trust your judgement, of course, and if you really love this boy and you believe that he genuinely loves you, too, then I will support him with everything in me.”

Harry nods, swallowing the lump in his throat and looking up at her. “But?”

“But,” she sighs, “how can you be absolutely sure about this?”

Harry smiles sadly, looking down at the floor for a moment. “Trust me,” he says, voice barely above a whisper. “I’ve put a lot of thought into this. I’m sure, mum, I’m so absolutely, completely sure I’d be willing to bet everything I have on it, on him, and I know he’d never let me down. He doesn’t love me because I have money, though that’s what everyone keeps telling me. But that’s not it, I’m absolutely sure. Look at him, mum, those are my clothes he’s wearing, clothes that I had to pretend like I was throwing away just to get him to wear something other than the shirt on his back. He doesn’t feel comfortable letting me buy him things, hell, the few things I’ve gifted him have nearly sent him running for the hills, because he hates when I spend my money on him. He’s offered time and time again to leave and never come back if that’s what I want, he can find somewhere else to sleep; he likes it here, but he doesn’t need me, doesn’t need my generosity. He’s survived without anyone’s help before, and he can certainly do it again. But I love him, mum, I love him so much my heart aches every time I’m not with him, even if he’s only in the other room. He makes me so, so happy, the sound of his laugh can turn my whole day around and he inspires me more than you could ever believe, he’s like an angel fallen to Earth and I never want to give him back, mum, I never want to let him go.”

He’s got tears in his eyes by the time he’s done speaking, but only because Anne teared up first. He blinks a few times and scrubs his hands over his face, but when he meets Anne’s eyes, he doesn’t waver, proving to her that he meant every word he said.

“That’s beautiful, Harry,” she breathes, stepping forward to hug him again. Harry hugs her back this time, pressing his face into her hair. “I trust you. And I trust that you trust him. I’ve only known him about half an hour, but he seems absolutely lovely. I’m so happy for you, Harry.”

“Thank you,” Harry says, squeezing her tight. “I can’t wait for you to get to know him.”

They head back to the dining room once Anne’s pulled herself together, and Harry goes immediately back to his seat beside Louis. Louis still looks like he’s going to be sick, like he’s a second from passing out, especially when Anne comes to a stop behind his chair and gently touches his shoulder. Louis’s eyes go wide, but he doesn’t flinch, just slowly turns to look up at her as if he’s expecting her to tell him to pack his things immediately.

Anne just extends her arms, smiling warmly at him, so Louis stands up on shaky legs and turns to face her, still unsure. Harry can see the way his entire body goes rigid when Anne pulls him close and hugs him tight, but once he’s overcome the initial shock, he absolutely melts, hugging Anne back like his life depends on it.

“Welcome to the family, sweetheart,” Anne hums, petting at Louis’s hair once before she pulls away. She gives him a long, approving smile, and then returns to her seat, prompting Louis to sit down, as well. He looks heavy, suddenly, like he’s exhausted, and he probably is, after all of the stress, so Harry reaches out to give his thigh a little squeeze just to let him know that everything’s okay.

“So, Louis,” Anne says, resuming her dinner like nothing even happened. Gemma and Robin still look a little confused, but they follow suit, both of them eyeing Harry curiously. “Where exactly do you come from?”

“Oh, I grew up in Whitechapel,” Louis says, still a little rattled. “We lived in a little two bedroom flat sort of near Aldgate station,” he says.

“Oh,” Anne says, nodding. She has absolutely no connection to the area, Harry knows, and as hard as she’s trying, she cannot think of a single way to continue that thread of conversation. “I hear it’s quite nice down there now.”

“They’re trying,” Louis shrugs. “Still a lot of families like mine, though.”

“How’d you become homeless?” Gemma asks, blunt as ever.

“Gemma,” Harry hisses, glaring at her across the table. “What the fuck?”

“No, it’s okay,” Louis laughs. “My four little sisters and I were put in the foster care system when I was sixteen. My mother was declared unfit to be a mother, which seems a bit harsh if I’m honest, but probably mostly true. I tried to adopt the girls when I eventually aged out of the system, but it’s a lot harder than it sounds.”

“Well, it doesn’t sound particularly easy,” Gemma admits.

“Yeah,” Louis says. “I didn’t know what to do after that, and I didn’t have anywhere to go or anyone to stick around for, so I just kind of disappeared and lived on the streets for a couple years until Harry decided to bring me in like a stray cat,” he says, smiling over at Harry for the first time since Harry came back into the dining room.

Harry wants to kiss him, wants to grab him and drag him out of the room and kiss the daylights out of him, wants to send everyone home so that he never has to see another person that isn’t Louis for the rest of his life. Fuck, he’s so fucking in love with him, he can’t believe anyone thought they would be able to convince him that this was all an act.

“Wait,” Gemma says, “so how long have you been on the streets?”

“Since I was eighteen,” Louis says. “So I guess that makes it about eight years now, huh?”

“Eight years,” Gemma breathes. “Holy shit.”

Louis shrugs, eating another tiny bite of his food, probably just to have something to do. Harry feels dumbstruck, suddenly; he’s never really thought about it, about how long Louis ran around hiding and struggling to survive before Harry met him. Louis is twenty-six now, which means he’s spent nearly a third of his life homeless and alone.

Harry doesn’t really know what a thought like that is supposed to make him feel, but all he feels is pure, overwhelming adoration for the boy next to him which, all things considered, isn’t terribly unusual. Somehow, the reminder of how strong Louis is, of how hard he fought and how well he did for himself, it’s all so overwhelmingly beautiful to Harry, he can hardly refrain from reaching over to tug Louis into his arms and make sure nothing ever hurts him again.

They spend the rest of the evening chatting with Harry’s family, or, rather, Harry’s family spends the rest of the evening falling head over heels in love with Louis. It all goes by in a blur for Harry, who can only really focus on Louis, on the way he’s smiling and laughing and blushing and joking and talking and blinking and breathing. By the time everyone finally leaves that night, Harry’s so drunk off the feeling of getting to share his favorite boy with his favorite people he can hardly even walk straight, following Louis upstairs to bed like he’s got a leash tied around his neck.

They don’t say much as they get ready for bed, or as they climb into bed, or as Louis reaches out to switch the lights off. Neither of them says a word until Louis rolls right over on top of Harry, propping his chin up on Harry’s bare chest.

“Do you think they liked me?” he asks, his voice tiny, so unlike the way he’s been all night. Harry’s largely inexperienced in this side of Louis, this side which is exhausted, physically and emotionally drained, needing gentle reassurance and validation.

Harry smoothes his hand down the length of Louis’s spine, through the oversized t-shirt he stole from Harry months ago to sleep in, and laughs up at the ceiling.

“Uh, yeah, I think they liked you,” he scoffs. “I was practically mopping up mum and Gemma’s drool by the end of the night. I think even my step-dad has a little man crush on you,” he says.

Louis laughs, pressing his face into Harry’s neck and cuddling down into him, apparently content to sleep like this tonight. Harry pulls the covers up over them both and tangles his legs with Louis’s, settling his hands low on Louis’s waist.

“I liked them too,” Louis says, after a minute or so. “They’re so sweet, Harry, just like the family I’ve always dreamt of having.”

Harry grins, squeezing his eyes shut tightly. He’s done it, he thinks. He’s finally figured out how to give Louis the world. All he has to do his share his own.

They drift off like that, Louis curled up on top of Harry and Harry spread out underneath him, the universe stretching infinitely around them, and all of it is theirs for the taking.

-

The end of the novel writes itself, once Harry’s gotten over the hard part. He takes his manuscript with him when he leaves for the golf trip at the end of May, and spends every free minute during the trip editing, rewriting, adding and removing things until he’s completely satisfied with what he’s got.

When he gets home at the end of the week, it’s with a finished novel, a piece of work that he’s really and truly proud of, and he’s excited to show it to the world. He heads straight to the sunroom, and even though it’s late in the day, the room is still warm from the sunshine earlier, and Harry settles in to finalize the last few details and changes he made to the novel while he was away.

Louis finds him like that, just as he’s typing up the very last scene, but in typical fashion, Louis doesn’t interrupt him. He just silently shuffles over and wraps his arms around Harry from behind, watching over his shoulder as Harry’s fingers rhythmically tap out the final pieces of the book.

It’s hardly the end of their story, hardly the last story Harry is going to write about the two of them, but he thinks maybe this novel is just the first chapter of what will hopefully be many, many chapters. He’s absolutely certain that he and Louis have hundreds of more stories to create together, thousands of chapters left to write in the stories of their lives, but this particular one is finished, at least for now, and Harry’s eager to let the story be told.

With that, and with Louis still watching over his shoulder, reading every word like Harry’s writing them all just for him — which he is — Harry decides that the last few words of the novel will be the only three words Louis ever needs to hear from him, if he never hears a single thing more:

I love you.

Chapter Text

The sunroom doors are wide open, letting in the fresh air from outside along with all the sounds, the birds singing, trees rustling in the warm summer breeze. Harry’s got a rather fantastic iced coffee in his hand and he’s lounging with his feet up on the desk, head tipped back against his chair while he watches Louis down his nose.

Louis’s been spread out on the sofa for hours, Harry’s manuscript held firmly in his hands, like he’s afraid someone’s going to take it from him. It took a few weeks for Harry’s editor to get the finalized version of the manuscript back to him for one final review before they send it out to the publishers, and as Harry promised, Louis was the first one to get his hands on it.

Harry has never been so nervous for an opinion in his life, but at the same time, he’s so peaceful and relaxed right now that he thinks he could spend the rest of his life in this moment. Sure, he’s laying every single card in his hand out on the table for Louis to inspect and judge at his leisure, and he’s asking permission to publish all of those cards for the entire world to see, but there’s something so relieving about finally having the book finished and in Louis’s hands instead of his own, even if Louis is about to decide the future of all of Harry’s hard work. Harry has ensured him that if Louis has even a single qualm about the book being published, Harry will scrap the whole thing, no questions asked. He really, really hopes it doesn’t come to that, though, because he’s pretty damn proud of his work, and he just hopes Louis recognizes how beautiful of a story they have on their hands.

The sun does wonders for Louis’s features, makes him sparkle like maybe he was sculpted out of a little piece broken off from the sun itself. It’s thoughts like those that make him wish he could still edit the novel, he thinks bitterly, fishing his phone out of his pocket to jot it down just in case.

He’s still typing when Louis lets the manuscript fall closed, and he looks up to find Louis very gingerly placing it down in front of him on the sofa, sitting up. He doesn’t say anything, just breathes out very slowly, and then smiles just a little.

Harry carefully lowers his feet to the ground, sitting up in his chair and putting his coffee down on the desk. His heart is hammering now that Louis’s finally done reading, all the peace from just a moment ago escaping right out the open doors and vanishing into the warm summer air.

“You made me sound so fragile,” Louis says, still staring down at the closed manuscript.

“You are fragile,” Harry says, voice quiet, trying to save some semblance of the peace from before.

Louis huffs a tiny laugh, glancing over at him. “Cheers.”

“Being fragile isn’t a bad thing,” Harry says. “Being fragile doesn’t mean that you’re not strong.”

Louis cocks his head, smiling curiously. “Doesn’t it?” he says. “I’m almost positive that that’s exactly what it says when you look up ‘fragile’ in the dictionary.”

“Well, then, fragile isn’t the right word,” Harry says. “Gentle, careful, resilient, that’s what you are. Anyone who reads that book will find those words written between the lines, just like anyone who looks at you will find them etched into the heart on your sleeve,” he says.

Louis smiles, nodding as he picks up the manuscript again. He flips through it once more, running his finger over some of the words printed on the pages, and then hugs it to his chest.

“So you’re going to publish this?” he asks, finally, voice a little smaller than Harry would like it to be.

“I would like to,” Harry says, keeping his voice neutral. “I’m quite proud of it.”

Louis doesn’t say anything, looking down, the manuscript still hugged firmly against his chest. Harry waits, but Louis doesn’t say anything more, and Harry’s starting to get the feeling that the book isn’t going to make it out of this house.

“Is that alright with you?” he says, and though he tries valiantly to make it sound like he’s not praying Louis will say yes, he can hear the tremor of hope in his own voice.

Louis stays quiet for another moment, pursing his lips at the floor.

“What if my mother sees it?” Louis says, voice hardly above a whisper. “Or my family, or someone I used to know?”

“I changed all the names,” Harry says. “No one has to know it isn’t fiction.”

“They’ll know,” Louis says. “You changed my name, but you didn’t change my story a bit. Anyone who knew me then will know.”

Harry holds his breath, watching Louis’s face. “Okay. What if?”

Louis looks up at him, startled.

“What if they see it?” Harry says. “What if they see and they know that it’s you?”

“I don’t know,” Louis groans, scrubbing his hands over his face. “What if they think I cheated, or something? Cheated my way out of poverty, out of the lower class? What if they resent me, or they’re jealous, or angry?”

“Angry that you found love and happiness and a place to foster it?” Harry asks incredulously.

“It sounds silly when you put it like that,” Louis says, hanging his head a little.

“Maybe that’s because it is silly,” Harry says, and he tries to be gentle, but Louis still crumples like Harry slapped him across the face.

“Good to know you think my life is silly,” Louis says, dropping the manuscript on the sofa and disappearing into the house.

Harry lets him go, knows better than to go after him right away, try to fix it before either have them have had a moment to think. He lets his head fall back against his chair again and stares up at the glass ceiling, watching the trees swaying in the wind outside.

He doesn’t let himself think in terms of how to make Louis less upset, but tries to put himself in Louis’s shoes, understand his perspective. He can imagine that Louis might feel a bit cowardly for how he went about things, might be worried about how other people will find his actions. He realizes that he’s not only laying his own cards out for the world to see, but Louis’s, too, and he’s not being as respectful of Louis’s side of the coin as he should be.

After a little while, once he’s organized his thoughts and decided an approach, he heads into the house to look for Louis.

The door to the guest wing is cracked open, which is odd, because they hardly ever use it anymore. Harry doesn’t pay to heat or cool that wing of the house, and Louis hardly ever wants his own space anymore when he also has the option to share Harry’s space, which is probably why it makes Harry’s heart ache to know that this is where Louis retreated to when Harry hurt him.

Sure enough, he finds Louis curled up on the sofa, leaning his right shoulder against the back of the sofa so he’s facing the window. He can definitely hear Harry’s footsteps coming closer, but he doesn’t react, not even when Harry sits down beside him and wraps his arms around him from behind.

“I don’t think your life is silly,” Harry says, hooking his chin over Louis’s shoulder.

“Whatever,” Louis mutters, still staring out the window.

“I don’t,” Harry says. “I think you’re the bravest person I’ve ever met. I think you’re the smartest, loveliest, strongest person that I’ve ever met, Louis. I’ll rewrite the whole goddamn book if you want me to, if you think I sold you short, but I think anyone who reads it is going to think you’re just as incredible as I do.”

Louis sinks into him a little, letting Harry press his face into his neck and give him a tiny kiss.

“I won’t publish it,” Harry says, resigned. “I’ll tell the publishers I’ve changed my mind.”

Louis shakes his head, huffing a frustrated breath. “This isn’t about the book,” he admits, sounding embarrassed.

Harry frowns, holding him a little tighter. “It’s not?”

“No,” Louis sighs. “I’m just- I’m scared.”

“Of what?” Harry asks.

“Of what people will say,” Louis says, like it’s obvious. “How people will react, and if my family will see it, and recognize me, and try to come back into my life, and, I don’t know,” he says, turning his head to press his face into the side of Harry’s head. “I don’t know. Like, at the very least, what if people think I’m using you for your money? You were able to explain it to Liam and to your parents but Jesus, Harry, I don’t think I can handle the whole world thinking that about me.”

“I mean, if anything, we’re using each other,” Harry shrugs. “You got a place to live, I got a brilliant character and a kick ass storyline,” he says.

“Not funny,” Louis says. “I mean it. That’s heavy.”

“I’m serious,” Harry says. “In all honesty, I don’t think we’re using each other so much as we both just happened to need each other. We got lucky, took advantage of that, and as long as we both know that, who cares about what other people think? People say shit about me all the time, people pretend they know me to sell a story about me or about Spark, but you don’t see me worrying about their opinions, as long as they’re not hurting the company,” he says. “So who cares what people think? As far as anyone knows, it’s all fiction, anyway.”

“Alright, I guess I can get on board with that,” Louis says. “But what happens when my family sees it and recognizes that it’s me, and they come knocking at your door because they want in on the life I found myself? I know that you’re confident I’m not using you, and you know you could change your mind at any moment and I’d disappear without hesitation, but I can’t promise my family would be the same way. If they come asking for favors, Harry, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to turn them away, or that they’d go if I did,” he says.

“I don’t see why we should have to turn them away,” Harry frowns. “I think you’re finally in a position now where you can help them, like you always wanted to, so I think that should they come knocking our first priority should be to help them out.”

“I’m in no different of a position now than I used to be,” Louis scoffs. “I just have a rich boyfriend now who lets me sleep in his bed and eat his food-”

“-And who would do literally anything in the world to make you happy,” Harry tacks on. “And that sentiment extends to your family, should you choose to help them. I mean, we could get them a house, help them establish a life for themselves, maybe have them pay rent to keep them independent and from going back to old habits, but that’s not out of the question,” he says.

“You’re the best person in the world, do you know that?” Louis says, turning around and pressing himself into Harry’s chest. “You have all this money that was just given to you, and a house and an entire company that you just own and it was all just handed to you on a silver platter, and you don’t have to do a single thing but maintain it. You could be so snobby and entitled and disgusting, but you’re not, not at all. All you want to do is write books and help people, and you are so beautiful and good. You are the kind of powerful man the world needs,” he says. “I’m so fucking lucky to have chosen your house to break into.”

Harry chuckles softly, hugging Louis for a long moment. “I feel guilty sometimes,” he admits, “because of the way I live, and the life I was born into, while you grew up with nothing and no one to support you. Maybe, if I’d never met you, I’d be one of those gross rich people you just described. But I think we saved each other from the terrible fates of our stereotypes,” he says.

Louis smiles into his chest, hugging him tight around his waist. They sit like that for a few minutes, Harry’s chin hooked over Louis’s head, until finally Louis breaks the silence.

“Publish the book.”

Harry blinks, looking down at him. “What?”

“Publish the book,” Louis repeats. “I think we’ve got a lot of lessons to teach the world,” he says thoughtfully.

Harry grins, tackling Louis over backwards on the sofa and pinning him down, kissing him softly, sweetly, a stark contrast to the way he’s gripping Louis’s wrists so hard he might leave bruises. Louis doesn’t seem to mind a bit, though, kissing Harry back like it’s the only thing in the world he cares to do.

Things are about to change in a very big way, they both know that, but Harry’s much more excited than he is nervous. The worst case scenario is that the book flops, but even if it does, Harry thinks that it’ll be alright. He just wants to put it out there, to have this secret that he’s been hiding for almost a year now finally be off his chest, to let the world decide what happens next. It’s thrilling, so exciting and frightening and wonderful he can hardly wait, but he finishes kissing Louis first, because that’s the one thing that will always take precedence over anything else.

He’ll call his agent later and have the manuscript sent off to the publisher, and then within a few weeks, the book will start hitting shelves in bookstores across the United Kingdom and America. He doesn’t know what will happen after that, but he’s excited to find out, so long as he knows that Louis will always be right there beside him to help him through it all.

-

It starts with one headline, which turns into multiple headlines, which turns into Louis shaking Harry awake at arse o’clock in the morning with Harry’s laptop in his lap.

“Harry,” Louis’s saying, squeezing Harry’s shoulder so hard he’s probably going to leave five little round bruises on Harry’s skin. “Harry, wake up. Fuck.”

“What?” Harry says, prying his open and then squeezing them shut again at the sight of the laptop screen Louis is shoving in his face. “No. Too bright.”

Look,” Louis says, and he sounds deathly serious, so Harry holds in his whining and opens his eyes again to look at what Louis’s showing him.

“‘Harry Styles’s New Novel: Based on Truth?’” Harry reads, frowning, looking up at Louis.

“It’s an article about your book,” Louis says.

“No way there’s already a review,” Harry mutters, sitting up and stealing the laptop from Louis. “The book only came out yesterday.”

“It’s been almost twenty-four hours,” Louis says. “This is the very first review of it, though.”

“Have you been up all night waiting?” Harry says. “Louis-”

“I’m nervous,” Louis says, burrowing into Harry’s side. “This article hardly even touches on your writing or anything, it’s all just conspiring about who I am.”

Harry takes a moment to scan the article, which was written by some random small blogger in America. Even though there’s a note in the beginning of the book that states it is all purely fiction, she’s deduced that it is in fact based on reality, and that Harry’s hiding some secret mystery man in his life. She’s right, obviously, but it’s a bit unsettling to have already been called out on it, not even a full day after the book came out. Harry knew people would be suspicious, but he didn’t expect them to catch him so quickly.

His agent did suggest that Harry use a pen name, or an alias of some sort, but Harry decided not to, because he doesn’t care what people with think of him, doesn’t mind them talking and thinking they know anything about him. Most of all, he wanted people to know that his words were his own, that he did actually have talent and wasn’t just a brainless teenager sitting on top of a company that was handed down to him.

Now, though, looking down at Louis, who’s chewing his nails so close to his skin he’s going to make himself bleed, Harry’s beginning to wish he chose to use the pen name. Maybe he should have listened to everyone’s cautions, if only for Louis’s sake, but he supposes it’s too late now.

“It’s alright,” Harry says, rubbing Louis’s back gently. “It’s just talk. They don’t know anything, nobody does. They don’t know who you are, or that you even really exist.”

“But they’re pretty sure I do,” Louis says. “They’re pretty sure that the homeless boy from the novel is real and they’re gonna try and figure out who I am, and then-”

“And then, if they do, which they won’t,” Harry says pointedly, “if they do, we’ll deal with it then. I’ll be with you all the time,” Harry says, kissing Louis’s head.

“Aren’t you nervous?” Louis says, looking up at him. “How am I the scared one? It’s your work they’re tearing apart, and your life that they’re questioning. Why aren’t you anxious about these reviews?”

“Of course I’m nervous,” Harry says. “I’m all but naked in front of a crowd. I’m just not letting it get to me, because the things people say will never hurt me,” he says. “People have been talking shit about my family and I for years, since my uncle started Spark, and I’ve grown desensitized to it.”

“Oh,” Louis says, blinking and then looking back down at the computer. “Sorry. I’m not used to it.”

“I don’t expect you to be,” Harry says. “I know full well how weird it is to be in the public eye, especially when you didn’t ask for it. I don’t expect you to be as used to it as I am.”

Louis nods, taking the laptop back from Harry and clicking back to his original Google search, refreshing the page. Harry reaches out and closes the laptop before the page even finishes loading, pulling it out of Louis’s hands and putting it on the opposite bedside table.

“Sleep,” Harry says, kissing Louis’s head again. He pulls Louis down until they’re both resting on one pillow, facing each other.

“I can’t,” Louis says, eyes wide open in the dark.

Harry smiles softly, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. He reaches out and pulls Louis into his arms, forcing Louis to cuddle into his chest and then closing his eyes, tracing his fingers up and down Louis’s back while he waits for him to fall asleep.

They stay like that for a while, until Louis thinks Harry’s gone back to sleep and tries to wriggle carefully out of Harry’s arms. Harry growls, startling Louis nearly out of his skin, but he quickly goes still again.

“Go to sleep,” Harry says, whining a little bit, rolling them over until Louis’s on his back, Harry curling up directly on top of him. Louis laughs softly, tugging at Harry’s hair a bit, and then relaxes.

“I don’t need sleep, I need to read every single review of your book as they come in,” he says. “I promise I won’t wake you up again.”

“Louis,” Harry says, sighing as he props his chin up on Louis’s chest and blinks at him. “Go. To. Sleep.”

“Fine, fuck,” Louis groans, pulling the covers up over Harry’s back and putting his head down. Harry smiles, wrapping himself fully around Louis like a koala and snuggling down into his chest.

He drifts off like that, cheek pressed into Louis’s soft t-shirt, the book reviews the furthest thing from his mind. All he cares about is this, being here right now, fast asleep with the boy that means more to him than everything else in the world, combined. He knows that in the morning they’re going to have to deal with this, and Louis’s going to have a lot more fears that Harry’s going to have to talk him down from, but he signed up for this, and he absolutely believes it’s going to be worth it.

-

Once the sun comes up in the morning and Harry can’t find any more reasons to trick Louis into going back to sleep, they head downstairs so Harry can make some breakfast while Louis continues pouring over the book reviews.

Harry settles for beans on toast, mostly because he’s a bit too anxious at the moment to make anything that requires any more effort, and Louis immediately heads to the table, silently opening the laptop and typing away.

They exist in silence for a few moments, Harry determinedly keeping his back to Louis, but he breaks before long. “Read it out loud, please,” he says, glancing over his shoulder at Louis. “I’m dying, here.”

“‘Who is Harry Styles’s mystery man?’” Louis reads, deadpan. “‘Styles claims that his debut novel is a work of fiction, but could there be a real man behind the character? We’d like to think so, and we hope he’s as sweet in real life as Harry makes him sound.’”

“That’s not so bad,” Harry says, shrugging one shoulder.

“No one seems to hate me,” Louis says distractedly, still scrolling through the article. “No one is even really wondering who I am, they’re just wondering if I’m real at all.”

“I told you it’d be fine,” Harry says, as if he wasn’t freaking out himself just a moment ago.

“I really don’t want people to know it’s me,” Louis sighs, rubbing at his face. “I love you, but I’d really prefer to not be known to the entire world as Harry Styles’s side piece.”

“They won’t find you,” Harry says. “I don’t have to confirm or deny anything. People can just keep wondering, they can’t hurt us. How would anyone figure out your name, anyway?”

“That’s true,” Louis says. “I guess there’s not really a record of me anywhere, right? I’ve never had a real job, I left school so young they probably don’t have anything more than my name. I’ve never been on the internet, I don’t even have an email, let alone social media. The only official record of me that I can think of would be my birth certificate, which I don’t even know where it is,” he shrugs.

Harry lets it hang in the air for a few minutes, lets Louis calm himself down a little bit, before he attempts to change the topic. “Now that people effectively know that I’m gay,” he says, bringing breakfast to the table and sitting down across from Louis, “maybe we can go out for a proper date sometime soon?” he asks hopefully, watching Louis’s face.

Louis hesitates, taking a bite of his toast and nodding slowly. “Bit soon, no?” Louis worries. “People will definitely think I’m the guy from the book.”

“Again, Lou, they’re gonna think that anyway,” Harry says. “Let them speculate. No one has to know anything for sure.”

“Right, right,” Louis says, sighing quietly. “Can we still wait just a bit, though?” he asks.

“As long as you want, love,” Harry smiles, only rolling his eyes a little. He supposes the least he can do for Louis is be patient with him wanting to take his time adjusting to Harry’s world, since he just thrust him into it so quickly. He knows how scary this must be for Louis, how hard he’s tried to go completely unnoticed for his entire life for his own safety, and now he’s got a boyfriend who just desperately wants to show him off to the world. He can’t help it, though; the world is so undeserving of someone like Louis, but Harry wants to show him off anyway, wants to put Louis up on the highest pedestal just to show the world what they can’t have.

“Why are you staring at me?” Louis asks, waving his hand in front of Harry’s face.

“Just thinking about how much I love you,” Harry says sweetly. “How much I want to hold you up in front of the world just to remind everyone that I’m the only one that gets to keep you,” he says.

“Fuck off,” Louis says, without missing a beat. He’s blushing a little as he finishes his breakfast, though, and Harry’s sure he’s never seen a more beautiful shade of pink.

“You’re still staring at me,” Louis says a while later. He’s right; Harry can’t take his eyes off of him, and even though he’s hardly looked up at all, he must be able to feel the love Harry’s gaze is drilling into his skin.

Harry just looks down, grinning at his plate for a little while. How lucky is he, he thinks, to have something worth waiting for? Worth fighting for? Worth putting aside every fear in his silly head for?

Very lucky, he decides, looking up again only to find Louis staring back at him, coy smile on his lips. God, Harry can’t even believe he gets to know him, let alone love him and be loved back by him. Whatever happens from this point forward, Harry knows they’ll be okay, and all he’d got left to do is keep convincing Louis of the same thing.

-

It takes a few weeks, but once Louis has determined that the articles trying to speculate about his identity have died down, he goes to find Harry in the sunroom, where he’s curled up on the sofa reading with all of the doors open to let in the warm summer air.

“Hey,” Louis says, sitting down gingerly on the edge of the sofa beside Harry’s feet.

“Hey,” Harry says, glancing up at him over the top of his book. “Alright?”

Louis hums, curling his fingers around one of Harry’s ankles. His fingers are always so cold, even though the rest of him is made of sunlight, but the touch of his skin against Harry’s is always the nicest thing Harry can imagine.

“Was thinking,” Louis says, watching his own hand as he rubs tiny circles on Harry’s ankle, “maybe we could go to dinner tonight.”

“Yeah?” Harry asks, sitting up quickly. “That would be nice.”

Louis nods, looking up at him. “It’s not gonna be, like, crazy, right?”

“No, it won’t be,” Harry says. “It’s not like I’m a rockstar, or anything. There won’t be paparazzi swarming the car,” he says.

“Good,” Louis says, squeezing his ankle. “I wouldn’t like that at all.”

“We’ll go somewhere nice, get all dressed up and all that,” Harry says. He’s quite excited, actually; they’ve never been on a proper date, at least not outside of the house, and he’s thrilled to finally be able to wine and dine Louis the way he deserves.

“Not too fancy, please,” Louis says. “I’ve never been to a proper fancy meal, I don’t even think I’d know how to act.”

“We’ll go medium fancy for the first date,” Harry says. “But next time, I’m taking you somewhere where they’ll spoon feed you caviar out of a golden dish,” he says.

“That sounds horrible,” Louis says, getting up off of the sofa and dropping a kiss to Harry’s lips. “I’m going to go see if I can scrounge up something nice to wear tonight.”

With that he disappears, leaving Harry in silence to keep reading. He pulls out his phone to make a quick reservation for a restaurant near the river and then spends the rest of the afternoon daydreaming about taking Louis on a million amazing dates, which he absolutely intends to make a reality.

-

A fews hours and a bit of coaxing later finds them on the patio of a beautiful restaurant by the river, Louis looking unsure and uncomfortable in a soft black t-shirt and a pair of skinny jeans he borrowed from Harry. There aren’t many people around them, but Louis is hyper aware of each person at every table, even when Harry does his absolute best to distract him.

“What are you going to order?” Harry says, even though he knows Louis hasn’t even glanced at the menu, too busy making sure no one is watching them.

“What?” Louis asks, startled, looking up at him like a deer in headlights.

“Dinner?” Harry hums, amused. “What do you want to eat?”

“Oh,” Louis says, glancing down at the menu. “I don’t know, I’ll just have whatever you’re having.” He goes back to staring at the couple over Harry’s shoulder, and Harry rolls his eyes, shifting until his head is blocking Louis’s view.

“Hey,” Harry says, reaching across the table for Louis’s hand. Louis jumps a little, meeting his eyes again, and Harry gives him a patient smile. “Everything’s fine.”

“I know,” Louis says, giving him a very forced smile. “This is nice.”

“Breathe, Louis,” Harry says, chuckling a little and squeezing his hand. “Why are you freaking out?”

“There’s just, like, a lot of people,” Louis shrugs, glancing around again.

“There’s, like, three other tables besides us,” Harry says. “And no one is even looking at us.”

“Are you sure?” Louis says quietly. “That girl over there keeps giving me weird looks.”

“Probably because you’re staring at her like a psychopath,” Harry says. Louis doesn’t react, just keeps staring at the girl, and Harry sighs and squeezes his hand again. “Lou!”

“Sorry,” Louis mutters. “This is just weird for me.”

“I know it is,” Harry says. “But it’s never going to get less weird if you don’t let it.”

“I’m so used to being stared at in places like this,” Louis says, pulling his hand away from Harry’s and wiping his palms on his thighs, forcing himself to keep Harry’s eye contact. “Mum used to take us to restaurants like this sometimes, when she had enough money, and people would stare at us like we were circus freaks. I always pretended it didn’t make me feel bad because I wanted her to think she was doing something nice for us, and she was, but I’ve always just felt out of place,” he says.

“You’re such a good person,” Harry says, smiling softly at him. “But if you don’t pick a meal in the next two minutes I’m going to murder you.”

Louis laughs, blushing a little as he finally picks up his menu to survey it properly. Harry does his best not to watch him too intently, but he’s so hard not to stare at, so pretty even when he’s gnawing at his lip like he wants to chew it off.

Things start to go a little more smoothly once their dinner comes, distracting Louis just enough to get him to stop staring at everyone like he expects them to attack him. He laughs at Harry’s jokes, even cracks a few of his own, and it’s exactly like they’re two regular people on a regular date because they are, and this is what Harry’s been trying to prove the whole time.

“This isn’t so bad, I guess,” Louis says, like he can read Harry’s mind. Harry probably looks a little too smug, he’ll admit, but he just loves seeing Louis have a good time.

“I don’t want to say I told you so, but,” he shrugs, “I told you so.”

“It’s still a lot for me, but, I think I could get used to this,” Louis says. “You’ve gone and proper spoiled me, Harry Styles,” he grins.

“I’ll be honest, that was my goal this entire time,” Harry says. “This entire year has just been an elaborate scheme to get you to go on a proper date with me.”

“Has it really been a year?” Louis asks.

“Just about,” Harry says. “We met in September, and it’s August now. In a couple weeks, it will have been an entire year.”

“Crazy,” Louis mutters, picking at his food a little bit.

“Is it?” Harry asks, watching him carefully.

“I mean, a little,” Louis scoffs. “If you’d told me a year ago that I’d spend the next year sleeping in the same place every single night, I’d have told you the only way that was possible was if I was in the ground,” he says. “People like me don’t get things like this.”

“There aren’t people like you,” Harry says quietly. “You’re the only one, and you’re so much more special than you’ll ever admit.”

Louis huffs a quiet laugh, shaking his head. “I hope you’ll always think that way,” he says.

“I will, because I’m right,” Harry says, sticking his tongue out at Louis. “I know the world has made you feel like excess, like you don’t have a place to belong, but that’s not true. You belong everywhere, in the sunshine, in gentle summer breezes, in soft snow flurries and in the color the leaves turn in the fall. You belong in the sparkle in the ocean and the sound of a birdsong, and I wish you could see yourself in all of those places the way that I do. You’re every cozy rainshower in spring and every electrical storm in summer, you’re everything, and the world’s done itself a terrible injustice making you feel any other way.”

Louis blushes the color of the red tea light flickering on the table between them, grinning down at his meal. “You really are some kind of poet, aren’t you?” he says, eyes sparkling when he looks back up at Harry. “No wonder your novel’s a bestseller.”

“It’s you,” Harry says simply. “It’s always you.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Louis laughs, balling up his napkin and throwing it at Harry.

“Never,” Harry says, carefully folding Louis’s napkin and handing it back to him. Louis rolls his eyes as he accepts it, glaring playfully at Harry.

When they’ve finished their dinner and paid the bill, Louis gets brave and suggests that they get ice cream and walk by the river, since it’s such a lovely night. Harry indulges him happily, walking with his arm tucked snugly around Louis’s waist, ice cream cone in his other hand.

“My sisters and I used to run up and down this stretch of the river every weekend, when mum would take us walking down here,” he says. “We would race from each dock to the next, and whoever won the most got to pick what cartoon we’d get to watch in the morning. I could’ve beat them all, easy, but I let the girls win most of the time. And when Lottie and Fizzy grew up a little, they caught on, and they let the twins win every time,” he smiles.

Harry kisses the side of his head, making sure to keep him close as they walk. “That’s sweet,” he hums quietly.

“This was the first place I came when I ran away,” Louis says. “Part of me was hoping someone would catch me, I think, so I came to this place that used to mean so much to us and just hid for a while, waiting for someone to come looking. But no one ever did,” he says, voice growing softer with every word.

Harry doesn’t know what to say to that, doesn’t know how to act like Louis’s quiet and sudden admissions will ever be less jarring to him. His eyes keep catching on every shadow, every dark corner, picturing a teenage Louis with his bright, glowing eyes hiding just out of sight, hoping and praying and waiting for someone to come find him. It makes him wonder if that’s why Louis was able to get comfortable with Harry in the first place; Harry was the first one to ever come looking for him.

“How long did you wait?” Harry asks, throat dry.

“What do you mean?” Louis frowns up at him.

“To be found,” Harry says. “How long did you wait for someone to find you?”

Louis doesn’t answer for a moment, watching their feet as they meander along the pavement. “I don’t really know, if I’m honest,” he says. “Not very long. I was pretty much on the move all the time until I started squatting,” he says.

Harry nods, but he can’t stop thinking about it, even as the conversation naturally phases out. He can’t stop seeing Louis lurking in every shadow, sad and scared and alone, can’t stop picturing him roaming the streets at night while Harry was tucked up in a warm bed, safe and happy and well fed. He knows that Louis doesn’t dwell on thoughts like this, and he hates when Harry brings it up, so he doesn’t, but he also doesn’t stop thinking about it until they find themselves nearly to Tower Bridge.

“It’s a bit cold,” Louis says, tucking himself into Harry’s side. Harry’s not very cold, but then again, he supposes he’s never known cold in his life.

“Let’s head back to the car,” he says, wrapping his arm more fully around Louis and leading him back down the pavement the way they came.

The walk feels shorter on the way back, the way it usually does, but before Harry can let go of Louis so they can both get into the car, Louis turns and presses a quick kiss to Harry’s jaw.

“Stop thinking so much,” he whispers, hugging Harry carefully around the waist. “It makes me nervous when you get all lost in your head.”

“Sorry,” Harry says, tugging him back quickly and hugging him tight. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Louis says, pinching Harry’s hip. “You massive dork.”

“Oi,” Harry complains, pinching Louis back. Louis squirms away, laughing as he escapes into the car, leaving Harry standing on the pavement smiling after him like an idiot.

When they go to bed that night, it’s with not an inch of space or a single fiber between them, and Harry makes a secret vow to never let Louis be cold again.

-

Louis checks the internet while Harry makes breakfast the next morning, as has become customary, to make sure that no one took any pictures of the two of them on their date last night. Harry does his best to pretend he doesn’t care about it, but he knows that if Louis wasn’t so obsessed with checking, Harry would absolutely be in his place to know what everyone was saying about him.

“Any shocking editorials?” Harry asks, setting a plate of eggs and bacon down in front of Louis and taking his seat across from him.

Louis doesn’t say anything, eyes glued to Harry’s laptop, and Harry feels a bit of panic rise in his chest.

“Lou?”

“‘Spark owner Harry Styles was seen out last night for the first time since his debut novel was published a few weeks ago,’” Louis reads, completely ignoring the plate of food in front of him. “‘He was seen getting cozy with another man at a restaurant in London, followed by an ice cream cone and a walk by the river. Unfortunately, nobody managed to snap any photos of Styles and his mystery man, but fans of the novel have already begun to theorize that Styles’s unnamed lover might have been the inspiration for the novel. Either way, we’re all happy for them both, and with the success of Styles’s book, we hope they were out for a well deserved celebratory dinner.’”

“Is that it?” Harry asks, reaching for the laptop and scanning the article for himself. There are no pictures, no quotes from sources, not even a scandalous allegation that Harry was getting too frisky, being a little too obscene, like the media loves to do every time he’s seen with anyone in a platonic context. “That isn’t bad at all,” he says.

“I’m a mystery man,” Louis says, smirking a little. “The unnamed lover.”

“Oh, no,” Harry sighs, but he’s smiling too. “They’ve created a monster.”

“Watch out, I’m a mystery,” Louis says, biting his bacon and then waving it threateningly at Harry. “A mysterious mystery man.”

“You’re an absolute nerd, that’s what you are,” Harry laughs. “At least you’re finally enjoying this.”

“I like this part,” Louis says, stealing the laptop back and scrolling through the article again. “I didn’t think I would, but it’s quite fun. Mystery man.”

“Say ‘mystery man’ one more time and I’m going to start using Twitter again just to tweet your full name,” Harry says.

“Evil,” Louis pouts, closing Harry’s laptop and pushing it away so he can eat.

That seems to be it as far as articles about their date for the rest of the day; without pictures, the gossip rags are bored, and Harry isn’t quite important enough to be gossiping about his private life without pictures to really exploit it all. He supposes he’s more than alright with that, and if the amount of jokes Louis makes about the term ‘mystery man’ is any indication, he’s alright with it, too, and maybe Harry can finally get him to warm up to going out more often.

-

The more time they spend out and about, the more Louis starts to love being right under the public’s nose, having everyone wondering who he is. It’s a reaction neither of them expected, honestly, but Louis seems to have forgotten what exactly he was afraid of in the first place, which is all Harry cares about. It’s just nice to be able to get Louis out of the house every now and again, to be able to take him out to dinner and to go shopping with him in London and to be able to show him off in public, and even though a couple of pictures now exist of the two of them out in the world, Louis is having a blast with all of it.

The media still doesn’t have any clue as to who Louis actually is, still referring to him as Harry’s mystery lover, and though they’ve tried to debunk his identity, no one has any way of actually finding out who he is. Harry thinks that’s why Louis’s having so much fun with it; he’s completely safe as long as no one gets his name, and no one is ever going to be able to do that, anyway, so he’s got nothing to worry about. Part of Harry thinks that Louis is also really enjoying the aspect of feeling important, feeling like the entire world is just waiting for a good look at him, even though that’s hardly the case. Harry’s no more a celebrity now than he was a year ago, even though his popularity has risen a little bit since he came out and released his novel. He does want to start having more of a presence in the media someday, but not until Louis is ready, because Harry would wait a lifetime if that would make Louis feel more safe.

They’re having all the fun in the world as it is, though; Louis’s finally let Harry buy him a few nicer things so that they could get dressed up and go to a fancy dinner, or one of Harry’s company parties, or a charity event, should they get the chance. Usually, Harry would just go to these alone, and he still doesn’t mind the idea of that, but lately Louis’s been really enjoying the idea of getting dressed up and being shown off, even though he typically just hangs out in the background of events and watches, feeling pretty and expensive and mysterious in the shadows of Harry’s public life. Harry lets him do what he wants, for the most part, amused and willing to let him have anything in the world that he wants, though Louis hardly ever asks for anything, even still.

The one thing that hasn’t changed in their relationship is that Louis still hates being treated like a charity case. He despises when Harry buys him things, especially on a whim, because he hates feeling like he’s using Harry’s money when he doesn’t deserve it. The few things Harry’s been able to buy him were carefully negotiated beforehand, like the nice suit and shoes and the fancy haircut, but he still gets huffy and embarrassed and annoyed when Harry comes home with gifts he couldn’t refuse, things that he knows Louis would love even if he’ll never admit it.

Even if Harry’s never allowed to completely spoil him the way he so desperately wants to, he’s absolutely fine with just being able to exist beside Louis in any capacity. Every time he gets to bring Louis somewhere, hold his hand in front of people, introduce him as his boyfriend, it’s all just everything he’s ever wanted. He has no idea what the world has in store for the two of them from here on, but then again, he never could’ve predicted any of this when he first found the skinny, dirty, terrified boy hiding in his guest wing a year ago, so he guesses he’s alright with continuing to let fate work it all out for them.

He’s at his desk in the sunroom, taking care of some financial paperwork for the company, when Louis sneaks into the room in an oversized t-shirt and a pair of cotton shorts that cut off just below his knees. He plops down on the sofa at the other end of the room, letting Harry ignore him for only a moment before he clears his throat, successfully earning himself Harry’s attention.

Harry looks up at him from under his fringe where it’s flopped over in his face, pen hovering over the stack of papers he’s working on. “Can I help you?” Harry says, blinking when Louis sighs dramatically.

“I was thinking,” Louis says, a little bit shy, using the voice he only uses when he’s about to propose something that scares him a little.

“Oh no,” Harry says, putting his pen down. “Should I call the fire brigade?”

“Shut the fuck up,” Louis says, but he smiles, gives Harry a playful glare. “I’m serious.”

Harry nods, leans back in his chair as if to give Louis the room to speak his mind. Louis sighs again, looking down, distracting himself by playing with the raw edge of his shorts.

“I’m thinking about getting a job,” Louis says, looking up to gage Harry’s reaction.

“Oh?” Harry says, smiling. “That’s fantastic.”

“The problem is, I’m not qualified to do anything,” Louis says. “That’s the reason I couldn’t get a job before, and the only thing that’s changed between then and now is that now I only look, well, cleaner,” he shrugs. “I’m still a dumbass, still don’t have an education beyond primary school.”

“You can work at Spark,” Harry says. “We’ve got plenty of positions that don’t require an education, and you can work your way up eventually,” he says.

“I thought about that,” Louis admits. “But I don’t want to work for you. I don’t want to get paid by you. I want to be independent, and having your name signed at the bottom of my paychecks would just feel, I don’t know, like cheating. I don’t want to use you, at all, especially not for a job,” he says. “I already feel guilty enough about living in your house and using all your things, I just want to be able to support myself, at least a little.”

“Okay, I can respect that,” Harry says. “What do you want to do, then?”

“I don’t know,” Louis says, “that’s why I wanted to talk to you.”

“Why don’t you let me put you through school?” Harry says. “You can figure out what you’re good at, get a degree-”

“No,” Louis says, shaking his head quickly. “That’s far too expensive. I would never get into uni, anyway, I never finished primary school,” he huffs.

“We could get you a tutor,” Harry says. “You’re smarter than you think you are, I’m sure it wouldn’t be very hard for you to-”

“I don’t want to go to uni,” Louis says. “God, I don’t want to go to uni. I’m far too old.”

“You’re not too old,” Harry frowns. “People go back to uni all the time, at any age.”

“I’m too old to be letting someone else pay for me to go to uni,” Louis says. “It’s too much.”

“Louis,” Harry says, sitting up and waiting until Louis meets his eyes. “Listen, I want you to do whatever makes you happiest in the world, okay? If that means spending a couple thousand pounds to get you through school, then that’s what I want to do,” he says.

“Well,” Louis sighs, looking down.

“What?” Harry says, perking up.

“It’s silly,” Louis says, rolling his eyes. “And probably a waste of time, and, like-”

“Say it,” Harry says. “Tell me. Whatever it is, we can make it work.”

“I always wanted to be, like, an actor?” Louis says, blushing when he looks up at Harry again. “When I was little I used to sneak into the cinema and dream of being in films someday, and every time I managed to get my hands on a book or a comic I’d read it and dream of starring in the movie of it,” he mumbles. “It’s silly, but I always dreamt that someday I’d be able to do it.”

“That’s brilliant,” Harry grins, already reaching for his laptop. “We can enroll you in some acting classes so you can make sure you’re really into it, and then we can get you some auditions for adverts and things and we can start your career,” he says.

“Really?” Louis asks, jumping up from the sofa and rounding Harry’s desk. “Harry-”

“I’ll pay for the first few months of classes, and once you start making some money of your own you can take over,” Harry says. “I’ll still pay for everything around here, food and the like, but I think you should be in charge of your own career once you’ve gotten started, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Louis says, looking absolutely thrilled as Harry searches for some acting classes online. “Thank you, Harry.”

“Don’t thank me,” Harry says, reading the reviews for one of the classes that comes up first. “Just make me proud.”

Louis laughs, wrapping his arms around Harry from behind and hugging him tight. “I’m gonna keep thanking you anyway,” he mumbles, kissing Harry’s neck. “This is so cool.”

“How’s this one sound?” Harry asks, nodding to his screen. “Meets three times a week for six weeks, and you’ll learn all the basics of screen and stage acting.”

“That’s perfect,” Louis says, squeezing him again. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

“Run and get my wallet, love, it’s on the table by the door,” Harry says. “I need my card.”

Louis dashes off to go get it, returning hardly a second later and handing Harry his credit card. Harry enters all of Louis’s information and his credit card number and hits submit, and then turns back to Louis.

“You start next week,” he says, grinning at the smile on Louis’s face, his eyes squinted nearly shut.

“I love you,” Louis says, climbing right into Harry’s lap and kissing him hard. “I love you. Thank you. I promise this will be worth it.”

“I know it will,” Harry says, wrapping his arms around Louis’s waist. It already is, he thinks, as Louis peppers kisses all over his face. Harry would do anything, anything in the world to see him this happy, and he just hopes to god that this’ll all work out.

-

Louis hardly shuts up about his acting class for the next few days, but when it finally comes time for his first day, he spends the whole morning acting strange, like an anxious child on the first day of school. Harry’s going to work late so that he can drive him to his very first class, but Louis’s taking so long to get ready they’re not even going to make it to the studio on time.

“Louis,” Harry says, cracking open the bedroom door and peeking in. “Are you nearly ready? We’re going to be late.”

“Yeah,” Louis says, staring at himself in the mirror for another second before turning to follow Harry out of the bedroom. Harry doesn’t ask any questions, knows Louis probably won’t appreciate them at the minute, so he stays quiet as he grabs his keys and leads Louis out to the driveway.

Louis is silent the entire car ride, twisting his fingers together in his lap and staring out the window. Harry knows how nervous he must be, how long he’s been waiting for this, but he doesn’t know what to say to make it better.

When he eventually pulls up in front of the studio, Louis’s got two minutes to spare before class starts, but he doesn’t move. Harry gives him a moment to see if he’ll snap himself out of it, but he doesn’t, so Harry reaches over to take his hand.

“Hey,” he says, leaning over to press a kiss to Louis’s cheek. “Have fun today, okay?”

Louis nods, still staring blankly out the window. Harry smiles, leaning into his space until Louis turns to look at him.

“You still wanna do this, right?” he asks. “We can just go home if you’ve changed your mind. I won’t be-”

“No,” Louis cuts him off quickly, undoing his seatbelt. “I want to do this. I want this so much.”

He freezes again once he’s said it, like his split second of courage has been used up, and Harry chuckles quietly.

“Then you’ve got to get out of the car, love,” he hums.

“Yeah,” Louis says, grabbing his rucksack from the floor by his feet and opening the door. “Thank you,” he says, pecking a kiss to Harry’s cheek and throwing open the car door.

“Have a good day!” Harry calls, but Louis’s already gone, dashing into the studio. It’s just a little dance studio, it seems, one room with a big window exposing it to the street, so Harry stays parked for a few more minutes, watching Louis check himself in at the desk and then find a seat in one of the folding metal chairs set up on the floor. He looks so nervous, bouncing his knee and watching all of the people around him as they file in. Harry wants to sit here for the entire hour and a half, but he’s already late to work, and he’s sure they won’t appreciate him calling out now. As it is, he watches until the class starts, fixated on Louis until he absolutely has to drive away.

He spends his entire day at the office staring at his phone, waiting for it to ring. He hired a company car to pick Louis up after class and bring him home, and made sure Louis knew to call him the second he got in the door. It’s only about ten minutes after the class ends that Harry’s phone finally lights up with a call from his own land line, and he answers immediately.

“Lou?”

“Hi,” Louis says, sounding excited. “It was so good, Harry. It was so fun. They put us in pairs and gave us scenes to learn by the end of class, and then we had to perform them, and it was terrifying but it was so much fun, and the teacher said I’m a natural,” he says, smug.

“That’s amazing, love,” Harry says, closing his eyes and leaning back in his chair. “You’re gonna stick with it, then?”

“Absolutely,” Louis says. “I’ve got homework and everything. I have to perform a monologue at the next class.”

“Do I get to hear it?” Harry asks.

“Obviously,” Louis says. “You’ve got to help me practice.”

“I can’t wait,” Harry chuckles. “I’m glad you enjoyed it, Lou.”

“Me too,” Louis sighs happily. “Right, I’m gonna go work on my monologue. You’ll be home at the regular time?”

“Yeah, a little after five,” Harry says.

“Good,” Louis says. “I’ll see you then.”

“Hey Lou?” Harry says, before Louis can go and hang up on him.

“Yeah?” Louis says, impatient, obviously eager to go rehearse. Harry loves him so much his heart could fucking burst.

“I’m proud of you,” he says.

Louis pauses, and then laughs quietly. “Thank you, Hazza.”

“I’ll see you when I get home,” Harry says, grinning up at the ceiling.

“Okay, love you,” Louis says, hanging up before Harry can say anything else. Harry rolls his eyes and puts his phone down on his desk, trying to spend the last few hours of his work day being productive instead of going home early to hear all about Louis’s first acting class.

When he does finally get home that evening, he can hear Louis’s voice coming from somewhere in the house, loud and dramatic. Harry grins and puts all of his things down as quietly as possible and then creeps around the first floor, trying to find the source of Louis’s voice.

He finds him in the guest wing, standing in front of the massive floor length mirror in the corridor next to the bathroom. He’s reading from a piece of paper in his hand, but it sounds effortless, like he’s really having a conversation with someone. Harry has no idea what the monologue is from, but Louis’s delivering it beautifully, and Harry just watches through the door, slightly, ajar, until Louis finishes.

He pushes through the door then, already clapping loudly, scaring Louis nearly out of his skin. Louis shrieks, dropping the paper, and then hides his face.

“That was incredible!” Harry crows, laughing as he wraps Louis up in his arms. “Where’s the Oscar?”

“You fucking scared the shit out of me,” Louis says, pressing his face into Harry’s chest. “Jesus Christ.”

“Sorry,” Harry giggles. “I heard you practicing and I couldn’t resist.”

“Dick,” Louis mutters, pinching Harry’s hip. He looks up at him after a moment, looking hopeful. “You thought it was good, though?”

“I thought it was amazing,” Harry says earnestly. “Can I hear the whole thing?”

“Oh, I’m embarrassed,” Louis says, picking up the sheet of paper from the floor.

“Please?” Harry asks, pouting sweetly.

“Promise you won’t laugh?” Louis says, poking Harry’s stomach. “And that you’ll tell me if I suck so I can quit while I’m ahead?”

“I promise,” Harry grins, running to the sofa and plopping down, ready to be a perfect audience member.

“Right,” Louis says, coming to stand in front of Harry, on the very edge of the carpet, like he’s on a stage. “Ready?”

Harry nods quickly, trying not to smile too big. Louis blushes a little and looks down at his piece of paper, hand shaking a little bit.

“We can't strike,” Louis begins, staring resolutely at his script to avoid Harry’s eye. “Why not? Because it's against the law to strike! The king has declared that everything is a crime. Writing is a crime. Two weeks ago, the police destroyed the Galaty, the worker's newspaper. They smashed the press. They burned over two thousand newspapers but that didn't satisfy the king. Three days ago at a student meeting, a peaceful meeting, soldiers broke it up and arrested two of my friends. Writing, talking, going to class, speaking out is a crime. Being poor is a crime. Being poor is the worst crime of all. And if you commit these crimes, you are condemned for life. Our government has no mercy, no pity, no forgiveness. And there's no work for us. And because there's no work, our children are starving. Tell me: why are we powerless to save the people we love? All of you know. Tell me - why? The king betrayed us. We were promised the vote, do we have it? Do we have the vote? Where is the republic our fathers died for? It's here my brothers. It lives here in our heads. But most of all, best of all, it's here in our hearts. In our hearts - we are the republic!” He gets so into it he’s nearly shouting at the end, just about tripping over himself snapping back into reality when he’s finished. He looks up at Harry nervously, chewing on his lip, putting the paper down gingerly on the coffee table.

Harry gives him a standing ovation, just about launching himself over the coffee table to hug him. “That was fucking beautiful,” Harry says, talking into Louis’s neck. “Oh my god, you’re actually talented. I’m so relieved.”

Louis laughs, pulling back an inch to look up at him. “You liked it?”

“I loved it,” Harry says, kissing him quickly. “Les Mis, right?”

“Yeah,” Louis grins, lighting up a little. “You’ve seen it?”

“Of course,” Harry says. “It’s one of my favorites. My parents took Gemma and I to see it at the Queen’s Theater in 2004, I’ve loved it ever since,” he says.

“No way,” Louis says. “Mum took us to see it then, as well. I was thirteen, and she’d just won the biggest sum of money since before I was born. Mind you, it was only a couple hundred pounds, but the first thing she did was buy us tickets for that show, since I’d mentioned wanting to see it once,” he says.

“How strange would it be if we’d been at the same show?” Harry says, smiling at the thought. “Maybe we’ve met before.”

“I think I’d remember you,” Louis says instantly. “I’d remember you if we’d met before.”

“I’d like to think I would, too,” Harry says, kissing Louis’s lips again, gently. “My little Marius.”

“It’s my dream role, if I’m honest,” Louis says, blushing again. “Marius is incredible.”

“You’d be a fantastic Marius,” Harry says. “You will be, someday. I’m sure of it.”

Louis rolls his eyes, biting at Harry’s shoulder and then pulling away. “Careful,” he says, picking up his monologue and waving it at Harry. “The studio for my class is quite small, if you make my head any bigger I won’t be able to fit inside.”

“You don’t even need it,” Harry says. “Your teacher was right, you’re a natural.”

“Oh, hush,” Louis says, rolling his eyes. “Right, I’m hungry, what’s for dinner?”

Harry grins, following him out of the guest wing and into the kitchen. He knows it’s only day one, but he’s so excited to be able to watch Louis’s career develop, knowing that one day they’re going to look back at today and think about how far he’s come, how today was just the beginning of something wonderful. He can’t wait to get to that point, honestly, but he’s alright with loving these little moments on the way, and as long as Louis’s happy, he’s happy, too.

-

It’s already dark in the theater as Harry makes his way to the front row, quietly excusing himself as people shift around to let him through. He finds his seat easily, as it’s the only one still open this close to curtain, and settles in just as the stage lights go up.

A hush falls over the theater as soon as the show begins, the actors capturing everyone’s attention immediately. Louis’s not onstage yet, but Harry knows he’s still right off the side where Harry left him only a moment ago, shaking with nerves but so, so excited nonetheless.

It makes him think back to a few years ago, when Louis first told him he wanted to be an actor. He remembers how quick he’d been to sign him up for a class, how terrified Louis had been on his first day, and how brilliant he was right from the start. He remembers the first monologue Harry ever heard him perform, which ended up being the first of so, so many, Harry’s lost count of all the auditions and rehearsals and late nights and rejections. Harry hardly pays attention to scene going on in front of him, staring intently at the wide window at the back of the set where he knows Louis is going to appear any second.

After what feels like ages, Louis finally appears, jumping up onto the windowsill as if he weighs nothing at all. It’s all part of the magic, Harry supposes, and Louis is absolutely perfect; he’s the best Peter Pan Harry’s ever seen, even before he’s spoken a single line.

“Tinker Bell?” Louis asks, the mic hidden inside his costume projecting his gentle voice through the entire theater. It gives Harry chills, knowing that there are thousands of people in here right now, and they’re all focused on Louis, his Louis, and Harry never knew he could feel so proud. “Tink, where are you?”

He captivates the audience effortlessly, flitting around the stage like he’s the real Peter Pan, like he was born to do this. It’s not Les Mis, it’s not his dream role, but it is his first major role ever, and it’s a damn good one. Harry can hardly believe how good he is, how well he pulls it all off, like he’s been doing this all his life.

The play is only one act all the way through, which means it’s not terribly long, and it’s over far sooner than Harry’s ready for. He wants to spend the rest of his life here, watching Louis do exactly what he was born to do. The world is falling in love with him, or at least London is, and Harry can’t fucking wait to watch him keep making all of his dreams come true.

Harry’s the first one on his feet when the show ends, shouting at the top of his lungs as the cast does their bows. Louis meets his eye when he comes out to link arms with the rest of the cast to take their final bow, and Harry watches him look up at the crowd, take in the sight of all the people that came here to see him, that came here to fall in love with him, that will undoubtedly remember his name. Harry’s so excited he wants to cry, and Louis looks like he feels the same, lingering on the stage just a little too long before dashing away, the curtain falling behind him.

There are no cameras allowed in the theater, obviously, but the second Harry gets up to follow the crowd out to the lobby, he can feel people snapping photos of him left and right. He knows it isn’t because they’re excited to see him, though, it’s because they know he’s Louis’s boyfriend, and Louis is the glamorous one in the relationship these days. Louis’s name and face is plastered up in every tube stop in London, every bus on the street, every advert on TV. He’s quite the little celebrity now, and it has absolutely nothing to do with Harry, though he’s sure it doesn’t hurt his popularity that he has a good looking, rich, successful boyfriend. They’re the media’s favorite couple at the minute; people went crazy for Harry Styles’s mystery man, who went unnamed for years, to finally be a celebrity in his own right. Harry doesn’t mind any of it, he’s just happy that Louis is happy, though he could do without people shoving phone cameras in his face as he’s trying to get backstage to see his boyfriend.

It could be worse, he knows, as he gently pushes through a crowd of people begging for a selfie with him and flashes his ID to the security guarding the door to backstage. The whole world is falling in love with his love, and it’s about time, he thinks, because he’s got the greatest love in the world.

Everything is so much quieter backstage, even with the entire cast of the show running around, high on the adrenaline of opening night. Harry congratulates everyone he sees, all of whom he’s gotten to know through loitering at all of Louis’s rehearsals. Louis is nowhere to be found, though, so Harry heads to his dressing room, knocking quietly on the door.

“Lou?” he calls, leaning his ear against the door. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah,” Louis calls. His voice cracks a little bit, like it does when he’s trying to hide the fact that he’s crying, and Harry nearly rips the door off its hinges in his haste to get inside.

“What’s wrong?” Harry asks, locking the door behind himself. “Baby, why are you crying?”

Louis’s leaning against his vanity, staring at himself in the mirror with tears streaming down his face, putting big streak marks in the makeup caked on his face. He turns to Harry slowly, sniffling loudly, and Harry rushes to him to wrap him up in his arms.

Louis presses his face into Harry’s neck and sobs, curling his fists into the back of Harry’s blouse and holding on tight. “This is the best day of my life,” he says, but he’s still crying, and Harry just strokes at his back and lets him wipe his nose on his shoulder.

“Then why the tears?” Harry asks.

“Happy tears,” Louis says, pulling away grinning. He wipes at his face a bit, grabbing a wipe from the table and cleaning off some of the makeup. “The happiest tears.”

“I’m so fucking proud of you,” Harry says, holding him from behind when Louis returns to the mirror to take off the rest of his makeup. “You were absolutely incredible. Like, so, so good, Louis, honestly. Everyone loved you,” he says.

“It felt good,” Louis says, smiling at him in the mirror. “It felt so good. I never want to do anything except this for the rest of my life,” he breathes.

“You were born for this,” Harry agrees. “I know you were.”

“I’m so happy,” Louis says, laughing as a few more tears leak out of his eyes. “The second I got offstage I just burst into tears, and everyone was telling me how good I was, asking why I was sad, but none of them get it. They all come from theater families, grew up going to fancy performing arts schools and becoming professional actors, and I’m just some kid who grew up on the streets and found myself here. I don’t think anyone could understand how much this means to me,” he says, throwing away his makeup wipe and turning back around to bury himself in Harry’s chest.

“You’re right,” Harry says. “I can’t even imagine what this is like for you. But do you have any idea how fucking proud I am?”

“If it’s even a fraction of how proud I am of myself, it’s overwhelming,” Louis laughs. “Did that sound arrogant? I don’t even care if it did. I’m so fucking proud of myself, Harry.”

“You should be,” Harry says. He pulls away just enough to take Louis’s face in his hands, kissing him sweetly. “I love you so much,” he murmurs into Louis’s mouth.

“I love you too,” Louis whispers, kissing Harry back hard. “I can’t believe this is my life. I can’t believe I get to come back tomorrow and do this again, and the night after that, and every night for the next few months,” he says.

“I hope it’s this exciting every time,” Harry says, thumbing over Louis’s cheek, soft and clean from being scrubbed with the wipe.

“It will be,” Louis says, absolutely sure of it. “I never want this to end.”

Harry ends up spending the next few hours in Louis’s dressing room with him, waiting for the crowds to leave the theater before they can head home. Louis says they’re not allowed to fuck with Louis in his costume, which is the worst news Harry’s gotten in recent memory, but Louis assures him that once the show has ended for the season, he’ll be allowed to keep the costume, and Harry will get to fuck him in it whenever he wants.

Louis has a shower in his dressing room while Harry lounges on his sofa, flipping through the playbill from the show. He’s going to keep it forever, obviously, and he might even make Louis sign it, just because he’s a sappy dork. He forgets all about it when Louis steps out of the shower, though, looking soft and cozy and sleepy in his hoodie and joggers.

He comes right over to curl up with Harry on the sofa, tossing the playbill to the floor and forcing himself into Harry’s arms. Harry just laughs and holds him, slipping his hand up the back of Louis’s hoodie to feel his skin.

“We can’t fall asleep here,” he says, but it’s late, and he’s exhausted, and Louis is so cuddly and warm on top of him Harry thinks he might fall asleep anyway.

“I don’t think I could fall asleep right now if I tried,” Louis says. “Too amped up.”

“Well, I could definitely fall asleep right now, and I might, if we don’t get up. Can we go soon?” he asks sleepily, playing with Louis’s damp hair with his free hand.

“Yeah,” Louis says, but he doesn’t move, even when Harry starts poking at him.

“You’ll have to get up then, love,” Harry says, smiling when Louis looks up at him.

“Sorry,” Louis chuckles, shaking his head. “I don’t want this night to end.”

“Here,” Harry says, sitting them up and pulling his phone out of his pocket. He opens his camera app and turns it to his front facing camera, hooking his chin over Louis’s shoulder and smiling big. Louis catches on quickly, sticking his tongue out at the camera just in time for Harry to capture the photo. “Now it never has to,” Harry says, pulling up the photo from his camera roll and showing Louis.

Louis takes the phone from him, inspecting the photo for a moment. “I love you,” he decides, handing the phone back with a smile. Harry opens the camera again, snapping another picture of himself kissing Louis’s cheek, and then another once Louis turns to kiss his lips.

“I’m tweeting those photos,” Louis says, once Harry’s finally gotten them both up off the sofa. “Those are adorable and the world deserves to see them.”

“Humanitarian, you are,” Harry jokes, collecting his keys and his jacket. “Ready?”

Louis nods, following him out of the dressing room as slowly as possible. He takes his time on the way out, taking everything in, like he wants to remember it all exactly as it is right now. Most everyone else has already gone home, and the entire theater is quiet and sleepy, a little bit haunting. Harry doesn’t say anything, lets Louis linger as much as he likes, until they finally make it out to Harry’s car. They’re quiet on the way home, and then all the way up to bed, until Louis curls up right on top of Harry and rests his head on his chest.

“Goodnight, Peter Pan,” Harry hums, carding his fingers through Louis’s hair, pressing a kiss to Louis’s forehead.

Louis just grins and turns his head to squeal into Harry’s chest, and Harry falls asleep smiling, his arms wrapped tight around Louis all through the night.

-

Harry attends every single one of Louis’s shows for the first week, sitting front and center every night. It’s taking a bit of a toll on his sleep schedule, spending so many late nights in Louis’s dressing room and then having to get up for work in the morning, but he’d rather die than miss a second of Louis glowing onstage like he himself is the spotlight. The media loves the fact that he’s so invested in Louis’s career, too; every night he gets asked for pictures with people that end up in gossip articles the next morning, and it’s all very new and very weird and very surreal, but he wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.

He attends both the matinee show and the evening show on the first Sunday of the play’s run, which means he’s cooped up in the theater from about lunchtime until after dinner, but he got to make out with Louis a bunch between shows and, well, that makes his numb arse worth it. Maybe he should make an anonymous donation to the theater so they can afford to replace the cushions in the seats every once in a while, he muses, as he’s standing in the lobby after the evening show.

Louis asked him to meet him out here tonight instead of coming back to his dressing room, because his first paycheck from the show came in this morning and he’s got his heart set on buying Harry dinner with it. Harry’s just trying to blend into the wallpaper, staring down at his phone to look busy even though he’s not actually doing anything other than switching back and forth between his messages app and his email app.

The lobby is nearly empty by the time someone inevitably approaches him, and he reluctantly looks up from his phone, leveling the woman touching his arm with an unimpressed look in hopes she’ll just feel awkward enough to walk away.

“Hi,” the woman says, sounding anxious. She looks familiar, or maybe she just looks like someone Harry knows, but Harry can’t put his finger on it. “Sorry to bother you.”

“Not a bother,” Harry says, because even when he is annoyed, he could never be anything less than polite to a stranger.

“You’re Harry, right?” the woman asks, still touching his arm. “You- um, date Lewis?”

Harry frowns, lifting his head a little to get a proper look at the woman. She called him Lewis, which is odd, Harry thinks. Most people that approach Harry know Louis well enough to know how he pronounces his name, but the fact that this woman isn’t using either of their surnames makes her sound like she’s familiar with both of them, and Harry can’t figure her out.

“That’s me,” Harry says, a little suspicious, putting his phone in his back pocket slowly.

The woman exhales sharply, flustered, and turns to look at the group of kids behind her. Harry suddenly realizes that they’re all together, four teenage girls and two small kids, all of them looking nervous and out of place.

“Would you happen to know where Lewis is right now?” the woman asks. She backpedals quickly at the alarmed look on Harry’s face, squeezing his arm a little. “Sorry, that was a bit forward. I was just really hoping to speak to him.”

“He’s getting changed,” Harry says, still watching the woman carefully. “Are- is he expecting you?”

“I don’t think so,” the woman chuckles, a bit sadly. “I’m his mother.”

Harry freezes, all of it settling in slowly. This is Louis’s mother, and these are his sisters, and Harry’s never heard him speak about the two smaller children before, but they’re young enough that they might have come along after Louis left. They all look exactly like him, as well; that’s why Harry thought they looked familiar, they all have Louis’s face in slightly different versions. Louis’s mother gives him another sad smile, glancing over her shoulder at her kids.

“We’d really, really like to see him, if we can,” she says. “I’ll understand if he doesn’t want to see me, but could you please just let him know that we’re here?” she asks hopefully.

“I- yeah,” Harry says, a little bit stunned. “I’ll go tell him.”

Louis’s mother gives him one more smile and then lets go of his arm, and Harry all but sprints backstage. He makes it to Louis’s dressing room in record time, but he stops short once he gets there, hesitating a few seconds before he knocks gingerly on the door.

“Just a second!” Louis calls, and there’s a bit of thumping around behind the door, and then Louis appears in front of him, a little flushed, and very happy to see him. “Oh, it’s you,” he grins. He leans up to kiss Harry quickly, and Harry lets him, before slowly backing him into the room.

“I need to tell you something,” Harry says, his voice low as he closes the door behind himself.

“What?” Louis asks, the smile disappearing from his face. “What’s wrong?”

“Don’t freak out,” Harry says.

“That’s number one on the list of ways to get me to freak out,” Louis says. “What the fuck?”

“I just- don’t react too quickly, okay?” Harry says. Louis nods, so Harry reaches for his hands, holding tightly while Louis holds his breath. “Your family is here.”

Louis doesn’t freak out. In fact, he doesn’t react at all, except for the way his eyes glaze over a little bit and his hands go limp in Harry’s.

“I told you not to panic,” Harry says quickly.

“Do I look like I’m panicking?” Louis says, voice croaky, eyes wide.

“Yes,” Harry frowns.

“You might be right,” Louis says, pulling his hands out of Harry’s in favor of pacing around his dressing room, pinching at his own wrists. “They’re here?”

“I can tell them to leave,” Harry says. “It’s okay. They said they’d understand.”

“Who’s here?” Louis says, still not looking at him. “All of them?”

“Your mum, and your sisters, I think,” Harry says. “And two little kids you’ve never talked about before, a little red haired girl and a blond boy.”

Louis slows, rounding the sofa and sitting down carefully. He looks like he’s going to be sick, and Harry has no idea what to do, so he just waits.

“Is Mark with them?” Louis asks quietly, finally looking up at Harry.

“I don’t think so,” Harry says. “I didn’t see a man with them.”

Louis nods, dropping his eyes to the floor for a minute. Harry’s just about to go in for a hug when Louis finally looks up again, setting his jaw determinedly. “Can you bring them in here?”

Harry blinks, watching Louis closely. “Are you sure?” he asks.

“Yes,” Louis says immediately, rubbing at his face a little, pushing his hair back. “Yes, I- I think I want to see them.”

Harry nods, backing toward the door. “I’ll go get them,” he says, not taking his eyes off of Louis until he’s fully out the door, letting it fall shut behind him.

He almost expects Louis’s family to be gone when he gets back to the lobby, but they’re all exactly where he left them, waiting quietly, looking anxious. The tallest girl with the darkest hair notices him first, nudges the lighter haired girl beside her, who quickly gestures to their mother to turn around.

“He wants to see you,” Harry says, smiling gently. Louis’s mum looks like she’s going to cry, smiling so wide it nearly splits her face in half. “He’s in his dressing room, you can follow me.”

It takes a moment to get them through security, but once the guard at the stage door has checked everyone’s ID, Harry finds himself leading Louis’s gangly, pretty family down the corridor he’s walked probably fifty times this week alone. He swears the walk has never felt this long; by the time he stops in front of the door with Louis’s name on it, it feels like it should already be tomorrow.

He gestures for Louis’s family to stop and then knocks quietly on Louis’s door, cracking the door open just enough to peek his head inside. Louis’s exactly where he left him, frozen on the sofa, and Harry waits for him to meet his eyes.

“Yeah,” Louis says, standing up. “Come in.”

Harry gives him another smile and then pushes the door open, letting Louis’s mum in first, followed quickly by all of Louis’s siblings. Harry squeezes in last, closing the door after everyone, tucking himself away beside the door to watch this all play out.

No one moves for a long, tense moment, and Harry swears everyone in the room is holding their breath, himself included. Louis looks overwhelmed, like he’s going to lose it, and Harry’s just about to intervene when finally Louis’s oldest sister lunges forward, hugging Louis so hard she nearly knocks him over.

Louis hugs her back without even a second’s hesitation, burying his face in her neck. “You’re so tall,” he laughs shakily, hands curling into fists in the back of her dress.

The rest of Louis’s sisters rush forward immediately, like a dam has been broken, all of them surrounding him and squeezing him tight until all Harry can see is Louis’s head in the middle of them all, looking so happy, so peaceful.

When the girls finally pull away, all of them sniffling and giggling, Louis’s mum steps up, face to face with her son for the first time in years. Louis’s face goes carefully blank, the way Harry hates, because he knows it means Louis is planning his escape without even meaning to.

Before that can happen, though, his mum reaches out and touches his face softly, tracing her thumb over his cheek. Louis blinks, and his mother sobs quietly, pulling him into her arms.

Louis is stiff for a few seconds, eyes squeezed shut, but eventually he crumbles, hugs her back and presses his whole face into her shoulder. He starts to cry immediately, quiet, gasping sobs that get mostly absorbed by his mother’s blouse, and it takes everything in Harry to stay rooted to his spot, to not pull Louis into his own arms and do whatever it takes to make him stop crying, because he knows that this is exactly what Louis’s been needing for so many years now.

It’s going well, he thinks, when Louis’s mother pulls away a little to wipe Louis’s tears and kiss his cheek. Harry feels incredibly awkward suddenly, like he’s intruding, but he’s also far too awkward to duck out now, so he just lowers his head a little and keeps watching.

“I’m so proud of you,” Louis’s mother breathes, touching every bit of his face, running her fingers through his hair, touching his neck and his shoulders and his arms. “I’m so, so proud of you.”

“Thank you,” Louis says, grinning even though he’s still crying. “Thank you for coming.”

“I’m so sorry,” his mother cries suddenly, burying herself in Louis’s chest. Louis closes his eyes and holds her, a few more tears slipping down his cheeks as he combs his fingers through the back of her hair. “Lewis, my baby, I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry for what we did to you, we were so awful to you all as children.”

“It’s alright, mum,” Louis says, his voice coming out strained. “I’m alright, see?”

“You were always so brave,” his mum says, looking up at him again. “The strongest person I’ve ever known. So much stronger than I’ll ever be. And we just walked all over you, Lewis, we treated you kids so horribly and we never even knew we were doing anything wrong,” she admits.

Louis doesn’t say anything, looking lost for words, just shaking his head a little.

“Things are different now,” his mum says, pulling herself together a bit. “We’ve been trying to find you for years, but we had no idea to look. We didn’t even know if you were still in England, let alone London, until Fizzy saw your picture on the tube.”

Louis smiles, turning to his sisters. “You saw my picture?” he asks, sounding amazed.

“Yes,” says the tallest, darkest haired girl. “I wasn’t sure it was you at first, but I looked at it every day for nearly a week before I decided to get a closer look and saw your name,” she says. “I ran straight home to tell mum.”

Louis laughs, shaking his head and wiping at his face again. “Things are different?” he asks, turning back to his mother, looking more hopeful than Harry’s ever seen him look. Harry thinks back to when Louis told him about how hope is an evil thing, about how it only ever ends in misfortune, and he prays to god that Louis was wrong that time, because if his hope fails him now, it’ll ruin him.

“I was… terrible,” his mum admits. “I was chasing a delusion your entire childhood, and you cleaned up all of my messes, like the perfect boy you’ve always been,” she smiles sadly. “But I’m not like that anymore. I haven’t bought a lottery ticket in years, I divorced Mark, got a real job- it’s not exactly a dream job, but it puts food on the table consistently, which is more than I can say for when you were growing up,” she shrugs.

“Mum,” Louis breathes, looking ecstatic. “That’s fantastic. I’m so proud of you.”

“Not nearly as proud as I am of you,” his mum says, pinching his cheek a little like she can’t help herself. “You were so incredible on that stage tonight. I weeped through the whole thing, ask them,” she says, gesturing to the girls.

“It’s true,” says one of the twins, trying to look annoyed, though she still just seems overwhelmed with everything. Harry can’t blame her.

“You should have seen her,” says the other twin. “She was blubbering even at the happy parts.”

“So was Lottie,” Louis’s mum says accusingly. “She’s nearly as bad as me!”

“Leave me out of this, I’ve always been a crier,” says the oldest sister, grinning at Louis. “Isn’t that right, Lou?”

“Absolutely right,” Louis says, throwing his arm around her shoulders and hugging her again. “I suppose you’ve all met Harry, then?”

Harry blushes, all the attention suddenly turning to him.

“We’ve met Harry,” Louis’s oldest sister giggles, glancing at the darker haired girl. “But feel free to introduce us properly.”

“Mine,” Louis says, pinching his sister’s side a bit and grinning at Harry. “Hazza, this nasty one here is Lottie, my oldest little sister,” he says. “This here is Fizzy,” he says, touching the darker haired girl’s shoulder. “And the twins are Daisy and Phoebe.”

“Can you tell us apart still, Lewis, after all this time?” one of the twins asks, giving him a look.

“Of course I can, Daisy,” Louis says, reaching out to tug at her hair. “Trust me, there hasn’t been a day that’s gone by since I saw you last that I haven’t thought of each of you.”

“It’s so lovely to meet you all,” Harry pipes up, quickly gaining all of the girls’ attention. “I’ve heard so many stories about you all.”

“I don’t think I’ve met these little ones, though,” Louis says, glancing at the two small children hiding behind his mum.

“I got remarried a couple years ago,” Louis’s mum says, looking down at the younger kids. “To a very nice man named Dan. Ernest, Doris, this is your big brother, the one I’ve always told stories about.”

The kids look shy, even when Louis crouches down in front of them to meet them properly.

“Isn’t it cool, Doris?” Phoebe says, crouching down as well and hugging Louis sideways. “Your big brother is Peter Pan!”

Doris giggles shyly, reaching out to touch Louis’s face. Louis’s still in his costume, sans the hat, so he jumps up quickly, immediately slipping back into his character.

“Have you ever flown before, Doris?” he asks, grinning when she shakes her head. “Well, would you like to? Just so happens I’ve got a little bit of pixie dust left over from the show.”

Doris looks enchanted, and Louis scoops her up quickly, holding her over his head as he twirls around the room. She shrieks, laughing gleefully, still looking enamoured even after Louis’s put her down.

“How about you, Ernest?” Louis ask, giving the young boy a smile. Ernest just lifts his arms, and Louis laughs as he picks him up, flitting around the room with him the same way he did with his sister.

Harry’s heart feels about ready to burst, watching Louis interact with his family, already becoming a hero to the younger ones. Harry would do anything to know what kind of stories Louis’s mum told them about their brother, if he’s already living up to their expectations. He can’t imagine that Louis is anything less than everything they’ve ever pictured, because Harry knows from personal experience that Louis is an absolute gift, and he only gets better every single day.

Eventually, just when Harry’s sure that Louis’s forgotten he’s even in the room, Louis looks up at him, eyes twinkling, looking more beautiful than Harry’s ever seen him.

“Harry and I were going to go get some dinner tonight, do you all want to tag along? It’s on me,” he says, grinning right at Harry.

It sounds rehearsed, almost to the point that Harry’s completely sure it is. He knows what a big moment this is for Louis, knows exactly how long he’s been waiting, dreaming of saying those words, and now he finally can. He’s got such a big heart, a big, beautiful, generous heart, and Harry knows that being able to take his family to dinner is something he’s been dreaming of for as long as he could dream.

“That sounds lovely,” Louis’s mum says, stepping up to give Louis one more hug. Louis just looks elated, eyes still locked on Harry, even as he ushers everyone out of his dressing room so he can finally change out of his costume for the night.

Harry remains a silent bystander for the rest of the evening, completely content to just sit back and watch while Louis gets reacquainted with his family. It’s absolutely remarkable, Harry thinks, how seamless it all is. It isn’t at all like Louis has been absent from their lives for more than ten years now, like he felt like he let them down so badly that he had to run away, hide from them until he couldn’t anymore. It’s like they were never apart, the way Louis banters with his sisters, reminisces with his mum, plays with the younger set of twins. Harry feels absolutely blessed to be able to be part of it all, to be the one next to Louis, the one that Louis leans into every time he gets a little overwhelmed.

At one point, after the main course has come and everyone’s eating happily, Louis leans fully into Harry’s side and noses at his shoulder. Harry wraps his arm around him, looking down at him until Louis meets his eyes.

“Alright?” Harry hums, quietly enough that only Louis will hear it.

“Yeah,” Louis says, hugging Harry loosely around the waist. “Thank you. For everything.”

“I didn’t do a thing,” Harry says, pressing a kiss to Louis’s hair.

“You gave me a chance,” Louis says, looking up at him. “You gave me the first foothold that led me to all of this.”

“You did this all yourself,” Harry says, even though he knows what Louis means. “Every bit of it, love. It’s all you.”

Louis just smiles, pecking a kiss to Harry’s jaw before pulling away to finish his dinner. Harry keeps his arm low around his waist the rest of the evening, but Louis doesn’t seem to mind at all, pressing back into him every now and again.

When they finally get the check, Louis takes it without hesitation, putting his card in the dish and handing it immediately back to the server. He looks so proud of himself, and Harry’s just about bursting with pride, himself, mostly because he doesn’t even feel the need to try and slip a twenty pound note into Louis’s wallet later without him noticing. Louis really did this all himself, earned every cent in his bank account, which is more than even Harry can say for himself.

Harry excuses himself to the toilets for a few minutes before they leave the restaurant, giving Louis his first bit of alone time with his family. He hasn’t stopped feeling like an intruder since the second he brought Louis’s family into the dressing room, so he spends as much time as possible loitering by the sinks until his phone buzzes with a text from Louis telling him he’s clear to come back now.

He finds everyone gathering their things and getting up from the table, so he quietly joins them, trailing along behind as they head up to the front of the restaurant. He pulls out his phone to get an Uber for Louis’s family, mostly because he doesn’t really know what else to do with himself.

“It was lovely to meet you, Harry,” Louis’s mum says, pulling him into a hug without any warning. Harry just grins, hugging her back quickly. “Sorry we didn’t really get the chance to get to know you very well. Hopefully next time we’ll have less catching up to do, and I can properly meet the man who changed my boy’s life.”

“Your boy changed his own life,” Harry says, but only because Louis is distracted by his siblings and isn’t listening. “You raised an incredible man, Mrs. Deakin.”

“Call me Jay,” Louis’s mum winks. “Thank you, anyhow. He’s so lucky to have you.”

“Not nearly as lucky as I am,” Harry says, smiling when Louis comes over to tuck himself into his side.

Louis looks so happy, so peaceful and content, Harry wishes this could’ve happened a long time ago. He breaks away from Harry just as the Uber pulls up to the pavement, hugging his mum one more time.

“If it’s alright with you,” Jay says, squeezing Louis tight, “we’d really love to be part of your life again. You’ve every right to say no, but I would do anything to have my baby back,” she whispers.

“Yeah,” Louis says immediately, pressing his face into her neck. He mumbles something else that Harry can’t quite hear, and Jay laughs, finally breaking away and piling into the waiting car with all of Louis’s siblings.

Louis walks straight into Harry’s chest once the car pulls away, pressing his nose so hard into Harry’s sternum Harry winces.

“That went well,” Harry says, petting at Louis’s hair and stroking his hand all the way down his back.

“I’m so happy,” Louis says, voice muffled. “I’m so fucking happy, Harry.”

“So am I,” Harry says, kissing the top of his head. “I love seeing you this happy.”

“Can we go home?” Louis asks, looking up at him. “This has been lovely, but I’m absolutely exhausted.”

“Of course, love,” Harry laughs, kissing his lips quickly before pulling away, leading the way around the corner of the block to where he parked earlier. They’re quiet as they climb into the car, and Louis spends the entire ride home drifting in and out of sleep, curled up like a kitten in the passenger seat.

It’s nothing new to Harry, but it hits him all over again that he loves this boy, he fucking loves him more than he thought it was possible to love someone, even after all this time. Louis isn’t even a trace of the boy Harry met cowering in his guest wing but Harry’s never found a single thing to not adore about him, and he doubts he ever will. The thing he loves the most, though, is how happy Louis is recently, how thrilled he is with his job and his life and now his family, as well, who have finally sorted their shit out and have come peacefully back into his life. Everything’s coming up for him right now, and Harry feels so incredibly lucky to be able to watch it all happen, to be the one beside Louis as everything starts to go right.

Harry has every intention of carrying Louis inside when they get home, but Louis drifts out of the car on his own, already half asleep as they head upstairs.

“C’mon, love,” Harry says, guiding Louis up the stairs. “Bedtime for you.”

“I need to shower,” Louis says, pouting. “I didn’t get to shower after the show.”

Harry knows that Louis hates going to sleep after a show without showering, because the makeup and the hair product and the dried sweat makes it hard for him to fall asleep. Harry just rolls his eyes and steers him right into the bathroom, turning on the shower for him.

“I can do it,” Louis says, batting him away. “Go get into bed. I want to be able to climb straight into a cuddle when I’m done.”

“Works for me,” Harry chuckles, closing the door to the ensuite on his way out. He takes his time stripping out of his clothes and getting ready for bed, breaking back into the bathroom for a moment to wash his face and brush his teeth. Louis comes out of the bathroom wrapped up in his towel just as Harry’s settling into bed, and Harry just holds the covers open for Louis to fall right into.

Louis snuggles right up against him, damp and completely naked but so soft and warm Harry can’t resist him, curling all around him and breathing in the scent of his shampoo.

“I’m really happy,” Louis says, smiling as he puts his head down on Harry’s pillow.

“Really?” Harry asks. “I couldn’t tell.”

Louis snorts, swatting at Harry’s chest with his eyes closed. “But I swear, if they start asking me for things, or if I find out they only wanted to come back into my life because I have money now, I’m going to be crushed.”

“I really don’t think that’s what they want,” Harry says. “I mean, it’s good that you’re being cautious, and that you’re aware that that could happen, but I really don’t think that you need to be worried about that. Their intentions seem pure. They’re just happy to have you back,” he says.

“Yeah, I think so too,” Louis says, turning over a little bit in Harry’s arms so that they’re face to face, though Louis’s eyes are still closed. “Harry?”

“Yes, love?” Harry hums, carding his fingers through Louis’s hair.

“Did they find me on their own?” Louis asks, voice quiet.

“What?” Harry frowns.

“Did they really just find me all on their own?” he asks again. “Or did you have something to do with it?”

Harry huffs a laugh, shaking his head. “I wish I could say I had something to do with it, Lou, but I didn’t. They found you all on their own, and decided to come see you, because they love you, and they missed you.”

Louis smiles, burrowing forward until his face is implanted in Harry’s neck. Harry grins and holds him closer, tracing patterns up and down his naked back until Louis falls asleep, breath evening out against Harry’s neck.

Harry stays awake a while longer, just listening to Louis breathe, hoping he was right when he told Louis that he has nothing to worry about. He really believes it, though, he genuinely believes that Louis’s family doesn’t have any ulterior motives, and that they’re just happy to have Louis back in their lives. Honestly, Harry thinks, who would be be happy to be able to be around Louis?

He drifts to sleep eventually, when he can’t keep his eyes open anymore, his chin tucked over Louis’s head and his arms tight around him, keeping him locked in, safe and sound, warm and well loved the whole night through.

-

Less than a week later, on Saturday, Louis gets a call from his mum while he and Harry are having breakfast together on the sofa in the sunroom, facing each other with their legs tangled between them. Louis’s phone starts ringing from the other room and he nearly takes both himself and Harry out in his haste to get off the sofa to go get it, dropping his plate of waffles haphazardly in Harry’s lap.

Harry hears him say, “hello?” but he doesn’t eavesdrop, too busy trying to right himself and both of their plates before the food goes everywhere. Louis comes bouncing back into the sunroom just as Harry’s settling both of the plates down on the cushion beside him, and he plops down on the floor in front of the sofa.

“Today?” Louis asks, looking up at Harry. “Hang on, let me ask him.”

Harry quirks an eyebrow, and Louis grins, pulling a face at him.

“Are you available to go to afternoon tea at my mum’s?” Louis asks. He pauses for a moment, listening, and then smiles. “She says sorry it’s so last minute.”

“Tea, with your lovely mum?” Harry says, loud enough that Jay can hear him. “Why, I’d love to.”

“We’d love to,” Louis echoes, scrunching up his face to hide his smile as he looks down at his lap. “We’ll bring some biscuits. Harry baked some just last night.”

Harry smiles, stretching out so he can put his feet in Louis’s lap. Louis pretends to gag, shoving Harry’s feet away, but he doesn’t protest when Harry laughs and puts them back.

“Excellent,” Louis says, wrapping his hand around Harry’s ankle. “We’ll be there at two. Text me the address, yeah?”

He hangs up a moment later and drops his phone on the rug, pushing Harry’s feet out of his lap and crawling a little closer. Harry parts his legs to make room, and Louis plops down right between them, resting his head on Harry’s thigh.

“Tea at your mums house, hm?” Harry asks, playing with his hair. “Excited?”

“More than you could ever know,” Louis says, smiling and closing his eyes. “It doesn’t feel like real life, in a way.”

“No?” Harry hums.

“Like, I really thought I would never see her again,” Louis says. “When I decided to run away, it was with the conscious knowledge that I was never going to speak to or see my mum ever again, or the girls, or anyone. Never in a million years did I think I was going to end up in a professional production of Peter Pan in west London and have my entire family attend and then invite me and my rich boyfriend to tea the following weekend,” he chuckles. “It feels like a dream. A beautiful dream. Like, none of this was meant to happen, but it did, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I woke up tomorrow and I’d imagined it all.”

“It’s real, love,” Harry says, dragging his nails lightly over Louis’s scalp as if to prove it. Louis shivers, nuzzling into Harry’s hand a little. “Fate works in funny ways.”

“You think it’s fate?” Louis asks, looking up at him. “All of this?”

“I think so,” Harry says. “Either she had this whole thing planned, or we seriously bamboozled her.”

Louis barks a laugh, shaking his head. “I like to think we really fucked up her whole vision,” he muses. “If I can outwit fate, what can’t I do?”

“You can do anything,” Harry says, bopping Louis’s nose with his pinkie. “But I knew that all along.”

Louis rolls his eyes, but Harry can see the way he blushes as he reaches for his plate again. “Told my mum we’d be there at two,” he says, picking at his waffle.

“Perfect,” Harry says, moving Louis’s plate just out of his reach again and ignoring the way Louis whines for it. “That’s just enough time to do what I’ve been wanting to do all morning.”

“What’s that?” Louis asks, glancing up at him.

“This,” Harry says, tackling Louis backwards on the rug, pinning him down spread eagle on the floor. Louis shrieks with laughter but Harry covers his mouth with his own before he can say anything, and thus goes the rest of their morning.

-

Louis’s mum doesn’t live in Louis’s childhood home anymore, but the new house is in the same neighborhood, on the outskirts of Whitechapel. It’s become quite a nice area in the past few years, Harry thinks, as he follows the GPS to Louis’s mum’s address. He remembers that, when he was growing up, Whitechapel was synonymous with Jack the Ripper and prostitution and seedy business, but now it all seems quite beautiful, quaint little houses and classic little pubs on every corner.

“I haven’t been here in years,” Louis says, staring out the window as they drive. “We’re only a couple blocks from our old house.”

“Really?” Harry asks. “So you spent a lot of time around here, then?”

“Yeah,” Louis says, quiet suddenly. “Are we almost there?”

“One minute away,” Harry says.

It isn’t even thirty seconds before the GPS tells them they’ve arrived, and Harry finds a place to park along the street and then they’re finding Louis’s mum’s door. Harry’s got a container of biscuits in one hand and Louis’s hand in his other, and Louis’s squeezing like he’s terrified; Harry can feel his pulse speeding up through his palm.

“What’s wrong?” Harry whispers, turning to face him.

“What if it’s the same as before?” Louis breathes back. “The house? What if it’s dirty and messy and nothing’s really changed at all and she was just-”

He cuts off quickly when the door swings open, Louis’s mum and all of his siblings gathered around.

“Well,” Louis says, melting a little just at the sight of them all. “Is this going to be the standard greeting every time I come over?”

“This isn’t for you, it’s for Harry,” Lottie jokes, grabbing Harry’s arm and pulling him inside, leaving Louis out on the pavement, looking slighted.

“I’d threaten to leave, but he’s my ride home,” Louis shrugs.

“Oh, hush,” Jay says, pulling Louis inside too and closing the door after him. “Lottie, dear, stop trying to steal your brother’s boyfriend.”

“Oh well, I’ve got my own,” Lottie says, patting Harry’s arm and then letting him free. Harry laughs, gravitating back towards Louis immediately, sticking his tongue out at Lottie.

He hardly knows Louis’s family, but he’s already comfortable around them, even if he never even properly got to talk with them the last time. He thinks maybe it’s something to do with the way Louis immediately goes soft and happy around them, in a different way than Harry’s used to, that makes him feel so at ease. Louis just fits so naturally with these people, and Harry fits anywhere Louis fits, he likes to think, so he feels right at home when Jay leads them along into the kitchen.

The house isn’t the slightest bit messy or dirty, nothing like Louis’s fears. In fact, it’s immaculate, like Jay had every hand on deck scrubbing the place down before they came over. It’s a good sign, Harry thinks, that they’re all willing to try so hard to keep Louis now that they have him back.

Everything is quaint and pretty, very simple but lovely. Jay’s got knick knacks everywhere, little art projects from the kids, letters and notes and postcards hung up on the fridge. Harry’s desperate to snoop a little, see if he can find anything from Louis’s childhood, but he waits until Louis and Jay have started their playful, loving banter before he sneaks away to wander around the room and take everything in.

There are paintings and drawings and little clay figurines all over the place, but most of them seem to have either Ernest’s or Doris’s name on them, as they’re probably the only children that have actually grown up in this house. Harry extends his wandering past the kitchen and finds himself in a back hallway of sorts, where dozens and dozens of framed photos hang on both walls. Harry takes his time looking at them, spotting Louis in each one, heart melting every time Louis’s image gets younger. There’s photos of him in what’s probably his very first football uniform, pictures of him holding each of his sisters as babies, and countless other photos of him at all ages. Harry spots one of Louis and Lottie as young children, sprinting down the pavement next to the river, both of them laughing. It makes Harry’s heart ache, remembering the story Louis told him years ago when they walked down that very same stretch of pavement, that he and Lottie were competing for choosing the cartoon in the morning.

Looking at the photos, one would never be able to tell that Louis had anything less than a perfectly normal childhood. Other than that all of the kids look a bit grungy in some of the photos, and that the photos of Louis cut off around the age of sixteen while the others have photos up to currently, it all looks perfectly lovely, a million smiles behind clear, shiny glass. He supposes this is only a handful of split seconds from a couple of entire childhoods, though, and there’s probably a hundred stories to be told from behind the camera of every single photo.

Louis finds him after only a few moments, when Harry’s snapping some pictures on his phone of Louis’s baby photos, because he desperately wants to be able to keep those. Louis just comes up behind him, hooking his head over his shoulder, laughing into his ear.

“What are you doing, you creep?” he says, pinching Harry’s side lightly. “You’re like a sneaky little cat, I didn’t even realize you’d walked away. I turned around to ask you a question and you were gone,” he says.

“Sorry,” Harry says, leaning back into him. “I wanted to see your baby photos.”

“God, she kept everything,” Louis breathes, glancing over all the photos on the wall in front of them. “I forgot that some of these photos even existed.”

“What’s this one?” Harry asks, pointing to a photo near the center of the wall.

“That’s the night we all got dressed up and went to see Les Mis at the Queen’s Theater,” Louis says, chuckling softly. “We look such a mess. We asked someone on the street to take our photo and he looked absolutely terrified of us,” he giggles.

Harry smiles, leaning in to get a better look. Louis’s young, probably only just thirteen, and he’s dressed up to the nines, button down shirt tucked into black slacks, his hair slicked back perfectly. The girls are all in little dresses, looking their Sunday best, and Louis’s mum is standing behind them, a tight smile on her face. Harry can imagine how awkward she must have felt, knowing exactly how they looked to everyone on the street but doing it anyway, because she wanted to make her kids happy. Harry admires her so much, thinks he should probably let her know that.

“This is the old house, the blanket nest I told you about,” Louis says, pointing to another photo.

It’s a tiny, dingy room, dark and empty with dirty walls and a filthy white carpet. There’s a mound of blankets on the floor, and Louis’s mum is spread out of top of them, Louis in her lap, laughing brightly. He’s probably only about four or five in the picture, and it makes Harry’s heart hurt so much he whimpers.

“You were precious,” he coos, snapping a photo on his phone of that picture, too. “God, I want to pinch your little cheeks.”

“Bit weird, love,” Louis says. “C’mon, mum’s got the tea ready.”

Harry spends the rest of the afternoon getting to know Louis’s family, learning all of the stories Louis never told him, and a couple he’s sure Louis would like him to forget. It’s a lovely afternoon, full of love and laughter and so much tea and biscuits Harry thinks he’ll be full for the rest of his life. The best part of the afternoon, though, is definitely how happy Louis is; he’s absolutely delighted to be sharing Harry with his family, and to be sharing his family with Harry, Harry can’t believe either one of them ever thought that finding them again would be a bad thing.

“Lewis and Harry, why don’t you take Ernie and Doris for a walk while the girls and I clean up?” Jay says, once they’ve run out of tea.

“Are you sure you don’t want us to help?” Louis asks, but he’s already getting up to slip his shoes on. Harry smirks, following suit, and Jay rolls her eyes.

“No, go on, go outside. You’ll only slow us down,” she says, collecting the twins and ushering the four of them out the door.

Ernest immediately reaches for Louis’s hand as they set off down the pavement, looking pleased when Louis obliges. Harry thinks it’s absolutely adorable how obsessed Ernest is with his older brother, how he looks at him like Louis is his hero, like Louis hung the stars in the sky. Harry gets it, honestly; Louis is the greatest person Harry can imagine, and he’s glad that Ernest didn’t have to miss out on a childhood with Louis as his role model.

Doris, on the other hand, goes straight for Harry, clawing at his leg until he picks her up. She’s been following him around like a shadow all afternoon, touching his hair and his face and admiring his rings, melting into a puddle every time Harry pays her an ounce of attention. She’s so sweet, Harry wants to steal her, but he suspects that she only likes him so much because he’s got crazy curly hair just like hers, and unlike everyone else in her family.

“Where shall we go, Ernie?” Louis asks, looking down at his brother. “We can’t go too far, Harry and I have got to head home soon.”

“Can’t Harry stay and play with us?” Doris asks, petting Harry’s hair gently. Harry grins, catching Louis’s twinkling eyes.

“Well, I guess he could, if he wanted,” Louis says. “But he’s got to drive me to work, first.”

“So you can be Peter Pan!” Ernie says, jumping around a bit without letting go of Louis’s hand. “Isn’t that your job?”

“That is my job,” Louis says. “Louis by day, Peter Pan by night.”

“Why do you say your name funny?” Doris asks, peering around Harry to look at Louis. “Mummy says it like ‘Lewis’.”

Louis blinks, looking at Harry, and Harry snorts. “It’s because he wants to be fancy,” Harry says, poking at Louis’s side, Louis blushes, rolling his eyes, so Harry elaborates. “Lewis is a bit boring, don’t you think? Louis is prettier, it suits him,” he says.

“It is prettier,” Doris decides. “Can I change my name to be fancier?”

“I think Doris is a lovely name,” Harry says. “Suits you perfectly, don’t you think?”

Doris giggles, hiding her face in Harry’s neck. “I think I’ll stay Doris, then.”

Louis looks so soft when Harry glances over at him, watching him like he can’t believe he’s real. Harry gives him the same look back, because he can’t, really can’t believe that this is his life.

They walk a few blocks, Louis leading the way, until finally they come to an abrupt stop on a secluded little side street and Harry nearly bowls Louis over, not expecting the change in pace.

“This is it,” Louis says, looking over at the house they’re stopped in front of. “This is where I grew up. Where it all began,” he sighs.

It’s a little house, narrow and short, with one window and a door on the first floor and two windows up on the second. It’s old, the bricks faded, the door worn and scratched from years of use.

“Wow,” Harry says, taking it all in. “It’s charming, in a way.”

“It’s disgusting,” Louis says, but he doesn’t sound bitter, he sounds fond. “That window on the first floor, there, that’s the living room. I was born in there,” he says. “The top left window was Lottie, Fizzy and my room, and the other window was where mum, Mark, Daisy and Phoebe slept.”

“It doesn’t seem big enough for all those people,” Harry says quietly.

“It wasn’t,” Louis says. “Not nearly. We had one working toilet, three beds and seven people,” he says.

“That’s crazy,” Harry says. “You lived here for sixteen years?”

“Sixteen years,” Louis says, staring resolutely at the house when Harry glances over at him. “I haven’t been here in so long.”

“Is it different from how you remember?” Harry asks.

“It’s so much smaller,” Louis says. “But, then again, the whole world feels a lot smaller than it used to.”

Harry nods, watching him for a moment and then looking back at the house. He doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know how to relate to Louis on this one, so he just lets the moment speak for itself.

“If you’d told me, the last time I stood in this front garden,” Louis says, voice so quiet Harry almost has to strain to hear it, “that the next time I stood in this front garden I would be happy, healthy, with a gorgeous boyfriend and a beautiful house and my dream job…” he trails off, shaking his head. “I think my heart would have just stopped beating altogether.”

“Well, remind me if I ever get a time machine to not go back in time and tell you those things,” Harry says.

Louis laughs, nudging him gently and then turning away, continuing on the way they were going. Harry puts Doris down and she runs on ahead, Ernest chasing after her immediately, both of them shrieking and laughing as they twirl down the street together.

“If you had a time machine,” Louis says, suddenly, “what would you do with it?”

“I don’t know,” Harry shrugs. “Probably kill Hitler, or something.”

“Really?” Louis asks, looking over at him. “You wouldn’t do something for yourself?”

“Well, I don’t know,” Harry says again. “I haven’t really thought about it. But, no, I’m pretty happy with the way my life’s gone,” he says.

“Huh,” Louis says quietly. “Well, that’s good.”

“What would you do?” Harry asks.

“I think I’d just go back and tell myself it’s all gonna be okay someday,” Louis says immediately, like he’s already given it a lot of thought. “I spent a lot of time as a kid worrying about the future, having no idea what was going to happen one day to the next. Every year, on my birthday, my only wish was that we’d all make it to my next one, and that things would be better by then,” he says. “I don’t know, I guess I’d just like to be able to go back and tell that little boy to stop worrying so much, to enjoy the small things more, focus more on being a kid.”

“Wow,” Harry says, watching the side of Louis’s face as they walk, still following Ernest and Doris down the pavement.

“Was that too deep?” Louis says, glancing over at him. “Should I have just said something like go back to see what dinosaurs actually looked like?”

Harry laughs, taking a half step closer to Louis and reaching for his hand to lock their fingers together. “I love your brain,” he says, pecking a kiss to the side of Louis’s head.

Louis smiles, wriggling his fingers out of Harry’s and then pulling Harry’s arm across his own shoulders, pressing close to his side. Harry’s heart goes all warm and fuzzy and he holds Louis tight, keeping his arm locked around him until they get all the way back to Jay’s house.

They only really have time to deliver the children and say their goodbyes, and then Jay sees them to the door with warm hugs and wet kisses to their cheeks.

“This was lovely,” Harry says, clutching the container from his biscuits that Jay washed for him. “Next time, we’ll host at ours, and we can all go to Louis’s show after.”

“That sounds absolutely delightful,” Jay says, and she means it, her eyes twinkling. She pulls Louis in next, pressing her mouth against his ear. “He’s a keeper, Lewis, you better hang on tight,” she mutters, just loud enough for Harry to hear. “And if you break up, let me know.”

Louis laughs, pulling away and shifting immediately into Harry’s side, wrapping his arms around Harry’s waist. “The only way I’m letting him go is if I’m dead and buried,” Louis says.

“Me too,” Harry says, pressing a kiss into Louis’s hair.

“Alright, love birds, go on, before you rot my teeth out,” Jay says, ushering them out the door. “Have a good show, love, and Harry, I’ll be in touch for that biscuit recipe.”

Louis ends up being a couple of minutes late to work, but he doesn’t mind, leaving Harry with a smiling kiss on his cheek before jumping out of the car and disappearing into the theater. Harry spends the whole drive home smiling, humming along quietly to the radio, already making plans in his head to have Jay and the girls round for tea at some point next week.

He spends a few hours getting some work done at home, wrapping up a few things he needs to have done before the start of the work week and tidying up a bit around the house. It’s always so quiet when Louis is gone; not that he’s terribly loud when he is home, but Harry still misses his little noises from the next room, the sound of him singing or rehearsing his lines or just talking to himself while he goes about his day. It’s quite pathetic, Harry thinks, that he misses Louis every time he leaves the house, but he thinks he’s quite lucky to have someone so thoroughly worth missing.

By the time he’s finished everything he had to do he’s still got about an hour left until Louis’s show starts, and he doesn’t quite know what to do with himself until then. He could go early and wait around in the theater, but he’s done that every night this week, and if he does it again people are going to start to think he hasn’t got a life. Then again, though, they wouldn’t be wrong; all Harry does is work and sleep and watch Louis perform, and while he’s the happiest he’s ever been, it’s still kind of a sad existence. He wants to write another book, but he’s waiting for the inspiration to strike, and these days it seems scarce.

He thinks about how Louis goes to work every single day of the week with a smile on his face, loving what he does, excited to do it over and over again. It’s been weeks and he still looks forward to it every day, and Harry’s starting to feel a bit jealous. He can’t imagine being that happy at work, can’t imagine looking forward to going to the office, can’t imagine finding actual pleasure in what he does at Spark. He’s been having the thought more and more often lately that he should just sell the company and get it over with so that he can do something that actually makes him happy, but the thought is terrifying, and there’s too much going on anyway, so he forces it away yet again and resigns to his fate of leaving early for the theater yet again.

He takes his time getting changed and heading out, and when he arrives to the theater, he’s only about fifteen minutes early. He’s taken to hanging out backstage or in the wings during the show instead of buying front row tickets every night, mostly because the constant stream of photos of the back of his head on the internet got old fast. He likes it better backstage, anyway, because he can kiss Louis between scenes and pretend to be embarrassed when the director tells him off for it. He also gets to help out with the props sometimes, which makes him feel a little bit closer to Louis, a little bit less like he’s just taking up space, which is nice.

His favorite thing by far, though, is being able to watch Louis completely in his element. He’s never without a smile, always bubbly and cheerful and supportive of his castmates, so excited to put on the best show he can every single night. Harry knows exactly how many people are out in the audience, knows exactly how captivated they all are by Louis, and it makes him so proud he almost can’t even believe it.

The theater is already filling up by the time Harry gets in and finds his way backstage, heading immediately for Louis’s dressing room. Harry doesn’t know how he does it, can only imagine how nervous he’d be if he were in Louis’s place, but Louis is as cool as ever as he answers the door to let Harry in.

“Thank god you’re here,” Louis says, a little bit flushed. “My zipper is stuck.”

“I love serving such an important role in your life,” Harry says, slipping through the door and turning Louis around, fiddling with his zipper until it comes free from where it was bunched up in the material of his costume. “It feels so good to know that you need me, that without me, the zipper never would’ve gotten fixed, and they would’ve had to cancel the whole show,” he says, pulling the zipper up easily and smoothing out the back of Louis’s outfit.

“My hero,” Louis giggles, twirling around and pressing up on his toes to kiss Harry’s lips.

Harry grins, catching Louis with his arms around his waist to keep him from flitting away. “I know I say this every night, but the second this show is done I’m gonna fuck you so hard in this costume,” he mutters, stooping down to kiss Louis’s neck.

“Makeup,” Louis chastises, shrugging him out of his neck. “Maybe I can convince them to let us borrow the Captain Hook costume, too?” he says, once he’s free from Harry’s hold, smirking as he backs away.

“That’s a lot,” Harry says, but he follows like a predator to prey, until Louis backs himself right into the wall. “But I’m into it.”

“You would be,” Louis says, letting Harry trap him in with his arms, chest to chest.

“How many more weeks of this show?” Harry asks, grinning as he leans in to kiss Louis’s lips. Louis just hums into his mouth, letting his arms snake around Harry’s shoulders. Harry leans into him a little heavier, kisses him a little harder, until he’s got Louis whining a little and trying to pull him closer.

“Ten minutes until curtain,” says a disembodied voice from the hallway, accompanied by a sharp knock on the door. Louis startles so hard he nearly hits his head off the wall but Harry catches him, pulls away and straightens out Louis’s costume like nothing even happened.

“Go get ‘em, baby,” he says, slapping Louis’s arse playfully when Louis slips away to get his shoes and hat on. Louis squeals, throwing Harry a mischievous look over his shoulder, and then darts out to the hallway.

Harry waits in the dressing room until the show has started, because he hates being in the way when the curtains go up and everyone is at their most stressful part of the night. He lounges on Louis’s sofa until he hears the lines leading up to Louis’s entrance and then he quickly sneaks out, staying in the shadows and out of the way as Louis gets perched on his platform so he can drop through the window onto the stage at his cue. Louis catches his eye half a second before he’s meant to go, and Harry gives him two thumbs up and a massive grin, and then Louis is gone, off to spend another evening charming his way into the hearts of the couple hundred strangers that are here to see him. Harry spends the entire show just off stage left, eyes glued to his boy, every worry gone from his head for the few hours he gets to spend watching his boy do what he was born to do.

-

When Louis’s show finally finishes it’s run a few months later, Harry’s forced to come to the cast dinner and afterparty, which is absolutely the last thing he wants to do. To be fair, Louis told him he didn’t need to come, but Harry attended every show for the first month and then at least one a week every single week after that, and he wouldn’t be caught dead not supporting his boy until the very last second.

That being said, he hates everything that’s happening right now. He’s in a very hot, sweaty little club in central London and he’s not nearly drunk enough to be dealing with the people he’s surrounded by, but he’s Louis’s ride home, so he cut himself off after only one drink with only a bit of contention.

Louis’s having a great time, dancing with anyone and everyone who comes near him. He’s not very drunk either, and Harry knows it’s because he doesn’t like feeling out of control, doesn’t like the way it makes him feel all fuzzy and sticky inside. He’s acting like he’s wasted, though, laughing and jumping with the crowd of people on the dance floor, and Harry’s just content to hang back and watch him.

The worst part of the whole thing is that Louis’s still in his stupid costume. Harry’s been waiting to fuck him in it since the very first time he saw him in it, and now he’s finally allowed to, since the show is done. All he wants to do is go home, but he can’t drag the star of the show away from the final cast party before he’s good and ready to go, so he settles for ordering another soda and getting comfy at the bar.

Louis has decided to take a few months off and recuperate from the constant pressure of the show, and once he’s had enough of sitting around, he’ll get back to auditioning and finding a new show. Harry’s absolutely thrilled at the prospect of having him home all the time now; he got so tired of going to bed at one in the morning after Louis’s shows, or having to go to bed alone and pretend not to wake up when Louis inevitably woke him up while climbing into bed beside him. He’s so looking forward to having constant access to Louis again, and he’s pretty sure Louis is, too.

He gets distracted with his phone after a little while, shifting through emails and texts like he’s at work instead of in a crowded, smelly club. He’s halfway through typing out a response to one of his colleagues when someone sneaks up next to him and snatches the phone out of his hand.

“Hey!” he shouts, ready to fight the thief, but when he looks up he sees Louis smiling calmly at him. He relaxes instantly, letting his alarmed expression fade into a pout. “What’s that for?”

“We’re at a party,” Louis says, nosing against Harry’s cheek and pulling him out of his seat. “I know you’re used to partying with old men in business suits but you’re allowed to have a little fun tonight.”

“How am I expected to have any fun when you’re out here looking like that?” Harry asks, glancing down Louis’s body. God, he wants to go home.

“Like this,” Louis says, dragging Harry right to the dance floor and then pressing close to his chest, wrapping his arms around his shoulders. “Dance with me.”

“I’m a horrible dancer,” Harry says, but he leans close anyway, pressing his mouth against Louis’s ear. “And you’re a tease.”

“Maybe so,” Louis says, grinning as he sways against Harry to the beat of the music. “Loosen up, Harry, fuck. For such a noodle-like person, you’re very stiff.”

“Fuck off,” Harry laughs, biting at Louis’s ear playfully. “Loosen me up, then.”

“You’re just waiting until we get home, aren’t you?” Louis says, knotting one hand in the back of Harry’s hair. “You’re not going to have any fun until you get me out of this costume?”

“No,” Harry says, dropping his hands to get them on Louis’s ass. His top cuts off right under his ass cheeks and he’s only wearing tights underneath, and Harry squeezes so hard Louis jumps. “You’re not taking this off any time soon.”

Louis shivers, nodding into Harry’s shoulder. “Take me home, then.”

“You wanted to dance,” Harry says, letting go of Louis’s ass before anyone sees and accuses them of being indecent. “So let’s dance.”

“You’re a dick,” Louis says, pulling away and smirking up at him. “Give me five minutes, I’m going to say goodbye. Meet me out front with the car.”

Just like that, Harry’s gone, pushing through the crowd and out the front door of the club. He finds his car in the lot across the street and pulls it around to the pavement in front of the club, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel impatiently while he waits for Louis. Much longer than five minutes later Louis comes hurrying out, climbing into the car with much less grace than he should, considering he’s dressed like a real pixie boy.

Louis doesn’t stop talking the entire way home, telling Harry all about how lovely all of his castmates are, how much he’s going to miss all of them, how they’re already planning to meet up again soon. Harry’s got a million things on his mind, namely getting Louis into bed and spending the rest of the night taking him apart, but he does his best to listen anyhow.

When they finally get home, Louis’s the one dragging Harry inside and straight up the stairs, his spandex covered ass peeking out from the bottom of his costume. The sight of it alone sends everything else in Harry’s mind out the window, and the second they get to the bedroom, he kicks the door shut and presses Louis up against it.

“I’ve been waiting months to be able to do this,” Harry says, grabbing Louis’s hips and kissing him hard. “Fuck, you’re like a dream. Did I ever tell you that Peter Pan was one of my first crushes growing up?”

“No,” Louis says, pushing his hips forward pointedly. “Tell me more.”

“Watched the film probably a hundred times, wished that I was Wendy, or one of the lost boys, I’m not sure which. Never quite thought I’d get Peter Pan like this, though,” Harry says, slotting one leg between Louis’s and pressing his thigh against him firmly.

Louis squeaks, dropping his head back against the door. “Fuck, Harry.”

“It drove me crazy, you know? Watching you on stage every night, living your dream, being fucking amazing at it,” Harry says, kissing down Louis’s neck. Louis is already hard, and Harry can feel every inch of him against his thigh through the thin material of his costume.

“Bed,” Louis says, but Harry ignores him, sucks on his neck until Louis is bruised and whimpering high in his throat, trying to claw the clothes right off Harry’s back.

“So fucking proud of you,” Harry says, licking over the mark he left on Louis’s skin. “So. Fucking. Proud.” He punctuates each word with a twist of his hips and Louis’s knees give, his hands tightening on Harry’s shoulders.

Bed,” Louis says, louder this time. Harry finally obliges, backing away an inch so that Louis can grab him by his shirt and drag him to the bed, falling back on it easily and dragging Harry with him. Harry doesn’t waste any time, getting Louis’s tights down to his knees and grabbing the lube from the bedside table.

It isn’t until Harry is literally balls deep, with Louis moaning and writhing under him, his costume all twisted around and ridden up, that Harry finally slows down, panting into Louis’s ear.

“Lou,” he says, slowing the movement of his hips until he has Louis’s full attention.

“What, what?” Louis asks frantically, hooking his ankles behind Harry’s back and pressing down in an attempt to get him to move again.

“I have to tell you something,” Harry says, chuckling as he leans more of his weight on top of Louis to get him to stop wriggling around.

“What?” Louis says again, sharper this time, glaring up at him with his lust blown eyes and his crazy hair.

“I’m gonna sell the company,” Harry says, watching Louis’s face. “I accepted an offer this morning.”

Louis freezes, blinking once. “What?”

“Yeah,” Harry grins. “I want to be as happy as you are, to love what I’m doing as much as you do every single day. And I’ll never be able to do that at Spark, so,” he shrugs.

“Harry!” Louis shrieks, slapping at Harry’s shoulder. “What the fuck? That’s amazing!”

“Thank you,” Harry says, nosing against Louis’s neck. “Thank you for teaching me how important it is to enjoy what you do.”

“I love you, you massive idiot,” Louis says, leaning up to kiss Harry’s lips. “Now, make me come or we’re going to have a big problem.”

Harry laughs and gets back to work, snapping his hips hard and fast and reducing Louis back to a whining, whimpering mess in seconds. It doesn’t take either of them very long after that, and once they’re both finished and sprawled out on their backs, Louis’s costume finally lost and crinkled on the bedroom floor somewhere, Louis rolls onto his side to look at Harry.

“What are you going to do after you sell the company?” Louis asks, voice soft. “What about your uncle?”

“I thought about that,” Harry says. “I’m not completely giving it up, like, I’m still going to own a share of it. I just feel like I’m not doing anything for it, I’m not advancing the company to its full potential, and I think someone else could do a better job. I think my uncle would be happier to know that the company is in good hands than to know that I’m just miserably sitting on top of it,” he says.

“I think so, too,” Louis says, shifting forward to cuddle into Harry’s chest. “I’m proud of you.”

“Thank you,” Harry says, kissing Louis’s chest. “We need a shower.”

“Agreed,” Louis says, pulling a face and shifting away from Harry’s armpit. “If you go start it, I’ll suck you off and wash your hair.”

“At the same time?” Harry jokes, already climbing out of bed to head to the ensuite. Louis throws a pillow at him, missing by a mile, and Harry laughs all the way out of sight.

-

Harry’s stomach is in knots. He’s going to be sick and Louis’s hand rubbing gentle circles into his back is only making him want to crawl out of his skin, but if Louis pulls away Harry might actually just shrivel up and die, so he grits his teeth and deals with it.

If he can focus on how unnerving and uncomfortable Louis’s touch is, he won’t have to focus on what he’s doing, on the pen trembling in his hand, on the lawyer sitting across from him, watching his every move. He signs on the dotted line and very carefully puts the pen down, and when the lawyer reaches for the papers and very carefully puts them away, Harry feels the all weight on his shoulders go, too.

“You did it,” Louis says as they’re leaving, still touching Harry’s back. It’s starting to feel a little better now, a little less like he needs to run and a little more like he wants to melt into a puddle on the floor and let Louis drag him all the way home.

He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t dare emote even once until they’re back in the car, and Harry doesn’t even pretend to reach for his keys.

“Are you okay?” Louis asks after a minute, but it’s a stupid question, he obviously already knows the answer.

Harry opens his mouth to lie to him but his emotions finally catch up to him before he can, and the next thing he knows he’s crumpling across the console into Louis’s lap, sobbing.

“Harry,” Louis says, sounding sad as well. He pets at Harry’s hair and lets him cry, even though Harry’s soaking the leg of his jeans with tears. “Babe, this is what you wanted.”

“I know,” Harry says, pressing his face harder into Louis’s leg. “It’s just- a lot.”

“I know it is,” Louis says, still playing with Harry’s hair. “Do you want me to drive home?”

“You don’t even have your license,” Harry says, sitting up and wiping at his face.

“And yet I still think we’d be safer if I drove,” Louis says, frowning at the way Harry is shaking. “We can go back in, Harry, we can have him tear it up-”

“No,” Harry says quickly. “I don’t want it back. I just-” he cuts off with another sob, hiding his face in his hands.

“Right, I’m driving,” Louis says, poking Harry’s shoulder. “For all we know, someone’s taking pictures of you sobbing in the parking lot of your lawyer’s office and tomorrow we’ll wake up to a scandal.”

“I don’t like that you know so much about the media now,” Harry says, but he gets out of the car anyway, climbing into the passenger seat.

“Seatbelt on,” Louis says, adjusting the seat until he’s nearly pressed against the steering wheel. “Ready?”

Harry only sniffles in response, and Louis takes it as a yes, gunning it out of the parking space.

It’s the most unpleasant ride Harry’s ever had, but he’s happy he doesn’t have to be the one focusing on the road. He knows it’s not really that big a deal, that he did the right thing for the company and that his uncle would be proud of him for doing what made him happiest, but he can’t get over the feeling that he’s betrayed his uncle’s wishes. The thought of going back and changing his mind, though, being the sole owner of the company again, it makes him feel sick, trapped, horrible. He already feels so much freer, so much lighter and less like the whole world is weighing down on him. He just needs to come to terms with the fact that this was the best option for him.

He still owns a good share of the company, is still listed as one of the owners, but he’s pawned off all of his responsibilities, which feels good. He’s now only responsible for supporting the company financially should he need to, but the company is successful enough that he’ll probably never need to put money into it, at least not more than he’s getting out of it.

Louis gets them home in one piece, remarkably, and then drags Harry out of the car and into the house. Harry’s got his heart set on going straight to bed and moping for the rest of the day, but Louis leads him to the sunroom, instead, pulling him down onto the sofa and letting him cuddle in.

It’s overcast outside, like it might rain later, and the gray sky puts a soft filter over everything, like Harry’s looking at the world through a pretty film. The leaves are changing but everything seems muted, less vibrant than usual, and somehow it makes him feel better to know that the world is feeling a bit drained of color as well.

“I was thinking I’d make some soup for dinner,” Louis says, while he plays with Harry’s hair. He’s got Harry’s head nestled in the crook of his arm and he’s lazily twirling one curl around his thumb, not seeming bothered at all that Harry’s sprawled out almost completely on top of him. “We’ve got some frozen tortellini in the freezer, and I bought spinach and chicken at the store yesterday. Have we got pre-packaged broth?”

“There’s some in the pantry,” Harry mumbles, pressing his face into Louis’s bicep.

“Excellent,” Louis says. “Let me know when you get hungry.”

Harry doesn’t say anything, just holds his breath until the urge to release another round of tears passes. “Lou?”

“Haz?” Louis responds playfully, like he’s trying to distract Harry, bring him out of his head. Harry loves him so fucking much.

“Did I do the right thing?” Harry asks, opening his eyes but not daring to look up at Louis’s face.

“Yes,” Louis says immediately. He doesn’t sound like he’s lying, or like he’s just saying it because it’s what Harry wants to hear. He sounds like he means it, really believes it, and it makes Harry stomach settle a little. “I know it’s hard and it feels like you gave up, but you didn’t. If anything, you’re giving the company the room it needs to grow. Your uncle would be thrilled to know that you cared enough to do what was best for Spark, even if it’s not what he had in mind.”

Harry nods, sniffling again. “Thank you.”

“When I first ran away from everything,” Louis says, “I felt like the worst person in the world. All I could think about was how much harder I was making things for my family, how sad and disappointed they would be to know that I just gave up and disappeared. What I didn’t realize, though, and what I forgot to keep in mind, was that I was doing what I had to do for myself. I forgot that my family would just be happy to know that I was taking care of myself. I kept thinking that they’d just be devastated to know that I was gone, and it never occured to me that they’d have been happy I was doing okay, even if I wasn’t with them,” he says. “That’s what you need to keep telling yourself. Yeah, it’s disappointing that you couldn’t handle the company. It’s disappointing that it wasn’t able to stay in your family. But, on the bright side, it’s going to do so well now, so much better than it would’ve otherwise. It’s not because you didn’t love it, but because you couldn’t handle it, and that’s not your fault. It’s not something you need to feel badly about,” he says.

Harry chokes on a little noise, digging his face into Louis’s shoulder. “Thank you,” he says again, even as the tears start back up.

“Hey, hey,” Louis says, hugging him close. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

“You didn’t,” Harry says, voice muffled in Louis’s jumper. “You made me feel a lot better.”

“Then why are you still crying?” Louis asks, rubbing slow circles into Harry’s back.

“I don’t know,” Harry whines, hiccuping into Louis’s shoulder. “Will you start the soup now?”

“Of course, love,” Louis chuckles, pressing a long, lingering kiss to Harry’s head. “You’ve got to get off of me, though.”

Harry slowly peels himself off of Louis without showing his face at all, hiding in the sofa cushions as Louis climbs over him to get up. Louis covers him with a blanket before he goes and Harry rolls over until he’s wrapped up like a burrito, staring up at the sky through the glass ceiling.

Louis lets him be for a few hours, during which time Harry doesn’t move an inch. He stares up at the sky until it starts to turn a slightly darker gray, and the muted world gets a little dimmer. There isn’t a proper sunset; it’s more like someone is just slowly turning down the contrast on the world until it’s all just gray and dark and soft.

He keeps his blanket on when he finally gets up, shuffling through the door into the kitchen like a walking chrysalis. He finds Louis stooped over the stove ladling the soup into two bowls, so Harry just walks up behind him and hooks his chin over his shoulder to watch.

“Hi, darling,” Louis says sweetly, leaning his head against Harry’s. “I was just about to bring this out to you.”

“I wanna eat in here,” Harry says. “It’s dark out, and it’s making me sad.”

“Oh, now the natural progression of time is making you sad, too?” Louis says. “Are we maybe being a little dramatic today?”

“Maybe,” Harry says, pouting.

Louis hums, amused, handing Harry a bowl with a gentle kiss to his cheek. Harry takes it and shuffles back to the table, sitting with his back to the bay window and pulling his blanket up over his head like a hood before he starts eating.

“Maybe we should bake something after we eat dinner?” Louis says, sitting down across from him with his own bowl. “Baking always cheers you up.”

“I’m okay,” Harry says, peering at Louis from under his blanket hood.

“Okay,” Louis says, skeptical. “You’re feeling a bit better, then?”

“Yeah,” Harry says. “What you said helped. I’m making my peace with it, I think. Once I have a project to dive into, though, I think I’ll really start to see the benefits of this.”

“I think so, too,” Louis says. “Have you got any projects in mind? Have I inspired any more novels lately?” he grins.

“Maybe a few,” Harry says, smirking at his soup.

“There it is, that smile I fell in love with,” Louis says. “Tell me about it, then, what’s the next Harry Styles novel going to be about?”

“Maybe it’ll be a sequel to the last one,” Harry says, glancing up at Louis. “I’d like to include a few more details, I think, about what’s happened since the novel was published. You know, me selling the company, you becoming a famous stage actor, me asking you to marry me…”

Louis nods thoughtfully, like he’s thinking it over. Suddenly he pauses, looking up at Harry in shock. “What was that last part?” he asks, completely frozen in his seat.

Harry laughs, looking down at his soup. “Relax, this isn’t my proposal,” he says, glancing up again to watch Louis’s spine loosen a little. “Just, you know. Someday. Maybe soon,” he shrugs.

“Someday, maybe soon, you’re going to ask me to marry you?” Louis asks, astonished. “Me?”

“Yes, you,” Harry laughs. “Is that- would you be into that?”

“Would I be into marrying you?” Louis says, nearly shouting. “Are you serious?”

“Dead ass,” Harry says. “I don’t even have a ring yet. I kind of just decided a few minutes ago.”

“What the fuck,” Louis says, deadpan. “What the fuck.”

“Is that a good ‘what the fuck’ or a bad ‘what the fuck?’” Harry asks, but he’s still smiling, watching Louis come to terms with what Harry means.

“Good, definitely good,” Louis says, going soft suddenly. “You want to marry me?”

“Yes, of course,” Harry says. “Always. It’s always been you.”

Louis looks like he’s going to cry, reaching across the table to squeeze Harry’s hand. “You- Harry, are you sure? Like, me?”

“Yes, you,” Harry frowns.

“Just, like,” Louis shakes his head, watching Harry closely. “You could have anyone in the world. Anyone, Harry, in the whole world. And you want to choose me?” he asks quietly.

“You’re not anyone,” Harry says, softly. “You’re not. You’re you, you’re Louis, you’re the person who taught me what love is, taught me about the world, taught me what it means to feel happiness. I wanna spend the rest of my life learning from you, being inspired by you, making you as happy as you make me,” he says.

“Harry,” Louis says, eyes wet.

“Will you?” Harry asks, hopelessly hopeful. “Will you say yes, when I ask?”

“I don’t need a fancy proposal,” Louis says, shaking his head. “I don’t even need a ring. I just need you.”

“But, say I gave you a ring and a fancy proposal anyway,” Harry says, “you’d say yes?”

“Yes,” Louis says instantly. “I’m saying yes now, I’d say yes tomorrow, I’ll say yes every day until I die.”

“Cool,” Harry grins, staring down at his soup.

“Cool,” Louis agrees, kicking at him under the table. “Did we just get engaged?”

“Not yet,” Harry says, kicking him back. “Fucking wait.”

Louis rolls his eyes, slurping at his soup. “I told you I don’t need a proposal or a ring or anything,” he says again. “I really don’t.”

“But you deserve it,” Harry says. “And I want to give it to you.”

“Please don’t make it too weird,” Louis says pleadingly. “If it’s too gaudy I’ll say no and make you try again.”

“Noted,” Harry laughs, playing with his soup a little.

Louis stands up abruptly, rounding the table and pulling Harry’s chair back. Harry blinks as Louis climbs into his lap, grabbing his face and kissing him hard. It takes Harry a moment to kiss back, caught off guard, his spoon still in his hand, but kissing Louis is instinctual at this point, like an automatic reaction, like breathing.

“What was that for?” Harry asks, dazed as Louis pulls away.

“I love you,” Louis says, still holding Harry’s face. “I love seeing you smile. I love making you smile,” he says, pressing a few more chaste kisses to Harry’s lips.

Harry grins, wrapping his arms around Louis’s middle and hugging him tight, pressing his face into Louis’s chest. Louis giggles and hugs him back, petting at his hair a little.

Suddenly, Harry knows exactly what his next novel is going to be, and it starts right here. He wonders if there will ever come a day that this boy in his arms isn’t his muse, but he can’t imagine there ever will be; Louis is an endless well of possibilities, of stories, of feelings and thoughts and opinions. Harry will never stop being so hopelessly fascinated by him, will never stop wanting to learn everything about him, will never want to stop proving to the world exactly how deserving of love and adoration he is.

Yeah, Harry thinks, this boy has got more novels inside of him than Harry could ever dream to write, but he’ll be damned if he doesn’t try. He’s already itching to get his hands back on his notebook, and when he slips his hands up the back of Louis’s hoodie to touch his skin, he can practically feel the inspiration flowing into him. He’s got another book right at his fingertips and, this time, he’s not scared at all of how it will end.