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Autumn arrives one morning after they’ve left a window open in the bedroom and they wake to a surprising and distinctly bitter draft. He tucks the covers up under his chin, surrendering to five more minutes of slumber, and does it with it a thrill he hasn’t felt all summer.

He loves a new school year with a new set of students to get lost among the old ones. A silver and gold assortment of bright-eyed, eager youth. Some of them more silver than gold, but he looks forward to them all: the underachievers and the overachievers, and the ones who are comfortable in the middle.

He loves the dying trees. Going out like a phoenix with their leaves in flame.

Or he used to love, he should say.

 

 

Earlier that year, Emily was expected to live long and healthy til death did them part. In May, the prognosis was 30 months. In August: ‘up to five years’. After Louis wakes one morning — the first of mornings he feels the draft through their window — and finds his wife collapsed in the kitchen, the doctor says ‘it’s hard to tell’ and later, ‘a year at most’.

He’s got whiplash coupled with a sort of melancholy one gets after multiple defeats. Five years had looked promising in comparison to thirty months. Long enough to have children if they decided to risk it. Long enough to go to South America like Emily always wanted. Thirty months is measly. Twelve is nothing at all.

They don’t actually have a clue, but cancer is capricious like that, so he can’t blame the doctors. They’re the best of the best, recommended to him by the faculty at Oxford, sworn to him because of his connections, because he’s written a few books and said a few smart things over the course of his career. And none of that matters: not their credentials or his. Nothing done in life matters in death.

Typically, he loves autumn, but there’s something horribly tragic about the leaves dying this time around. Bright, burning, full of colour, and then gone in a gust of wind.

 

 

One would think, that with his wife dying of cancer, he’d stop smoking. But then he’d be completely useless. He’s hidden away in an alcove near St Edmund Hall, ten minutes before his class starts, and he has to suck deeply on the cigarette or he won’t finish in time. Not if he wants to grab his coffee. And he needs his coffee.

The grass is still bright green like the trees around him because it’s not autumn just yet. Everything is too bright, which bothers Louis for several reasons. The most pressing one being that there’s hardly any cover for him and his cigarette. He waves sheepishly when Dr Barchard, the head of faculty, spots him and tucks himself further into the wall, smoking more fervently, hardly savouring it. He glances at his wrist watch, but the sun is reflected on the face. He can’t read it. He looks towards the behemoth clock mounted in sandstone across the green.

And there’s a boy passing by. Or a wraith. He’s long and lean and could probably blow away if there was a wind and it hit him right. It’s been a long summer. At first, Louis doesn’t recognize his face. They’d only met once before, back in March when Louis was happy. It’s hard to remember anything from back then.

Harry, he thinks.

Louis lifts his hand, waves.

Harry waves back, and then Louis looks away, stubbing the cigarette out with his heel.

 

 

The class clears out, students and chatter flowing like a gurgling stream into the hallway. Louis shuts his Macbook and has another sip of his tepid coffee. He pushes his fingers underneath his glasses and rubs his eyelids. He can feel someone hovering, which must be a side-effect of doing this for as long as he has.

“Dr Tomlinson.”

He looks up and finds Harry taking the steps from the top of the lecture hall. He chose to sit all the way in the back where he could observe both professor and student best. He’s wearing black jeans, a fitted white T-shirt and a brown blazer. Dressed professionally, but casually like any graduate assistant might on their first day. His face is youthful and cherubic, so that he looks younger than twenty-five (if Louis remembers his age correctly). Fresh out of college, even.

Louis adjusts his glasses. “How was the lecture?”

“It was great for a first day,” Harry says, coming to a stop in front of the podium.

“For a first day,” Louis repeats, tucking his laptop away in its sleeve. When he glances upward again, the boy is wide-eyed.

“No, I meant— I didn’t mean that in an insulting way,” Harry says. “I meant like usually not much goes on the first day, but this was actually engaging.”

Louis sends him a reassuring smile. “I wasn’t offended.” He’s packed his laptop away in his briefcase and slings the strap over his shoulder. He reaches for his tumbler. “Great, was it?”

Harry nods, tucking a curl that’s sprung loose from his bun back behind his ear. “I think it’ll be an amazing semester.”

Louis looks at him for a half-second too long. And doing so annoys him in a way he doesn’t understand and can’t put his finger on. “Good to know,” he says as they step through the door. “You’re in my afternoon class, aren’t you? Theories of Modern Lit?”

“I am,” Harry says, happily. “I’m really excited.”

He looks it. Louis takes a sip of his coffee so he doesn’t laugh at him. “Good,” he says. “See you then.”

 

 

Emily promises to cook dinner. Louis insists it isn’t necessary. He’s missed her cooking but he’d never say so or she’d feel bad. He misses a lot of things and she often baits him to admit it. As she's done since the 30-month diagnosis. She wants him to rage and cry, but he can’t see how that would help her get any better. Which is the whole point of his existence now — helping her get even a little better. He loves his wife. He’s a loving husband. Loving husbands don’t rage.

When she drops the wooden spoon, sending tomato sauce splattering across the hardwood floors, he hurries to pick it up. “That’s alright,” he says, rinsing it off. “I’ll stir, yeah?”

“I’m a clutz,” she says with a laugh so hollow he hears it echoing long after she’s closed her mouth and wandered towards the fridge.

“Why don’t you let me finish up?” Louis asks, looking into the pot of pasta sauce.

“I said I’d make dinner tonight.”

But you can’t. Louis shoots her a smile. “We’ll do it together. You got it started, I’ll finish.”

“Louis—”

He doesn’t look at her. “Em.”

She stands quietly beside him, her small fist curled against the countertop. She wants an outburst of feeling like they haven’t had in months. She’s trying to find a way to summon it, but fails. She’s resilient. She’ll try again another time. “I’ll go set the table,” she says.

 

 

One day Louis will say no to drinks with Solomon, but first, he has to learn how to say no to Solomon in general. He’s not a scary or imposing man. He’s several years older than Louis, a classical musician with a really big smile, who reminds him of his late grandfather in his forties. He’s not forceful at all, but when Solomon makes a suggestion, you don’t just consider it. You see it through. He’s got a thing about him that makes it impossible to let him down.

Anyway, Emily is with her sister for the afternoon so there’s no rush getting home.

“How’s your new assistant?”

Louis looks up from his beer. He’s still mid-laugh when the question comes. Laughter is another reason he keeps stumbling into Solomon’s company. He’s one of the few people who still makes him do it.

“That’s random.”

“You think so, but mine is terrible,” Solomon says. “Been thinking all day about how to cut the girl loose. Wondered if you were having the same problem.”

“What’s she done?”

“Never read Tolstoy.”

“Is that it?”

Solomon looks at him gravely. “She wants to be a literature professor someday and she’s never read Tolstoy. She wants to teach my students and she’s never read Tolstoy.”

Louis wants to say that Tolstoy may not be the end-all-be-all of literary scholarship, but Solomon worships Tolstoy, so there's no point. “Tell her to read Tolstoy. Give her two weeks with War and Peace.”

“Maybe I will,” Solomon says, sounding haughty like it was his idea all along. Louis lets that slide because he doesn’t actually care.

“You didn’t answer the question,” Solomon says. “How’s your boy?”

Louis snorts. “He’s fine. Don’t know if he’s read Tolstoy or not.” Doesn’t really care about that either. “He’ll get the job done.”

“Could you be persuaded to switch?”

Louis doesn’t say “no” to Solomon. Not usually. But— “No,” he says with a smile.

“Well, you didn’t sound all that passionate about him.”

Louis shrugs. “I know you. He’s your type.”

“I’ve been doing this for almost thirty years,” Solomon says. “I know how to keep it in my pants.”

Louis lifts his hands as if in surrender. “Didn’t say you couldn’t.” He gets a cigarette out and holds the box out for Solomon too. He lights them both and then tucks the lighter away in his shirt pocket. “The answer is still no.”

They smoke for a second in silence.

Then Solomon lifts his pint. “To the school year.”

Louis taps their glasses together and drinks.

Chapter Text

Harry is seated on the fire escape when it starts to rain. A fat droplet lands on his scalp and he shoves his laptop inside, but stays put. He tilts his head back, allowing another raindrop to land on his cheek. It’s a bit chilly all of a sudden. He might need a sweater. Or a cigarette. Or a drink.

He hears the front door open, which settles the debate. It’ll be both the cigarette and the drink, then.

He climbs back through the window, one bare foot landing on the newspaper he started this morning, his ankle nudging a stack of novels. He steps around a candle jar and a heap of jumpers. He dodges Mosley's fluffy tail hanging out from beneath his bed. He makes it into the hallway without an incident. A rare occurrence.

The kitchen still smells of the spaghetti he burned earlier. He’s generally a good cook, but he got distracted out on the fire escape with Zadie Smith. He still ate the spaghetti, by the way. He’s too broke not to.

“Smells like shit in here,” Zayn reports, his voice muffled.

“Must have brought it in with you,” Harry says. “Did you check your shoes?”

Zayn cuts him a look, tucking the unlit cigarette between his lips behind his ear. It’s such a cool move. Zayn is effortlessly cool like that. And Harry can be too, when he tries, and thus, not without effort.

“There’s spaghetti on the stove if you’re interested.”

“No thanks,” Zayn says, dragging his bike in from the hallway. There’s a lot of clattering for a while and then the door shuts and Zayn slinks into the living room and collapses. Harry collapses beside him.

“Not even going to ask me how today went,” Harry says.

“Oh, right, right. With Lou?”

“It’s even weirder now that you call him that,” Harry says. “He doesn’t seem like a Lou. He seems like a Dr Tomlinson.”

“I think he actually hates that. I’m surprised he hasn’t told you to just call him Louis yet.”

“Haven’t really had a chance to talk to him,” Harry says. “But when I did, he seemed sort of— I don’t know, withdrawn? Maybe he doesn’t like me.”

Zayn rolls his eyes. “Of course that’s where your mind goes.”

“I’m not being ridiculous. You know Dr Lee? His grad assistant, Marie, swears he hates her. Apparently, things went downhill after she admitted that she hadn’t read Tolstoy.”

Zayn lifts his brows. “To be fair…”

“She’s read almost everything else,” Harry says.

“Yeah, but. How do you make it this far without reading Tolstoy? Even a short story or an essay?”

Harry sighs heavily. “My point is. It’s very possible for Dr Tomlinson—”

“Louis.”

“Whatever. It’s possible he doesn’t like me.”

Zayn removes the cigarette from behind his ear and stands. “You’re paranoid,” he says. He lights up, exhales. “He’s got some family stuff going on, I heard.”

“Like what?”

Zayn shrugs. “You said something about spaghetti?”

“It’s burnt,” Harry says.

Zayn shuffles off towards his room, which means he’s had enough of Harry for the night. “I’m ordering Chinese.”

“Oh! For me too,” Harry calls.

“No,” Zayn says, shutting the door. Seconds later, the door opens again and Zayn’s got his mobile at his ear. “What do you want?”

Harry hops up excitedly. “I’ll take one order of chow mein, an egg roll, and wonton soup.”

 

 

“How’d you get the job with Dr Tomlinson?” Marie asks after breakfast. Harry agreed to go with her, but he wishes now that he hadn’t. They don’t have much to talk about. Mostly, she’s given him the full rundown on her boyfriend. Or a guy she’s sleeping with. She’s very clear that those aren’t the same things. Harry likes her in a distant way. He’s fine to chat with her in the teacher’s lounge or exchange tips on being graduate assistants. But he can’t see them being friends beyond that.

“I just applied like anyone else,” Harry said. “Dr Tomlinson wasn’t the one who actually picked me as his assistant. He left it to his previous assistant, Zayn.”

“I had a class with Zayn once. He’s nice.”

Harry nods. “Yeah. I’m actually living with him now.”

Marie gives him a look. “Are you two together?”

“No. No, he’s letting me stay in his spare room.” Harry’s brows wrinkle. “Sorry, how did you know I was gay?”

“Oh, I just assumed,” Marie says, shrugging. “Also, I’m not sure a man necessarily has to be gay to sleep with Zayn. He’s gorgeous, isn’t he? You both are. Hot pair, you’d be.”

Harry can’t keep up with her. “He’s got a girlfriend.”

Marie adjusts her sunglasses. “Did you say wife? Because otherwise, he’s fair game.”

Harry frowns, but doesn’t say anything. He’s only been cheated on once, but it was back in year 6, so it doesn’t count and it didn’t hurt. He hasn’t been broken by unfaithfulness. (Because he’s never loved someone enough. Because he hasn’t dated that many people. Casual sex, he’s done plenty, but loyal, committed relationships, he stopped pursuing years ago. If he had to cry over anything, it’d be his career, his goals, his dreams. Those were sorrowful enough.)

But he respects the concept of love and commitment enough that homewrecking seems profane to him. Over 70% of the earth is covered in water and there are plenty of fish in the sea.

“It’s sad about Dr Tomlinson’s wife, though.”

Harry looks at Marie. “What do you mean?”

They’re not divorced, Harry knows, because he clocked a wedding ring just yesterday.

Marie drops her voice to a hush as if there’s anyone around to hear them. The look on her face is grave, but when she whispers in his ear, he gets the feeling she takes pleasure in sharing information that way. She likes to be on the inside, tragic and pitiful as it may be.

 

 

There’s an uneaten tuna and cucumber sandwich sitting beside an apple, a bag of crisps and a water bottle. It’s the kind of lunch Harry’s mum would have packed for him in primary school, which means it was packed with love. On a second glance, Harry notices the Pret-A-Manger shopping bag, which means the lunch wasn’t packed with anything at all and cost Louis about twelve quid.

Louis looks away from his computer. “Harry. Come in. Shut the door.”

Harry pushes the door closed and steps towards the desk, sinking into a chair. Louis taps another key and then rests his hands in his lap, sinks into the seat.

“I have a favour to ask of you, if that’s alright,” Louis says.

“It’s why I’m here.”

Louis massages the space beneath his eyes. “Just need you to pull some things from the archives. I’ll email you a list. I need it all by tomorrow.”

“Morning?”

“As early as possible.”

Harry nods. “Sure. I can stay late.”

Louis looks like he wants to protest. It’d be the generous thing to do, although Harry wouldn’t mind staying. He also wouldn’t mind going home and sinking into his tub.

“Dinner is on me if you do,” Louis decides.

Harry lifts his brows. “Really?”

“Yeah, I was planning to stay for another hour anyway. I usually order off GrubHub or something.”

“Oh,” Harry says. By dinner, he thought Louis meant a sit-down at one of the restaurants nearby. There’s no way for Louis to know that, but Harry feels embarrassed anyway. “Yeah, that’s great. But—”

Louis waits. Without his glasses, his eyes are an assault. Blue and sharp and unrelenting.

“I can stay on my own,” Harry says, carefully, “if you need to get home.”

Louis narrows his eyes a bit. When Harry lifts his hand to slide a lock of hair away from his face, his fingers feel too big and clumsy. There’s a flicker of something in Louis’ gaze then. His mouth curls slightly. “You know about my wife?”

Harry takes a breath. He starts to shake his head, but Louis seems like the kind of person to hold every lie against a person, no matter how small. “Yes. At least, I think so. Can’t really trust what people say about other people, can I?”

“But there’s typically some truth to a rumour.”

“Sure,” Harry agrees. “But where would I even begin? How do you know what’s fact and what’s fiction?”

“Fair question,” Louis says. He reaches towards his drawer. “Mind if I smoke?”

If only because Harry’s itching for a smoke himself. “Not at all.”

Something about his answer must give him away. When Louis draws a cigarette from the box, he extends it toward Harry first. Harry hesitates. Louis rolls his eyes, gestures more assertively with the box. “Thanks,” Harry says, sliding a cigarette free, tucking it between his mouth. Louis lights his first, then his own, and tosses the lighter onto the table. He stands, pushing one of the windows open, sinks back into his chair.

They’re quiet aside from the sound of each inhale and exhale. It’s slightly awkward, especially when they lean towards the ashtray positioned in the centre of the desk at the same time and their fingers brush.

“The rumour is true, by the way,” Louis says.

“I figured,” Harry says, lifting the cigarette. “‘Cause we’re smoking.”

“Another excellent point, Styles.”

Harry can’t help but smile. He likes being teased, even under these circumstances. “How do you know what I’ve heard specifically is true? It could be an exaggeration,” he says, dispensing his ash.

“Not sure I care at this point.”

Harry pauses, the cigarette halted before his lips. “We don’t have to talk about this. I didn’t mean to pry at all.”

“You weren’t prying,” Louis says, resting both arms along the arms of the chair. “My wife is terminally ill. That’s the crux of it.”

Harry swallows, feeling like the ashes are in his throat now. “I’m sorry.”

“Well, thank you.”

He must know how bitter it sounds because Louis looks away then and starts tapping at his computer again. Harry draws deeply on his cigarette, hurrying to finish.

“Um,” he says, exhaling, waving a fat cloud of smoke away from his face. He crushes a quarter of the cigarette into the ashtray. “Thanks. I’ll get started on the archives.”

Louis doesn’t look at him, but he nods. He picks up a sticky notepad and tosses it towards the end of his desk. “Write down what you’d like. For dinner.”

“What do you typically get?”

Louis pushes his glasses on, obscuring his eyes. “Just pick something.”

Harry scribbles a random selection of sushi down and backs slowly out of the room.

“Shut the door,” Louis calls.

Harry hurries back and pulls the door closed.

 

 

Never ask a man about his dying wife. No one had to tell Harry that because he should have known. But he wishes someone had told him anyway. Because he doesn’t always listen to himself.

If he could undo the whole conversation, he would. Louis definitely hates him now. Somewhere between the talk about GrubHub and the cigarette, Harry botched it like only he could. And now Louis hates him.

But he’s got a job to do. And his mum didn’t raise a quitter.

“Dr Tomlinson,” he calls, hurrying to catch up with him after his last class ends the following day. Harry checked his office first and obviously, found it empty. A minute later, he would have missed him descending the lift.

Louis slows to a halt, revealing nothing about his reluctance in his posture, but it’s obvious once Harry looks him in the face.

“Hi, sorry,” Harry exhales. “I just had those scans you asked for.”

Louis takes the proffered manila folder. “Great, thanks,” he says, flipping through it quickly. “Did it take long?”

“No. Well— I was listening to a podcast, so I hardly noticed.”

“Which one?” Louis asks. Harry’s brows crease. “The podcast?”

Harry blanks on the name. “It’s a comedy one. I’ll tell you tomorrow.”

Louis tucks the folder away and jabs the lift button again. “Are you heading out?”

“Yes.”

They step onto the lift together. Harry can smell his cologne drifting across the distance between them. It’s nice. Maybe his wife bought it for him.

“Do you have to get home?” Louis asks, jabbing the button for the lobby.

Harry hesitates. He really doesn’t want to stay late again. He’s got leftover Chinese food calling his name. “Not really,” he says.

“Good. Let’s go have a drink. On me.”

Harry opens his mouth, snaps it closed.

Louis leans against the wall of the lift, tilting his head back, shutting his eyes. “You can call me Louis by the way,” he murmurs.

Harry peels his gaze away from him because he was starting to stare. “Does this mean I passed your test or something?”

“Wouldn’t say that just yet.”

Harry bites into his bottom lip but smiles anyway.

 

 

They find a corner to occupy at a local pub where there are students bent over large pint glasses. The typical happy hour crowd is there too — inebriated yuppies with their business attire askew. There’s hardly any room to stand, let alone talk or hear each other.

Louis orders two pints without asking Harry what he wants.

“Do you come here a lot?” Harry asks. If he doesn’t try to make conversation, they probably won’t talk at all. Louis is quiet as a mouse, but far more intimidating. Harry stops himself from speaking over and over for fear of saying the wrong thing.

“With Professor Lee, sometimes,” Louis says.

“Oh, are you two close?”

“We’ve worked together for over a decade, so yes,” Louis says. Their drinks come. Louis pushes one over to Harry and has a gulp of the other.

“Must be nice to have a friend at the university,” Harry says.

Louis looks at him. “You make me sound like a needy first year.”

“No, I just meant— I mean, I don’t have any friends there yet.”

“A kid like you with no friends? I doubt that.”

The ‘kid’ throws Harry. He never thought of them as equals, but not as a kid to an adult either. Maybe he’s taking it too seriously, taking himself too seriously. He does that all the time.

“I just moved here,” Harry says. “I’ve been too busy settling in to make friends.”

“Should never be too busy for other people,” Louis says.

Harry goes for a sip of his beer and pauses. “Are you saying you’re never too busy for other people?”

“I’m a different case.”

“That’s fair,” Harry says.

Louis turns to face him fully. There’s a small smile on his lips. “Aren’t you supposed to be terrified of me or something? ‘Yes, sir, no, sir’ and all that?”

“I tried that. I get the feeling it’s not your thing,” Harry says. “If you’d rather I called you sir, let me know.”

“Louis is fine. So what do you get up to? Besides school.”

“Well, I work for you.”

“Alright, smart arse. I was factoring that into the school bit.”

Harry smiles. He’s never appreciated being called a ‘smart arse’ more than he does now. “I play a bit of guitar. Sketch a little. Sometimes I take long walks on the beach. I write.”

“Why’d you tack the writing on last?”

“Because it’s always the thing people are most interested in.”

“Is your writing that terrible?”

“It’s pretty terrible,” Harry says.

Louis huffs. “Well, if you say that enough times, people will start to believe you.”

His tone is a bit terse and again Harry is thrown. He peers into his wine glass, momentarily shamed.

“It doesn’t matter in the end. Whether people think you’re great,” Louis says. “But the least you can do is think highly of yourself.”

“You’re right,” Harry says, too eager.

Louis smiles, more to himself than to Harry. “I know.”

He pays for their drinks when they’re finished. Harry has to chug the last remnants of his beer because Louis polishes his off well before him and he starts to look antsy to leave, checking his watch or peeking at his mobile.

They stand outside the pub.

“How’s Zayn?” Louis asks, sticking a cigarette into his mouth. The rest is mumbled. “I meant to ask.”

Harry watches him snapping a lighter several times. Struggling to get a steady flame in the wind. Suddenly he shoves the lighter up beneath his grey T-shirt, drawing the collar away from his neck. He tips the cigarette down and somehow lights it under the cover of cotton. It’s oddly mesmerizing. Lifting his head, he tosses his hair away from his eyes and his brows arch.

“Uh, Zayn is great. He’s got a job, teaching,” Harry trails off. “Which you got him.”

"Right. Tell him I said hello.” He steps forward, lifting his hand. Harry doesn’t realize what he’s doing until a cab slides up to the kerb.

“See you tomorrow,” Louis says and doesn’t wait for Harry to say anything before the passenger door opens and shuts. A half-second after he’s gone, it starts to rain. It all happens so quickly and smoothly Harry is mystified. As if the cab and the raindrops and Oxford itself were caught on strings like puppets. And Louis was their master.

Chapter Text

Zayn is sitting opposite him on the fire escape with his guitar in hand and Harry is mesmerized by his soft soporific tune. It could be the weed that makes him picture Zayn as a siren.

“Luring me out to sea,” Harry says, gaze drifting up towards the moon. He thinks he sees the night sky ripple. As if with waves.

Zayn’s music halts. “What?”

Harry lowers the joint. “You and Louis are from the same ilk. Like mythical creatures,” he says, exhaling smoke through his nose. “But I’m not intimidated by you. Why is that?”

“You’re not attracted to me,” Zayn says.

“I think you're very attractive,” Harry corrects, affronted by his fine taste being called into question.

“Not the same thing.” Zayn starts strumming again. “You call him Louis now?”

“He told me I could,” Harry says proudly.

“Moving on up,” Zayn notes.

Harry smiles, handing the joint off to Zayn. “Were you attracted to him?”

“Sometimes,” Zayn says. “Now I just find him attractive.”

Harry is sure he could figure out the difference if he were of sound mind. As it is, he doesn’t get the chance. His phone, which is resting on the floor inside his bedroom, rings. He can just make out the name Gemma and her picture on the screen. Harry hops up, steadying himself with a hand on the railing and then scrambles inside, snagging the phone.

“Hey. Are you busy?” Gemma asks immediately. Dinner is sizzling on the other end. He can see her with a spatula in one hand and the phone wedged between ear and shoulder.

“Nope.”

“I hear music.”

“That’s just Zayn,” Harry says. “What’s up?”

“Can you watch Ramona tomorrow? I’ll pay you.”

During the summer, before the semester started and Harry was unemployed, his sister used to pay him to look after his niece. And he’d take the money because he was proud but not enough to starve. Now, though, times have changed.

“I’ll do it, but only for free.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Gemma says. “You’re working with Louis Tomlinson now.”

“That I am.”

“Speaking of which, I might have mentioned that to a friend at work and she wants me to get a book signed.”

“I love you, but that's not happening.”

“Please?”

“God, no. He’s genuinely— Not human. I only just got on a first name basis. How would I earn his full respect? How would I get on his supernatural level or whatever it is?”

“Are you high?”

Harry pauses. “I won’t be tomorrow, I promise.”

“Christ,” Gemma breathes. “Fine, whatever. See you tomorrow. 10 am, please.”

“I’ll be there.”

 

 

Harry loves children, but he loves Ramona for other reasons. Not because she’s nonsensical and easily entertained. But because she has an old soul and will debate with him all day about books she’s currently reading or a film she watched with her mother and because she’s already developed their family’s grade of stubbornness and wit. She has red hair and green eyes and wears a healthy amount of black (whether that’s Gemma’s doing or hers is unclear) and her iPod is chock full of recommendations specifically from him.

Essentially, if Harry had a daughter, he’d want her to be a carbon copy of Ramona. Mona, they call her, for short.

After breakfast — Ramona insists on an omelette with feta cheese — they get dressed and set out to the nearest Whole Foods to restock Gemma’s fridge.

“Your mum tells me you’ve got a boyfriend,” Harry says while they push the cart through an aisle in search of almond butter.

Ramona scoffs. “He’s not my boyfriend. He’s a boy who’s a friend who has a crush on me.”

Harry is moved by her level of awareness. “Why don’t you like him back?”

“‘Cause he’s vain.”

Harry blinks and then looks away, stunned, though her answer shouldn’t come as a surprise. “Alright, almond butter,” he says. “Get the one your mum likes.”

Afterwards, they head to the seafood, and from seafood, it's to the fruit. Just as they arrive, a woman drops an apple. A bright red, portentous one, that rolls and rolls and stops at the tip of Harry’s shoe. Harry reaches for it, quickly, before she can and holds it out to her.

“Thank you,” the woman says, smiling. She’s beautiful. Long, dark brown hair. Bright blue eyes. Her lipstick is a soft pink colour and she’s wearing yellow. Harry thinks of a school teacher he must have had at some point in his life. Or a school teacher he would have liked to have. Miss Frizzle but not as frizzled.

She glances at the apple. “Don’t think I can get this one now. I bruised it.”

“Chuck it in a smoothie,” Harry says. “Or a pie.”

“There’s an idea,” she says. “I’ve never made a pie, though.”

“Now you’ve got an excuse to.” Someone attempts to pass him on his left and Harry steps out of the way. Only to realize the woman is now smiling at the person and then, that the person is looking at him. It’s Louis, but it takes Harry a quarter of a second to realize. He has a baseball cap on, pulled low, and he’s wearing a denim jacket and denim jeans. And he seems somehow out of place. Louis’ twin brother, maybe, but not quite him.

“Harry,” he says.

“Hi,” Harry says. He glances at the woman again.

“This is my wife, Emily,” Louis says, pulling a hand from his pocket to gesture to her. “Em, this is my new assistant, Harry. Replacing Zayn.”

“Oh!” Emily smiles again, somehow more ebullient. She extends her hand and Harry takes it. Gently. She looked fine and healthy at first, but now that Harry knows who she is, he turns vigilant for signs of illness or frailty. “It’s so nice to meet you.”

The only thing he can detect is in her voice. Wispy and childlike and slightly hoarse. But it could be how she’s always sounded. Either way, he likes it. He's calmed by it. By her whole presence, to be exact.

“Nice to meet you too,” he says. A thought dawns and he turns. “This is Ramona. My niece.”

Louis’ smile is unlike Harry’s seen before. Kind in a genuine way. “Could be twins, the two of you.”

Harry has never heard that one, but he’s flattered.

“Nice to meet you, Ramona,” Louis says, offering a shake.

She takes it. “Pleasure’s mine.”

And now, Louis looks at Harry, amused. “I might like her better, though.”

Harry rolls his eyes. “Full of jokes, this one,” he says to Emily.

Emily laughs. “Don’t I know it.”

 

 

Louis’ latest book is a collection of fictional essays. In the style of Jorge Louis Borges or Kafka. A really cynical critique of make-believe. Harry doesn’t finish the first chapter before he starts to feel haunted by it. And troubled by it. He glances up at Louis and finds him already looking back.

“That’s the second time you’ve done that,” Louis says. “Think that means you hate it.”

“That’s not true at all,” Harry replies, flipping the pages closed, leaving his thumb where he left off. “I think it might be best if I read it elsewhere.”

“It’s a short chapter.”

“I know, but I’m distracted.”

Louis looks around. “By what?” he asks. “Pray tell.”

Harry looks down at the sheets again.

“You can tell me you hate it, Harry. The only way this is going to work is if you’re brutally honest with me. Tell me you hate it and explain why as explicitly as possible.”

Harry shakes his head. “I can’t do that.”

Louis sighs heavily, letting his head hang back. “Why?”

“Because I love it,” Harry says. And when Louis looks at him, he adds, “But I might love it for the wrong reasons.”

Louis studies him, flipping his pen between his fingers. “I don’t think that’s possible. I don’t think there can be wrong reasons for loving anything.”

“Isn’t that literally the crux of forbidden love?”

Louis rolls his eyes. “Sure, but that’s the best kind. All the best love stories. They haunt you because they’re resisting your notions of right or wrong.”

Harry stares at him for a second. He imagines him sequestered on some wind-tossed moor, waiting to rendezvous with his lover. The farmhand who the princess wasn’t meant to love. The farmhand she couldn’t help loving. He feels oddly flustered all of a sudden and he swallows to clear his throat.

“I think I know enough about you that I’m reading you into the work,” Harry says. “Like you’re the narrator and I don’t think that’s your intention.”

“But who cares about my intention? Death of the author is in.”

“Consider it a warning, then. People will feel haunted by you when they’re done with this.”

“Doesn’t sound like a bad thing to me,” Louis says. “You never know. It could have a happy ending.”

“I doubt that.”

Louis’ computer chimes and he looks away. Much to Harry’s relief because he was starting to feel pinned to the seat. Louis slides his glasses on and begins tapping away. “I could use a coffee.”

Harry nods. “I could always use coffee,” he says awkwardly.

Louis doesn’t respond. A second later, his gaze slides to him and he peers over the rims of his glasses. “Coffee,” he says.

“Oh.” Harry hops up. “How do you take it?”

“Cream, no sugar.”

“Coming right up,” Harry says. He takes the print-out of Louis’ chapter with him. He heads to the school’s cafe, which is only a three-minute walk away. He orders and stands off to the side, reading. The narrator is lamenting about moving. In the essay, he’s left a place he loved for a place he doesn’t. Harry wonders if it’s metaphorical. If Louis is citing a physical move or if he means a shift from one period of his life to another. Maybe, even, a period as a husband to one as a widower.

Harry wants to sob. And he has to close the pages again because sobbing comes so easily to him. Once he sets his mind to it, it’s all downhill from there.

“I thought it was you,” a man says, approaching Harry with a broad, congenial smile. Solomon Lee, of course. Harry sees him all the time. He jokes to himself that Solomon has clones roaming the campus. How else could Harry see him in the staff lounge, and then within minutes, in the library as if he hadn’t moved at all? The man is omnipresent.

“Dr Lee,” Harry says, returning his smile. “How are you?”

“Better once I get an espresso,” he says. “Is Louis around? I’ve been meaning to stop by.”

“I just left him in his office. I'm getting him coffee.”

Solomon laughs. “Hope he’s not turning you into an errand boy.”

Harry shrugs. “I wouldn’t mind, but no. I’m helping him with his novel actually.”

“Devastating stuff, isn’t it? I’ve read the first chapter. Brilliant, but devastating,” Solomon says. “Last year, he wouldn’t have written something like that, believe me.”

Harry’s gaze drifts away. He feels wrong, discussing Louis like this. But he feels curious too. “You don’t think so?” he says, eyes on the barista, feigning disinterest.

“Not at all,” Solomon says. “You should have seen him when he was your age. Especially before his father passed—”

Harry is reeling. Overwhelmed by intel and questions diverged from it. Now, he wants to see pictures of Louis at his age, wants to see something buoyant and carefree in his gaze. He wants to know more about his father passing. When? How? Where?

Solomon has stepped away and returns to his side with a coffee cup in hand. “Well, I’ll see you at the student reading next Tuesday, yes?”

“Of course,” Harry says. The barista calls his name and reluctantly, he and Solomon part ways.

He fears that the questions are written all over his face when he returns to Louis’ office. But Louis doesn’t give him a second glance, just says ‘thanks’ and carries on with his typing.

“Do you mind if I finish this tonight?” Harry asks, holding up the chapter. “I can email you my notes.”

“That’s fine,” Louis says.

Harry wonders if he was hot and cold back then too. Or warm. He’s never seen Louis warm. Only a glimpse of it with Ramona. His curiosity is similar to the sobbing. It tends to tumble out of control. It grabs hold of him and sinks its claws in.

Louis looks away from his computer. “What is it?” he asks, sounding vaguely annoyed. Because Harry is just standing there like an idiot.

“Nothing. I’m going to go get started on the Calvino book.”

“Sure,” Louis says.

“See you in class tomorrow.”

“Yup.”

Harry grabs his tote bag and his latte and starts to turn away.

“Fuck,” Louis says. “Wait, Harry.”

Harry turns back, invisible canine ears perked.

“Emily— My wife asked me to invite you to dinner,” he says, nonchalantly. Another email comes through and he clicks it. “Tomorrow at 8. If you’re free. I’ll send you the address.”

“At your house?”

Louis looks at him again. “Yes.”

“Yeah. Yes, I’m free. That’d be great.”

Louis scoffs. “Don’t look so excited. I’m an average cook.”

Harry is so grateful for the joke he nearly sighs in relief. “My favourite.”

Louis’ lips twitch. “Goodnight, Harry.”

“Goodnight.”

Chapter Text

Emily greets him at the door with a fluffy black cat in her arms, who she introduces as Alfred. “Louis named him,” she says. “He’s our lazy butler.”

Cat-whisperer that he is, when Harry holds out his palm, Alfred puts his paw in the centre. Harry runs his thumb across his fur just once. “Nice to meet you,” he says. He holds out the bouquet of peonies he picked up on the way. “I asked Louis what your favourite is.”

Harry , they’re lovely. Thank you,” she says. “Come in. Come in. Let’s get them in a vase.”

She’s wearing red lipstick that makes her bright smile pop even more than usual. He adores her high-waisted jeans and the floral-patterned dark green top. Green suits her well.

“Louis just finished,” she says. “You’re right on time.”

The flat has three levels joined by a mahogany staircase that runs through the centre. It smells clean, which is the only way Harry can describe it. Sterile might also do. Drawing near the kitchen, the smell of pasta, of onion and garlic, and even fresh bread meet him. He follows Emily obediently but he wants to pause and take everything in. Especially the photos in the hallway. He catches glimpses of Louis. Younger Louis and older Louis. Smiling Louis and a Louis that looks alarmingly sombre.

The decor isn’t quite what he expected. A lot of antique furniture that could potentially be family heirlooms. Not things he imagines Louis or Emily picking out. But it’s cosy enough. A plush runner beneath his feet. Warm colours used for the wallpaper. Fluffy couches, outdated as they are.

“Look who’s here,” Emily announces, stepping into the kitchen. It’s much more modern here. Crisp white tile met with stainless steel appliances. And in the middle of it all is Louis, wearing a black ‘The Strokes’ T-shirt and black jeans and tugging a pair of paisley oven mitts off. When he leans down to shut the oven door, Harry catches a glimpse of his chest. And a tattoo. A large one.

“Worried we’d have to wait for you,” Louis says.

“Worried for nothing,” Harry replies. “I even had time to get flowers.”

“Look at you.” Louis crosses his arms. A beat of silence passes. “I’ll take care of them. Em, you can get Harry settled, yeah?”

“Dining room is this way,” Emily says to Harry.

A minute later, Louis joins them with a dish of lasagne in one hand and a bowl in the other, lined with paper towel and filled with garlic bread. All of it, steaming. Harry suddenly feels starved.

The affair isn’t as tense as Harry expected. Not at first. Especially once they have wine. He has wine. Louis has whiskey. Emily has a glass of water.

“So, what’s the plan, Harry?” Emily asks. “After you’ve got your Masters?”

Harry hates that question a bit. He doesn’t have a plan. He’s getting on well enough without one. “Well, I’m working on a novel.”

“Oh, lovely. Do you have any interest in teaching?”

“I’m not sure I’m a good fit for that, to be honest,” Harry says, avoiding Louis’ gaze. He feels like he might insult him somehow. “I think it requires a lot of patience. Not just with students but with yourself.”

Louis doesn’t agree like Harry wants him to. Just has a sip of his whiskey.

“So, a writer, then? That’s a sound plan,” Emily says. “Have you read his writing, Lou?”

She’s a champ for facilitating conversation. If Louis had his way, he might sit there silent all night. “I haven’t,” he says. “But you can bring some pages to me anytime.”

Fat chance. Eventually, Harry won’t have a choice. Louis’ review of his work is a facet of the graduate assistant/mentee program. But Harry dreads it already. He dreads Louis’ quiet judgement and then swiftly, his outright rejection. This is rubbish, he pictures him saying.

“I wanted to sing at one point,” Harry says randomly, eager for a subject change.

“Louis sings!” Emily blurts. “He used to have a little band.”

Louis shakes his head, but he does it affectionately. “I like how you call it a little band. Vaguely insulting.”

Emily smacks his forearm. “You boys were brilliant. Nearly opened at the Beacon Theatre once.”

Harry’s eyes widen. “The Beacon Theatre in New York?”

“Don’t think I know another one,” Louis quips, lifting his glass.

“They were going to fly you out to New York to open for someone?” Harry asks in complete disbelief.

Emily laughs. “God, no. He used to live there. Got a degree at NYU.”

Harry absolutely should have known that. Now he’s embarrassed. He spears a bit of pasta. (It’s good by the way. Not average at all.) “Did you like it there?” he asks before shoving the fork in his mouth.

“Loved it,” Louis says.

Harry notices Emily chooses then to pet Alfred at her feet. He hesitates for a second and then asks, “Not enough to stay?”

Louis looks at him. His face is like stone. “I had some family stuff come up. They needed me here.”

Harry can’t possibly inquire beyond that. The tenseness sets in immediately afterwards. Harry feels it like the persistent draft in St Edmund Hall.

“I’ll get dessert,” Emily says, standing abruptly.

Louis starts to stand. “No, I’ll—”

“I’ve got it,” Emily says and disappears into the kitchen. She returns with some sort of pudding in a pie dish. “This is my recipe, but Louis made it. So I can’t promise it’s up to standard.” She sends him a wink, but Louis doesn’t seem to relax. Harry looks at Emily and somehow, he catches the sheen on her forehead. Emily starts cutting into the pie with jerky movements and manages to spoon a sloppy portion onto a plate for Harry before she coughs.

Louis darts up with a napkin in his hand. The coughing doesn’t stop. And suddenly, there’s blood on the napkin that Louis has pressed to her mouth.

“Excuse me for a second, Harry,” she is somehow able to mumble.

Louis ushers her out and into the kitchen. It’s a while before the coughing stops or before Louis returns to the dining room. Harry is surprised when he does. He was sitting hunched over and still as a rock when Louis enters with a clap of his hands and an “Alright.” Harry flinches, jostling the wine glass, which tips over eagerly and sends wine flying towards Harry’s shirt.

“Fuck,” Harry hisses, scrambling to his feet.

“It’s fine,” Louis says. He retrieves the glass while Harry tries to mop up what little wine landed on the tablecloth and not on him. “Harry, stop that. You’re drenched. Come with me.”

Louis leads him into the hallway and past two sliding double doors which had been closed before. They’re ajar now and Harry just glimpses Emily, perched on a bed with an oxygen mask to her face.

“Harry,” Louis calls from the stairs.

Emily looks toward the door. She may have seen him. He hurries away, hoping she didn’t.

“Sorry,” he says and follows Louis to the second floor.

They wind up in what is, or used to be, the master suite. There’s still a king-sized bed and the same furniture as the living room. Louis sees him looking and says, “We sleep downstairs now. The stairs got to be too much.”

He disappears inside a walk-in cupboard, flicking on a light. “Harry,” he beckons him again.

Harry meets him in the cupboard.

“Pick out a T-shirt,” Louis says. “I’ll take your blouse. Toss it in the wash.”

Which means Harry will have to wait for it to dry. He nearly declines but Louis shrugs, “You don’t have to. It’s just an offer.”

“No, I appreciate it. Thank you,” Harry says quickly. He reaches for the hem of his button-down shirt and peels it off. Louis averts his eyes, which seems bizarre. They’re not in some period film. Harry’s modesty doesn’t need protecting. And why would it mean anything for a straight man to see him topless?

Harry hands him the shirt. “Uh—”

“I’ll be in the kitchen,” Louis says and leaves Harry to it.

Maybe it’s Harry’s hero worship — his gay hero worship — that makes Louis uncomfortable. Maybe this is what it means to be attracted to Louis as opposed to finding him attractive — the latter isn’t as objectionable or as obvious.

Harry selects a red T-shirt without a second glance and tugs it on. He’ll leave after all and exchange the shirts with Louis tomorrow. The longer he stays, the more tempted he is to crawl out of his skin. The furniture, which at first seemed cosy, now stifles him. He wonders how it doesn’t stifle Louis. Or Emily. Or poor Alfred.

In the kitchen, Louis nurses another glass of whiskey. He leans into the counter and rolls his head along his neck. His eyes open and he sees Harry, then looks at his shirt. “That’s definitely not mine,” he says. Remarkably, his lips quiver.

Harry glances at the shirt. It was a little tight but he thought nothing of it. Now he realizes it must belong to a woman. On the front are glitter letters reading ‘Britney Spears’ along with a picture of Britney herself in a mini skirt. Without pause, Harry looks at Louis. “I thought it suited me, no?”

Louis smiles and tosses the rest of his whiskey back. “Your shirt’s in the wash, but I don’t mind bringing it for you tomorrow.”

Harry shoves his hands into his back pockets. He intends to accept.

Heavily, Louis sighs. “She’d like for you to stay. She’ll be out any minute and she’d like for us all to have dessert. And—” He draws another breath. “It’d mean a lot to me, also, if you did. For her.”

For all his whining, Harry doesn’t think twice before he says, “Of course. I’ve got nowhere to be. And dessert is the best part.”

“Not my lasagne?”

“That was fine,” Harry says. “Fantastic, I mean.”

Louis nods. “Funny guy,” he says with a bemused shake of his head.

“I do have one stipulation, though,” Harry says and regrets it when Louis responds with nearly imperceptible caution. “You have to let me load the dishwasher.”

Louis’s confusion lingers for a second and then gives. He laughs. Not a belly laugh, but a soft, relieved chuckle. Something tender and unguarded. “I don’t think so,” he says. “But you can help.”

 

 

Harry has a dream about Louis that night. Can’t remember what it’s about. But he wakes up at seven am, disrupting Mosley (who has eyed him suspiciously since he came home smelling like another cat), and he writes. He writes for hours. He writes this frenetic compilation of prose and poetry, of fiction and nonfiction. It’s chaos and Harry plays like a leaf caught in the midst of a storm, enjoying the ride.

Afterwards, he thinks how absolutely weird it is. How borderline invasive it is to use Louis’ trauma as a creative stimulus. Because that’s what this is, isn’t it? That’s what this has to be. The other, more alarming option, is that it wasn’t Louis’ trauma at all. But his tenderness.

It was that moment after dessert when they were alone and they packed the dishwasher to capacity. As they did, Louis told him about the one time he did see Britney Spears, which dissolved into talk of music and singing. At one point, maybe tipsy from his whiskey, Louis even hummed a tune.

Not the trauma, but the tune. The tenderness.

Harry slams his laptop shut and goes for a jog and doesn’t return until his heart is near to bursting.

Chapter Text

Lunch runs over. Gemma is in a hurry to leave him. Harry is reluctant to let her. The office where she works — as an editor for a teen magazine — is only five minutes away. There’s no need to rush. And Harry still hasn’t talked to her about Louis, which was the whole reason for luring her out here.

“Harry?” says a familiar voice. Their heads turn.

Emily Tomlinson approaches the table, wearing a smile as usual. “Sorry to interrupt.”

“No, please,” Gemma says, standing. “I was just leaving.”

Harry doesn’t glare openly because it would be rude. He makes a quick introduction and then his sister kisses his cheek and bids them both farewell.

“You’re far from campus today,” Emily says, taking a seat. There’s someone with her, but she doesn’t bother to introduce her. The woman saunters off to a table close by and has a seat. Emily follows his gaze. “That’s my nurse, Tara. I ring her up whenever I want to go out. It’s such a nice day. I hate being cooped up.”

Now, that Harry thinks about it Louis doesn’t live far from here. It’s less than ten minutes, even. “I don’t have class today and Louis is teaching a seminar in Manchester,” Harry explains.

“Right, of course. He mentioned he’d be staying the night there.”

A moment of awkward silence passes.

“Will you be around for a bit?” Emily asks. “I might order a salad. Let me get you another iced coffee.”

Harry would decline but he gets the feeling Emily doesn’t take no for an answer. And he could actually use another iced coffee. A while later, the waiter serves their order and refills their water glasses. Emily rolls her silverware free and spreads the napkin in her lap, daintily as a debutante.

“I wanted to apologize for last week,” she says all of a sudden. “I overexerted myself and the whole thing got a bit embarrassing.”

“I’m always embarrassing myself,” Harry says. “Please don’t apologize. Thank you for having me.”

“I was happy to. We don’t have people over anymore. And even when we did, it was always my friends. It’s nice to have someone connected to Louis around,” she says. “It’s nice to have company at all, while I still can.” She has a bite of her salad and makes a content little sound. “This is delicious.”

While she eats, Harry wishes Gemma would change her mind and come busting through the doors to save him. It isn’t that he finds Emily’s company unbearable, but he’s been having questionable thoughts about her husband lately, which muddies the whole thing.

“I'll be gone in a year, you know,” Emily says, random as ever.

Harry couldn’t possibly know how to respond. Firstly, he's shocked. Because a year is no time at all. He knew she was gravely ill, but even people in similar conditions can live longer than expected. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he tries. “I know that’s a typical thing to say, but genuinely, I am.”

“So am I. I had a lot of plans. Selfish ones.”

“Nothing wrong with being a little selfish.”

“Maybe when you’re married. You’re supposed to do things with your spouse in mind.”

Harry smiles. “That sounds nice. I might like that. Someone doing things with me in mind.”

“But you have to be willing to do it for them. That's the catch.”

“I think I’d be more than willing,” he says. For the right person, he thinks he would do anything.

Emily regards him sadly. “You sound like a romantic. Have you been in love?”

Maybe he's getting used to her frank way of speaking. Because the question hardly gives him pause. “No, actually. Adoration, maybe. Like the instant I care about someone at all, I want to show them the world. But it’s not exclusive to romance. I feel that way about my mum and my sister and my niece. I love taking care of people is all.”

“You don’t think anyone likes taking care of you?”

“I'm not sure I always let them,” Harry says. He shakes his head. “I don’t know what I’m saying.”

“I'm sure you do. Even if you think it doesn’t make complete sense to me,” Emily says. “Not too much makes sense to me lately. Not like I’m losing my mind, but.” She waves her hand abstractly. “Louis certainly doesn’t make sense to me.”

Harry pushes the salt shaker between his two hands, idly

“I mean, you would think— Your wife is dying, you’d think he’d show a bit more emotion, you know? He’s always been like that, though. I could never get a good read on him. And I’m drawing blanks now. On how he’s coping. Or not coping. I need to know if he’s coping, Harry, you know? Because I could die easily enough if I knew he was coping—”

“Emily, I’m sorry,” Harry interrupts. “Sorry, I just— Thank you for confiding in me. But I don’t think Dr Tomlinson would want me to know more than he’s told me— About his personal life.”

Emily smiles. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“Please, don’t be.”

“How do you like Louis?” Emily asks. “At least tell me that. Off the record.”

Christ. “He’s brilliant,” Harry says, carefully. “I’ve read all of his books. I watched a few of his lectures before moving here. I’ve wanted to take one of his classes for years.”

“No. I mean, what do you think about him ? Not his career. Not his brilliance. Just him. Whatever you’ve seen of him without all the fanfare.”

Harry blinks. “Oh.” He has a sip of his iced coffee and hopes that maybe Emily will miraculously lose interest in his answer but of course, she doesn’t. “Earlier, you said you couldn’t tell— That he’s not showing enough emotion. But every now and then, at the office, there are bits of him that peek out and then it’s like— he recedes. I think maybe he tries so hard not to let it all show, not to hurt anyone else because he’s hurting.”

Harry’s gaze returns to Emily where before it was on a random tile on the floor. He snaps his mouth shut, his brain reeling back in, recentering. “Sorry. I don’t know. He’s a great person. You know that better than me.”

Emily continues staring at him, her lips slightly parted. A bus passes by, loud through the open cafe windows, dispelling the silence and stillness between them. “I wish I saw it that way,” she says.

She reaches for her sunglasses and pushes them into her hair, then gestures for her nurse.

“I have to run,” she says. “But it was nice talking to you again, Harry.”

When she stands, Harry hurries to his feet as well. He’s starting to panic, actually. He has that awful feeling in his stomach. The one he gets after he’s hurt someone’s feelings or broken someone’s heart or cheated on a test in secondary school or accidentally stepped on Mosley’s tail. It never leaves you: The terror of failing in some way to be human.

He hails Emily and Tara a cab, accepts a kiss on the cheek, and gives one back. And then she’s gone, but the feeling isn’t.

 

 

It’s cold on Friday, but they’re well into October so perhaps it was overdue. It’s cold and damp and overcast. The sky is a disconcerting periwinkle. Dark, decaying leaves litter the streets and the pavement and cling to Harry’s boots, almost desperately. The line at the coffee shop is too long, the staff is backed up, and it takes Harry nearly thirty minutes to get Louis’ coffee. It’s the first of things he does wrong that day. It’s cold and Louis is irritable.

“I need you to find an article for me,” he says, his arms folded over his chest. “It should be in the Lexis Nexis database. I sent all the info you’ll need in an email.”

Harry gets his mobile out and navigates to his notes.

“Are you texting while I’m talking to you?” Louis asks.

Harry is alarmed. “No, of course not. I’m taking notes.”

“On what?”

“I have a list of things you’ve asked me to do.”

Louis squints at him. “Why do you have a list? How many things do you have pending?”

Harry counts. “Just four.”

“That’s too many.”

“That’s down from eight this morning. You’ve asked me to reach out to people and I have and I’m waiting on responses.”

“Did you try emailing them again?”

Harry’s annoyance flares. “I just reached out to them this morning, Louis.”

Louis slouches in his chair and sighs. “Make sure you get that squared away before the end of the day.”

Harry nods. “Fine.”

“Were you able to read the book I asked you to read? Is that still on your list?”

“You mean, the one you asked me to read last night?”

“It’s 150 pages,” Louis says. “Maybe less.”

“Yes, but there’s also the book for your class—”

“Sounds like a prioritization problem,” Louis notes. He sits forward and slides his glasses on, then wakes his computer. After a sip of his coffee, he says, “If you can’t handle the workload, just say so.”

Harry stares at him, blankly. “Have I given you any valid reason to think I can’t do the work?”

Louis flat out ignores him. Harry feels his ears burning, his cheekbones flushing. He should leave. He wants to. But that’s what Louis wants as well. To make him run. To make him doubt himself. Maybe even to make him cry. Harry is likely to do all of the above.

He knows he shouldn’t (and after he does, he’ll replay these words for the rest of the night) but he says: “Is this how you treated Zayn? ‘Cause I can’t see it. If it’s a slave you want, I can’t imagine how he stuck around.”

Louis looks at him. “Listen, kid.”

“I’m a grown man.”

“You look like you’re about to throw a tantrum, so that’s questionable,” Louis says. “I don’t ask much of you. Fetch a coffee. Send some emails. Read some books. In the grand scheme, that’s measly. If I were your friend, I wouldn’t ask anything of you at all. But we’re not friends. I’m your mentor. I’m your boss. And I’m telling you right now, you’re not going to make it out there if you can’t handle this. Don’t whine to me. Don’t appeal to me. Just do the work.”

Harry stands there blankly. Some part of him is shaking. Perhaps all of him is shaking.

“Now, go,” Louis says, sharply. “Do the work.”

Harry goes.

And he doesn’t return until 3 pm with every item on his list complete, even the book, which he poured over before, during, and after lunch.

“I’ll have an abstract and an analysis to you by tonight,” he says, resting a paperclipped print-out of the article Louis asked for on his desk. “Is there anything else?”

Louis looks at the print-out, then at him. “That’ll be all.”

“See you in class, Dr Tomlinson,” Harry says. Turning away, he thinks he catches a smile, but he can’t be bothered to know for sure.

At four, Louis strolls into the classroom where Harry and fifteen other grad students await him. He has his tweed blazer on now over a Rolling Stones T-shirt with skinny jeans and black Vans. He looks either like a boy genius or an ill-prepared skateboarder arriving for a job interview.

Funny that now, from this distance, Harry can see how tired he appears.

Louis draws his glasses out of his breast pocket and pushes them on. “Got emails from some of you. Sounds like there’s a bug going around. A little chill in the air and you’re all down for the count,” he says, shaking his head. There are a few chuckles. Louis perches on his desk. “Thanks for coming in, even if you’re sick. I’ll try to keep today’s class short.”

He snags the book off his desk. The Cantos of Ezra Pound.

“Let me start by saying this man was a full-blown fascist. It’s gonna come up at some point if I don’t,” he says. “But I think, in spite of that, he was still integral to modernism. And I’ll give you one reason why and then we’ll spend the next two classes figuring out the rest of them. Anyone want to guess?”

A girl a few seats away from Harry hoists her pen into the air. “Because he wrote the longest incomplete poem ever.”

“True, he spent his whole life writing the cantos and still didn’t finish it,” Louis says. “Another reason, though.”

Harry doesn’t want to talk to him right now, but when Louis looks his way, he feels like he doesn’t have a choice. He doesn’t raise his hand or his pen. “Because he challenges our notions of right and wrong,” he says.

“Elaborate,” Louis says, not looking at him, flipping his book open.

“He was obsessed with making old things new. With taking classic works and finding what was good about them and then funnelling them into modern literature. And a lot of people weren’t on board with that. They thought it was wrong.”

“But it wasn’t,” Louis says. “Why?”

“‘Cause he was doing what every artist has done. Recycling things they’ve seen and heard before. All art contains bits of the past.”

Louis glances at him. “Well said.” He looks away. “Let’s start with Canto I.”

 

 

Harry tries to cry in the tub later, but he can’t. It doesn’t come as easily to him as he would have liked and faking it feels embarrassing. Like God might be watching and keeping count of his crocodile tears.

He wants an easy egress from his feelings and crying tends to be best. But he’s not sad or angry enough for it. He’s not sad or angry at all. Just ashamed and disappointed. In himself. Maybe in Louis. In what camaraderie he thought was brewing between them. We’re not friends , Louis had said, fiercely.

Harry had never implied they were. But somehow Louis knew to strike there. He knew that would hurt most. Harry sinks further into the tub so that the waterline surpasses his nose. He nearly drowned himself once when he was a boy. He watched Hamlet, the 1990 version, and was enamoured with Ophelia. With her plight. And with the actions she took to relieve herself of it. He romanticized her suicide the way so many artists have. The way John Everett Millais did. A flower among flowers. A pearl dressed in pearls.

He remembers how he rose up out of the water, gasping. How his mum had run inside, alarmed.

The door opens and Zayn walks in.

Harry lifts his head. “Excuse me,” he says, petulantly.

“Nothing I haven’t seen before,” Zayn dismisses, stepping into the mirror. He peeks at the candles Harry has lighted. “Romantic night in?”

“Was just about to have a wank, so yes.”

Zayn huffs and leans into his reflection. He looks impeccable as usual. He runs his hands through his hair a few times. “I’m getting a drink with Louis. Do you want to come?”

Harry grabs the sides of the tub and sits upright, water sloshing noisily. “Really?”

“Paige is meeting me there. Quite a few of us going.” Zayn turns to him, brows lifted.

“He hates me,” Harry says.

Zayn rolls his eyes. “I’m leaving in ten minutes.”

Harry pulls the plug on the drain. “I need at least fifteen.”

 

 

The pub is far enough from campus that it isn’t a student spot, but Solomon Lee is there, of course, perched at the bar and chatting up a lady who looks too young for him. This amongst rumours that Solomon likes men. Harry can’t tell.

Louis is seated with Zayn’s girlfriend, Paige, who graduated from Oxford three years ago. She used to be Louis’ advisee, the only poet he agreed to take on back then. Paige is brown-skinned, curly-haired, leggy. Adorned in silver jewellery, mellifluous as she talks with her hands. She has Louis’ undivided attention. It’s clear she has his respect too. She and Zayn have it both.

The only one who doesn’t is Harry. Suddenly he regrets ever leaving his bath. He should have stayed there until he grew gills.

Louis notices Zayn first, then Paige does too and turns to kiss him on the mouth. Louis stands, taking Zayn’s hand, drawing him into a hug. Positioned like that, he finally spots Harry.

They look at each other. Harry shoots him a polite smile and then takes a seat on one of the leather ottomans which surrounds a wooden table.

“What are you drinking, Haz?” Zayn asks.

“Stella,” Harry says. “Thanks.”

To his horror, Paige stands and heads with Zayn to the bar. He stares across the room, wrinkling his brows at something, pretending to be very occupied in thought. And he thinks enough time has passed that maybe Louis has forgotten him. No, as it turns out. Louis meets his gaze. His smile is barely there. He gets up and relocates to the ottoman closest to Harry. He sets his phone down on the table, face-up.

“Listen,” he begins. “I’m sorry if I was harsh to you today.”

At first, Harry is stunned. He could have lived without an apology. He certainly wasn’t expecting one. But now that he has it, its inadequacy is hard to ignore. “Not if,” he says. “You were harsh.”

Louis looks at him, which he should have done in the first place. An apology should come with eye contact. Louis nods. “Alright. I’m sorry that I was harsh.”

Harry makes a noncommittal noise.

“Are you going to accept my apology?”

“I’m thinking about it,” Harry says. He props his arm up on his knee and drums his fingers against his chin.

Louis laughs and Harry’s act crumbles because he’s suddenly zoned in on him.

“You’re in the wrong field,” Louis decides. “Should be an actor.”

Harry shrugs. “Not too late for me,” he says. “Verdict’s in. Apology accepted.”

Louis exhales in exaggerated relief. They settle into a comfortable silence. The first of comfortable silences between them. Zayn and Paige return with drinks, and Solomon, seeing that their table has begun to buzz with activity, comes sauntering over with his lady friend — Georgina — to join them. Years from now, this night will ring out in the darkness of memory with crystal clarity. He’ll remember the smell of booze and the peel of Paige’s laughter. The brush of Louis’ knee against his own. The heat of him, which he tries to ignore. He will feel Zayn’s hand on his shoulder, and the small splash of whiskey on his hand from the shots Solomon buys them.

Louis stands while they’re all caught in an inevitable debate about politics. (Solomon, regrettably, is a Tory.) Louis must expect to slip away unnoticed, but then he catches Harry’s eye. “Going for a smoke,” he says. “Coming?”

Harry downs the rest of his beer and joins him.

He’ll remember the incline of their heads together, Louis’ hand cupped around their cigarettes, the first tendril of smoke from his mouth caressing Harry’s fingertips.

“You know, what happened earlier, I might have needed it,” Harry says. “I was taking it all too personally, maybe.”

“Everything is personal as it relates to you. Goes for anyone,” Louis replies, flicking a bit of ash away, his head bowed. “I got off to a bad start this morning. I heard you ran into my wife, by the way.”

Harry’s heart sinks. His armpits start to feel steamy in spite of the cold. “I did,” he says, timidly. “I might owe her an apology. I wouldn’t want her to get the wrong idea about… me. About my intentions working with you.”

Internally, he’s screaming and pleading with himself to be quiet, but when he does close his mouth, it’s already too late.

“What intentions could be that worrying?” Louis inquires.

“I don’t have any intentions,” Harry says. “Just to clarify.”

“It’s clear. Now, answer the question. Please.”

Harry hesitates. “I mean, I wouldn’t want her to think that I had some sort of inappropriate feelings towards you or that my admiration is anything but strictly professional.” If he keeps using nice words, he thinks, maybe it’ll all come together. From the perplexed look on Louis’ face, maybe not. “And even if I did think of you in that way, which I don’t, it wouldn’t completely matter. Considering I’m gay and you’re… not.”

“Are you finished?” Louis asks.

“Yes. I think so.”

“All she had to say was that you two had a lovely time,” Louis says. “She even asked that you come by again for dinner.”

“Oh. God,” Harry breathes, turning away. “Oh my God.”

“A bit lush, are you?”

“Might be,” Harry says. “She asked me what I thought of you, as a person. And I might have ended up sounding like Kathy Bates in Misery.”

Louis laughs. “Now, I’m concerned.”

“I just don’t think you’re as cold as you appear,” Harry says. He is lush. He can feel the whiskey making sweet waves in his head. “Not always. That's what I said. Or tried to say.”

“So not a slave master, after all?”

Harry snorts. “No, I guess not.”

Chapter Text

Solomon turns 50 that December and throws a party like only he can. The invitation — for Harry and a plus one — comes via Louis two weeks prior.

As it turns out, Solomon is up to his ears in money. Old money. New money. Virtual money. Any way he can get his hands on it, he’s managed to do so. Rumours at Oxford are as indelible as the school’s history, and Harry loves the inane one about Solomon finding an oil well in the backyard of his Chelsea estate. The same estate where Harry arrives that Monday night.

“Christ,” Gemma whispers as they climb the stairs to the stucco-fronted manor.

“Act natural,” Harry tells her. “They’ll never know we grew up on a farm.”

Gemma giggles, her hand pressed to her mouth, as the door opens. A butler, plucked from the pages of Gatsby , allows them inside. “Name, please?” he asks.

“Harry Styles, And guest.”

“Welcome," is his reply. "Please call me Malcolm. I'll be happy to take your coats.”

He and Gemma adjust their attire when the coats are gone. He wears a black velvet blazer that fits him snugly and looks expensive but cost him only fifteen quid at the local charity shop. Gemma is also in black, her dress sequined and long-sleeved. She draws her long blonde hair over one shoulder and throws him a smile. “Shall we?”

He offers her his elbow and she takes it.

It gets easier with champagne. The home is massive, twice the size of Louis’, and overwhelming, but the bright buzz of bubbly softens the edges. Even the guests — most of them regal with vulpine smiles — seem less intimidating. There’s an assortment there from all the notable universities. Harry recognizes a few from the Literature department at Oxford. Someone passes him by who he swears he’s seen on TV and when a woman looking alarmingly like Zadie Smith slips into the next room, Harry nearly chokes. He doesn’t go after her. That would be weird and by then, he’s three glasses of champagne in.

When he finally spots Zayn, he cuts through the crowd with Gemma, eager for a familiar face. Only when he gets close does he realize that Zayn and Paige have company.

Dressed immaculately in a charcoal tux with a black silk tie, Louis lowers his martini glass. Harry’s heart stutters. It’s not unusual, the stutter. Not since that morning.

Louis’ office had been warmer than usual because of the space heater Louis brought in against the department’s wishes. He was craned over his desk, scribbling away at the margins of a book and nudging his glasses with his knuckle in two-minute increments.

“You’re slouching,” Harry said.

“I’ll live.”

“Quasimodo lived.”

“He had a physical deformity,” Louis said. “That’s insensitive of you.”

“You’re going to develop back problems. That’s all I’m saying.”

“I’ve already got them.”

Harry closed his book. “I used to have them too, but my mum is a massage therapist. She works at nursing homes now.”

Louis set his pencil down. Perhaps it was obvious to him then that Harry was in a chatting mood. Lately, he was more willing to indulge those. “Picked up a few things from her, did you?”

“As a matter of fact, I did.” Now, Harry stood. “I think a full massage would be inappropriate, but I’ll show you a trick. For instant relief.”

Louis eyed him warily as Harry rounded his desk.

“May I?” Harry asked.

“Don’t think I won’t sue you if you hurt me.”

“Fair enough,” Harry said, setting his hand on Louis’ shoulder. “Don’t resist.”

He couldn’t explain it, but he had watched his mum do it enough times to be precise. When he pressed his fingers into Louis’ shoulder, he felt tense muscle push back. Felt a knot of resistance that he dug his fingertips into and rolled loose. Louis’ shoulder sort of dropped and he exhaled softly.

“Better?” Harry asked.

“Yes.” Louis picked his pencil up. Another nudge to his glasses. “Might as well keep going.”

“I expect a fat Christmas bonus for this,” Harry said.

“I’ll put it on the department’s tab.”

Looking back, it's hard to believe, but Harry didn’t think anything of it. Not before and not during. It was after, when he was finished and went to draw his hands away, that Louis reached up and touched his hand and said, “Thank you.” It was the first time he had ever intentionally touched him, which was jarring, yes, but even that could have been dismissed.

It was the second that passed. A second in which Louis should have released him and didn’t. A second in which Harry should have lifted his hands away and didn’t. A second that saw them both transfixed and frozen. Caught in the intersection of no return and no regret. That gleaming terrible space where you’ve done just enough that you can’t pretend it away, but not so much that you’ve ruined yourself forever.

There was a knock at Louis’ office door and they flew apart. Louis ordered him to hide the space heater. That was the end of it.

If he thought looking Louis in the eye would be difficult, Emily proves to be worse. She stands beside her husband in a burgundy dress, her dark hair pinned up, elegantly. A pair of impressive earrings to complete the look. Harry just barely glances at her before issuing a general, clipped, “Hello” to the group.

And then he looks at Louis again. Louis looks at him.

“Didn’t know they were serving martinis,” Harry says.

“Sol’s got everything,” Louis replies. “There’s an open bar in the next room.”

“Ah.” Harry nods. Then silence. “Might just head that way.”

Gemma jabs him square in the ribs and darts her eyes at Louis.

“Oh. Louis,” Harry says. “This is my sister, Gemma.”

Gemma extends her hand. “Lovely to meet you. I read an article of yours in The New York Times years ago. The one about travelling and all that. Loved it.”

Harry steps away. He’s out of champagne and feeling its absence already.

“I’ll join you, Harry,” Emily says. “I think I’d like a glass of wine.”

Louis’ attention breaks from Gemma. He regards Emily with confusion. Emily ignores him, taking Harry’s arm. “Come on.”

As far as Harry’s concerned, Emily is a grown woman of sound mind. She doesn’t need Louis’ permission to do anything. A glass of wine might be inadvisable with her condition, but he’s certainly not the one to stop. They head to the bar. Harry helps her onto an available stool there and then orders a glass of red wine for her and an old fashioned for himself.

Emily drinks the first glass in pensive silence. It’s absurd but Harry blames himself for her shroud of sadness. Somehow, she knows what happened and hates him for it. Thrice, he musters the nerve to apologize before losing it. On his fourth attempt, he gets momentarily distracted by Kenneth Branagh smoking a cigar in a corner of the room.

When he looks at Emily again, she has a fresh glass of wine. With her elbow propped on the counter and her chin against her fist, her wedding band and engagement ring are bathed in the glow of recess lighting. He never noticed how imposing the latter was until now. A large pearl corralled by a tight ring of diamonds. Like the furniture in their home, Harry can’t imagine Louis ever picking it out.

“Sorry to be so quiet,” Emily says, lifting her head.

“It’s alright.” Harry leans into the bar. “Feeling quiet myself.”

“You’re such a sweet boy, Harry,” she says, solemnly. “I’m glad we met.”

Harry forces a smile. He feels a sting in the corner of his eyes and looks away in case the tears come. The debate he was having with himself all evening draws to a sudden and sharp close. Tomorrow, he decides, he’ll reach out to the department head and ask about taking on a new mentor. After the holidays, of course. There’s no point ruining anyone’s Christmas.

Amazing is the impact of infinitesimal things. That moment in Louis’ office. Small but so loud. It said what Harry resisted saying for the past few months. He likes Louis. In a way he isn’t supposed to and can’t help. In a way that must be obvious to Louis and that he pities Harry for. In a way that would hurt Emily’s feelings if she knew.

“You know, you were right,” Emily says softly. “I haven’t stopped thinking about what you said to me. About Louis. He doesn’t show that he's hurting because he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. I see it now. How did you know that?”

Harry shakes his head. “I’m just good at reading people, I guess.”

Emily scoffs, the sound so bitter it shocks Harry. She has another slosh of wine and puts the glass down with a thud. There’s a blush creeping over her face and neck. He’s about to ask her if she’s feeling alright when she looks at him.

“You’re his type, you know?”

Harry’s eyes widen. “Sorry?”

“In uni,” Emily says, downing the rest of the wine, patting her lips with the back of her hand, “I’m sure he dated a boy with a face like yours before.”

He can hardly breathe. “Emily—”

She sets her hand on his forearm. “I don’t drink at all anymore, you know? Two glasses of wine and I’m making a complete arse of myself. I need to run to the loo.”

“I’ll take you.”

“No, please,” she says, her voice so soft it’s all air. There’s sweat on her upper lip. Her temples are damp. “I’ll be fine.”

The instant she’s gone, Harry sees that Louis has been keeping an eye on them from across the room. Now he hurries after her and up the stairs to the second floor. Some part of Harry’s brain shuts off. He turns back to face the bar, calm as if the last few minutes didn’t happen. He finishes the rest of his old fashioned and prepares himself to find Gemma in the crowd when he spots a rhinestone evening bag left on the stool. His eyes roll closed. It’s Emily’s. He remembers seeing her with it on.

Handing the bag off to Zayn would exacerbate his suspicions. He could turn it into the bartender, but what if there are pills Emily needs inside? What if she needs those pills right now? Quickly, Harry collects the bag and takes the stairs.

The second floor is dimly lit and shadowed. All of the doors — and there are many — are eerily closed except one. Soft sombre light bleeds from inside. He hears voices, then more distinctly, Louis’ voice. He goes to knock and then halts.

“—Stand to be around you like this,” Emily seethes. “You’re making me ill. Even if I could get better, it wouldn’t happen with you.”

The voices are oddly distant. Tentatively, Harry steps into the light and sees that the room is empty. It’s an office or a library or both. Books upon books with leather spines line the walls. Antique books that, knowing Solomon, must cost a fortune. Two shadows are cast on the floor in the moonlight. The curtains billow and a bitter draft whips through the room. They’re out on the balcony, Louis and Emily.

“Don’t touch me,” Emily sobs. “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to die like this.”

Harry watches Louis’ shadow move, pacing. “I don’t understand,” he says, sounding more confused and clueless than Harry could imagine. So helpless, he can’t bear it. “How can I make you happy? Tell me and it’s done.”

“You’d have to love me.”

“Of course I love you,” Louis says. “You’re so drunk you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

“You’d have to love me. You’d have to be in love with me,” Emily says. “And we both know that’s not possible.”

“Babe, please let’s go inside. Please? It’s cold. At least take my jacket, yeah?”

“I see the way you look at him, Louis,” Emily says. “You should see the way you look at him.”

“For fuck’s sake. Get inside ,” Louis snaps. And then softer, hoarser, “ Please ? I’m begging you, please? Tomorrow morning, we’ll talk, I promise. But please, love?”

There’s silence for a moment. “I don’t feel well,” Emily reports.

Louis’ shadows draws close to hers. “I’ve got you. Come on.”

Harry steps back and into the dark. He’ll give the bag to Zayn after all. Any suspicion from him would be the least of Harry’s worries.

Chapter Text

Harry considers himself an ideal roommate. He minds his business. He hardly ever has guests, aside from the bartender and the guitarist (not at the same time) — even then he tried to be quiet. And he keeps his mess confined within the four walls of his own room. Outside, in spaces he has to share, he is tidy. But his room is a different case. His room is a functional disaster.

It’s a myth that writers are disorganized and sloppy. That the tempest of thoughts in their heads manifests physically and turbulently around them.

To the casual observer, Harry’s room might seem cluttered and impossible. But he knows where everything is and he likes it there. He likes the precarious tower of books by the window. There are journals bursting with sticky notes at every turn, but if he was asked to find the one he kept in the summer of 2009, he could with ease. He likes the empty candle jars, the wax left inside still colourful and fragrant — some to hold paintbrushes or pencils. He couldn’t afford a large area rug, so he went out and bought four smaller ones at a charity shop and he likes the oriental quilt he’s fashioned from them. He has a thousand blankets and all of them are necessary, especially when he needs to hide.

That’s how Zayn finds him the morning after Solomon’s party, cocooned in blankets and pillows on the floor, nose still pushed into the gutter of The Essential Rumi . Actually, it’s Mosley who finds him, but Zayn who sets her to it. He wakes up with a sneeze, nostrils tickled by her tail in his face.

“Good, you’re alive,” he hears Zayn say.

Harry pushes a few blankets away, enough to expose his head.

“Not going to work today?” Zayn asks. He has an unlit cigarette between his fingers, which signifies two things: 1) he’ll aim to wrap this conversation up quickly so he can go smoke in peace and 2) there will be no beating around the bush for either of them. Despite the hint, Harry still tries.

“I’m not feeling well,” he says.

“You look fine to me,” Zayn says. “What happened last night with Louis?”

Harry sits up further, reaching for the cold cup of tea he hardly finished before bed. He regrets his decision after the first sip. It’s ice cold. “His wife thinks there’s something going on between us,” he says, so embarrassed he can’t look Zayn in the eye. Zayn, who got him the position with Louis in the first place. “I overheard them talking. She was upset. Said something about him not loving her. She thinks he’s gay .”

Zayn sticks the cigarette in his mouth and decides to light it. One drag later, he says, “He is.”

Harry’s brows wrinkle. “No, he’s not. Why would he be married to Emily, then?”

“It’s a long story. I don’t know all of it. Lots of gay men marry women,” Zayn says. He grabs a teacup off the floor and deposits his ash inside. “The whole point of it, though, is that he’s faithful. And that’s not enough for her. Don’t know if it should be.”

Harry knew already. Or at least, he had been told. But it didn’t make sense then. It doesn’t make sense now.

“Anyway, it’s not all your fault, mate. She thought I was sleeping with him too,” Zayn confesses. “But she wasn’t sick then, you know? I’m not sure she would’ve been all that bothered if we were. But it’s different now.”

“I don’t want to sleep with him, Zayn!” Harry says, aghast. “It’s literally the opposite. I’m going to find a way to transfer to a new professor. Maybe Dr Lee will take me.”

Zayn cringes. “You don’t want to work with Solomon. Also, if you transfer, everyone will know why.”

Harry wouldn’t care so much about that if he were the only one involved, but he can’t do that to Louis. “How did you get yourself out of this?”

“It was much different for me. I didn’t actually have feelings for him.”

Harry is mortified. “You said you were attracted to him!”

“Yeah, but that’s not what this is,” Zayn says. “You care .”

Harry feels like his whole face is on fire. If Zayn, who is mostly removed from the situation, can see it plainly, imagine what Louis or Emily might have discerned. Everything, perhaps. He pushes his face into his hands and wishes he could remain like that forever.

“Get to work, babe.” Zayn stands, tapping his ash once more into the teacup. “Bet you’ll feel better if you do.”

 

 

He runs into Marie on the way to Louis’ office. She’s the last person he wants to see. He doesn’t want to see anyone, in fact. But if he had to see anyone, it wouldn’t be her.

“Heard you were at Dr Lee’s party last night,” she says in a tone that confirms she wasn’t invited. She’s just the kind of person celebrities wouldn’t want around. A human surveillance camera, filing her recordings away for gossip at a later date. Solomon would have known better.

“Who’d you hear that from?” Harry asks.

“I didn’t literally hear it from someone,” she replies. “I printed the invitations.”

How sad.

Harry glances past her and down the hall where Louis’ office door lies. He expects him to be standing there, regarding him with impatience.

“What are you doing here anyway?” Marie asks.

What could he possibly be doing here but his job?

“You know Louis took a sick day, don’t you?” says Marie. “Must’ve been some party. He never takes sick days.”

 

 

Three days pass. Three sick days pass and everyone is officially worried. Harry, to his credit, was concerned by Day 2. It takes double that time for Solomon and the rest of the department to start asking questions. It’s unclear what transpires between the professors but by Friday at noon, they’re all placated. False alarms, they say.

Dr Lee actually has two offices since he teaches both Literature and Music Theory. When he can’t be found in the Literature faculty office, Harry starts toward St Aldates ten minutes away, walking briskly and determinedly in the face of the cold, which at the moment represents all the adversity he feels up against. There’s less than a week left before they break for holidays. Papers are due on Tuesday. There’s the faculty Christmas party on Wednesday. There can be no reason for Louis’ absence at such a critical time that isn’t worrying or alarming. He wants answers and he’ll stop at nothing to get them.

He’s so caught in his mental nosedive that he nearly misses someone call to him. He stops in his tracks. Solomon stands just steps away.

“Dr Lee,” Harry says, turning back.

“Where are you marching off to?”

“I was just at Teddy Hall, looking for you.”

“I’m just on my way back,” Solomon says. He eyes Harry worriedly. “What can I do for you?”

“I was wondering what you’d heard from Dr Tomlinson. If he’s alright or…? It’s just he hasn’t been in touch with me. And you know, as his assistant, I’m concerned.”

“Of course, of course. Walk with me,” Solomon says. “I’ve got a class to get to.” He checks his watch, a violin case in one hand and The Iliad in the other. “I don’t know how much you know about Louis’ wife, Emily.”

“I know that she’s sick. I’ve met her a few times.”

Solomon nods. “How did you find her?”

“She’s lovely,” Harry says.

“She can be, yes. I hope he won’t mind me saying this, but she’s a bit like a persimmon. She’s either sweet or she’s astringent. There’s no in between.”

Harry doesn’t join him when he laughs. He tries not to let it show, but he hardly has time for bizarre (and vaguely problematic) metaphors.

“And the cancer makes it all worse,” Solomon went on. “Anyway, it seems that she left him. She hasn't seen him in days. I spoke with her before I got in touch with Louis. The way I explained it to Dr Barchard and the rest of the faculty is that Louis needs time to get things at home in proper shape before he can be expected again here. Now, what that looks like for the students is left to be determined—”

“I’m sorry,” Harry interrupts. “She left him?”

“So, it seems,” Solomon says. “Like I said, she’s always been a difficult woman. But with her health the way it is, I can’t imagine why she’d choose to do this now.”  

 

 

Approaching the dark green door with its gold knocker, Harry pictures Emily, welcoming him inside with Alfred in her arm. Maybe if she never let him in, she would still be here now.

With a great mental heave and a rush of gumption, Harry rings the doorbell and waits, feet firmly planted. Minutes later, he hears the lock turn. He sucks in a breath. The door swings open and Louis is there. He is unshaven and barefoot. A blanket, thrown around his shoulders, pairs with plaid pyjama bottoms. It’s obvious he isn’t wearing a shirt. It's also obvious that he's under the influence and not just for the smell of booze.

Harry is so caught up in his appearance. Even like this, he’s devastatingly handsome. Even as he regards Harry with disdain. “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?” Harry asks, surprising himself. Suddenly, he’s angry. He pictured Louis dead, drowned in his own vomit. He pictured him ill, emaciated and seconds from death. At the sight of him, perfectly healthy, Harry is angered. “Why aren’t you at school?”

“This is inappropriate, Harry. Go home.”

Harry wedges his foot into the door before Louis can close it.

Louis yanks the door open again, eyes wide. “Do you want me to ring the police?”

“Go right ahead,” Harry says. “You want to know who else talked about ringing the police? Solomon and the rest of the department. ‘Cause you never take sick days and now you’ve taken four. And I know it’s not your wife because Solomon spoke to her—”

“I don’t want to talk to you about my wife.”

The ‘to you’ means a world of difference. Specifically Harry. “We don’t have to,” Harry says, weakly. “She said she hadn’t seen you in days. That’s all.”

“Is this the part where you draw a conclusion like Sherlock Holmes? ‘Cause I’m getting bored.”

“I want to apologize,” Harry says. “I’m sorry. This is my fault and I’m sorry.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Before coming here, I spoke to Dr Barchard. I asked for a new mentor. I didn’t say why, but he said if you agreed, now would be the time for me to switch. After next semester, it’ll be troublesome.”

Louis pushes the door open wider, his arm outstretched, fingers splayed. The blanket slips off one shoulder, leaving half of his bare torso exposed. He’s in profoundly good shape, although Harry can’t imagine when he finds time to work out. Neither should he follow that line of thinking for too long. He focuses intently on Louis’ face.

“Why the fuck would you do that?” Louis asks.

Harry squares his shoulders. “You know why.”

Louis arches a brow. “‘Fraid not.”

Harry stares at him. They stare at each other. A gust of wind meets Louis’ skin and he doesn’t even flinch. Harry sighs, all his exhaustion and anxiety let loose. Finally, he says, “I feel things for you that I shouldn’t.”

Louis holds his gaze for a second, his jaw locked. There’s a slight shake of his head, followed by a roll of his eyes. He turns away from the door. And leaves it open. Eagerly, Harry steps inside.

“Upstairs,” Louis beckons.

It smells so strongly of cigarette smoke that Harry feels nauseous. He keeps a hand on the railing as they climb. They pass the second floor and head to the third. All the curtains are drawn. It’s the worst kind of darkness. Forcing out the light. Fighting it. The third floor houses Louis’ office. Two sliding doors are pushed open. There’s a small lamp on at the desk, providing enough light for Harry to make out bottles of Johnny Walker and his kin lining the baseboards.

Louis sinks into the chair behind his desk. “What did you say to her?”

“Nothing.”

“Please don’t lie to me,” Louis says, tiredly.

Harry gets the feeling that his temper is just on the brink of fraying. “I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have to. Maybe, it’s how I looked at you. I don’t know.”

“What was the thing you said at the cafe?”

“I tried to explain before, but it’s difficult,” Harry says. Louis’ eyes slide closed. Harry tries again, “I said that I think you try not to show other people you’re hurting because you don’t want to hurt them. Something to that effect.”

“What does that even mean?” Louis asks.

“She wanted more emotion from you,” Harry reasons. “She couldn’t see that you were hurting. I was trying to help—”

“You don’t even know me.”

“I didn’t need to to know that much. And I don’t see how I could when you’re like this,” Harry says. “You don’t want me to know you.”

“That’s right. And yet you think you have feelings for me.”

“It’s just as ridiculous and inconvenient for me as it might be for you,” Harry replies. He crosses his arms over his chest. Almost like a shield of armour. Or a way of making himself seem sturdier and more resolute. “The point is that I think Emily interpreted it all wrong. She thought it was mutual. So, it’s my fault, that she isn’t here. And I want to make it right. You won’t have to see me again after today. I won’t take any more classes with you. Whatever it takes.”

“It’s too late for that, Harry,” Louis says, massaging his forehead.

“It’s not—”

“She’s asked for a divorce.”

Harry wants to sink into the armchair opposite Louis’ desk. Somehow he feels that wouldn’t be welcome. Instead, he sets his hand against it for support. “ Why? ” Harry exhales. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”

“You wouldn’t understand,” Louis says. “And I’m not explaining it to you.”

He reaches for the bottle of Johnny Walker glowing under the lamplight and uncorks it. He splashes some into a glass, downs that, and pours again. “That’ll be all, Harry. Whatever’s left to discuss will have to wait until I’m on campus.”

“When will that be?” Harry asks.

“Haven’t decided yet,” Louis says. His words are oozing with sarcasm. Bitter like the whiskey. “You’ll be the first to know when I do.”

On his way out, just as he’s made it to the first floor, he hears a meow and stops in his tracks. He peeks up the flight of stairs and then hurries to the kitchen. Alfred is seated beside his bowl. Harry scoops him up into his arms. “Is that demon feeding you?” he whispers.

He assumes the answer is yes. Louis is many things, but not an animal abuser. He doubts, however, that Louis feeds him as regularly as he should. In the event that Louis hasn’t fed him for the day, Harry deems it best to put his mind at ease. He finds the cat food after a quick search and then sits on the kitchen floor, peering up at the dirty dishes while Alfred eats.

After loading the dishwasher, he takes the rubbish out.

And then, upon spotting the filth in the dining room, he does it all over again — dishes and rubbish. He considers tidying the makeshift bedroom but once he steps inside, he can’t bear to stay.

It was still early evening when he first arrived. Now, turning on the lights in the living room and the kitchen, he realizes how much time has passed. Louis hasn’t come down. He wonders if he’s being avoided. if Louis knows he’s there and has listened to him tinkering around while debating whether or not to ring the police.

He must be starving.

Harry tucks his phone into his pocket and intends to leave, although not before he checks Louis’ fridge. There’s salmon marinating in a bowl, covered in plastic. He saw rice in the cupboard while cleaning. He could get it going. Then leave.

It occurs to him, after he’s put the salmon on to bake, that this is the difference between attraction and feeling. That if he were simply attracted to Louis, he could probably continue on as his mentee. If he were simply attracted, he wouldn’t have shown up here at all.

But he cares and therein lies the problem.

He heads upstairs to apologize for overstaying and to let Louis know the salmon will be finished in another thirty minutes. Alfred follows him to the second floor and waits at the landing to the third, as if even he wouldn’t dare.

The office is as he left it. Louis is still at his desk. But he’s folded over now with his head nestled against his arms. The blanket has slipped off his shoulders leaving his bare skin exposed. Harry knocks on the wood of the door frame once. “Dr Tomlinson?” No answer. He tries again and still, nothing.

Fearing the worst, he rushes to the desk and waits, eyes peeled. After a second, Louis’ back rises with an inhale; Harry sighs in relief. He retrieves the blanket and drags it up over Louis’ shoulders. He then collects the teacups and the glass tumbler and heads back downstairs.

 

 

Morning light is not the same everywhere. It might look different depending on the curtains or the shape of the room, or the direction from which the sun meets the windows. This difference, however subtle, is the first thing that alerts Harry to his location. Then recollection comes banging home. But it's not the sunlight that wakes him. Neither is it Alfred perched on his chest.

It’s Louis, nudging his ankle. He’s stood over him. (Wearing a jumper, finally.) “Morning,” he says.

Harry’s back complains as he sits up in the armchair. A blanket slips off his chest that he doesn’t remember retrieving. The armchair turns out to be a recliner; His feet are propped up, but he doesn’t remember doing that either. “Good morning,” he says.

Louis shoves his hands into the pockets of his joggers. “What are you still doing here?”

“You ask after you got me a blanket?” Harry wonders. “I cleaned and I put the salmon in your fridge in the oven. Then I fell asleep.”

“Do you remember taking the salmon out of the oven?” Louis asks, severely.

Harry’s eyes widen. He’s more than sure he did.

“Just a joke,” Louis says. “Thanks for that. You shouldn’t have cleaned. Or stayed, to be honest.”

“You could’ve woken me up.”

“I could have,” Louis agrees. He rocks back on his heels. “Do you want an omelette then? I’m starved.”

Harry eyes him suspiciously. “Is this the same as with the coffee? Where you say you want the thing but what you mean is I should get it for you? Or make it for you, in this case?”

Louis snorts. “No, actually. I was offering to make you an omelette.”

“In that case, I’d love one.”

“Tea?” Louis asks.

“Sure.”

Emily said she could never get a good read on Louis and before, Harry would have wholeheartedly agreed. He would never presume that he knew Louis any better than she did. But it is true that sometimes, like over breakfast, Louis is transparent. Breakfast, itself, is an obvious act of conciliation.

Yesterday, he was whiskey-addled and caught off guard by Harry’s arrival. Today, he is sober and solicitous. A few of the curtains are drawn and somehow, even the miasma of cigarette smoke has faded. Louis finishes his omelette first and then, glasses donned, he begins scrolling through his phone. Harry stands with his empty plate in hand. He reaches for Louis’ and finds his plate snatched from him instead. Louis piles both plates on the table in front of him.

“Stop cleaning,” he says.

Harry’s arms hang awkwardly at his sides. “I should probably get going then.”

“It’s Saturday,” Louis says. “Where are you headed?”

“Home. I need to finish my paper for your class.”

“How’s that going?”

“Not bad,” Harry says. It’s weird talking to him like this considering all that transpired yesterday.

Louis sets his phone down, face-up at first, before flipping it over. “I’m not switching assistants by the way,” he says. “That’s pointless. Even if you tried, you’d still see me at some point before you graduate.”

“I think that’s a mistake.”

Louis seems unbothered. “Take winter hols to get over me and you’ll be fine.”

Harry’s laugh is stunted by shock. “Wow.”

“What?”

“I didn’t think you were the type to underestimate yourself,” he says.

Louis peels his gaze away from him. “Regardless, I expect you in my office on Monday.”

Harry shakes his head. “Louis—”

“Bright and early,” Louis concludes.

Chapter Text

Harry celebrates the end of term with Zayn and Paige at a Southbank pub. It’s open mic night, which Zayn neglected to mention when he invited him. “You should read something,” Paige leans across the table and says to Harry as Zayn makes his way back to them from the stage. He read part of his poem and sang the rest. The applause is still going. 

Harry adjusts the peak of his newsboy cap. “I’m not a poet.”

“You don’t have to be a poet!” Paige says. “Read one of your essays.”

Harry would rather die. “Next time,” he says. Zayn is back and thankfully, her attention diverts.

A night out probably wasn’t the best idea, but it felt earned after his maelstrom of a week. The price of Louis’ absence was Harry's to pay. So much remained to catch up on and the most menial tasks fell on him. It was a never-ending cycle of contrition, considering it was his fault that Louis had been out of office in the first place. At one point, he was hidden away in the supply cupboard, racing to finish his paper for Dr Connelly’s class while Marie pursued him to help set up the Christmas party.

He’s tired, but he survived it all. He’s celebrated sufficiently. Now all he wants is to go home. Not to his apartment, but to his mum's. Where warm food awaits and even warmer company.

He contemplates how to slip away from Zayn and Paige. There’s another performer introducing themselves and they’re both tuned in. Harry’s mobile starts buzzing and he knows an out when he sees it. He meanders to the doors, pulling his coat on along the way, and fishes the phone out of his pocket. It's Louis. He puts the phone away. At the last possible second, he gets it back out.

“Hello?”

“Almost missed my call,” Louis notes.

Harry rolls his eyes. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be. It sounds like you’re still out. I need a favour. It’s urgent.”

“Are you alright?”

“I'm fine. I’m at home. I need you to come here. I’ll explain then.”

Harry never agreed to go. Before he can object or ask further questions, Louis says, “See you soon” and hangs up. Harry sends a message to Zayn and finds the closest tube.

“I took the advice you gave me earlier,” Louis says, seconds after Harry steps inside.

Harry’s brain was certifiably fried earlier. He can’t remember what he said and he can’t guarantee it was advice worth taking. He slides his hat off his head. “Which was?”

“About the Christmas decorations.”

Harry recalls their chat about Emily, one that surprised him because it seemed as though Louis would never discuss his wife with Harry again. But he did. Christmas, as it turns out, is Emily’s favourite holiday. So, Harry encouraged him to put decorations up, “in case she stops by.”

Louis leads him to the living room. “Went out and bought a tree,” he says. “Problem is I have to get these pages to my editor by tomorrow morning. I don’t have time to decorate it.”

Harry glances at the bare spruce tree, positioned in the corner of the room by the window.  “You called me here to decorate a Christmas tree?”

“Yes. Problem,” Louis says, waving from the tree to Harry, “meet solution.”

“You said it was urgent.”

“After today you’ll be home for Christmas. So it is urgent.”

Harry looks around. “Do you even have decorations?”

“In the box there,” Louis says, nodding towards a large cardboard box on top of the loveseat.

“And you’re not helping?” Harry asks.

“I can’t. But I’ll be right here,” he says, gesturing at the recliner where Harry slept just days ago. His laptop and a cup of tea are there as well. “Supervising.”

“Right,” Harry says. “Fine.”

“If you’re hungry, I ordered a pizza. It’s in the kitchen.”

Harry removes his coat and drapes it over one arm of the couch. “Maybe later,” he says, running his hands wildly through his hair to dispel hat head. He catches Louis watching him and waits for that now familiar rush of butterflies in his stomach. They come. He looks away. “What?”

“I finished reading your paper,” Louis says. “I typed up a response in an email, but since you’re here—”

“If it’s bad, I’d rather read the email.”

“Shut up,” Louis tells him. “I liked it. It was smart and compelling and honest. I’m sure you think so too. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have turned it in to me.”

“My judgement isn’t what it used to be,” Harry says.

“I think it’ll pull through.”

Harry pushes his bulky sleeves up to his elbows and removes a set of lights from the box, coiled tightly in a circle. “Well, thank you,” he says, and even to his own ears, it's awkward. He’s still struggling to navigate space with Louis since his dramatic and cataclysmic confession. But these things take time. If he can survive the next term, he’ll be in the clear. Maybe during the summer, he'll go on a trip and meet a nice man. It’s an age-old trick, expelling feelings for one person to make room for another.

For a little while, they work to the sound of Louis’ arrhythmic typing. At first, it seems like he’s struck a steady flow. But when Harry looks at him again, his eyes are closed and his hands are teepeed in front of him, elbows propped on the arms of his chair. It could be that he’s just thinking. Harry makes odd faces when he’s deep in thought, too.

When another minute passes, Harry asks, “How’s it going?”

Louis’ eyes open. “I think I need a break.”

“Want to hang ornaments?”

“Looks like you’ve got it handled,” Louis says.

Harry scoffs. “Of course, Harry. I’d love to help you,” he says in a voice that is neither Louis’ nor his own. When he glances at Louis, he finds him smiling. Louis rests his chin against his fist and watches him shamelessly.

“You’re doing a great job,” he says.

“It’s no Rockefeller tree, but I think so too,” Harry says. “I wonder what New York is like at Christmastime.”

Louis’ smile dwindles. “Can’t recall.”

“But you lived there for a while?”

Louis sighs. “Herlock Sholmes is at it again.”

Harry sputters, lifting the back of his hand his mouth. Louis looks proud of himself and he absolutely should be.

“Christmas is supposed to put one in a giving mood,” Harry says. “And since I’m not getting paid for this, you could at least answer my questions.”

“Alright,” Louis says, crossing his arms. “What questions?”

“What was New York like?”

Louis shrugs. “No urban night is like the night there…”

The recognition is instantaneous. “Squares after squares of flame, set up and cut into the aether,” Harry quotes. “Here is our poetry—”

“For we have pulled down the stars to our will,” Louis finishes. “Not the biggest fan of Ezra Pound, but I love that. I loved New York. Didn’t feel like myself there, which was good at the time.”

“Why did you leave?”

“Didn’t I answer all this for you before?”

“Not explicitly. Emily was at the table. I got the feeling you didn’t want to say anything to offend her,” Harry says. “Did it have to do with your father?”

“What do you know about my father?” All traces of a smile are gone for Louis now and Harry should know to quit while he’s ahead.

He hesitates. “I read an article about him. I know he was ill and he passed away. I know he was the head of a law firm. Your family’s firm.”

“What else?”

“That’s it.”

“Well, that’s all you need to know,” Louis says.

Harry turns back to the box in shame. He selects another ornament and can’t find anywhere to put it because the tree has enough. It’s probably best not to know too much about Louis anyway. It seems inevitable that the more a person knows about another, the more their affection and concern grows to suit. And yet, the conundrum is that even the slightest affection makes him voraciously curious.

“I hardly know anything about you.”

Harry stills with his fingers just leaving the ornament he hooked. He takes great care to control his expression when he turns back to face his professor. “I wouldn’t think you wanted to.”

“It’s only fair,” Louis replies.

“What do you want to know?”

Louis shuts his laptop. “What’s your family like? Do you love them?”

“Of course.”

“Not of course,” Louis says. “Loving your family isn’t compulsory.”

“Are you speaking from experience?”

“We’re talking about you right now. What’s your mum like?”

Harry sits on the arm of the couch. “She’s a massage therapist, I told you. But she only does that when she’s called in for it. Otherwise, she’s home. With her cats. She has three. Or four, maybe.” He trails off. None of that really speaks to who she is. “She’s easy to be around. She’s never had any crazy expectations of me. She tells me I can be whatever I want and somehow, that makes it more terrifying to ever disappoint her.”

“And your dad?”

“He’s the same, in terms of little expectations, but I think it’s more to do with him not wanting to be bothered. He’s a good guy, but we’re different people and I’ve stopped holding that against him. And he lives in Antwerp, so I hardly see him.”

“Your parents are divorced?”

“Since I was eight,” Harry says, looking for some obvious reaction to the topic. There’s so much Harry still wants to ask him. Most pressing: Is he going through with his divorce?

Louis sets his laptop on the floor. “Do you like whiskey? I need a drink.”

Harry couldn’t keep up with him if he tried. “Why not?”

Louis leaves. Harry is endeared by Alfred following him into the kitchen and trailing after him when he returns. Louis carries two glasses between his fingers and a bottle of Jameson in the crook of his elbow. On the other arm is balanced a pizza box. “I won’t finish this if you don’t have some,” he says.

Harry gets down on the floor in front of the coffee table, crossing his legs. He flips the pizza box open and removes a slice, topped with mushroom and Parma ham.

“Is your sister divorced?” Louis asks, filling the glass closest to Harry first.

“No. Never married. Her boyfriend is a food writer, so he travels a lot,” Harry explains.

“That’s Ramona’s father, yeah?”

His easy recollection of her name surprises Harry. And pleases him. “No,” Harry says. He has a sip of whiskey. “Ramona’s father didn’t want children. They were young and he was unemployed and he didn’t want to be involved. It sucks, but— Imagine if he had forced himself to raise her. At least he knew she deserved better.”

“He missed out, though,” Louis says.

“I agree.” Harry has another slice of pizza. “Are we done talking about me now?”

“Not quite, but go on. Ask whatever it is you’re dying to ask.”

“Do you like kids?”

Louis cracks a knuckle and keeps his hands folded together. His fingers are poetic. Harry could draft a few verses given a little time. Knobby, florid knuckles. Marble and rose. Fingertips nearly squared like they were rendered by a modern artist of the cubist persuasion. “I wanted kids, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

The air turns sullen. Harry finishes his pizza and takes yet another slice. He won’t be able to finish it, but he likes having it there to keep him occupied. “Do you think you’ll get to see Emily for Christmas?”

“She's with her sister in Manchester, but I’ll try,” Louis says.

“You’re always welcome to dinner with my family,” Harry says. “My sister and my niece are fans.”

Louis smiles. “First, you’re trying to quit working with me. Now, you’re inviting me for Christmas dinner?”

“That’s different. This is a token of charity.”

“Whatever you say,” Louis quips.

Harry laughs, in spite of his nerves. Maybe because of them. His glass is empty. The tree is fit for a shopping centre. He didn’t want to come over in the first place, but now he doesn’t want to leave. Which is exactly why he should. He sets the glass on the table.

“Want more?” Louis asks, nodding to the bottle.

“I shouldn’t. I’m keeping you from writing and I need to finish packing.”

He hates leaving him here, but it’s none of his business. He reminds himself so as he puts his coat and hat back on. And as he’s standing at the door. Behind Louis is a void of a house. Silent and unsuitable, even with the Christmas tree. He doesn’t pity Louis because Louis would hate that. But he’d like to imagine another world where he is asked to stay and accepts.

“Have a Happy Christmas,” Harry says.

“Happy Christmas,” Louis replies. “See you next year.”

Chapter Text

There’s a romantic layer of snow on the ground as the car pulls up to Teddy Hall, cutting two sleek black lines through it like a felt pen on crisp white paper. The car is also sleek and black and probably more expensive than anything Harry has ever owned or should hope to own. When it comes to a stop at the kerb, Harry pops the passenger door open. He extends a medium coffee — cream, no sugar — inside. Louis takes it. Harry climbs in, rubbing his shoulders to ward off the cold.

“Have everything?” Louis asks, shifting the car into drive. At Harry’s nod, he pulls off. The car smells of Tom Ford’s Noir and cigarettes. “Did you bring a change of clothes?”

Harry is dressed like an urban dad. He’s wearing an Edinburgh Zoo hoodie beneath his pea coat, slim grey trousers and Adidas. “I have a dress shirt on under the hoodie.”

“Did you bring a jacket?”

“You think so little of me,” Harry says. “Yes, I tucked it in your garment bag. I’ve also got your slides printed out. I made a reservation for your lunch with Dr Rankin. I checked in to the hotel already, so we just have to grab room keys.”

“Point made,” Louis says, exasperated, and turns up the radio. He flips through a few stations. His frustration visibly grows when he can't find anything he likes. 

“Do you mind if I DJ?” Harry chirps.

“Please."

It’s annoying at first to have the GPS interrupt Harry’s playlist every second, but once they hit the M40, it’s smooth listening. The drive to Manchester is three hours long. He and Louis manage a silence that sits somewhere between comfortable and awkward. Comfortable because Louis has no need for conversation. Awkward because Harry wants very badly to talk to him. Especially like this, when they’re alone with nothing but miles of road ahead. Instead, he reads a book and dozes at some point and wakes feeling embarrassed that he did. Louis doesn’t seem to care.

“How much longer?” Harry asks.

Louis has one arm propped against the window and the other in his lap, fingers just barely grasping the wheel, in a manner that’s both alluring and alarming. “Thirty minutes, maybe.”

Harry furtively checks his face for drool in the sun visor. When Louis clears his throat, he thinks: busted. “After the conference is over,” Louis begins, unaware. “I’m going to go see my wife.”

It’s the first time he’s called her his wife since the start of the term. Harry knew better than to bring it up, but he assumed that Louis and Emily were moving forward with their divorce. Perhaps not.

“She’s close by, so—” Louis shrugs. “While I’m here, I might as well.”

“Of course,” Harry says, sitting back in his seat. “Good luck.”

 

 

While Louis is at lunch with a colleague, Harry finds a cafe to pass the time. On the way back to the hotel, he passes a flower shop. It’s a split-second decision: Upon seeing the fuschia peonies in the window, he decides to go in and by a bundle.

“What’s that for?” Louis asks when Harry returns. They’re sharing a room, which at first seemed outrageous. Then Harry thought: If this were a professor he regarded platonically, would it be a problem? The answer was no.

“I thought you could give them to Emily when you see her,” Harry says.

Louis stares at him. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“Well, no. It wasn’t on my list, but.” Harry holds them out. “It’s no big deal.”

“Thank you,” Louis says, taking the flowers. “That was thoughtful of you, really.”

Harry feels guilty for being an unconscious homewrecker, but that’s beside the point. He genuinely likes Emily. And if the flowers play a small part in making things right for her, he’ll be more than happy.

After the conference, there’s a pep in Louis’ step while he freshens up. (In retrospect, his eagerness will be odd. As if the whole business of Emily dying was forgotten in light of winning her back.) Harry feels no twinge of jealousy. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t enjoy the view or that he doesn’t imagine himself on the receiving end of all this attention, awaiting a man dressed as impressively as Louis, a man desperate for Harry’s grace and mercy.

Standing in the floor-length mirror with his feet hip distance apart, Louis runs his fingers through his hair a few times and lifts a tie from off his shoulder. He switched the tie he’d been wearing all day out for this one. Harry assumes it’s Emily’s favourite.

“You should go out,” Louis tells him, starting a classic Windsor knot. “Do something fun and bill it to the university.”

“I rang my mum a while ago, actually,” Harry says. “She’s not too far from here. She’s going to meet me for dinner.”

“When does she get here?” asks Louis.

Harry glances at his phone. “Fifteen minutes, maybe.”

“I’ll stick around, then. I want to meet her.”

Harry’s brows crease. “Why?”

“I’m going to question her about her massage tricks,” Louis says. Their eyes meet in the mirror and he throws Harry a smile. Harry feels like a juvenile. Louis turns to face him. “How do I look?”

Harry’s gaze travels Louis’ body from head to toe. “Good,” he says, but there must be something in his expression that gives him away. Awkwardness invades the room. He lifts his phone and scrolls through his emails randomly. Louis turns back to the mirror without a word.

Together, they head down to the bar just off the hotel lobby where businessmen sit slouched in leather chairs with phones to their ears or in their hands. There’s a halcyon glow about the space. Sleek edges gleam with soft amber light. Mirrored tables beneath a mirrored ceiling create a kaleidoscope effect. The barman — Sam, by his name tag — is a tall, swarthy blond man, who reminds Harry a bit of Steve Irwin. He had a crush on Steve Irwin when he was a boy. Sam’s eyes linger on Harry after he orders, but that could be for any number of reasons. In different circumstances, Harry might ensure their eyes meet several more times throughout the night. He might strike up a conversation and use the term ‘ex-boyfriend’ to remove any doubt on his part. He might buy the barman a drink, leave his number written on his napkin or wait for him until closing. But just as he thinks it, Louis says, “What does your mum like to drink?” And Harry’s full attention is his.

“Glass of red,” Harry says. “The Pinot Noir would do.”

Louis orders a glass for Harry’s mum and they relocate to a table in the corner. Harry starts to worry a minute past 6:30. “I’m sorry she’s late,” he says.

Louis glances at his watch. “It’s only been a minute.”

Five minutes go by, but Louis looks mostly unbothered. When Harry meets his gaze, he seems more amused than anything. Finally, after six minutes, Harry’s mum arrives, wearing a leopard print fur coat and bedazzled boots. He presented her as some demure masseuse or a reclusive cat lady, but she doesn’t look the part. The best dressed one by far, she makes heads turn as she approaches their table. “Hello, love,” she says, as Harry stands to greet her. She cups his face and presses a kiss to his cheek, then wipes the lipstick away with her thumb.

Louis stands as well.

“Mum,” Harry says. “This is my professor, Louis Tomlinson. Louis, this is my mother, Anne.”

“I know who this is,” his mum says, taking Louis’ hand. “Lovely to finally meet you.”

“Same to you. Please,” Louis says, gesturing for her to sit. “I have to run in a bit, but I wanted to meet you. We got you a glass of wine.”

“Oh, thank you. Can already see what kind of night it’s going to be,” Harry’s mum says, lifting the wine glass. “I just had one on the train. Cheers, boys.”

Louis evolves over the next half-hour. Same as earlier, when he stood before 500 students and faculty with grace and exuberance and aplomb. Sometimes Harry gets hints at this person, but he’s not familiar at all with the man who charms his mother. She cradles her chin in her palm as she listens to Louis, rapt and curious. When he announces that he has to go, her disappointment, Harry knows, is genuine. She puts him on to a good massage therapist in Reading and imparts an invitation to Harry’s childhood home if he’s ever closeby.

“You were so quiet,” his mum notes, minutes later. She loops her arm with his as they head to a restaurant nearby. Louis recommended an Italian haunt that they had always wanted to try. “He seems lovely.”

“He is,” Harry says. He feels her gaze on him.

She gives his arm a squeeze and a pat. “You’re never subtle, darling. Heart on your sleeve as always.”

 

 

As his mum’s Addison Lee pulls off, Harry waves and lingers until it makes a turn at the corner. It’s late. Inside, at the bar, most of the businessmen are gone, but Sam is still there. Harry is tipsy and coquettish after two martinis at the Italian place. He hesitates a second before he turns and strolls on over.

“Oh, hey,” the barman says, spotting him.

“Hello,” Harry replies in his most syrupy voice.

“Your friend is here,” Sam says with a grimace. “I think he’s had enough.”

Harry’s smile slips away. “My friend…?” He trails off, already moving away. He rounds the bar, his head turning this way and that. He comes to an immediate stop upon the sight of Louis, slumped against a table with a glass of whiskey in his hand. “Louis,” he hisses.

Louis doesn’t budge. Harry reaches out and shakes his shoulder. “Louis,” he says firmly.

Louis shrugs away from him. “Loud. Hush.”

“Louis, it’s Harry,” he says, placidly. “I think you’ve had too much to drink.”

“I know who it is,” Louis says, sitting upright, slowly. “I’m your boss, not the other way around.”

“You’re ridiculous, that’s what you are,” Harry says. He looks around the bar and further out into the lobby. It’s not far-fetched to imagine that Louis’ colleagues from out of town are also staying here. Ones who were just at the conference. Anyone could have seen him, could still see him now.

“Would you please come upstairs with me?” Harry tries. “There’s a bottle of Jameson up there with your name all over it.”

“Didn’t see a bottle of Jameson up there,” Louis comments.

“Then you must have missed it,” Harry says. “I’d like to have a glass with you, Professor. But upstairs where I can put my feet up. Sounds nice, yeah?”

Louis sits upright again. “Stop,” he says. “You’re talking to me like I’m a toddler.”

Harry sighs. “Please.”

“I don’t need more Jameson. I need a glass of water,” Louis says. He sets a hand on the table and pushes himself to his feet. Harry reaches out to steady him. “I can walk on my own, Harry.”

Jaw set, Harry drops his arms at his sides. Louis takes one step and stumbles forward, grabbing onto the back of the closest chair. “Fuck,” he breathes.

Harry shakes his head and reaches for him again, locking their arms together.

“Harry—”

“Shut up,” Harry says, “and start walking.”

In the lift, Harry allows Louis to slump against the wall and jabs the button for their floor. Only when they’re inside the room and Louis has collapsed on his bed does Harry’s annoyance ebb and make room for sadness. He gets changed in the bathroom and returns to Louis’ bedside with a glass of water and paracetamol. He sits on his own bed while Louis takes careful sips, his eyes pinched shut like there’s a headache blooming already.

“What happened tonight, Louis?”

Unsurprisingly, Louis doesn’t answer him. Harry wants more than anything not to care. He wants to sleep, peacefully and unencumbered by this man’s wellbeing.

“No luck,” Louis murmurs, head cradled on the edge of a pillow. “She loved your flowers, though.”

Harry gets up and sits on Louis’ bed, perching on the edge so he can hear him better, see his face more clearly. He rests his hands in his lap. “What did she have to say?”

“She’s insistent.” Louis covers his eyes with his hand. “Wants it sorted as soon as possible.”

“Did she explain why?”

“I know why.”

Harry waits. He doesn’t know what to do besides sit there stupidly and ask questions and wait for answers. Minutes go by in silence until it’s clear Louis has either dozed off or doesn’t want to talk. Harry stands. He refills the glass of water and leaves it on the nightstand. He goes to the end of the bed and unlaces Louis’ dress shoes and tugs them off.

“Your mum didn’t see me like this, did she?” Louis asks suddenly, letting his hand fall to his side.

Harry sets the shoes down by the foot of the bed. “No.”

“Good. Wouldn’t want her to think differently of me.”

“Why would you care what my mum thinks of you?”

“Maybe I care what you think of me,” Louis says. “And you care what she thinks. Lovely, though, your mum.”

Harry pauses in the middle of the two beds, brows creased deeply, heart thrumming a bit too quickly. “I genuinely don’t get you at all,” he finally says.

“I know,” Louis says. “All this time, you must be wondering, why would a man try so fucking hard to be with a woman he’s not in love with? Why would he marry her in the first place?”

Harry doesn’t say a word.

“I know you’ve got questions. I even know what they are.”

“Then answer them,” Harry says.

Louis shuts his eyes, folding his hands together on top of his head. “You remind me of someone I met when I was living in New York. A boy named Daniel. You have the same degree of curiosity,” he says. Harry takes a seat on the bed once more. “When I was in New York, everyone had questions, but he asked the ones that mattered. He asked me about my father. He asked me who the girl was that called me all the time. He asked why she called when I was in bed with him.”

Harry holds his breath. As if even an exhale could disrupt this moment.

“We weren’t together, Emily and me. I wasn’t cheating on her. I never cheated on her. But she loved me. From the time we were kids. Everyone in my family and hers knew it too. And I loved her, I did. I do. But it was different and I should’ve said so. She thought I’d come home eventually and we’d get engaged and get married. That’s why she kept calling. Because she wanted me to know she was waiting. And I didn’t answer ‘cause I felt guilty. Because I was using her. As long as Emily was waiting for me here, my father didn’t get too curious about what I was up to in New York.

“That’s what I told Daniel and he called me an arsehole and he wouldn’t see me again. And that’s why I hesitate to answer your questions,” he says. And looks Harry in the eyes. “‘Cause believe it or not, I wouldn’t want you to think less of me.”

Harry wets his lips. “I already think you’re an arsehole,” he says. “Not to worry.”

His answer seems to surprise Louis. He laughs. “Fair enough.”

“Is that why you married her, then? Did your father find out?” Harry asks.

“Emily found out,” Louis says. “She booked a surprise trip to see me. Thing was, there were rumours about me in uni and she knew them. But I always found some way to ease her suspicion, to keep her in denial. She stayed with me in New York for a bit. One night she saw me in bed with a man and that was it. No denying it then. She got on the first flight home. Told her mum. Her mum told her husband. Who told my father. If anything, it made it easier for me to stay put. Then Dad got ill. Mum begged me to come see him, so I did. And he gave me an ultimatum. ‘Either marry the girl or I sue you for everything you took from me.”

Harry’s mouth drops open. “How could he do that?”

Louis shrugs. “I’m the only son in my family who’s not a solicitor. He had a whole army of them on his side. I thought if anyone could find a way, it was him and I was scared. I considered going back to New York, but I didn’t have the money for a flight. I was stuck.”

This vision of a young, helpless Louis seems so divergent from the one Harry knows. His professor is clever and quick, and even in the face of a dozen or more grey, brooding lawyers, Harry would like to imagine he wins. “So, I married her,” Louis says, because he doesn’t.

“The thing is,” Louis begins. “I don’t want to divorce her for the same reason I want her to live. We have a life together now. She’s one of my closest friends. I’m not interested in starting over without her. I wouldn’t know how to if I tried.”

Harry pulls his knees up to his chest and rests his chin against them. “And what does she want?” he asks while the night of Solomon’s birthday party rings out in his head. I want you to be in love with me. “Why a divorce? Why now?”

“She wants to spend whatever time she has left living as genuine a life as possible. That’s what she said. And I don’t have a right to be angry.” Louis’ voice cracks alarmingly. A second passes. “That’s the story. I need a cigarette.”

There aren’t any in his pockets, it turns out. So, Harry goes to Louis’ coat and finds a pack along with his lighter. He returns to the bed and hands them off. “Want one?” Louis asks.

“I’m trying to quit,” Harry says. “New Year, new me.”

“You have my support,” Louis says, just shy of sarcastic.

They grow quiet while Louis smokes for a bit and Harry ponders all that’s been said. It’s well past time for bed, but he knows if he sleeps, he’ll dream about Louis and not a thing else.

“She had the papers for a while, by the way,” Louis says. “Ever since her doctor gave her a five-year prognosis. That’s what she told me. So, it didn’t really have to do with anything you said to her. None of this is your fault.”

Harry still feels guilty, but he decides to keep that to himself. He thinks it goes without saying that he was a catalyst. That Emily wouldn’t have brought the papers out if Harry hadn’t come along.

“I think you should cheer me up now,” Louis decrees at random.

Harry cringes. “I can try. Would you like me to sing you a song?”

“Why not?”

He thought the alcohol had worn off, but if it had, he wouldn’t do this. He clears his throat and sings “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Billie Holiday. Because it’s slow and dreamy and he can drift through it at his leisure. “ I'll find you in the morning sun. And when the night is new… ” He drifts off, leaving the rest unsung. Because he opens his eyes and looks at Louis and shivers at the way Louis looks back.

It’s the first time he notices that Louis’ tie is gone and his dress shirt is partially unbuttoned, revealing a bit of his tattoo. His hair is unkempt and beautiful. Harry wants his fingers to get tangled in it. Louis’ mouth, pink as a bruise, parts around a cloud of smoke. And Harry finally finds it in himself to look away, his skin prickling with heat.

“Not very cheerful when you think of it,” Harry says, desperate to loosen the tension. “But my mum used to sing it to us. Got us right to sleep.”

“When you suggested a song, I didn’t think you could actually sing,” Louis says. “Figured it’d be funny to watch you try.”

“I told you I wanted to be a singer at one point. But I’m no Billie Holiday.”

When Louis laughs, smoke leaves his mouth in bursts. He sits upright, bracing an arm on his knee. “Hey,” he says. Harry lifts his brows. “What’s the status of this crush of yours?”

Harry’s heart does its freefall. He opens his mouth, closes it, does it again. “I think you might still be drunk,” he says.

“Brilliant work as always, Mr Sholmes.”

Harry snickers, his forehead pressed to his knees. When he lifts his head, it’s because Louis has been quiet for too long and Harry glances at him.

Louis looks at him seriously. “Well?”

“We should sleep,” Harry says, setting his feet on the floor. He goes to his own bed. “I’ll drive tomorrow if you’re not feeling up to it.”

“I’ll be fine,” Louis says, lying back. “I’ve been well attended to.”

“Good night,” Harry says, tiredly. He puts his back to Louis and waits impatiently for sleep to come.

“No progress with the crush, then?”

Harry turns over and glares at him. He hates that Louis calls it a crush at all. Crush is reserved for boyhood fantasies about Steve Irwin. Crush is to force inwards by compression. This thing Harry feels combusts. It swells outward and overwhelms. “You're being a dickhead," he says, which seems counterintuitive if he wants to be taken seriously.

“Just looking for a laugh,” Louis says, smiling.

The problem is: Harry likes him this way. Boyish and playful, drowsy eyes, flushed cheeks. He reasons that this is fine so long as Louis is drunk. In the morning, maybe he won’t remember. Even if he does, he won’t mention it. Which makes two of them. Harry turns onto his side, facing Louis. “I told you not to underestimate yourself,” he says.

Louis has one arm hanging off his bed. If Harry reached out, he could take his hand. “So, that’s a no?”

“That's a no,” Harry says. “No progress.”

Chapter Text

After Manchester, it takes a full day of awkwardness before things return to anticlimactic normalcy. Louis removes his wedding ring but Harry pretends not to notice. He thinks even if he asked — whether this meant Louis was giving up on his marriage or not, he wouldn’t get an answer. Whatever stars aligned to make his otherwise taciturn professor so forthcoming are sure to be disordered now. And all of that is fine with Harry. He might even say it’s preferable.

He wakes two mornings later, on the eve of his birthday, with the heat on too high and the entire day is thrown. The drowsiness never leaves him. He struggles to focus in Louis’ class and of course, Louis knows it. A nap in the library goes horribly wrong. He wakes with a start and finds the librarian pairing over him.

“We’re closing up, dear,” she says, which can’t be right. The library closes at six but it isn’t that late, is it? As if she’s read his mind, the librarian points to the clock on the wall. Two minutes to closing.

“Thank you,” Harry says as he scrambles for his books. “Have a good night.”.

It’s a quarter past when he makes it to Louis’ office, out of breath, with cold sweat clinging to him all over.

“You’re late,” Louis says, perched on the corner of his desk like a rare and prized bird.

“I’m sorry,” Harry pants. “I lost track of time at the library.”

Louis stands. He’s wearing a navy suit, brown leather shoes and a crisp white shirt. It seems unlikely that he ever oversleeps, that he ever wrinkles, or that he’s ever anything less than polished. (Harry has seen enough to know that isn’t true, but even so.)

He waits for an admonition or rebuke.

“Don’t be sorry,” Louis says. He steps closer to him. “Are you feeling alright?”

It’s dim in the office with just Louis’ desk light on and he’s two feet away and his voice is soft to accommodate the small, delicate space between them.

There are months remaining for Harry at Oxford. Hardly any time at all between Harry and his Masters, or between Harry and freedom. There can be no more Manchester nights. Nothing even remotely reminiscent.

Harry nods, curtly. “I’m fine,” he says. “Ready to go when you are.”

Louis lingers in front of him. “Right. We should hurry,” he says, stepping past him and into the hallway. “I’ll get the car.”

 

 

Light trapped in champagne glasses. String quartet mid-Tchaikovsky. Hors-d'oeuvres on silver trays. A twinkle of a laugh. A whisper. Thus far, the 23rd Walter Vivaldi Awards lives up to its clout.

Harry blends in easily enough standing next to Louis, but he’s overwhelmed. It might be the poshest event he’s been to, Solomon’s birthday party included. Posh in a subdued way, paradoxical as that might be. There are no eye-popping jewels or glittering dresses, but the room is full of highbrow bon vivants. All of them carefree and loose with indifference that only money can buy.

It’s not the kind of event anyone can simply buy a ticket to. One has to be invited. One has to have published notable works and won awards. On an uncomfortable note, Harry only makes the cut as Louis’ plus one and the only reason he’s Louis’ plus one goes without saying.

He follows Louis like a moppet to their table where Solomon is chatting with a younger man — a rich Clark Kent. Attenuated and vampiric in the way some models are, wearing an almost garish blazer with an embroidered giraffe on the lapel.

Louis leans close to Harry. “That’s the stepson of the editor of Another Magazine,” he says quietly. “Probably here with his stepmother.”

So, not Solomon’s date, then. Thank God. He seemed too young for him. Too young for Harry, even.

“Over there is Eben White,” Louis says. “Award-winning photographer. And his wife, Paulina. She wrote a nice review of my first book.”

“You don’t know everyone here, do you?” Harry asks.

“Just about.” Louis shrugs. “Some people you don’t have to know by name. You can tell who they are just by looking at them. Sometimes journalists have a nosiness about them you can’t miss. And you can’t miss a well-known author either. They won’t let you.”

Harry glances around the room. The circumstances of the crowd don’t reveal themselves as easily to him. They all look the same. Literary WASPs in tailored dress.

“Bet they’re drawing blanks about you.”

Harry looks at Louis. “Me?”

Louis nods. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “You’re not so easy to read. You’ve got the face of a poet, but you seem too nice. Like a tragic beauty without the tragedy.”

Harry stares at him, doe-eyed. He can't think of anything to say in reply. He tries to dislodge the cobwebs in his throat by swallowing. Louis’ gaze flickers to his Adam’s apple. He smiles. “Let me introduce you to some people,” he says, suddenly, and stands.

There’s a moment when Louis places his hand on the small of Harry’s back and presents his name to an old friend and the panic sets in. Harry wonders if he looks like that boy hovering around Solomon. If people could get the wrong idea about his connection to Louis or if he’s paranoid. He’s not to blame for Emily’s absence, but he’s not so innocent either. He’s implicated. Especially with how easily he could lean into this role. How easily he could picture himself as the Paulina to Louis’ Eben. A scholarly duet to rival the rest.

He excuses himself to run the loo and stands in the mirror for a long time until someone comes in. When he returns to the auditorium, he can’t spot Louis at all. He’s not near their table or in the hallway or by the bar. But now that Harry thinks of it, he could use something stronger than champagne.

“Hello,” Harry hears as he takes a long sip of his martini. He doesn’t turn to see who’s said it. He assumes it wasn’t meant for him. Everyone knows everyone, but no one knows him.

“Hello,” the person tries again with a little laugh tacked on to the end.

This time, Harry glances and his eyes meet head-on with the stranger’s. He’s a middle-aged man. Handsome with a silly face. One look at him and Harry knows he’s funny, that he won’t hold it against Harry for being oblivious. Harry apologises anyway.

“I didn’t think you were talking to me,” he swears. “Hi.”

“No, it’s my fault,” the man says. “Everyone knows to leave you alone except me.”

Harry winces. “I’m giving off that vibe, aren’t I?”

“Not really. You look lonely,” he says. “I came to help.”

“The night is saved,” Harry replies, smiling. “I’m Harry.”

“Vince.” They shake hands. Harry has another sip of his martini and uses the chance to survey the room once more. Still no sign of Louis.

“I haven’t seen you at one of these things before,” Vince says. “You get used to the same crowd every time. Your book must have come out last week.”

Harry gasps. “How did you miss my six-hundred-page memoir? The critics haven't stopped raving," he says. Vince laughs. "I'm unpublished, actually. Just here with my professor.”

“You don’t look like a plus one.”

“What does a plus one look like?”

“They don’t have star quality.”

Harry lifts his brows. “I’ve got star quality?”

“And then some,” Vince says. If there was any doubt Harry was being hit on, it’s gone. He’s slightly surprised. He wonders what it is about his person that made the man approach so confidently. But he doesn’t care enough to figure it out. This is just the entertainment he needs to pass the time.

He chats with Vince for a while. He laughs a pleasing degree and learns about the life of an agent, which Vince happens to be. When they part ways, it’s with a promise to find each other after the show and exchange info. Vince wants to hear more about his work.

Happily, Harry returns to his table and finds Louis there already with his arms crossed and his gaze directed towards the stage. Harry doesn’t think to say anything to him.

“You know, the whole point of a plus one is to have company at these things,” Louis comments.

But that’s not why Harry thought he was here, to keep Louis’ company. He’s not sure why he’s here, to be honest. Puzzled, Harry says, “I lost sight of you.”

“You weren’t looking for me,” Louis replies. “You were at the bar.”

Harry studies Louis’ profile because Louis won’t look at him. His heart is pounding and he doesn’t know why. “I met someone. I was just having a chat. That’s also the point to these things, isn’t it? It’s a networking opportunity.”

“I don’t think Vince Burge is interested in networking with you,” Louis says, and then begins clapping, along with the rest of the room. Harry misses his chance to reply as the house lights dim and a woman in a green suit takes the stage. He claps numbly and sits through the ceremony in the same fashion. If and when he allows himself to feel, he’ll feel anger and annoyance and confusion.

When it’s over, it’s back to drinks and conversation. Harry stands with Louis and Solomon, who’s just won an award for best biography. It’s only when Vince appears at his table that Harry remembers their promise to meet. Somehow, he couldn’t be more relieved to see him. “I found you,” Vince says.

Wary of Louis chatting with Solomon, Harry turns away from them, “Hi again.”

“Hi,” Vince says. “I’m heading out for drinks with some friends here. Would you like to come?”

Harry can’t think of a reason not to accept.

“Vince,” Louis says, appearing beside Harry. “Good to see you again.”

“Dr Tomlinson,” Vince says, shaking his hand.

“You’ve met my assistant, Harry."

Vince glances at Harry. “I did.”

“Good, good,” Louis says, pushing his hands into his pockets. “How’s Donna?”

Vince’s pause is only a quarter of a second long and barely detectable. He adheres a rictus grin to his face. “She’s doing alright.”

“Not here tonight?” Louis wonders.

Vince shakes his head. “No, she couldn’t make it, unfortunately.”

“That’s right.” Louis snaps his fingers. “I heard from Emily that you’re expecting. Congrats. This’ll be your second, yeah?”

Vince never looks at Harry again. It’s like he’s no longer there. “Yes, my second,” he says. He clears his throat. “I was sorry to hear about Emily, by the way. How is she?”

“She’s hanging in there,” Louis says. “Nice seeing you again, mate.”

“Of course,” Vince says with a little bow of his head and another smile. “Good night.”

Harry stands tensely beside Louis for several seconds after Vince is gone until he can’t bear it. “I’ll wait for you outside,” he says.

“Sure,” says Louis. “I’ll be right there.”

Harry is silent on the walk to the car and silent as Louis pulls out of the car park and silent on the entire drive home. He doesn’t intend to talk. He worries what might come out if he tries. He needs a full night to get his thoughts in order or at least, to get over himself.

Instead, as they pull to a stop outside of Harry’s flat, it’s Louis who breaks the still. “Did you have a good time?”

Harry curls his hand into a fist against his knee and flexes the fingers outward. “I did,” he says. “Up until that part where you made me look like a complete idiot.”

Louis scoffs. “I was looking out for you.”

“No, you were making a point,” Harry says. “You could’ve told me he was married or whatever when it was just us, but you didn’t.”

“You can call it what you like.”

“I call it arrogance,” Harry says. “Beyond that, I’m confused. If he were single and interested in me, why on earth would you care?”

Louis looks at him, narrow-eyed. “You work for me—”

“I didn’t forget. You’re my boss. Not my friend.”

“What you do could reflect badly on me,” Louis continues. “Especially at an event like that.”

“If it’s professionalism you’re worried about, fine,” Harry says. “Let’s keep it professional. If I’m not doing my job or I’m embarrassing you in some way, tell me like a professional. ‘Cause I can’t do this if it’s personal. It hurts when it’s personal.”

Louis sets his jaw and stares through the windscreen. “Fine. Are we finished?”

Harry doesn’t know if he’s more upset with himself or with Louis. The only reason he's this bothered rests in his feelings for Louis. In a way, that makes him a hypocrite. Maybe Louis knows it too. But none of that stops Harry from exiting the car wordlessly and swinging the door shut with force.

 

 

Gemma and Ramona are mulling over a crossword puzzle when Harry arrives for lunch. “Happy Birthday!” they belt, alerting the entire restaurant to the occasion and scoring Harry an odd applause from an elderly couple.

“You look miserable,” Gemma says after a waiter serves them a round of veggie burgers. “I thought you liked it here.”

Harry isn’t a vegetarian; Gemma is. But lunch is her treat and the veggie burgers at this place, in particular, are quite good.

“I do,” Harry says, lifting his burger and having a bite. Mouth full, he says, “Delicious.”

Gemma gives him a sad smile. “What is it, then?” she asks. “You’re only turning 26. Not 30.”

“I’m looking forward to thirty," Harry counters. "I think I’ll ask fewer questions at thirty. I’ll have a job. Maybe I’ll be published. Maybe I’ll be married. Who knows?”

“Then, what is it?” she presses.

Harry has a draught of his beer. “I'm having trouble with my professor.”

“Louis Tomlinson, you mean? The one you have a crush on?” At Harry’s visible alarm, Gemma says, “Mum told me.”

“It’s not a crush,” Harry says, adamantly. “I do like him, but it’s complicated. I know I shouldn’t. It’s inappropriate and he’s a complete arse sometimes.” He glances at Ramona. "Sorry."

“Mum swears all the time,” Ramona says.

Harry looks at Gemma. “She’s not wrong,” Gemma says.

“Anyway, most of the time, he’s a catch,” Harry says. “And then other times, he’s a nightmare to work with. He’s going through a divorce. His wife is dying. That's not why he's a nightmare, but-”

“Wait. The one at that party?" Gemma's eyes widen. "She looked fine.”

“She has cancer,” Harry says quietly. “I don’t know what kind. I wouldn’t ask. But it’s terminal.”

“Christ,” Gemma whispers. “Harry, it sounds like the kind of situation you want to stay out of. You've worked so hard to make it this far. This could mess everything up.”

Harry stops pretending to eat his burger. He knows. He’s told himself as much. The situation is a mess already. And just when he thinks he’s wrangled it into something manageable, it gets messier.

“Also, I haven’t known anyone to keep your attention like this," Gemma says. "You tend to idolize a person until the instant they disappoint you and then you never mention them to us again. And in the last however many years, there hasn’t been a mention of anyone at all.”

Harry’s whole face wrinkles. He’s not sure he keeps such a record of his own relationships or the lack thereof.

“The fact that you’re hung up on him at all...” Gemma doesn’t finish. The implication is unclear.

He's always been the tyrant of his own heart. It ‘wants what it wants’, but he lives in disregard for whatever that might be. He thought he was better off that way. No one could ever hurt him if he never let them. It makes sense that now, when his heart turns audacious and obstinate, when it fixes on a person, he can’t determine why. Or maybe, as habits go, he just doesn’t want to.

 

 

The Poetical Works of John Keats, First Edition comes in all calf binding with six spine compartments and slight wear on its marbleised edges. It’s in otherwise perfect condition for being 165 years old. Every student — graduate and undergraduate alike — receives a mailbox in the faculty office. And that’s where Harry finds the book later that evening: in his own mailbox, wrapped in brown paper with a small cream-coloured envelope attached.

‘You told me you like Keats, so I found this’, the note reads in Louis’ neat, effortless scrawl. ‘Happy Birthday. Love, Louis.’ 

Harry finds him in his office, of course. With earphones plugging his ears, Louis reclines behind his desk. His eyes are closed and his head is tilted back against his seat. He doesn’t hear the door open or close. Harry also forgot to knock. But somehow, Louis knows to open his eyes.

He tugs an earphone free. “Harry," he says, sitting upright.

“I didn’t get you anything for your birthday,” Harry says, in lieu of ‘hello’. Louis conveniently left the date out of the faculty diary; Harry didn’t find out it was on Christmas Eve until well into the New Year.

“You put up with me,” Louis says. “Seems like enough.”

“True,” Harry replies. He runs his hand over the leather cover. “This must have been really expensive.”

“If you like it, just say thank you. Or don't. Up to you.”

“I love it, obviously,” Harry says. “Thank you, Louis.”

“It’s no problem,” Louis replies. He pulls the other earphone from his ear. “I’m sorry about last night.”

“Sorry for slamming your car door,” Harry says.

“That was very dramatic,” Louis says. “I still think you belong in the film industry.”

“There’s plenty of drama here.” Harry sinks into the seat in front of Louis’ desk and slouches down, cracking the book open in his lap. There's snow on the windowsill and frost on the panes, but the contraband heater hums in the corner. A warm cup of tea on Louis' desk sends a ghostly wisp of steam heavenward. He might like a cup of tea himself. He might like to stay here forever. He feels Louis’ gaze on him. He asks, “Not disturbing you, am I?”

Louis smiles. “Not at all.”

Chapter Text

Somewhere between dreaming and awake, Louis kisses him. It’s more dreaming than it is awake, but it feels as real as can be. The heat of Louis’ body on his own. The weight of him pinning Harry to his mattress. Like a sublime kind of sleep paralysis.

It’s too early. The sky is dark and the street below is silent. The night clings stubbornly to everything. To his bones. To his bedroom, which is overheated and muggy yet again. The part of him that is awake kicks his blankets to the foot of the bed. The part of him still dreaming reaches for Louis. On the dark canvas of his eyelids, where all is possible, Louis is stark and steady. He’s like velvet where he’s soft and stone where he’s muscled. Every part of them touches. Friction between clasped hands, between crushed mouths, between parted legs.

Harry turns over and grinds into his mattress. Later, he’ll reason that he was only trying to get comfortable. But he never stops rocking his erection into his mattress. When he comes, it’s with a shudder and a shocked gasp. A waking gasp. The dream pops and fizzes with white noise and fades to black. And Harry lies in his soiled pants in shame.

Later, when Louis asks what his favourite Keats poem is, all Harry can think about is that morning. Louis’ brows twitch when Harry doesn’t reply straight away.

“Probably Book One,” Harry says. His voice sounds abridged from his person. It sounds like it’s being funnelled into the room through string. Like they’re on the other end of an old school telephone. “From Endymion.”

Louis looks like he’s waiting for elaboration, so Harry gets the book Louis gave him out of his tote bag. He hasn’t stopped carrying it around, heavy as it is.

“It’s the one that starts, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever,’” Harry says, although he assumes Louis knows that. “There’s this really nice bit. In the second stanza.”

“Read it to me,” Louis says, folding his arms together on top of his desk.

Harry lifts the book a bit closer to his face and clears his throat:

“…So does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast,
That, whether there be shine, or gloom o'ercast;
They always must be with us, or we die.”

Shutting the book, he says, “It sort of just expands on the first line of the poem. Beauty, whatever it looks like to you, lives with us forever. It never leaves. Otherwise, without it, you die.”

“You think that’s a metaphoric death or physical?” Louis asks.

“Both,” Harry says. “Keats was always afraid he’d die young.” He recalls ‘When I Have Fears’ and Louis nods in agreement. “But he was noble. I think noble people are always concerned with spiritual and metaphorical death. Death of the soul.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to teach?” Louis asks. “I think you’d be great at it.”

“Really?”

“I’m learning right now,” Louis says. “Please go on, Professor Styles.”

Harry puts on a stern face. “That’s Dr Styles.”

“Right, of course,” Louis says, smiling. There’s a knock at his office door. “Think that’s Michael.”

Harry stands and collects his things.

“Oh, Harry,” Louis calls. “Do you mind staying late tonight? I need help with some research.”

“‘Course not,” Harry says. He opens the door to allow Louis’ student inside. “See you in a bit.”

 

 

Instrumental blues sifts through the speakers by the window. Fleetwood Mac ends; B.B. King begins. Harry doesn’t know it’s B.B. King. Louis tells him. He also says that he can’t listen to music with lyrics while he works because it distracts him. Harry doesn’t have the same problem, although sometimes he puts on a bit of classical while he writes—

“Alright,” Louis says, tossing his pen down. “I need food.”

Harry removes the gnawed end of his pencil from his mouth. “The place we ordered sushi from last time was good.”

Louis gives it thought, then pushes his chair backwards and away from his desk. “There’s a sushi place down the street,” Louis says. “We’ll just go there.”

Harry watches him stand and grab his coat off the back of his chair. “I’m not having dinner by myself, Harry,” Louis says.

Eagerly, Harry shuts his laptop and snatches his coat up too. Countless times now, Louis has paid for his dinner as a formality, but always via delivery. Never the two of them at a small table, perusing menus and discussing options like they have all the time in the world. The restaurant is small and fully occupied. Soft koto music plays overhead to the rhythmic trickle of an unseen fountain. He and Louis decide on an assortment of sushi to share. So much sushi they’ll be sluggish afterwards and unlikely to get any further work done. He looks at Louis, still in his black coat with the collar turned up.

“Saw Zayn yesterday,” Louis says, removing his glasses now that the menus are gone. “I think he was high out of his mind. I doubt he even knew what we were talking about.”

Harry snorts. “I’m too familiar.”

“He told me once that he has to be high to write,” Louis says. “I respect it. Everyone has a process.”

“Not me. There’s no siren call to get the words flowing. They just come when they want to. Or don’t. It’s mostly the latter.”

“You need discipline,” Louis says.

Harry receives that more erotically than was likely intended. “Maybe I do,” he says. “What’s your process?”

“I like to be in a comfortable room with at least one person,” Louis says. “Someone who’s just there. Doing their own thing.”

“What happens if there’s no one there?”

“Sometimes nothing. Sometimes I distract myself. I start thinking about shit besides the writing.”

“So, when you rang me over to decorate your Christmas tree… ?” Harry muses

“That was me being desperate,” Louis says. “I was already distracted. But your company helped a bit, yeah.”

“Good. Maybe you should try weed next time.”

“I’ve tried it enough,” Louis says. “More than Zayn, even. Years ago.”

“Why not anymore?”

“Cause’ I’ve got too much to do. And if I smoke, I feel like lying around, doing nothing.”

“I think it’s nice to do nothing sometimes.”

Louis makes a face. “You would.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re young, carefree…”

“I’m also very driven, very goal-oriented, and ambitious,” Harry protests.

“Yeah, yeah. That too.”

Harry smiles, deviantly. “Would you smoke with me?” he asks.

Louis arches both brows. “That’d be inappropriate.” But not the most inappropriate thing Harry’s imagined them doing together. “Maybe after you graduate.”

“That’ll do,” Harry says.

The food arrives, a colourful assortment on varied plates. Some on wooden boards, some on clear glass plates and some on earthenware clay. Sushi and sashimi. Salmon, eel, yellowtail and tuna. There’s a roll shaped like a dragon and another that Harry thinks might be a monkey. The dishes keep coming; He and Louis exchange a glance, the realization setting in simultaneously that they might have bitten off more than they can literally chew.

When the waiters finally stop coming, Louis laughs and lifts his chopsticks. “Here we go.”

“Itadakimasu,” Harry says, deadpan, and earns another treasured laugh from Louis.

“You like sake?” Louis asks.

“I do.”

So, Louis orders them a jug of sake and two bottles of Sapporo. “I’ve been meaning to ask,” he begins. “Have you thought more about what you’ll do after you graduate?”

“I have, actually,” Harry says. “I was going to ask you for a letter of recommendation.”

“What for?” Louis asks, pouring a bit more soy sauce into his dish.

“A fellowship,” Harry says, setting his chopsticks down. “In New York.”

Louis looks at him, wordless.

“Is that a problem?” Harry asks.

Louis dishes out some wasabi and ginger on his roll, nonchalant as ever. “I assumed you’d stay here in Oxford after graduation,” he says. “I helped Zayn find a job here. It’d be easy for me to get you one too.”

He pops the roll into his mouth.

“I appreciate that,” Harry says. “And I might have to take you up on it. But—”

“Why New York?” Louis asks.

“I’ve never been and I’ve always been curious about it. The programme is hosted by NYU and it’s got an environmental studies component that seems fun. I’d have to teach, but only a little… It pays well, too.”

Louis doesn’t say anything for a moment. Harry can’t imagine him saying no, but maybe he underestimated him. He doesn’t have a legitimate reason to object. Not one that Harry can think of. Harry makes a duck face while he waits and then blows a bit of air through his lips. Louis gives him a look.

“Sure. No problem,” he says, finally. “Send me all the details and I’ll have it to you by the end of the week.”

Harry releases a tense breath. “Thank you.”

“It’s what I’m here for,” Louis says without sarcasm.

Harry returns to his meal.

“It would suit you, you know? New York,” Louis says. “You remind me of it.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“It is,” Louis says.

Walking back to campus, the streets possess an astral grace. The air feels pregnant and precipitous. Any second, its seams could burst and out would pour rain and peace and pleasure like gifts from Freyr. Nights like this are when he gets his best writing done, when he is hopeful for no discernable reason. Nights before a storm. Nights stuffed with good food and good company. He is happy to be alive and no one in that moment could make him feel otherwise.

Beside him Louis is moony, hands hidden in his pockets, walking with a sort of lean that Harry likes. He’s lovely and lissome. Otherworldly as always — the unlikely beau in a Victorian romance — but somehow, tonight, he doesn’t seem so far out of reach. Like if Harry touched him, it wouldn’t hurt and Louis wouldn’t turn to smoke.

Louis pauses at the steps of St Edmund’s Hall and sighs heavily. “I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’m getting any more work done tonight,” he says.

“Was hoping you’d say that,” Harry replies. “Should I just head home, then?”

Louis looks up at the window of his office, his eyes narrowed as he thinks. “Might have another drink up there. I can pour you one too if you’re interested.”

At first, Harry thinks he shouldn’t. It’s late. There’s no one but them around. And he’s got a buzz already. But then Louis looks at him and all Harry can say is “Alright.”

“Alright,” Louis echoes. He starts inside. Harry follows him.

Harry tugs his coat off once they’re holed away in Louis’ office. Louis cranks the heater, tosses his own coat over the back of his chair, and then opens the bottom drawer of his desk. He pulls out a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. Harry sinks into the seat opposite him.

“Probably shouldn’t stay late here willingly,” Louis says. “When term papers and dissertations start rolling in, I won’t have a choice then.”

Harry accepts the glass Louis hands off to him. “For me, it’s nice. There’s so much I miss when I’m rushing to a class or finishing something for you or rushing home. It’s nice to stop and take it all in because I want to.”

“You’re such a romantic,” Louis says, shaking his head.

“Great era for literature,” Harry replies, nestling further into his seat. The whiskey is cool but it makes him feel warm. He leans his head back, letting his hair hang and sway loosely.

“You’ve started your dissertation, haven’t you?” Louis asks.

Harry sighs, still staring at the ceiling. “I have, but I don’t want to talk about it yet.”

“That’s fine with me.”

“I read a bit of it, though,” Harry says. “I went to another open mic night with Zayn. The first was before I came over to decorate your tree, but I didn’t read that time.”

“And did they like it?”

Harry lifts his head so he can take another generous sip of his whiskey. “I think so, actually. What was your dissertation on?”

“Sex,” Louis says plainly.

Harry’s brows arch. “I’m interested.”

“It was about sexual repression in literature. I argued that the solution to some of the most notorious problems was for the characters or the author or the narrator to just fuck whoever it was they obviously wanted to fuck.”

Harry laughs, peeling his eyes away from Louis’ mouth, which he finds especially appealing when he says the word ‘fuck’.

“It was more eloquent than that, obviously,” Louis says. “I had tons of examples. I had some medical stuff in there. Some interviews. Was really long-winded and a complete pain in the arse by the end, but that was it.”

“Sounds brilliant,” Harry says, earnestly. “I’m going to find it online.”

Louis groans. “Please don’t.”

“Did you account for the problems that could arise afterwards?” Harry wonders. “As repressed and as troubled as they are, sometimes a person realises that the consequences could be detrimental. The sex might not pay off in the end.”

Louis’ gaze stalls on him, then he drains his glass. “I didn’t include it in the thesis, but I thought of it, yeah.”  He reaches for the bottle. “Another?”

“Sure,” Harry says.

“Have you made some friends here yet?” Louis asks, once their glasses are refilled. “The first time we had a drink, you said you didn’t have any.”

“Not really. There’s a boy who works at the cafe who I chat with a lot,” Harry says. “But I don’t think he wants to be just friends.”

“What's wrong with that? You should date,” Louis says, peering into his glass like he expects to see mermaids swanning inside.

Harry feels a bit light-headed, but not necessarily in a bad way. He feels buoyant like he could tap his heels together and float up towards Louis’ ceiling. “I don’t have time to date.”

“Didn’t I tell you? You should never be too busy for other people.”

“But I am,” Harry says. “I’d like to have more time to give to another person before I consider dating. I think that’s fair.”

“What if you never find the time?”

Harry shrugs. “Then I never find the person.”

“You don’t want to end up like me,” Louis says. “Alone at 34.”

Harry leans forward in his seat. “I thought you were older.”

“Do I look older?” Louis asks, aghast.

“No. But you and Dr Lee are close and he’s much older.”

“I was 15 when I met Sol. He was my teacher. Back then, he was married with kids.” At Harry’s surprise, Louis says, “He has an ex-wife and two daughters in Finland. Never sees them. Wasn’t cut out for a family. I admire him for a lot of things but not for that.”

“You’re still young,” Harry comments. “You don’t have to be alone.”

“That’s optimistic,” Louis says. “I think the way I’ve lived my life has ruined me for anyone else.”

“I disagree. Someone will be lucky to have you," Harry says and sets his glass on Louis’ desk because he thinks he should slow down. Louis mistakes it as a request for more and refills the glass. Harry might just die.

“How old did you think I was?” Louis asks.

Harry puts his feet up in the empty chair beside him. He doesn’t think about whether it’s rude. He doesn’t particularly care. “I don’t know 45 maybe?”

“That’s interesting,” Louis says. And now, he props his feet up on his desk. He’s not wearing shoes. Harry, for some reasons, toes his off as well. “Considering your crush,” Louis adds.

“It’s not a crush,” Harry says. It feels good to say that finally.

“What do you call it then?”

“It doesn’t need a name.”

Louis throws the rest of his whiskey back and then reaches into his desk, gets a cigarette and lights up. Harry turns onto his side in the armchair. The whole arrangement is surprisingly comfortable. He wouldn’t have to try hard at all to fall asleep.

“Do you tend to go after older men?” Louis asks between one drag and the next.

Harry blinks lazily. “Not really. I just go after people I like.”

“No women, though?”

“No,” Harry says immediately. “Last time I was with a girl was year 6 or 7.” He sips the whiskey in spite of the fact the room has begun very slowly to turn. Not in a sickening way. Hypnotic, more like. “What about you? What’s your type? Younger, maybe?”

“I was young, back when I was looking. Any younger would have been illegal,” Louis says. “I don’t know that I have a type. Beyond someone who likes a laugh. Someone who’s honest.”

“Sounds promising. Blond or brunette?”

“I like brunettes.”

“Tall?”

“Tall is good.”

“Dimples?” Harry asks, smiling.

Louis laughs. “Dimples would do. Yours are ridiculous.”

“Ridiculous how?”

“I don’t think you need them. Seems like overkill.”

Harry’s face wrinkles. “I don’t understand.”

“You’re attractive enough,” Louis says.

Harry stares at him. He swirls the whiskey in his glass, then stops when it makes him dizzy. “You think I’m attractive or you’re attracted to me? There’s a difference.”

“Not to me.”

Harry grins stupidly. He thinks he knew already — or at least he hoped — that Louis was attracted to him. It makes him giddy, even if it’ll never amount to a thing. He tousles his hair, just for something to do with his hands, then finishes off the whiskey. “I’ll keep an eye out for eligible suitors that match your description.”

“Well, I’ve got one already,” Louis says. “Not totally hopeless.”

He wonders if Louis is flirting with him or if he’s just being candid. Or if candidness is how Louis flirts? He wants to play along, though, whatever the case. “Sure,” he says. “In ten years, you can hit me up. See if I’m still available.”

Louis’ lips twitch. “I’ll pencil that in.” He glances into his glass. “Probably not a good idea but I might have one more.”

“How are you going to get home?”

“I’ll call a car,” Louis says, pouring another glass. “One for you too.”

“I can call my own car,” Harry protests. “You just paid for dinner.”

“Like any suitor would.”

Definitely flirting, Harry decides. He draws a little breath. “I don’t think that’s how it works. We can’t both be suitors to each other. One person has to do the wooing. And it should be me.”

“Fine,” Louis says. “I want to know how you’d do it. What are your usual plans for seduction?”

Harry watches the smoke leave Louis’ mouth. “I just stand there and look pretty.”

Louis’ laugh makes Harry laugh. The way it transforms his whole face makes the room feel even lighter. He absolutely could fly if he wanted to. Or sleep. He has a slew of appealing options. Suddenly, he sits upright and stands, teetering some. He heads to the window. “It’s snowing,” he reports. “Fucking hell.”

Louis takes his feet down from atop his desk and turns in his seat so he can see as well. “I still expect you here tomorrow.”

“You’re merciless,” Harry says. Without thinking, he sits on the corner of Louis’ desk. It’s the closest seat available and he feels like he shouldn’t be standing. Still absent of thought, he gestures to the cigarette between Louis’ fingers. “Do you mind…?”

Louis hands it off.

He forgets that he’s quit smoking or that sharing a cigarette is an intimate gesture until afterwards when he looks and finds Louis looking intently at him. Harry blows his smoke away from them both. “I should really get home,” he says. He holds the cigarette out for Louis to take and rights himself.

Louis accepts the cigarette with one hand and takes Harry’s wrist with the other. Harry looks at their hands together. He’s confused, but not for long. “Did it work?” he asks. “Me just standing here looking pretty.”

Louis smiles. There’s something characteristically young about his face. A looseness and insouciance that’s both alluring and saddening. He deserves to look that happy always. Harry would care to make him that happy.

Louis gives his wrist a tug and Harry steps closer.

It might appear as though they’re once again at the intersection of no return and no regret. But Harry isn’t so delusional. There’s no coming back from the way Louis looks at him or how tender and tenuous his touch is. There’s no undoing the path of Harry’s hand, which lands on Louis’ shoulder and travels to the base of Louis’ neck. His head slightly tilted as if he’s examining an art piece, he runs his thumb over Louis’ Adam’s apple. Then he pauses, cupping Louis’ jaw.

There’s no return from it, as Louis turns his head and presses a kiss into Harry’s palm.

Hardly anything of consequence and yet, Harry thinks his heart might stop or his lungs might collapse. He can’t control how he’s breathing. His lungs are heavy. Every inhale is laboured and every exhale seems to drag his chest downward. He’s so tense, it hurts. The only relief is in Louis. Is in having him. He’s never wanted anything more.

Contrary to that morning, Harry isn’t dreaming at all when he leans in and kisses Louis on the month. But it feels like he is. The first press of lips is firm, but afterwards, slow and tentative and trance-like. The room is spinning, so Harry lets his eyes close and parts his lips. Louis’ breath on his tongue. Whiskey and tobacco. He’ll never forget the taste of him.

“Sorry,” Harry says, right away, drawing back and bumping into the corner of Louis’ desk. It lasts only seconds, but he feels like he’s waking from a season-long slumber. If Louis says anything, Harry doesn’t remember. Neither does he look at him as he collects his things and shoves his feet into his shoes. He gets his coat on over one arm while tugging Louis’ office door open. He neglects to say ‘goodbye’ but it’s not the most egregious thing he’s done that night.

Chapter Text

The snow, unlike other things, is inconsequential. A short but heavy rain washes most of it away and by morning, Harry feels it’s safe enough to ride his bike to campus. He stalls in the cafe for a long time, chatting with Etienne, the barista, who most likely fancies him. (In an ideal world, Harry, being a nice boy himself, falls for another nice boy and they live a calm and comfortable life together in the country.)

He stalls for so long Louis’ coffee grows cold and he has to order another one.

Marie is in a terrible mood and though Harry has become adept at avoiding her, he takes a moment to talk her off whatever ledge she’s on that morning. When there are no pressing or reasonable tasks to delay him further, and Marie’s love life proves completely hopeless, Harry wanders to Louis’ office. One deep breath later, he knocks and opens the door.

Louis is sat with his arms crossed over his chest, his sleeves pushed up to his elbows, revealing the tattoo on his forearm that Harry has never been able to get a good, steady look at. Not even when Louis was drunk and passed out in his home office because he was too distracted then. It boggles Harry's mind now that he ever thought he could maintain a professional relationship with him. Considering that every encounter since that day has been increasingly unprofessional.

“Breaking your own record for tardiness,” Louis says.

“I’m hardly ever tardy,” Harry replies.

“Point still stands.” Louis looks at the coffee in Harry’s hand, expectantly. Harry steps towards the desk and sets it down.

“Are you going to sit?” Louis asks.

Harry sits. Louis takes several loud but wordless sips of his coffee while squinting at his computer. Harry suspects that Louis likes to make people wait on him. His assistants and his students, at least. He would never make Emily wait on him, Harry thinks, not even when she was healthy. It’s an intrusive and annoying thought, and so similar to ones Harry has had in the dark of his room, the only place he really allows himself to be jealous or cruel.

Harry sighs out loud, but he doesn’t mean to.

“Do you need to leave?” Louis asks, without looking at him.

“No,” Harry says.

Louis sets the coffee down. “I meant to mention this to you yesterday, but Solomon hosts a writer’s retreat every year. It’s in Barbados next weekend. Dr Connelly was supposed to go but she’s pregnant.”

“Dr Connelly?” Harry repeats, brows arched. “She’s in her sixties, isn’t she?”

“Forties, but I hear she’s just as shocked as everyone else. Anyway, Solomon needs me to go now. It’s only for four days. And I could use the time away.”

“I can keep track of things here,” Harry says. “Do you need me to sort out a flight?”

Louis shoves his glasses on. “You’re coming too.”

Harry assumes he’s misheard him, but when he twists the words and sounds around in his head, nothing else makes sense. “I can’t afford to go to Barbados,” he says, incredulously. “At all.”

“Don’t worry about it. Solomon has more money than he can spend,” Louis says. “And what he doesn’t have, I do. His sister’s husband owns a resort there, so lodging is covered too.”

Harry doesn’t know what to say. He’s sure he should refuse but can’t think of an appropriate reason to. “Sorry, could I ask why I’m going?”

“You’re my assistant. I’ll need you there.”

“But Marie isn’t going with Dr Lee?” Harry asks. He’s sure that if she were, she would have taken unbounded pleasure in telling him so. Repeatedly.

“No,” Louis confirms. “It’ll be good for you to go. Good for your writing.”

It would. His mother’s second marriage was held in Saint Tropez four summers ago. He remembers writing on the balcony of a charming seaside cottage. Writing euphorically. The words never stopped and his hands never tired. He can’t think of any sane person who would turn down a free trip to the Caribbean, writer or otherwise. He also gets the feeling he doesn’t have a choice.

“We’ll leave Friday. You’ll need to meet me at Heathrow.” Louis starts typing. Harry stares at him blankly until Louis stops and looks at him again. “You don’t have to come if you absolutely don’t want to.”

“No, it’s fine,” Harry says.

“Then what’s the problem?”

Harry gives him a look. “Last night—”

“If you don’t apologize, neither will I,” Louis says before Harry can continue. “We were drunk, yeah? All’s well.”

Harry curls his fingers over the top of his journal in his lap. “I didn’t kiss you because I was drunk,” he says. “I don’t really think that’s why you kissed me back.”

“Well, now I’m curious.”

“I think it was inevitable,” Harry says. “I think this is what I worried would happen in the first place.”

“You’re very confident.”

“I’m just honest. You should be too. I think you wanted it to happen, drunk or not.”

Louis tugs the glasses off and slouches in his seat. He looks as young as he had last night, except it’s frustrating now. Like he’s an adolescent who can’t be bothered. “That doesn’t matter, does it? It wouldn’t have happened if either of us was sober. That’s the point. And it can’t happen again.”

“There’s a simple way to see that it doesn’t. We can go with Plan A. You or I can talk to Dr Barchard.”

“Why are you so intent on me firing you?”

“Why are you so intent on keeping me around?”

“I like working with you,” Louis clarifies. “You get the job done. You’re smart. You’re helpful. I’m in the middle of writing a book and I need your help specifically. I don’t see why the other stuff should stop us from getting things done.”

The other stuff. For a man so eloquent, Louis dances around the topic of mutual attraction crudely and simplistically. Harry scrubs his eyelids with his palms. “Fine,” he says. He planned to apologize, but he doesn’t feel sorry anymore. “Am I free to go?”

Louis waves toward the door as if to say, “Feel free.” He tucks his glasses on once again and returns to his work. “I’ll let you know if I need anything.”

 

 

Their love of routine is the only point on which they agree unequivocally. It’s an unspoken agreement, but undeniable with how easily they go on as if nothing happened. Harry thinks it might even be similarly motivated. By a devotion to self-preservation. Finding a routine that works and adhering to it can spare a person of failure, of hurt, of embarrassment. For Louis and him, sweeping their faux pas into a corner is the best thing they could do for their own selves.

Anything else seems melodramatic. Talking to the head of the department against Louis’ wishes is betrayal. Quitting without talking to anyone at all is career suicide. Dropping out of Oxford entirely and starting an excursion across the world might see Harry poor, emaciated and directionless in less than a year.

He’s thought of it all.

And this — pretending that the touch of Louis’ mouth doesn’t linger still — is his best option.

 

 

Louis upgrades his seat to first class and offers to do the same for Harry and Harry promptly but politely declines. There are seven other students along and Harry prefers to sit with them. It’s less suspicious. There are no grounds for suspicion to begin with, but Harry is wracked with paranoia. The time passes more quickly when he’s sat next to Angelica, Solomon’s beloved flautist, who watches episodes of “The X Files” and doesn’t attempt to talk to him more than once.

Harry is free to sleep unbothered for half of the trip and read for the other. He never sees Louis and if the next three days play out this way, he’ll do fine. Or more than fine, considering their destination. When they land, he’s met with a misty warmth that surrounds and caresses him and the smell of brine so fresh, he wants to plunge into the ocean that instant. Already he feels the dull thoughts in his head sharpening to a point and the stress sloughing off of him like dead skin.

It isn’t a huge surprise but the students Solomon has brought with him come from money. Ritu Boone is the daughter of a Bollywood actress and the proprietor of a famous restaurant chain. Harry learns that from David while standing in the queue at customs. David is more secretive about his own family, but his wealth is evident in the way he talks. About parties at The Dorchester and weekends in Monaco. It’s like a different language. David, like Ritu and Angelica, has been on Solomon’s retreat before. They’re favourites. But it also seems like picking up at random and flying across the globe is a common occurrence for all of them.

Solomon has just secured a van to take them all to the resort when Louis reappears with duty-free bottles of Johnny Walker Blue and Hennessy White all packaged up and ready for consumption. Harry wants to make a joke about his priorities being in order, but he shouldn’t be making jokes with him at all.

He climbs into the van and tucks himself into the back seat where David immediately reanimates their conversation about canoeing. He thinks Louis looks at him when he gets inside a minute later. But they’re separated by two rows of seats and everyone starts piling in, blocking his view, and then they’re off. Past clusters of palm trees and low hills of tall grass. It’s a small island but it seems vast. From the motorway, the ocean is barely visible. Just a hint of blue underlining the horizon. It’s hard to believe that elsewhere, back in Oxford or in New York, it’s winter and the nights are short and the days are miserable. Here, it’s always summer.

The resort is like a stately triptych. Three separate soaring estates with black shutters and stone pillars. Three separate faces that surround a circular stone drive with a fountain in the centre. A marble pineapple with frothy water shooting from its swordlike leaves. Outside it smells of barbecue, but inside there are candles burning at the receptionist desk or beside the water carafe on a glass console table. The scent is of coconut and vanilla.

Harry shoves his glasses into his hair while Solomon sets about flirting with the receptionist and checking them in. He saw Louis last by the van, making a call. He’s trying not to keep tabs on him, though. That’s never been a facet of his job. But infatuation, or whatever this is, has a mind of its own.

He must get too distracted, thinking or staring at the ocean through the open doorway on the other side of the lobby. All of a sudden Louis is beside him, handing a small envelope over. “It’s your room key,” he says. “You’re on the same floor as me.”

Of course, he is. “Thank you,” Harry says.

“I need to pick up a rental car and sort out this permit situation,” Louis says, righting the strap of his holdall. “Why don’t you get settled and we’ll head back out.”

Harry glances at the others who are starting to trickle off down the hallway to the lift.

“Do you need me to help you?” Harry asks Louis.

“No. Should only take a second,” Louis says. Understanding dawns visibly. “You don’t want to come along?”

“If you’ve got it sorted…” Harry shrugs. “I might just stay here.”

Louis looks at him, narrow-eyed. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing.”

“You were acting odd before the flight, but I figured it was just too early for you.”

That’s mildly condescending, but Harry decides to run with it. “I’m fine. Still tired, though, so. Might just rest before dinner.”

Louis continues to eye him with suspicion. After a little shrug of his brows, he turns away. “Suit yourself,” he says. “Enjoy your nap.”

 

 

Breakfast the following morning is served on the balcony overlooking the water and Harry is the last to arrive.

The others are seated and dressed up like someone might be filming this. But maybe rich young people look this way all the time. If Harry ever landed himself in a lifetime pot of money, he thinks he would still default to baggy jeans and worn T-shirts and on occasion, a sensible but stylish shoe.

Presently, his hair, which has begun to react to the humidity — curls constricting and revolting against him — is in an untidy bun. He’s wearing an old pair of denim shorts and a button-up that his dad used to wear while golfing. He didn’t come here to impress anyone, he reminds himself. He came to be useful and make headway on his infernal thesis. But when he spots Louis perusing his iPad at one end of the table, that brief spark of self-consciousness flares up.

There’s an empty seat beside him which Harry doesn’t take. He sits next to Ritu instead. He likes her. He likes the way she pronounces his name and laughs at her own jokes, which then makes him laugh. And he needs a friend if he’s going to survive the whole trip. Someone to keep him company when he can’t be alone. Being alone is preferable and there’ll be plenty of time for that. But when there isn’t, there’s Louis.

The time passes quickly once everyone starts chatting. They pass dishes around, a mixture of Western and Caribbean breakfast cuisine. Black pudding and bangers. Scrambled eggs. Codfish sauteed with something called ackee. Breadfruit. Buttered toast. Good food fills the stomach and the heart. And by the time it’s all over, Harry is stuffed and his troubles are momentarily forgotten.

 

 

Under the eave of a local open-air bar, Louis finds him. Three of the students are inside, asking about the safest spots to swim where there’s no danger of rockfish — the name for any species of fish which hides amongst the stones on the seafloor and can be deadly if stepped on. It’s unclear where Louis appears from, but the resort is only a minute away along the shore.

“Was just out for a walk,” Louis says. There are freckles forming on his face and his collarbones already. The sun has touched the bridge of his nose and his chest in a soft and promising way. “Do you want to come?”

“I think I might be going for a swim,” Harry says. “David and the others are asking about rockfish.”

Louis looks out at the water. “They’re probably safe. I think the odds of them stepping on one are slim.”

“I’ll let them know you think so,” Harry says.

Louis looks at him. “We need to talk.”

“Can it wait?”

“No, it can’t,” Louis says. “But I know you’ve got a busy schedule, so I’ll keep it brief.”

When he turns away, Harry releases the breath he was holding. He follows Louis back down the shore to the resort. They pause near the back gate which is locked. On the other side, he can hear kids playing in the pool. They stand in the shade of palm trees, away from the road, gravel beneath their feet. A tiny lizard darts across the pavement a few feet away.

“You can’t avoid me the whole trip,” Louis begins. “You’re still my assistant. That’s why I wanted you to come.”

To be called out so directly leaves Harry embarrassed and fumbling for a reply. “I’m not avoiding you,” he says stupidly.

“No?”

“If there’s something you need me to do, here I am.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” Louis says. “You've got something you need to get off your chest, so now's the time to do it.”

Harry considers diplomacy, except he’s tried that before and he doesn’t think Louis responds well to it. Harry isn't a Biblical man, but do unto others as you’d have them do unto you is a gold standard. And Louis requires double the investment for half of the return. If Harry wants honesty, he has to be brutally, unwaveringly honest.

“Talking to you,” he says, “is a bit like talking to a brick wall.”

Louis’ brows shoot upwards. “Wow.”

“I’ve tried, but I think you’re more interested in dodging the problem. And I can’t do that.”

“Says the one avoiding me?”

“I’m not— If I’m avoiding you, it’s because I feel like I don’t have a choice. Like this is the best option for me. I’m here if you need my help, but beyond that, I think I should keep my general distance.”

“Alright, Harry, look,” Louis starts. “Maybe I didn’t handle what happened as best as I could’ve—”

“When we kissed, you mean?”

“Yes,” Louis says, dryly. “But I’m not ignoring anything. I’m trying to put it behind us. So, we can go on as we have been. It happened. We can’t take it back now.”

“But we can’t ignore why it happened.”

Louis squints at him. “I don’t know what you’re getting at.”

“Of course you don’t,” Harry says. “You can’t be bothered to. I think this is all entertaining for you and that’s it.”

“You couldn’t be more wrong.”

“Right. Well, I wouldn’t have a clue what you actually feel,” Harry says. “But it’s definitely not anything like what I feel because I don’t think you’d keep working with me if that were the case.”

Louis does a full eye roll. “If I fired you, would that make you happy?”

Harry has to laugh. “No, Louis, that wouldn’t make me happy.”

“Then, what would? What do you want me to say?” Louis asks, irately. He shrugs. “That I like you? That I think about you all the time? Would that do it?”

Harry draws a breath that sort of hurts. “Do you?”

Louis looks away with a frustrated shake of his head. “You’ve been working with me for long enough now. There are some things I shouldn’t have to say. When I need coffee. Or when I think a source you found is shit. I make that obvious, don’t I?” He speaks so quickly, like a subconscious attempt to obscure and protect what he’s saying. “Have I not made it obvious how I feel about you?”

Harry would argue that no, it hasn’t been all that obvious. And that Louis only masquerades under the guise of candour. And that he isn’t as honest as he pretends to be. But all of that is secondary to this: If Louis’ heart were a night-blooming flower, it’s midnight in that moment and Harry understands him clearly.

All the tension seeps from his shoulders. “I just needed you to say it.”

Why?

“I think it’s the only way we can do this,” Harry tries to explain. “The only way I can be around you or continue working with you. We have to just put it all out in the open and then we can move forward, I think.”

“Fine,” Louis says. “There you have it.”

They stand awkwardly in front of each other, gazes averted.

“Are we good then?” Louis asks.

Harry nods. “Yes.”

“Good,” Louis says. He lingers a second longer, glancing at him, looking as though he has more to say. “See you at dinner.”

 

 

Fairy lights fringe the deck where they gather that evening. Firelit lanterns are posted at every turn. Small international flags hang in banners across the awnings and someone is playing the steel drum in a corner of the room. It’s a romantic night, but the morning was the same. Since he arrived here, he’s been wanting to write poetry. About the people and the culture and the heat and even the uncomfortable grit of sand between his toes. About Louis, who sits at the opposite end of the table, wearing an airy long-sleeved cream-coloured shirt, and looks exactly the way holiday temptation would.

Everyone is tipsy on beer or rum punch and the waiter is bringing around dessert when Dr Lee poses a question to the table. “Do you think a writer needs to live an experience in order to write authentically?”

David immediately starts pontificating. In the end, Harry thinks his answer is yes. One-by-one, Dr Lee presses his students for an answer. When he’s run out, Louis asks, “Harry?”

Harry returns the skewer of pineapple and maraschino cherry to his glass, mid-bite. “I think it depends on the experience. If you’re writing from the point of view of someone who dies, that's not an experience you can share,” he says. “But, love? I think the best writing is by people who’ve felt it before.”

“And lost it, even,” Solomon adds. “Nicely said, Harry.”

“Dr Lee, we’re going for a swim,” Angelica announces, as she and Ritu stand.

“A swim sounds great,” Solomon says. “Feel free.”

The students thank him for dinner and then hurry down the steps from the restaurant that lead directly to the beach. Harry watches them head down the shore, screaming and laughing and disappearing in the cover of night.

When Harry turns around, Solomon is gone.

“Said he had to ring someone,” Louis says with a shrug. He scratches his signature across the restaurant bill and tucks a tip away inside. “Don’t want to join them?”

Harry shakes his head. “I’m good.”

Louis leans into the table, his elbows propped up. “Want to take a walk then?”

“Yeah, I’d like that,” Harry says. He gathers his beach bag. He and Louis thank the wait staff before starting onto the beach. It’s undeniably tense between them, but Harry expected it to be worse. This is manageable. When they get back to the beach across from the resort, they decide to plop down there in the sand. There's music playing at the little bar nearby and it filters through the air with a fuzzy, drugged quality like the soundtrack to a dream.

“Open water at night is a bit terrifying,” Harry explains. “It’s why I don’t want to swim.”

“You won’t get attacked by a shark," Louis says.

“You can’t promise that,” Harry says. “And it’s not sharks I’m worried about. It’s everything else we don’t know about or can’t imagine.”

“You’ve read too much Steven King.”

“I have not.” Hardly any, in fact.

“I’ll go in with you,” Louis says. “I haven’t had a swim all day.”

Harry can't really pass that up, can he? “Maybe for one minute,” he says, holding up his index finger.

“That’s pointless,” Louis says, standing. He tugs his shirt off and drops it on the sand. “If you beat me to the water, you’ll never have to get me coffee again.”

And then he takes off, running. Harry scrambles to his feet, yanking his shirt off along the way. Obviously, Louis reaches the water first, which is why he said it. But he’s laughing victoriously by the time Harry plunges into the chill, dark void of the ocean. And Harry isn’t thinking of the obscurity of the water, but of Louis’ peal of laughter.

“That wasn’t fair,” Harry says.

Louis paddles backwards. “No, it wasn’t.”

“I don’t actually mind getting your coffee,” Harry says. “On days when you’re especially cranky, it’s like the one thing I can always get right. I’ve got it down to a science now.”

“Jesus. You make me sound like an arsehole.”

“I thought we agreed you are,” Harry says, grinning.

“Ha ha ha.”

Harry shuts his eyes and floats for a moment on his back. It’s the same water any time of day, he realises. The darkness doesn’t change how weightless it makes him feel.

“Not so bad, is it?”

Harry smiles, eyes on the stars. “Not so bad.”

Louis is quiet for a whole minute. “What are you thinking about?” Harry asks him.

“It’s boring.”

“Not to me.”

“My father taught me to swim by throwing me in the water,” Louis says after hesitating. His smile is self-deprecating and small. “I don’t think that’s uncommon, but he wasn’t like other parents. Probably would’ve let me drown. Accidentally or on purpose.”

Louis smooths his hair back and away from his face. “He loved us miserably. Like someone had a gun to his head. And I never made it any easier for him.”

“It’s not the kid’s responsibility to make their parents love them,” Harry says. “And anyway, I don’t know if that’s actually love. If it’s forced.”

“Maybe not. But it’s what he said to me. At the hospital. ‘I do this because I love you’.”

“And you believed him?”

“I believe he believed himself.” Louis dunks his head in the water and comes back up, swiping water away from his eyes. “God grant me the nerve of that man.”

It’s a shame he doesn’t have kids and might never have them. Louis has the self-awareness it takes to make a good dad. The awareness of who his father was and all the ways he’s different and can be different. That’s more than a proper start.

“It’s been way longer than a minute,” Louis notes.

“Well, now that you’ve reminded me, I’m getting out.”

They return to the shore. Harry drapes his towel around his shoulders while Louis runs his own through his hair. He can feel the hour winding down. Any second Louis will suggest they head to their rooms. So, he leans back with his palms spread behind him. He exudes a relaxed air, so that maybe Louis will relax too. There’s no telling if that’s what does it, but Louis starts on another story and then, Harry follows with one of his own. The local bar is within sight; Between one tale and the next, Louis walks over, buys two bottles of Banks beer and returns.

The night is as spontaneous as a rainstorm on the island, which come in fierce and enthusiastic patches. This isn’t how Harry thought his day would end, caught ashore in the lull of Louis’ voice, but he loves a surprise.

“He almost ministered at my wedding,” Louis says of Dr Lee. “I wanted him to. I was scared shitless and he was one of the few people who knew about me. It’s good now that he didn’t. He had a weird thing for me back then.”

Harry’s eyes widen. “A thing ?”

“I think so,” Louis replies. “We never talked about it, but he tried to kiss me once. At my graduation party.” He laughs. “You should see your face.”

Harry has a sip of his beer instead of gaping like a fish. It makes sense once he thinks about it, but he never would have thought about it. Louis doesn’t seem like Solomon’s type. But back then, he must have been slighter and more impressionable.

“Do you trust him?” Harry asks.

“I don’t really trust anyone,” Louis says. “But I wouldn’t say I distrust him either. Why? Do you?”

Harry shrugs. “He’s an old white man. And my sister says you shouldn’t trust old white men,” he explains. “Or men in general, I guess.”

“Fair. But he’s harmless.”

History and his dating record would disagree. Harry pulls his knees close to his chest and rests his chin on his knees. “What about you?” he asks. “Are you harmless?”

Louis shakes his head. “Don’t think so.”

“Neither am I.”

Louis’ brows wrinkle. “What have you done that’s so wrong?”

“I’ve broken hearts before,” Harry says. “I’ve used people. I never mean to, but I’m self-interested. I think people get hurt when they’re not. And I think if you’re never the one getting hurt, it means you’re the one doing the hurting.”

Louis' frown is so infinitesimal and private, he probably doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. “Still think you’re harmless.”

And compared to Louis, maybe Harry is.

“You mean you’re regularly seduced by your students?” Harry asks.

Louis lowers his beer bottle with a sputter. “I didn’t realise you were seducing me.”

“Not actively,” Harry says. “But I think you’ve been seduced, yeah.”

Louis snorts. “I’ll have to fix that then.”

“You can try,” Harry says, laughing. He finishes off his beer and starts picking the label off. “I’ve given it a lot of thought, by the way. And I don’t think I’m going to get over you.”

Louis is quiet for so long Harry regrets saying it. He’s not even drunk. Hardly buzzed. Call it cliche, but if anything, he’s inebriated on life and on their banter and on the overarching mood of the night.

“I don’t think I want you to,” Louis says.

Everything is quiet and tense afterwards.

Louis glances at him and sighs, dragging a hand down his face. “Don’t look at me like that, Harry.”

“How am I looking at you?” Harry asks.

“Like I could have you with no consequences.”

Well . Harry swallows, drumming his fingers on his elbows. “To be fair…” he begins and Louis gives him a warning look. Harry smiles. “I’m starting to not give a fuck about the consequences.”

“That’s a bad move.”

“I think it would feel really, really good,” Harry says, boldly.

Louis exhales a big rush of breath. “I think that’s enough chatting.” He downs the rest of his beer, stands and reaches a hand down for Harry to take. “It’s late.”

“No, it’s not,” Harry says, setting his hand in Louis’. “You sound way past your age.”

“Shut up.”

The walk to the resort is silent, at least where they are concerned. The town is full of sound. Cars still zipping down the street every other minute. The ocean hissing against the shore. Chatter from a group further down and the clink of their beer bottles. There’s also the ghosts of things he and Louis have said to each other tonight, whispering in his ears.

Sometimes standing silently beside a person makes Harry more of aware of them in a way talking never could. Without the distraction of dialogue or laughter, he’s forced to contend with what they mean to him, why he’s there with them, why he’d rather be there than anywhere else. Beside Louis, Harry feels the weight of all those questions on his shoulders.

Waiting to cross the street, he and Louis glance at each other. “Want to join them?” Louis asks, nodding to the crowd.

“Could be fun,” Harry says.

“Up for anything, aren’t you?”

“If you’re involved, maybe.”

“Stop flirting with me, Harry.”

Harry snickers, hurrying after Louis who starts across the street.

A place where it’s always summer is also just the kind of place a person falls in love. Even if just for a moment. Even if they’ve never been in love before. It feels like consequences have no permanence here. He and Louis are far from home. Far from authority and attention that matters. He feels giddy and foolish and swept up in feeling.

Back at the resort, they lean against opposite sides of the lift. He keeps quiet. He’s thinking of reasons not to cross the space between them. Thinking of other things to do besides beg to be kissed. He’s always been needy, but never like this. Never in spite of himself.

They exit the lift.

The hallway is dimly lit, which doesn’t mitigate Harry’s lack of sagacity at all. People will get up to anything in the dark. He went to a rave in Paris the year he turned 21 and was mesmerised by folks fucking on the dance floor. Glastonbury of 09, he gave a boy a blowie by the toilets, where they were most definitely seen.

“What’s on the agenda for tomorrow?” Harry asks Louis.

“Nothing,” Louis says. “Nothing in the morning at least. You should use the time to write.”

“Or we could just sleep in,” Harry says. The ‘we’ immediately feels implicit. Louis lifts his brows. “As in I might just sleep in,” Harry clarifies. They come to a stop in the hallway, halfway between their rooms. Harry clears his throat. “Thanks for the swim.”

“Any time,” Louis says. He hasn’t taken a step away. They don’t say anything for a second, which is enough time for Harry to lose any sense whatsoever.

“Do you want to come in?” Harry asks, pointing his thumb towards his door.

Louis folds his lips together. Another second passes and the answer is obvious. It’s ‘yes’ and it has been yes for a long time. And they’re finally in a place where maybe he can say it. Yes to whatever this is brewing between them. Yes to everything. Yes to it all.

“For a drink,” Harry tacks on.

“I shouldn’t,” Louis says. He looks pained as he finally takes a step away.

If Harry were a less dignified man, he might say “Please.” He smiles. “Alright. He steps backward himself. “Good night, Louis.”

Louis nods, looking away. “Night.”

Harry enters his room and can’t find it in himself to go any further. He leans into the door and lets his eyes slip shut.

Chapter Text

A line of wall sconces set parallel to each other create slats of light that cut the hallway into sections. The effect is slightly unnerving. Light, then dark. Light, dark, light, dark. Long stretches of dark followed by a sliver of light. Louis doesn’t like it. Perhaps he’s just trying to find more reasons not to leave. His room is about twelve steps away, but that distance seems insurmountable.

He shoves his hands into his pockets and lets his head hang back and pretends it’s raining. Because sometimes the rain, when it’s heavy and forceful and sudden, has the effect of a hard slap. He recalls the one time Emily slapped him. So sharply she clutched her hand afterwards and burst into tears. So hard Louis tasted blood. New York, 2009. She probably wasn’t crying because she hurt herself or hurt Louis. But because he hurt her.

He hurts people all the time. Even when he tries not to. He can’t decide whether it would hurt Harry more to leave or to stay.

He’s only been standing in the hallway for two seconds when he turns back. There’s no plan. It’s all feeling and folly. He’s like a dead thing, reactivated by jolts of electricity. Jolts of whim. He lifts his knuckles to the door and taps so softly Harry won’t hear him. Then he just rests his head against the door, another soft thud. He shuts his eyes.

The door whips open.

Harry is still holding his beach bag in one hand with his towel still thrown over his shoulder. He looks at Louis, his eyes a bit wide and naturally misty, always with an alluring sheen to them. Louis gives him a white flag of a smile. Harry holds the door open and waits.

They move like chess pieces. Sliding from square to square around each other. Louis steps inside and moves to one wall. Harry shuts the door and moves to the other. “Would you like that drink?” Harry asks, ever the paragon of politeness.

Louis shakes his head. They both know why he’s here and he might as well get to it. He takes a step closer. Rook to the bishop and so forth. And another step and another until he’s right in front of him, both of his hands still buried in his pockets. Until he can’t get any closer. Their noses touch. Louis tilts their mouths together.

Harry drops his things. Silly that he was still holding them, in the first place. Or that Louis hasn’t pulled his hands from his pockets. Now, he sets his palms on Harry’s slim waist, then pushes his hands up beneath his T-shirt when it’s clear neither of them will apparate. Harry cradles Louis’ face in his hands and slides his fingers into Louis’ hair. His tongue in Louis’ mouth triggers a chain reaction between them. Louis cupping Harry’s arse. Harry clawing at Louis’ shirt. The two of them separating to get it off. The two of them breathing like there’s not enough air to go around.

But so be it.

Louis feels frenzied, which makes sense considering he hasn’t wanted anyone like this in a decade. Has he ever wanted anyone like this?

Harry lifts his own shirt off and lets it slip from his fingers. His skin is almost worryingly hot and Louis’ palm must be cool in comparison. His breath catches when Louis flattens his hand on his stomach and runs his thumb down the thin trail of hair from his bellybutton to his waistband.

“Do you want me on the bed?” Harry asks. He has to clear his throat.

Harry’s swim trunks are almost too small for him. They leave little to the imagination. It’s hard to pull his gaze away, but Louis does. “That’s a good start.”

Harry is an observant and dedicated assistant. He anticipates need and facilities want. And Louis has to wonder if his level of diligence is just as present in the bedroom. His head is spinning with questions, with all the things he wants to do and what little time he has to do it. Tomorrow, it’s back to contrition, but tonight, he’s got a beautiful boy spread out on a mattress in front of him and no one could make him feel sorry for it. Not even himself.

“Are you drunk?” Harry asks as Louis approaches the bed.

If only. “Not at all,” Louis says. “You?”

“No. So there’s no dancing around this in the morning, is there?”

Louis deserves that. “Fair enough.”

Harry lifts his hips off the bed, which is clear permission for Louis to drag his swim trunks off. And Louis does, slowly, then balls them up, presses them to his nose. Harry huffs a laugh. “You can keep them as a souvenir if you want.”

“I might,” Louis says, tossing them for now.

Harry lets his knees fall apart and Louis is embarrassingly breathless. Like in that first half-second of nakedness, he uses all his energy to take Harry in. He wants to call him the most beautiful person he’s ever seen but it doesn’t seem fair to categorize Harry in superlative terms. It implies that something could someday compare to him.

Louis leans in, pressing his palms into the mattress. “Haven’t done this in a bit,” he confesses.

“I don’t care,” Harry says, as he slips a brazen hand down Louis’ swim shorts and cups him.

A few days into the fall term, Louis first noticed how much bigger Harry’s hands were than his own. Not terribly so, but enough to catch his attention. At the end of the term, as Harry decorated the tree Louis bought for Emily, all he could think was how right Harry looked in his living room. Like his favourite Christmas carol. Limber and lithe. His slouchy knit socks. A baggy worn sweater. His hair untidy. He smelled like beer and whatever cologne his mum bought for him. And then his hands, turning a bauble over with care. He had versatile hands, Louis could tell. Soft when gentleness was needed. Rough if someone wanted it rough.

Louis wants it rough. He rocks into Harry’s palm, groans and presses his face into the crook of Harry’s neck. Tonight, he smells of sea salt. He smells of summer. Louis kisses him where his pulse is racing, and then on the mouth, suppressing an embarrassing mewl when Harry strokes him just right. It’s too much too soon.

“Stop.” He tugs Harry’s hand out of his trousers. Harry’s gaze goes from attentive to worried and he’s about to say something stupid. He might even be about to apologize. For nearly bringing things to an abrupt end for Louis? He should be sorry. Louis’ twenty-year-old self would never believe it.

Louis leaves him looking concerned and travels down the length of his body, leaving a ghost of a kiss here and there. That settles Harry down. He lets his head fall to the bed and emits a soft sigh. Everything about him is so mystically soft, Louis can’t imagine him ever hurting anyone. He presses his mouth into Harry’s thigh. Plush skin. Golden hair. All of him plucked from a piece by Botticelli.

He presses Harry’s thighs further apart and bites playfully at Harry’s arse cheek. He hears a breathy chuckle.

“What are you doing down there?”

“What do you think?” Louis asks, brushing his thumb over Harry’s hole, following immediately with his tongue. Harry pushes his hand into Louis’ hair. A shiver erupts from his body, bringing goosebumps across his skin, beneath Louis’ fingertips. “Louis,” he exhales, and now Louis has goosebumps too.

“Keep doing that,” Louis says.

“What?”

“Saying my name.”

“Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis .”

The last is tripped by Louis pushing his tongue inside of him. It’s too intimate, but literally everything about this is. Harry’s skin eventually grows sweaty and when he starts to writhe, it becomes too hard to keep a hold of him. He’d turn him over, but Louis wants to see his face, his bruised lips, his blotchy cheeks. Besides, the night isn’t so young anymore, Louis’ cock is heavy, and he’s been playing with Harry’s arse for long enough now that he wants inside. He stops and waits for Harry to catch his breath. His eyes are dazed like he’s just been roused from hibernation.

“Do you have condoms?” Louis asks.

Harry nods. His Adam’s apple bobs. “In my luggage.”

“We can also stop.”

“I’ll tell you if I want to stop,” Harry says. “Front compartment.”

Louis goes digging in Harry’s luggage for condoms, feeling Harry’s gaze on him the whole time, patient but eager. He gets it: How badly Harry wants this. Does he know it’s mutual? Or are they both inherently clueless?

Louis has three degrees and more intellectual awards than he bothers to count. But when it comes to Harry, he must admit he’s an idiot. Primary example is he never saw this coming. Never saw it getting this far. In his head, by now, one of them would have stopped the other. ‘We can’t do this,’ or something akin to that. Just goes to show how bad he is at reading their particular room. But he gets it now. Neither of them wants to stop. No one is slowing down. No can’ts. Or buts. Or shouldn’ts.

And no thoughts about how swiftly this all could ruin his career. Not tonight.

Because some time, some lube and a condom later, when he pushes into the slick heat of Harry’s body, it’s the only thing worth thinking about. Harry grunts and tilts his head into the mattress, fingertips digging into Louis’ arse.

Louis has to remind himself that there’s no rush. But he’s so desperate to come inside this boy. His boy, for the time being. His boy for as long as he can have him. He had a dream about Harry once, looking just as he does now. His temples damp with sweat. His hair curlier than Louis has seen it before, haloing his head. His brows pinched. His bottom lip, bitten hard at first before his mouth fell open.

His eyes are trained on the place where their bodies meet with something like astonishment. He looks up at Louis. He looks like he wants to laugh. “Would you agree now that you’ve been seduced?”

Louis quells a grin. “Don’t think so.”

“Oh, so you fuck all your assistants like this?”

“Christ,” Louis says. "Shut up."

Harry tries to laugh, but he’s breathless. His brows wrinkle again and he presses the heel of his hand into his mouth. Louis immediately secures both of his wrists to the mattress. This occurred in the dream as well. Pinning Harry down like this. But not laughter. Louis never saw the laughter coming. He’s had a lot of weird sex, risky sex, miserable sex. But never an instant of humour. And it’s no excuse how much there was at stake with Emily or his partners in New York. There’s so much to lose with Harry, but he laughed anyway.

Louis releases his wrists, cups his face instead and kisses him. Something about the slow, wanton, cat-and-mouse way they tongue at each other tips him back into desperation. Louis thrusts steadily but wildly. Harry cups Louis’ tense shoulders. He hooks his ankles over Louis’ calves. He takes measures to keep them tightly knit, to keep himself firmly in place as Louis completely loses it. He makes it easy for Louis’ to snap his hips with abandon. The quick creak of the bed and their interchanging gasps are the only sounds for an instant. And then Louis swears, hoarse and broken, and comes, shocked still by the force of it all.

He doesn’t want to move, but slowly, he does. He sits back on his haunches. Still buried inside Harry, he says, “I want to watch you.”

Harry immediately spreads his legs a bit wider and takes his cock in a tight fist. He keeps his eyes on Louis even when it’s clear he’d rather let them shut. Each inhale and exhale trembles. His hand speeds, then stutters, then stills, and he shoots all over his stomach and chest.

Louis laughs, short and breathless. “God, help me,” he says, before he remembers that God never has. That makes him laugh harder. When he can, Harry joins him.

Chapter Text

Harry doesn’t have to turn over to know Louis isn’t there. His arm is no longer draped over Harry's waist. But there’s also a general absence in the room. An intuitive loneliness Harry feels in his stomach before he rolls onto his back and finds the other side of the bed abandoned and cool. He sits upright and isn’t surprised to see that Louis isn’t reclined in the chair by the window either, but he is disappointed.

In the shower, he feels a sting as soapy water runs between his arse cheeks. Beard burn. The thought makes his body throb all over again. Another reason why it might have been nice if Louis woke up beside him. For round two, obviously. As it is, Harry settles on a wank, pressed forehead and shoulder to the cool tile.

He can feel the panic hovering just beyond his consciousness. Like shoppers waiting outside before opening time. As soon as he lets it in, it’ll enter in a stampede. It’ll enter droning in perpetuity: “You fucked your professor, your boss, your mentor. Have you no shame?” Harry does, in fact, have shame, but he’s not ready to grapple with it now.

While his coffee brews, he stands by the window overlooking the pool, which is when he sees him. Louis. Hunched over his laptop on one of the pool chairs. Harry’s immediate response is to shut off the percolator and pull on a pair of white swim trunks.

It’s actually not until he’s outside that he realises how early it is. Just after seven, which explains why there are no kids in the pool like usual and why there’s a slight chill in the air. A breeze tosses the palm trees to and fro.

Louis’ shoulders are golden. The tan has spread across his skin the way a blush does. Subtle and slow. It’s lovely and Harry thinks about how his hands were all over his burnished skin just hours prior. He drops down into the chair across from Louis and Louis looks up, half-startled, pulling the cigarette from between his lips.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to smoke out here,” Harry says.

Louis is speechless, which Harry doesn’t like. It’s awkward and unfair. “Good morning to you too,” he finally says.

“Oh, it was good for you?” Harry asks. “Mine would’ve been better if I didn’t wake up alone.”

“I’d keep that in mind for the future, but— ” He presses the cigarette into an ashtray by his feet and meets Harry’s gaze. “It can’t happen again, you know that.”

“It won’t,” Harry says. “All business from here on out.”

“Solid plan,” Louis agrees.

Harry leans back in the lounge chair. “I loved it, though,” he says after a while. “Every second.”

Louis’ smile is slow to come, but when it does, it’s slightly mischievous. As though the two of them were co-conspirators. Perhaps they are. He doesn’t get a chance to respond; Solomon is up bright and early as well and approaches with a straw sun hat donned and a newspaper tucked under his arm.

“Good morning, boys,” he says.

“Morning,” Harry says. He stands just as Solomon takes the chair beside Louis. “I think I’ll swim.”

He feels Louis’ furtive gaze on him as he strips off his shirt and dunks himself into the pool and as Solomon begins chatting Louis’ ear off. Harry isn’t quite ready to share Louis with other people, as though last night didn’t happen, as if it were some blip on the map of their lives. It did happen and at least at that moment, it was the world and Louis was the core.

 

 

On his walk back from the beach, Harry sees a Barbadian man smoking at the bus stop. He passes him at first, then doubles back and buys a cigarette.

It was silly of him to try quitting before graduation anyway.

He lights up and starts drifting down the road, unsure of where he’s headed. He passes the resort and keeps going. There are some folks playing dominoes on their lawn under the shade of mango trees. He hopes he doesn’t look lost, but he is sort of lost. Perhaps not literally, but it’s the same. To be in the right place physically but dislocated mentally isn’t ideal. To be mentally sound, but on foreign roads without a map is no improvement.

He stops when he gets to the top of a winding street. It’s on an upward slope so by the time he arrives there, he’s winded. He leans against a tree and gets his phone out, punches the numbers in by rote.

“How much am I getting charged for this call?” Zayn asks sans ‘hello’.

“I don’t think you’re getting charged, dickhead. I bought a calling card.”

Zayn sighs. “You woke me up.”

“It’s still early there. Why are you asleep?”

“I’m taking a nap. Is that alright with you?”

“No, it’s not,” Harry says. “I need your help.”

“What'd you do?”

Harry cracks his knuckles against his thigh, one-by-one, until he runs out of knuckles.  “I slept with him.”

“Fuck’s sake…”

“I know.” Harry sucks on the cigarette like it’s the first one out of the first pack he ever bought himself. That was six or seven years ago. He had the pack for weeks before he finally cracked it open. He exhales. “I don’t feel bad about it. I don’t feel as bad about it as I should. That’s the problem. I want to do it again.”

“You also want to graduate. You want to publish a book.”

Harry nods along. All true. All important.

“I love Louis, I do,” Zayn says. “But he’s got it made. Him and Solomon and all of them, they’ve got their careers sorted. And he’s not going to fall in love with you. He’s not going to marry you. So if you get your heart fucked, that’s it. You’ve never been in love, so you don’t know. But I have more times than I can count. And it fucks you, mate. It throws everything off.”

Alarmingly, Harry feels like crying. Not unusual, of course. But he never cries about men he can’t have.

“I love Louis,” Zayn says again. “But I love you more. Let this shit go. When you come home, we’ll go out. Find you nice lad, yeah?”

“I don’t think I want to date anyone ever again.”

“I’ll give you a month with that,” Zayn says. “Did you have fun at least?”

Harry tosses the cigarette to the ground and grinds his heel into it. He then picks it up and stuffs it in his pocket for proper disposal. “It was fun, yeah.” He looks back the way he’s come and hesitates. “Can I just say— I think we could learn to love each other. In an ideal world.”

“In an ideal world, I don’t think you’d have to.”

 

 

Harry manoeuvres his bike to a rack while his mum powers up the blender on the other end of the phone line. “I can’t hear you,” he says immediately. All he caught was ‘Louis’ and ‘dinner’. He struggles with his bike, struggles to hear. Everything is a struggle this morn. But perhaps he's only irritable being back in Oxford and back in the cold. He gets his bike secured. The sound of the blender fades.

“I said, when you come by tomorrow, you should bring Louis along for dinner.”

Harry starts toward the coffee shop. “I don’t think he’ll want to do that.”

“You won’t know until you ask. You’ve had dinner at his home. I’m sure he’d have dinner at yours.”

A portentous raven swoops from one building to another. Harry knows when to be superstitious and now feels appropriate. “He’s going to have a long day. I just think he’ll want to stay at the hotel. And if we stay for dinner, you’ll get him drunk and he’ll end up having to spend the night.”

“That’s not a problem, darling. We have plenty of room.”

Harry reaches the coffee shop. “Mum—”

“Just ask. Do it for me,” she says. “I have to go, love. See you tomorrow.”

She doesn’t have to go, but it means she gets the last word. Nonetheless, Harry won’t be asking Louis to dinner. He’s not an idiot and he doesn’t need his mum to know he’s gone and shagged his professor, which may or may not be obvious to her the instant they step through her door.

It’s Harry's first day back since the retreat. He was given yesterday off, 'to recuperate', Louis said. (Or maybe he just didn't want him around.) He doesn’t know what to expect upon returning to well-chartered waters. Whether routine as usual or something fraught and tenuous. They’ll be so busy over the next few weeks it might not matter.

Louis trades his coffee for a stack of papers when Harry arrives and says, “All finished.”

“New chapter?”

Louis nods, looking triumphant.

“Did you want me to read it now or—?”

“Of course I want you to read it now,” Louis says, as if it were blatantly obvious. Maybe it is.

With his feet propped up on his desk, Louis tosses a mini plush football back and forth between his hands and sips his coffee noisily while Harry reads. It’s all mildly distracting but Harry doesn’t ask him to stop. He’s finished now anyway. He slides the last page back beneath the others and then taps the papers together.

“It’s different from the essay before,” Harry says.

“Good different?”

“Different different.”

Louis gives him a look. “But you liked it?”

“I did,” Harry says. He wants to cringe at the very loud, inaudible ‘but’ . “Maybe I should type up what I think in an email.”

“Or you can just say it to me now,” Louis says. “Promise I won’t cry.”

He gives him a smile. Not the co-conspirator smile, but it’ll do.

Harry would never admit it, but he thinks they might have proven Louis’ thesis right. About the cathartic power of sex in situations where sex itself is the obstruction. It feels like an anvil has been lifted from his shoulders. He’s committed the ultimate misdeed, but it was an amazing, euphoric and worthy conclusion to a debilitating cycle of tension. It’s only up from here. The sea ahead is smooth and there’s wind in his sails.

“It's just that you said the voice in each essay was the same. But it's different here? Maybe it’s intentional, but the person narrating the first three chapters isn’t this person. And I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. I like both people. The one before is dark and cynical and compelling. This one is all those things too, but mostly, he's... hopeful, maybe.”

Louis’ brow wrinkles. He sets the tiny plush football in his hands down. “No, he's not meant to sound hopeful.”

“There’s nothing wrong with hope.”

“Hope is akin to moving on. That’s not what the narrator is doing.”

They’re tiptoeing into dangerous territory. “But the writing contradicts that,” Harry says, carefully. “I don’t think hope or moving on are solitary points a person arrives at. It takes time. It starts small. You don’t just decide to move on and then boom , you’ve done it. It’s just forward momentum. This person is moving forward.”

“He’s not supposed to be,” Louis says. He seems irritated now, but that doesn’t change Harry’s interpretation at all. Death of the author is in, Louis said once. Perhaps he regrets that now.

Harry shrugs. “Well, then you have a problem.”

Then they’re silent. Louis leans his head back against his chair and shuts his eyes. Harry replaces the binder clip on the stack and slides it into his bag. He gets the feeling he’s going to be dismissed any second. He folds his hands together in his lap and waits.

“You do remember this isn’t autobiographical,” Louis says. “Right?”

“Sure.”

Louis sighs. “Are we all set for Manchester?”

“All set. Shannon, who you met last time, reached out to me. She’d like to get tea with you. I think you have time between 11:00 and noon after your interview.”

“Sounds good. Thanks.”

“I’ll let her know.” Harry slides his journal and mobile into his bag as well. “I need to run to the bookstore, so I’ll see you in class.”

“Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Standing, with his bag slung over his shoulder, Harry pauses. “I don’t think so,” he says confusedly.

“Your mum invited me to dinner.”

Harry is stupefied. He draws a breath. “I didn’t know you two were in contact.”

“Just email.”

“How nice,” Harry says, dryly. He can tell Louis is amused. He can’t resist smiling himself. “Since we’re spending the night, I figured I’d head home. My mum did mention inviting you to dinner, but I didn’t think you’d be interested.”

“I’m very interested.”

Harry rolls his eyes. “Fine, then. Mi casa es su casa.”

Louis grins. “Read the chapter again,” he says.

“That won’t change my mind, but alright.”

 

 

Driving on familiar roads while Nirvana plays on the radio summons a sense of nostalgia Harry hasn’t felt in a while. Not even when he was last here for Christmas. Louis in the driver’s seat fits into whatever teenage dream this is like a missing puzzle piece. He enhances it, even. With his aviator glasses on and his fingers drumming the steering wheel and the glowing blue and fuschia and ochre of twilight streaming across his tan skin.

“Didn’t know you were filthy rich,” Louis says, as they descend into a community of massive brick cottages with three and four cars in the drive.

Harry snorts. “Very sorry to disappoint, but we’ve still got a little ways left to go.”

The houses get smaller and smaller. His mum’s home isn’t tiny by any means. But it’s average and rightly suited for a modest family. No room to be spared. There’s a large kitchen and a living room with a fireplace. Lots of windows. And of course, the acres of land on which they used to raise chickens and goats and a pig named Jupiter because he had one big pinkish “red” spot on his side.

Smiling, Louis says, “Never got him a Juno?”

“‘Fraid not,” Harry says, solemnly. “He lived out the rest of his days a bachelor.”

Louis chuckles. “So, there are no animals left at all? ‘Cause that’s kind of why I came out here.”

“Don’t worry. We’ve got a pony,” Harry says. “My stepdad, Charlie, won him five years ago.”

“And the pony’s name?”

“Ferdinand, I think?”

Louis’ smile grows. “Alright. So we’ve got the lovely Anne, Charlie and Ferdinand? Who else am I meeting tonight?”

“The cats,” Harry says. By the time he’s named and described all three, they’re pulling into the drive. The front door is open behind the glass door. There’s an exchange of light: soft yellow from the foyer thrown out onto the flagstone for the stark white of Louis’ headlights. Harry’s mum appears at the door an instant later.

Harry got the inkling earlier, especially describing all their animals past and present to Louis, but as they collect their carryalls from the backseat, he feels distinctly and unmistakably like he’s bringing his boyfriend home to meet the family. His mum, practically bouncing, doesn’t help.

She greets Louis with a kiss on the cheek. “Come in, come in,” she tells them. “It’s chilly.” And then she presses her warm hands to Harry’s face as if to ward the cold off of him.

“It smells great in here,” Louis says. “Or is that a candle you lit to make me think you’re baking fresh bread?”

Harry’s mum laughs, her brows arched high. “You’ll have to wait and see,” she says, and then to Harry, “He’s cheeky.”

“I tried to tell you,” Harry says. He catches a flicker of red hair down the hall. “Mona’s here?”

“She is, yeah," his mum confirms. "Gemma’s in New York for three days. Sent her up on the train. She’s in a bit of a mood. I think she’s upset she was left behind.”

“I don’t blame her,” Harry says. He leaves his mum and Louis in the foyer and hears her introducing Louis to Charlie a moment later. He finds Ramona in the living room, curled up on the couch. “Weren’t planning to say hi?”

“Hi,” she says.

He leans over the couch and kisses her cheek. “I brought my professor with me. Remember Louis?”

“Did he bring his wife?”

“No,” Harry says. “Do you want to come say hi? Or do you want me to sit here with you and be miserable? Fair warning, though: I am starving. So as long as you don’t mind my stomach grumbling…”

Ramona rolls her eyes, but she does it with a smile and slides off the couch. “Only ‘cause Nana made pudding.”

“Obviously,” Harry says.

Over dinner, Louis performs his bewitching spell as he did with Harry’s mum the last time. Everyone tunes into him. When Ramona says something funny, she looks at him to see if he was impressed. And after dinner, everyone wants a piece of him. Mum shows him where the guest room is, where she stores the towels, etc. Charlie shows him pictures of the family, including pictures he took of Harry in secondary school. Ramona misses out on her time with Louis because she falls asleep, stuffed full of dessert.

Harry finds Louis in the office with Charlie. He hands him a fresh glass of red wine. “Thought I’d show you the yard. Ferdinand might still be awake.”

“It’s dark out, Harry,” Charlie says. It might be his imagination but he sounds petulant. Like he’s not ready to end his riveting chat with Louis just yet.

“There’s a full moon tonight,” Harry says. “And we’ve got the lanterns. He’s my professor, not yours.” He smiles, kisses Charlie’s cheek and takes Louis by the forearm.

“I was really enjoying the pictures,” Louis says. “Lots of them with you in dresses.”

“I do love a nice dress,” Harry replies. They step into the sunroom. Harry finds his green wellies where he left them last. He nods to the black pair. “I think you’re the same size as Charlie. You can wear those.”

Louis looks sort of ridiculous and charming with the slim hems of his tailored navy suit hidden away in black wellies. Harry smiles with approval. “You fit right in.”

“Used to go to Glasto and Leeds every other year,” Louis says. “Of course I do.”

Harry laughs, pulling the glass door open. He gathers his wine glass and steps into the night behind Louis. It’d be nice if it were a bit brighter out, but he settles for the outdoor lanterns his mum had installed years ago. They can see the small barn where they keep Ferdinand, enclosed by a log fence. Harry clicks his tongue once, then tries again.

Louis laughs. “Think he’s asleep.”

“He just might be,” Harry says. “Or he’s avoiding you.”

“You mean you. Animals love me.”

And it’s probably true. Alfred trotting around the house after Louis comes to mind.

They drink in silence for a bit, just leaning against the fence. Louis has talked and been talked at all night, so perhaps the silence is welcome. He sips his wine, peering up at the moon, looking again like some forlorn figure from a myth.

“I wish you could see it in the day. There’s a creek back there. And just past that are acres and acres of land. I don’t even know who it all belongs to, but people hunt deer sometimes. Or foul.”

“Does your family hunt?”

“I don’t think my parents do. But we all know how,” Harry says. “Just don’t want to.”

“Too soft for it.”

“Nothing wrong with that. Everyone should be a little soft.”

“It’s weird to think about you living here,” Louis says. “Seems too quiet for you.”

“I think it was. Even Oxford is too quiet sometimes. But it’d be nice to retire in a place like this. With some animals and a nice person.”

“That’s what you want? Someone who’s nice?”

“You make it sound like a bad thing.”

“It sounds like a boring thing,” Louis says. “It sounds like a sad reduction.”

“You know what I want better than I do?”

“I can guess.”

Harry has a sip of his wine and puts his back to the fence, propping his arms up. He waits, ears peeled.

“You don’t want someone who’s polite, for starters. Not with you. But if they woo your mum, that’s fine. You want them to excite you. You don’t want it to be too easy. You get bored if it’s easy. You lose interest. How could someone who’s only nice keep you interested?”

“You just described yourself and I think that’s cheating.”

Louis dissolves into laughter.

“And for the record,” Harry says. “I don’t know what I want.”

“I should’ve gone with that,” Louis says. He finishes off his wine and sets the empty glass on top of a fence post. He buries his hands in his pockets. “Thanks for inviting me, by the way. Wouldn’t have blamed you if you didn’t. You get enough of me at Oxford.”

“You and my mum didn’t really leave me a choice,” Harry says. He peers into his wine glass. “And I like having you here." He purses his lips and debates whether any of this is worth saying. In the end, he doesn't care. "I liked driving here with you. Time spent with you in general.”

Harry meant it when he said he didn’t know what he wanted, but one thing for certain is that he’d like to be kissed the way Louis kisses him all of a sudden. Slow and hypnotic. The kind of kiss with the kind of waves you get carried away on.

When he breaks away, it feels like too much time has passed. He remembers where he is and glances at the house, at all the windows. He sees no one, although that doesn’t necessarily mean no one’s seen him. He crosses his arms over his ribcage. “What was that?” he asks Louis.

Louis shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

But he’s looking at Harry the same way as before he did it. “No, you’re not,” Harry decides.

Louis hesitates. Then, after a solemn twitch of his lips, he says, “No, not really.”

“We should head back inside,” says Harry.

“Alright,” Louis agrees. Harry collects their glasses and stalks off towards the house, figuring Louis will follow him. He does. Inside the sunroom, they push off their wellies in silence. Harry deposits the wine glasses in the sink while Louis turns towards the living room where Harry’s mum and Charlie have inevitably put on a film.

Harry stops him with a hand on his arm and tugs him into the hallway, towards the stairs.

“Harry,” Louis says.

Harry turns, pressing his finger to his mouth. From the living room, he hears his mum’s soft chuckle and the sound of Robin Williams. That’ll be Mrs Doubtfire, then. He and Louis take the stairs. He checks Gemma’s room first to be sure Ramona hasn’t been put to bed yet. She hasn’t. He pulls Louis towards his bedroom, pulls him inside and shuts the door.

He could kiss him back. That’d be fair. But not where his head is at.

He wrangles with Louis’ belt buckle as his knees hit the floor. Louis swears, but ‘fuck’ isn’t the same as ‘we can’t’. He tugs Louis’ pants down just until his cock springs free, then rucks his shirt up and out of the way, balls his hands up in it. It feels rich, as it should be paired with his bespoke suit. Everything about him is stunning and decadent and if Harry is honest, he’s been wanting to do this since this morning. Or no—  Since Barbados.

He slides his mouth down to the base of Louis’ cock.

The word that comes to mind is esurient. Voracious. Greedy. Insatiable. Pull after pull of his mouth, he never wants to stop. His jaw grows sore and not even then. He feels drunk on the way he tastes and the way he smells. What is happening to him? 

They’re already noisy enough when Louis’ hips jerk and his cock nudges the back of Harry’s throat. Harry mewls so loudly, they stop and struggle to hear sounds of alarm over their own breathing. And then Louis resumes thrusting into his mouth with shallow, gentle snaps of his hips.

When he stops again, it’s to pull Harry to his feet and back him into a corner. He shoves his jeans down and then his hand is on Harry. And Harry’s hand is on him.

So, this is the scintillating conclusion of his teenage dream: an exchange of messy handjobs, stolen in the dark corner of his childhood bedroom where the moonlight doesn’t reach. A tongue kiss that ends up being less tonguing and more gasping.

He knows he received a hand job in secondary school that he thought was superior to every other. But this is the best of them. He watches until he can’t anymore, then tilts his head against the wall. He comes, slumped in the corner, but supported by Louis’ thigh between his legs. There’s spunk on his jumper. Louis’ or his own, he doesn’t know.

“If I say this won’t happen again, it will,” Louis says. In the moonlight, his eyes shine like raw silver ore. No other man has ever terrified Harry this way or been more beautiful. “So I won’t say it.”

Harry kisses him finally, brief but firm, purposeful. “You’re the smartest one here, Professor,” he says. “You know that won’t work.”

Chapter Text

Over the course of an hour, honeyed light encroaches on the lecture hall, suspending dust motes in its path, refracting on the surface of Louis’ varnished wood podium. Spring officially began that morning, and there are more hours of sunlight to look forward to. More hours for Harry to do what pleases him, whatever that might be. Whoever that might be. It’s the latter he's most concerned with.

“You’ll have to elaborate,” Louis says, resting his chin against his fist.

Harry mirrors him unconsciously, slouching forward. He sits in the back, occupying a vantage point from which he usually observes Louis’ undergraduate classes. Today, he's grateful for the space to swoon undetected.

With his free hand, Louis flips through Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. “Anyone else agree with Sam? Not a feminist work, this one?”

The class is quiet. No one ever agrees with Sam, to be fair.

“This isn’t what the movement’s about,” Sam says. “Grace isn’t a feminist icon or anything. She’s just a murderer and a seductress. I can’t see how that’s relatable.”

“Maybe not to you,” another student, Elisa says. “You’re a man.”

“Men can be feminists,” Sam replies.

Harry can’t see, but he‘s sure Elisa rolls her eyes.

"This book was written in ‘96, wasn’t it?” Elisa says, glancing at Louis. “The movement hasn’t changed all that much in the last decade. And I find Grace relatable. You can’t separate her crimes from the reasons she committed them.”

They start to go back and forth, Sam and Elisa, while Louis listens and jots down notes in the margins of his book. He puts his pen down, adjusts his glasses, peeks at Harry. Harry quickly looks at Sam and Elisa, but he’s been caught, he knows it.

“Alright,” Louis interjects. “I think most people will say this is absolutely a feminist novel, yeah? So, that aside, the idea that a piece from a decade or two ago won’t suit a movement now just isn’t true. ‘Cause that’s not how literature works at all, does it? We read Baldwin just last week and it was obviously still relevant. Will always be relevant. I have to agree with Elisa here. All of the women in the book are driven into terrible situations where they might do terrible things, but they’re driven there, that’s the point. They don’t have much choice.” Louis checks the clock. “We’ve got a few minutes left. Maybe let’s all read that last bit on the Committee again. Harry.”

Harry sits up straighter. “Yes?”

“Do you mind?”

Yes, he does. There are fifteen overeager undergrads who would be happy to read at Louis’ command. Harry very clearly is not one of them. Not an undergrad. Not even slightly eager. Nowhere close to prepared.

“No,” he says. Because what else can he say? His eyes are dry from staring. He blinks hard a few times, which helps. He flips to the wrong dog ear. Flips, flips, flips. When he finds the right page, there’s sweat on his upper lip and beneath the collar of his jumper. But when he reads, his voice at least is steady.

Minutes later, the lecture hall drains until only Harry and Louis are left. He stalls, packing his things up slowly in hopes that Louis will leave him behind, which he’s done before if he’s in a hurry. There’s no rush today, it seems. When Harry looks up, Louis has his coffee in one hand, his briefcase slung across his shoulder.

“Ready?” he asks.

“Yup.” Harry gives him a taut smile. The kind of smile you give strangers on the tube after an unfortunate instant of eye contact. They walk back to the faculty office through airy sunlit hallways. There are students milling around, but Harry has tunnel vision. As he trails behind Louis, he discovers a new thing he’d like to try sketching: the sweep of Louis’ hair against the nape of his neck and the crisp line of his collar. He’s been tempted lately to break out the watercolours. What would happen if he asked?

They arrive at Louis’ office door and filter inside. Louis takes his seat and lifts his brows at Harry when he doesn’t do the same. Harry sinks into the chair opposite him.

“Didn’t like the book?” Louis asks.

“I loved it,” Harry says, fervently. “I should've chimed in. I had some notes about the feminism…” He trails off. He probably sounds exactly like someone who didn’t do the reading. But he poured over it, actually, two days ago before he and Louis left for Manchester.

“I’m just concerned ‘cause you’ll be instructing next week’s class,” Louis says. “And you seem a little distracted.”

Harry widens his eyes. “I mean…” He emits a small, breathless laugh. When Louis doesn’t immediately respond as expected, Harry outright brays. “I am a little distracted, Louis. Just last night I gave you a blow job at my mum’s.”

“You’re loud,” Louis says. The door is shut, but Harry supposes he has fair reasons for paranoia.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t paying attention,” Harry tries again, his voice measured. “I’ll get it together before next week.”

“Good.”

“Good,” Harry repeats laconically.

Louis looks at him, visibly exasperated. “This isn’t any easier for me, Harry.”

“You seem fine.”

“When you get home, you should look at yourself in the mirror the way you think you look at me,” Louis says, sliding his glasses on. “It’s really hard to ignore for an hour and forty minutes.”

Harry’s ears and cheekbones suddenly feel hot. “Guess I’ll fix that too,” he says. He’s itching to leave. That or jump Louis’ bones. “There’s a lot of tension in here and if we’re not about do something about it, I should go.”

“Never here,” Louis says. “There’re a million stories written about idiots getting caught in places like this.”

Harry was mostly joking, but Louis’ choice wording pings around his brain like it’s a game of pinball. “But elsewhere maybe?” he asks tentatively, half-whispering in fear that the cadence of his voice disrupts the balance between them.

Louis props his elbows up on his desk and folds his hands together. Hiding a smile, maybe. “You’re free to go, Harry,” he says. “See you next week.”

Harry stands. “Is it fine if I send you a few pages from my thesis?” he asks. “Something I finished before Manchester.”

“Of course."

Harry lingers behind his chair. “If you change your mind, you can just call me and I’ll come.”

“I know," says Louis.

Right. Harry supposes he's made it obvious.

 

 

He can smell whatever Zayn is cooking from the stairwell, underlined by the faint funk of weed. The spice of it tickles his throat as he and his bike tromp and bang through the door. His mouth waters. He tosses his bike against Zayn’s carelessly. He hears the peal of Paige’s laughter and an instant later, through a cloud of smoke and steam, he sees her seated on the kitchen counter.

“Harry,” she exclaims, high as a loose balloon.

Harry grants her the hug she’s beckoning for. He wraps his arms around Zayn as well. “What’s the occasion?” he asks. He has a stack of essays to read, bestowed upon him by Louis just before they parted ways, which is why he hesitates before accepting the joint from Paige. He assumes the undergrads were high while writing their essays anyway.

“We were in the mood for curry,” Paige says. “That’s the occasion.”

“The place down the street is closed?” Harry wonders.

“Zayn’s dad's curry,” Paige clarifies. “Or as close to it as Zayn can get.”

Without turning away from the hob, Zayn gives her the finger. She kicks him lightly in the thigh and then her attention is on Harry as she passes the joint off again. She stares; Harry’s cheeks hollow and his brows arch. “How’s Louis?” asks Paige.

“Same as usual,” Harry says. When she’s blatantly dissatisfied with that answer alone, it clicks. “Zayn told you, didn’t he?”

Now, Zayn turns and levels Paige with a frown. “She guessed more than anything.”

“Guessed without any assistance from you?” Harry asks. “Can’t see how.”

“All he said was you were away with Louis—”

“And a ton of students,” Harry adds. “Dr Lee was there.”

Paige waves her hand in the air as if to bat those ancillary facts away. “I was suspicious ever since Dr Lee’s party,” she says. “All you needed was a bit of tropical weather to seal the deal.”

Harry fills a glass with tap water but doesn’t feel like drinking it. Just needs something to focus on. He did say to Louis that he thought their first kiss was inevitable, but sleeping with him was a different case, wasn’t it? Surely, it didn’t boil down to warmer weather. They weren’t bloody grizzly bears shaking off the dust of hibernation, propelled into an intrinsic urge to mate.

“Don’t be embarrassed, Harry,” Paige says. “Grad students sleep with their professors all the time.”

“At least, you knew to stop,” Zayn adds.

Paige’s gaze slides away from Harry, but not before she gives him a sly, doubtful smile. “Sympathy plays tricks on you too.”

“I didn’t fuck him because I felt sorry for him,” Harry says.

Both Zayn and Paige look at him, curiously.

“You should keep this,” Paige says, extending the joint.

“Can’t. I have to mark papers,” Harry says. The conversation, moot as it is, lingers awkwardly in the air. These two analyze all things with a severity that can sometimes be exhausting. (Miraculously, they don’t seem to exhaust each other.) Even now, Harry feels them doing it still, annotating what he’s said for comparison at a later date.

Harry escapes to his room.

A nerve unbundles at the sight of Mosley sunning on his bed. He joins her, resting a hand on her tummy. His gaze slides to the ceiling. The dark exposed patch of older paint where the new paint has peeled looks a bit like a person with their hands on their hips. Judging him. Critics are everywhere, even in his inner sanctum.

He regrets the weed. He didn’t have much, but it’s strong and of the kind that makes you loose-limbed and lazy. He chugs his glass of water and regroups on the floor. He lights a candle. Puts on a bit of music. And tiptoes finally into his work.

He’s given a lot of thought to teaching lately, more than likely due to conversations with Louis. He thought he could fill the role as right hand to a professor without it leaving some mark on him. But that’s laughable now in more ways than one. Romantic compunctions aside, he’s more confident about his work adjacent to Louis. And more patient with himself, with literature and art, and with others. Even to the degree it takes to teach.

Young people can be turbulent and their minds stubborn, but isn’t that the thing that makes them so interesting. Nadiv’s essay, for example, is a ramble. It’s obvious he was only trying to meet the word count and that he hadn’t read the book in its entirety. But somehow he still managed to engage with the material. There’s a method in the madness. Or at the very least, something that can be nurtured and shaped into one. Harry could do that. He thinks he might be willing to try.

“Dinner is ready!” he hears through the door and sets the essay aside.

 

 

Harry has just resigned himself to a night serving third wheel when his phone chimes.

Getting into your thesis now. Not what I expected.

The lights are all off but the glow of his phone screen gets lost in the brightness of the telly. He zoned out when Zayn and Paige were deciding on a film. On the opposite end of the couch, they’re so high and so lethargic after two servings of curry, they might not know what they’re watching either. Nor do they miss him when he stands and slips back into his room.

That doesn’t sound good, Harry sends in reply.

Why? It means you’ve got me on my toes.

Harry slumps against his door. I guess we all want someone to excite us.

When he doesn’t get an immediate response to that, he decides to bugger it all and dials Louis’ number. The line rings and rings. It’s clear Louis won’t answer him in any regard. Then he does.

“Last message was a tad too flirtatious,” he says.

“I’m sure I’ve said worse.” Harry tugs on a loose thread of his shirt hem. “I’m a little concerned about my thesis now. I think we should discuss it in person.”

“Too bad we won’t have the chance until Monday.”

“I distinctly remember making house calls for you before. To decorate your Christmas tree?”

“It’s Friday night,” Louis replies. “You don’t have plans?”

“I’m trying to fix that right now,” Harry says, smiling when he’s rewarded with a chuckle. “You’re the one messaging me on a Friday night.”

“You didn’t have to answer.”

“But you knew I would,” Harry says. He pulls the phone away from his ear and checks the time. “I can get there by 8:00. I’ll even bring a bottle of wine.”

Louis is quiet. Deep in rational thought, probably.

“We can keep it professional” Harry says. “I’ll sit on the opposite side of the room. We can just have a conversation.” And he means it, surprisingly. He would be content just to see him. “Or we can have each other. Entirely up to you.”

“You’re no good.”

“Do you want me to be good?”

Louis exhales loudly. He sounds strained. It’s working then. Harry scrambles for something more to say. Something kinky or something earnest. He’s not sure which will do the trick.

“If you were to show up,” Louis says. “I could make time to discuss your thesis.”

Harry stops pacing his room and shoves his feet into the first pair of shoes he sees: old tattered Chuck Taylor's he's been meaning to retire. “I’ll be there in thirty minutes.”

He slips out of his room quietly, but his use of stealth is ridiculous. If he were going on a date with an average bloke he wouldn’t sneak around. He forces himself to walk boldly to the kitchen where he finds an unopened bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon in the cupboard. It just grazes a litre of Stolichnaya on its way into the open and the clink of glass makes Harry wince.

“Are you making a drink, Harry?” Paige calls, sounding like she’d like one too.

“No, sorry, just putting a mug away.” With the bottle clenched between his thighs, he tugs his coat on quickly. “I’m out for a bit.”

And then he leaves, bidding them a good night, before they can ask questions. He takes a taxi to Louis’ and his knee bounces the whole way there and he nearly forgets to thank his driver when he arrives.

Louis, in a T-shirt and sweats, is completely unfazed at the door. “Did you genuinely bring wine?”

“Said I would,” Harry says. “It’s nothing special.”

“You flatter me.” Louis steps away from the door. Harry has a vertiginous sense of deja vu. Every time he’s arrived at this door, it’s been the harbinger of some pivotal chain of events. Most notable was the day he came to petition Louis’ return to Oxford. And isn’t this, right now, the official deliberate start of a forbidden affair between them? Or is that just wishful thinking?

Harry sets the bottle of wine on the coffee table. “So, my thesis.”

Louis takes a seat on the arm of the recliner. “Good stuff so far,” he says, nodding to the stack of papers on the coffee table. There are scribbles in the margins, scribbles at the tail end of arrows or hovering over carets between words. He takes pride in the fact that he can read Louis’ scrawl without leaning in close.

“A bit of maundering,” Louis says, “but you’re sorting yourself out, so that’s expected. You’ll have to nail down a protagonist, though. The multiple POV thing is fine, but I can’t tell who the story is about. Even if it’s about multiple people. None of them feel central.”

“That’s purposeful,” Harry says.

“That’s not obvious to me yet either.”

Harry begins to debate and then shakes his head. “I don’t actually want to talk about my thesis.”

Louis rolls his eyes, but there’s a smile on his face. Accessible is how he seems. Like Harry could cross the distance between them and tuck himself against the length of his body without scruple. He’s about to when he thinks of Emily. He thinks of this house that she furnished and tended to and loved. That kind of presence doesn’t leave with a person. Perhaps it takes time. Perhaps it never does. Whatever the case, he feels her here still.

Is it sanctimonious of him to fuck Louis elsewhere but not in the home he built with his wife?

“Do you want to get out of here then?” Louis asks.

Harry is so shocked and relieved, he laughs. “Absolutely. Where are we going?”

“You’ll have to wait and see.” Louis leaves the room and returns with a jacket on. He pauses. “We’ll probably be gone all night, though, if that’s alright.”

He knows it is. Harry grabs his bottle of wine. “Lots of time to finish this.”

Louis finds his car keys in his briefcase. “Come on, then.”

The only difference between this and trips they’ve taken up north is the integrity of their destination. Harry assumes they’re headed to a hotel and he finds he doesn't mind at all. When they reach the M40, his theory falls apart.

“Are we off to London?”

“We could be,” Louis says. “Just put on your music and relax.”

 

 

Louis parks outside a mammoth white house in The Boltons, complete with a black wrought iron gate and stone pillars and Harry looks at him, confusedly. “Are we stalking your favourite footballer?”

“Very funny,” Louis says, plucking the keys from the ignition. “That's Number 15, where I grew up. You want a tour or not?”

Harry adjusts to the dubiousness of it all after Louis punches a series of numbers into the gate and produces a key at the front door. Harry watches him move beyond the marble and mahogany entryway with a mechanic fluidity, turning a lamp on here and there, fiddling with the thermostat. He pulls the drapes back, allowing moonlight into the hallway and into an orderly drawing room where he drags dust sheets to the floor, unveiling a Chesterfield couch and a glass-top coffee table. He then rids another large article of furniture of its cover.

Harry whistles at the sight of the upright piano. It must be eight feet tall. Gleaming walnut with ornate carvings. “Do you play?”

“Not really,” Louis says, and then runs his fingers over the keys, and out flows a one-handed tune that is both simple and complex. Lilting and luxurious. He stops, wrinkling his nose. “Hasn’t been tuned in years.”

Harry would laugh at the absurdity of Louis if he weren't so endeared or moved by him. He follows him into the kitchen.

“Not hungry, are you?” Louis asks, popping the fridge door open. Harry peeks over his shoulder at the mostly empty shelves. There’s a jar of bright red jam, a can of evaporated milk and a package of rice cakes.

“Starving. That block of butter looks delicious,” Harry says. “How long has it all been in there?”

“Most likely since Christmas.” Louis shuts the fridge and leans into the worktop. “My youngest sister studies in Geneva. But when she comes home, she comes here. And my brother, he lives with his girlfriend but he’s here sometimes too. The others have families.”

"Your mum?"

"She has a home in Donny she prefers."

Harry wanders towards the dining room. “So, your sister stays here all by herself?”

“I’m sure she has guests. Why? Is it spooky?”

Harry scoffs. But the answer is yes. Dust sheets drape each of the ten dining chairs. The massive cabinet, also draped, stands between two windows like a long-dead sentinel. Even the gauzy sheer curtains have a ghostly quality to them. When he speaks, his voice echoes back with an eldritch ripple. Harry turns away from it all. “I want to see your room.”

Louis steps backwards into the hall. “Right this way.”

They take the creaky stairs to the second floor. There are paintings of each of them on the wall along the staircase. He stops to study Louis’ at the top. His high cheekbones and sharp blue eyes. Even in childhood, there was an arresting quality about him. Something that seemed aloof and unkind at first, before it revealed itself to be necessary. His guardedness wasn’t arbitrary at all. Upon closer look, it was a means of survival.

Louis’ room is at the end of the hall. Harry steps inside while Louis lingers behind. There’s a bit of dust on the desk by the window and all that’s left on the bookshelf are titles Louis clearly didn’t favour. He glances all around, even up at the ceiling, and then appraises Louis, who has his head rested on the door frame.

“Doesn’t look like a childhood bedroom,” Harry says. “Not yours, at least.”

“There used to be a T.V. and a Nintendo over in the corner. They remodelled it almost as soon as I moved out,” Louis says. “I never came back here anyway. I got back from New York and stayed with a friend of mine. Got married soon after.”

“Hope you at least got your posters,” Harry says.

Louis snorts. “I got most of my shit, yeah.”

Harry climbs into the bed and pats the space beside him. “Ever snuck a boy in?”

“‘Course not,” Louis says. He comes closer, stands at the edge of the bed for a second, before climbing on. They lie side by side.

“Now you have," Harry says.

“Should we whisper so no one hears us?”

“Suppose so,” Harry replies, voice hushed. He feels drowsiness looming, but the last thing he wants to do is sleep. He whispers, “Kiss me.”

Louis looks at his mouth, then down at their bodies parallel on the mattress. “I don’t know,” he says. “Kind of enjoying just lying here like this.”

That won’t do. Harry sits upright and mounts him. With an airy, surprised laugh, Louis arranges himself comfortably beneath him, his back against the headboard, his hands on Harry’s thighs.

“So eager,” he says.

Harry knows he’s being laughed at, but he doesn’t care. He presses their mouths together, tongues together, teeth together. It’s a clash, all of it. It’s clumsy and hurried and he should be embarrassed. He tends to be embarrassed around Louis, but the sex is different. They’d feel enough shame if the faculty at Oxford ever found out about this, so there’s no room or time left for it here.

Louis pushes Harry’s coat off his shoulders. Harry hurries to peel himself out of his shirt. He sounds virginally breathless as though every touch is overwhelming and new. As if he’s never had his nipples toyed with before. When Louis lathes his tongue over his chest, though, there’s a nascent sensation at the core of him that he can’t make sense of. He just knows he wants to feel it forever.

Through the haze of it all, he rids Louis of his jumper and pulls his cock into the open. He digs the lube and a condom from his coat pocket to Louis’ annoying delight.

“Just a little loose change?” he asks or something to that effect. Harry won’t remember later. 

Louis collects Harry’s hair in a fist so he can see his face when Harry sinks down on him. It almost hurts: to be so blissfully full, knowing how temporary that fullness is.

“Go on,” Louis says. “Fuck me.”

Maybe he’s joking, but the thought of it is intoxicating. It’s all Harry can think about as he rocks in Louis’ lap. He vacillates between short, minute thrusts and, towards the end, erratic, mindless bucking. He cups Louis’ jaw, drags his fingertips through his scruff, thumbs his bottom lip. He tries to touch as much of him as possible, now while he can, while he’s in control. All he can think about, all he ever wants to think about is Louis subdued and pinned between his thighs. Louis at his mercy. Louis in lust and in love with him.

 

 

Harry opens his eyes, then lets them close as soon as he sees the bed empty. He has a slight headache. Wine always does that to him and they emptied the bottle last night between two teacups.

It’s worse than Barbados. Not the headache, but the loneliness. There are no cheerful morning bird sounds. No distant chorus of waves. The house is unnervingly quiet. The absence of life is a different kind of swell, immense and heavy and absolute.

It’s unlikely that Louis actually left him. Not here in his family home in London. He's downstairs maybe or in the garden. But it still says a lot that he can’t bring himself to stay in bed with Harry until morning.

It's no big deal. The whole ordeal is illicit. Who is Harry to make demands about the cordiality of it? 

He gets dressed. It feels as though there’s something lodged in his throat and it makes him want to cry. He tries and fails to wrangle his frustration into a manageable inconspicuous emotion. He arrives at the first floor with no success.

He has a glass of water from the tap and lingers in the kitchen like a misplaced home appliance. He’s too prideful to call out to Louis. Wherever he is, it’s blatantly not with him. He won’t go looking for him either. Dignity aside, the house is too large and it seems impolite.

The sound of the front door opening and shutting echoes through the house. He draws his shoulders up tight and grips the edge of the countertop. He hears footsteps ascending the stairs and then a minute later, descending and drawing closer.

Louis steps into the kitchen. He’s holding a tray with two coffees and a paper bag. He plucks an earphone from his ear. “Bit early for you, isn’t it?”

“That joke is getting old,” Harry says. Even to his own ears, he sounds irritable.

Louis lifts his brows. He sets the coffee down. “Are you cross?”

“I thought you left,” Harry says. “I mean, you did leave, but I thought it was 'cause you needed space or something. I don’t know.”

“You made it pretty clear you didn’t like that," Louis says without looking at him. "I was just down the street. Thought I’d make it back before you were up.”

He turns away and opens a cupboard above the sink, which is good timing because Harry doesn't know what to do with his face. Louis pulls a white plate from a stack, rinses and dries it. He upends the paper bag over the plate and out tumbles a set of flaky croissants. He plucks a coffee cup from the tray and hands it to Harry. “Enjoy.”

“Bit weird you getting the coffee,” Harry says.

Louis’ smile is triumphant. “I even know how you take it.”

Harry experiences a giddy rush right then that he only exacerbates with a sip of coffee. "Thank you," he says, quietly. And for several seconds, they remain quiet, finishing their light breakfast. He’s no less embarrassed for having misread Louis’ good intentions or throwing an unsubtle strop about it, but he’s admittedly more content than he was five minutes ago.

“Do you need to get back to Oxford?” Louis asks all of a sudden.

“No, not anytime soon.”

Louis jams his hands in the pockets of his hoodie. “Could hang around here for a while,” he says after a second of hesitation. “There’s an exhibit I’ve been meaning to see. Can’t promise it’ll be good but—”

“I’m in," Harry says. "I'm yours all day." And that, believe it or not, is a display of self-control. What he really wants to say is: I’m yours. No specification necessary.

Chapter Text

Harry wears a tweed Burberry jacket borrowed from Louis’ younger brother. EST, say the initials inside the lapel. Ernest Stephan Tomlinson. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, putative prince of the Tomlinson empire ever since Louis absconded to study literature . ‘Ernie’ is of course on track to be a solicitor, although Louis thinks he’ll be terrible at it.

“Left all his good suits behind,” he says. “What kind of businessman does that?”

Harry detects affection in his voice. He wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Ernest teases Louis as frequently and as childishly as Louis teases him. He can even imagine them fussing about their slight height difference. Harry is just a bit taller than Louis, which is why Ernest’s grey trousers fit him so well.

“Here,” Louis says and begins fixing Harry’s tie, the one he insisted on Harry wearing. He’s so close Harry could count his lashes or the faint shadows his lashes leave on his cheekbones. Louis nudges his chin with his knuckle, a silent command for Harry to hold his head up. He steps away, surveying him. He smiles. “Definitely not. Just wanted to see how it’d look.”

Harry rolls his eyes, tugging the tie off and returning it to the wardrobe. Louis loosens the first three buttons of his dress shirt. “That’s better.”

Harry wants to kiss him, but they don’t kiss casually. Or at least they never have before. Their first kiss not included. The urge to be casually unreasonably affectionate with Louis isn’t one he’s familiar with. It's why he generally hates PDA. He finds it suspicious that two people could be compelled to kiss and touch and flirt constantly for the world to see. What are they trying to prove? Who are they proving it to?

The exhibit Louis takes him to is called “Love, Oscar” — “an ode of love to Oscar Wilde,” what’s essentially a compilation of writing and art as it relates to and was influenced by Wilde. “Specifically to do with love,” Louis says. (Harry is particularly keen on the way Louis says ‘love’. It could be his imagination, but he’s delicate with it. His voice goes soft.) “Or the lack of it, even.”

It turns out the exhibit is hosted by Oxford. When it comes time for the film portion, Louis uses his strings to finagle their way into a semi-private viewing while the staff cleans the theatre between one showing and the next. They take up seats at the very center.

“Used to do a bit of work with the film society,” Louis tells him. “Helping them with research and all that.”

“What was that like?”

“I prefer literature students.”

Harry grins. He glances around in search of the cleaning staff, but realizes they’ve cleared out. The lights have gone dim. He turns back to Louis. “Kind of nice, right? Having the whole theatre to ourselves?” he asks. “Kind of romantic.”

Louis looks at him. “This is your idea of romance?”

“Doesn’t take much. Just the right person, really,” Harry says. “All my favourite dates started with a film. We’d share popcorn, spike the Coke, hold hands maybe… if I really liked him.”

He realizes Louis is looking at his mouth and he tucks his bottom lip under the top. Not seductively, but self-consciously. He looks towards the screen. Louis does too.

“Does sound a bit romantic,” he says quietly.

Immediately Harry looks at him again. The film starts finally after a brief message from its sponsors. Harry isn’t really paying attention. He loves Oscar Wilde. But Louis has set his hands on top of the armrests.

Like any other moment between them, this one starts off small. Just a spark. A single note that concertinas and overcomes him in an instant. He wants to touch Louis’ hand and he thinks Louis might let him and the urge to do it is so irresistible, he can think of nothing else.

With a glance his way, Harry sets his hand on top of Louis’, touching his fingertips to each knuckle. He peeks at him again. He can’t tell if he’s breathing. That’s two of them, then.

Louis turns his hand over, his palm as open and inviting as a new book. It seems so natural and so obvious that Harry should thread their hands together. Louis isn’t looking at Harry, isn’t really looking at anything, but most notable of all is that he isn’t pulling away. Harry draws their clasped hands into his lap.

Now that he thinks about it, he can’t remember the last person whose hand he held. But he wonders if this counts as PDA. Is it a display if no one can see them? Is it enough that he wishes they could? Not because the threat of exposure thrills him. It doesn’t. He wishes it weren’t a threat at all. The thrill is in getting to touch Louis like it’s not.

He resists running his thumb across Louis’. He keeps every part of him very still. The film is only about twenty minutes long, but he zones out for parts of it. Something onscreen will interest him but soon after, he remembers Louis’ hand in his own and his attention is curbed. They don’t talk to each other. Harry tends not to talk during films anyway, but he also can’t bring himself to talk for the same reasons he stays still.

Before he knows it, it’s over. And he only realises because Louis slides his hand out of Harry’s. The lights have gone back up.

“Louis Tomlinson,” he hears from somewhere behind them and watches Louis make his way into the aisle. There’s a man making his way towards them. Suited and wearing thin-framed glasses.

Harry stands as well. His whole face feels hot. His legs are like lead as he joins Louis. He’s having some sort of out-of-body conniption. Physically, he’s freaking out, but mentally, his mind is behind by five minutes and he’s still holding Louis’ hand.

“I heard you were in London,” the man says as he and Louis exchange a hug.

“Word travels fast.” Louis turns a bit. “This is Harry. He’s my TA this year.”

Harry shakes hands with the gentlemen. “Adrian,” he says with a smile. “Nice to meet you. How long are you two in London for? We should all have a drink. Bet Vince would love to see you.”

“I think we’re going to head back soon,” Louis says. “Just saw Vince at the Vivaldi ceremony.”

“Vince Burge?” Harry asks.

“Yeah, he studied at Oxford with me and Louis,” Adrian says. “You know him?”

“Met him at the award ceremony,” Harry says.

“Oh, Louis took you along, did he?” Adrian asks, but it’s a rhetorical question and he doesn’t wait for an answer. He reaches for Louis’ shoulder — “‘Scuse us for a second, Harry.” And he and Louis start towards the exit, Adrian’s voice sinking low. Harry hears ‘Emily’ but nothing else.

Outside the theatre, he wanders the exhibit again. Louis and Adrian talk for a while several feet away. Once, Harry meets Louis’ gaze, but then Adrian, following Louis’ line of sight, turns to scan the room. By then, he and Louis have looked away quickly.

They are a secret after all. The way they look at each other included. And Harry has hardly been deluded thinking otherwise. His fantasies about Louis have often, if not always, come with an implicit shade of discretion. Scarcely the possibility of openness or publicity. But, until today, he’s never wanted it.

 

 

The occasion they really dressed up for is lunch. The restaurant has a few Michelin stars and a wall of neatly arranged framed photos featuring celebrity patrons. The waiters are apparelled in white. Tables meticulously draped in crisp white linens with polished silverware and wine glasses waiting. They’re seated by a window overlooking the Thames and handed two leather-bound menus.

“You’re so quiet.”

Harry peeks over his menu. “Just trying to decide.”

Louis lets the topic rest, but only for an instant. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Harry says.

“Sad you missed out on seeing your pal, Vince?”

Harry lowers the menu entirely, his brows creasing. “I genuinely haven’t thought about him since I met him and I didn’t think you’d still be jealous about him either.”

Louis’ eye roll is long and languorous. “I wasn’t jealous.”

“You knew he was interested in me and you prevented me from going home with him.”

“He would have taken you to a hotel, not to his home, because he’s married.”

“Or I could have taken him back to mine. The point is you were jealous.”

“Obviously I knew he was interested in you, but if I got in the way, it’s because I was looking out for you.”

“I can handle myself.”

“Can you?”

“What does it say if you think I can’t?”

In the second that follows, in the soft, stunned breath Louis takes, all pretense collapses between them. “Fine,” Louis says. “I was jealous.”

The waiter comes. The invisible tether between their gazes snaps. Harry hurries to choose between two options he’d been debating on. The duck probably won’t disappoint. He can’t tell if the tension between himself and Louis is the good or bad kind. It could go either way, although when Louis is honest about his feelings, it tends to be the latter. For now, they’re quiet. Louis rearranges his silverware idly, sneaking a glance across the table.

It may be Harry’s imagination but there’s a slight ruddiness to his cheekbones. He feels a tenderness for him he can’t explain. Mostly it’s paradoxical. He wants to mess Louis up. To wrinkle his clothing and ruin his hair, but he wants to hold his hand too and kiss him for others to see.

“Thank you for lunch,” he decides to say, trying to lighten the mood.

He gets a hint of a smile. “You haven’t had it yet,” Louis says. “You might not like it.”

“I’m pretty sure I passed Ming Rae Hutton on the way in,” Harry says. “She’s the one from that cooking show. Owns a few restaurants in London. I think if she’s eating here I’ll like it.”

Louis’ smile grows. “Done something right then.”

“You’re a critically acclaimed author.”

“I meant with you,” Louis says.

Harry smiles wryly. “I think we’re both acting like children.” He feels like a kid, albeit one who’s been given something too sweet or let loose at an amusement park. He’s on a power trip of some sort, fueled by Louis’ admission of jealousy.

“Let’s balance things out and drink like adults then,” Louis says, and orders a bottle of some pricey Lambrusco before Harry thinks to object. The waiter fills their glasses and leaves the bottle on the table.

“You have to drive,” Harry says.

“Not for a few hours. We’ll kill some more time around here,” he says. “I’ll leave most of it to you.”

“Probably could have gotten that drink with your friends,” Harry says, lifting his glass. “If we’ll be here for a while.”

Louis has a swill of wine. He rests his elbows on the arms of his chair and slouches a bit. “I’ve got no complaints about my company at present.”

Harry depletes a good portion of his wine, mainly to hide a smile. “Hope you don’t regret saying that in an hour.”

 

 

A bottle of wine, a bit of footsie and an hour-long drive later, Harry says, “Zayn messaged me. Won’t be back til Sunday night.”

He can think of nothing better than luring Louis into his apartment where there is only so much room and thus, lots of opportunity to be close to him.

He probably shouldn’t call it footsie, what they did. Louis would scoff at that. But at some point during lunch, Harry stretched his foot beneath the table and brushed his ankle against Louis’ and then decided to simply leave his ankle there. (It should be mentioned that he was two glasses in by then.)

He reaches for the door handle. “If you want to come up…”

Louis removes the keys from the ignition slowly as if he’s still debating with himself and hasn’t already made up his mind. “Maybe for a bit,” he says. When the keys are tucked in his coat pocket, Harry pops the door open. Louis does the same.

Now, that it’s happening, Harry worries about the state of his room or the state of his life as it’s revealed by his room. Did he put the softcore porn away, for example? What other dysfunctions will be immediately apparent once Louis steps inside?

Harry unlocks the front door and turns to face Louis. “Could you just wait here while I tidy up? It’ll be a minute tops.” His bedroom door, he knows, is open. He leaves it that way for Mosley to come and go as she pleases.

“No,” Louis says. “You’ve seen my mess. I want to see yours.”

Harry supposes that’s fair. “My room seems cluttered but it’s not.”

Louis looks at him tiredly. “What they all say.”

They have a bit of a silent stand-off for a second. Finally, Harry twists the doorknob and leans into the door, pushing it open. Louis slips past him. He points at Zayn’s door, brows raised. Harry shakes his head. Louis continues on to the second room. He pushes his shoes off at the door and steps inside.

His face is featureless upon his first perusal and if there were any indication of judgement, Harry would catch it. Louis tilts his head so that he can read the stack of books at Harry’s bedside. “Are these your favourites?”

“Some,” Harry says. “Was referencing a few for my thesis.”

Louis slides a book out from under Harry’s pillow and smiles. The cover features two scantily dressed individuals embracing one another. “Also for your thesis, yeah?”

“It’s entertaining,” Harry says of the romance novel everyone’s been talking about. It’s well-written but entirely pornographic. Harry finished the last chapter a month ago and immediately wrung one out. Although the dark, mysterious hero of the novel wasn’t on his mind as he did. Louis was.

“I bet,” Louis says. He turns toward the desk. Spying the mugs along the edge or on the windowsill, all of them at least a little full, he asks, “Have you ever actually finished a cup of tea?”

Harry shrugs but Louis doesn’t see him. His eyes are on the notebook sitting open on Harry’s desk. Harry’s heart sinks. He rushes to close the notebook, but it’s not like that makes a difference.

“You write my name in the margins of all your books?” Louis asks.

“No,” Harry says. And it’s not Louis’ name that he’s most concerned with either. That was only a caption.

“That wasn’t a sketch of me, was it?”

Harry tosses the notebook on the floor. “This was fun, but maybe we should go somewhere else.”

“I like it here,” Louis says. “Exactly how I imagined it.”

“You imagined what my room looks like?”

Louis glances at him fleetingly. “Didn’t say that.”

“You just did.”

“I’m not the one drawing pictures of you, though, am I?” Louis asks. “You do that while you’re in my class?” Harry watches him peek through the curtains, late afternoon sun on his face.

“No, I tried doing it from memory,” Harry says. “Would probably be easier if you posed for it.”

Still looking through the curtains, Louis says, “What do I get in return for sitting still?”

Harry smiles. “I’ll cook you dinner.”

“Alright then.” Louis shrugs out of his jacket and rests it on the back of Harry’s chair. “Where do you want me?”

Harry needs a second to remember his words. “On the bed,” he says quickly. If it were warmer, he’d go for the fire escape. All that sunlight and blue sky at his disposal.

Louis settles onto Harry’s mattress, stretching his legs out, spreading his arms across the pillows. The temptation to straddle him is almost too great. Harry gets his sketchpad and a pencil and sits on the corner of the mattress. The drawing in his notebook was just a doodle. Just the outline of Louis’ jaw, his mouth and brows. The one in his sketchpad, which he started after Barbados, is the product of genuine effort. He couldn’t get Louis out of his head fast enough and thought banishing him to paper might work. It didn’t, of course, but the sketch isn’t half bad.

Still, it makes a world of difference to have Louis poised patiently on his mattress.

He meets his gaze periodically and every time, his heart trips over itself. He’s not skilled enough to convey the full intensity of his eyes. He’s not sure any amount of skill would do them justice. In the corner of the page, he renders Louis’ hands. He shades in the curves of his knuckles, the touch of his pencil as soft as his mouth would be if he kissed them.

He slides his tongue across his own lips before he begins to draw Louis’. His breath feels slightly ragged. He studies the delicate part of Louis’ mouth. The room feels a bit hot. He drags his wrist over his forehead.

“You’ve got an erection, love.”

With a glance into his lap, Harry exhales a steadying breath. “Have we graduated to terms of endearment?” he asks. He feels like he could burst into flame and he doesn’t know if it’s due to the word ‘love’ or his adolescent display of arousal.

“Slip of the tongue,” Louis says, smiling. “Do you get turned on with all your subjects?”

“Can’t say it’s happened before.” Harry shuts his sketchbook. “Are you hungry?”

“I’m not allowed to see?”

“Not yet.” Harry stands, holding the book over his crotch. “I’m going to start on dinner.”

From the kitchen, he can see Louis move around his room and it surprises him how little he minds. Other men have often overstayed their welcome, but Harry can’t think of enough ways to keep Louis around. He takes it very seriously what Virginia Woolf called a ‘room of one’s own’. She argued that female writers needed a figurative and literal space to write and think and be freely. He tries never to forget how much easier that space comes to him as a man. It’s why he holds his room in such high regard. All said, Louis perusing his space brings his esteem to completion. Weeks from now, he’ll remember the quiet thought he has right then and wonder why it never triggered alarm:

There is a room full of things I love.

“You paint too?” Louis asks, paused in the doorway.

“Sometimes,” Harry says as he rinses a bundle of potatoes. “An old professor told me I should. She said I should ‘leave no art unturned’.”

Louis joins him in the kitchen. “I think she was right. You’re good at it.”

“Maybe I should’ve done that instead of writing.”

“Or maybe you should’ve been a singer. Or maybe a chef. You’re good at a lot of things. What do you want to be great at?”

Harry gets that he’s being philosophical, but his first thought is: “Like my cooking, do you?”

Louis’ brows crease. “I’d’ve left already if I didn’t.”

They exchange smiles. Stupid, boyish ones. Ones that linger.

It takes hardly any time at all to prepare roast chicken and potatoes in a cast-iron skillet. The chicken is marinated already and all the potatoes need is olive oil, garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper. Louis nurses a glass of wine while he watches, sometimes talking to Harry, sometimes only looking at him. It’s after Harry has placed the chicken in the oven, that he says:

“If I was strange around Adrian, it’s because he’s a friend of Emily’s.” He pushes his empty wine glass away. It doesn’t occur to Harry to refill it. “He’s married to one of her friends.”

Harry isn’t sure what to say. He drums his fingers on the edge of the countertop. “How is Emily?”

“We’re not in touch.”

“But you’ve been in touch with your mutual friends?” Harry asks. “Like Adrian?”

“Like Vince?”

Harry can’t muster enough energy to roll his eyes and he knows Louis is only teasing. “Sure, Vince too.”

“Not really, no,” Louis says. “Emily’s friends are the children of my parents’ friends. All from the same circles. Most of them are solicitors or bankers or surgeons.”

“Not Adrian and Vince.”

“Not Adrian, but Vince tried. He studied Economics at Oxford like Emily. He wasn’t interested in being an agent at first as far as I knew, but I put him on with some people. Nothing else panned out for him.”

Louis slumps against the fridge door, feet spread, arms crossed. “They’re not insufferable, the rest of them. But I started to resent them, anyway, I think. For buying into the act. I wanted them to believe I was a happily married man, but I hated that they did. It’s a bit like with Adam and Eve. God tested them unreasonably, then they failed of course, and he was a complete twat about it. I never got on with those lads. Adrian’s the only one I liked. But I fell out of touch with him. And if you fall out of touch with one, word spreads and you fall out of touch with all of them.”

“It sounds suffocating,” Harry says. “I wouldn’t know where to start, getting out of it.”

“I’d hate to see you with those people. They suck the joy out of everything.”

“Not to worry,” Harry says. “I’m content with my company at present.”

Louis smiles, his head tilted down. Harry waits until his gaze has returned to him and takes one step forward. Doesn’t give himself any time to think about it. Just delivers a single casual kiss like he’s done it a hundred times already and will do it a thousand times to come. “Do you think you’ll stay the night?” he asks. “I need to know whether to pour you another glass.”

Louis swallows visibly. “Pour me another and we’ll see.”

 

 

Harry thinks about Louis’ mouth on his arsehole at least once a day. He remembers thinking ‘you can’t do that and expect me to ever forget you’, but maybe that was the point. Maybe Louis was operating on the belief that they would only fuck that once. And thus it should be epic. God only knows what he’s thinking this time. Whatever the case, Harry isn’t thinking at all. Face down on the couch, he’s hardly breathing either.

He doesn’t have anything to hold onto, so he pushes his fingers into his own hair.

“Where’s the lube?” Louis asks.  “Harry.”

“What?” His voice comes warbled and breathy.

“Lube?”

“Bottom drawer, I think,” Harry says. “Maybe under the pillow. Or on the floor.”

Louis huffs a laugh. “Don’t move.”

Harry obviously doesn’t move. He feels deliciously exposed, with his pants around his thighs. He’s aware of the late afternoon sunlight still invading the room, of Mosley somewhere in the flat, and of Louis with an unobstructed view of his bum. He’s also aware that he’s never wanted to be fucked this badly in his life. He’s got a healthy sexual appetite, but he’s outright gagging for it, as gracefully and imperceptibly as possible.

He hears Louis return to the couch but isn’t prepared for the trickle of lube down his arse. It hardly feels like anything, but he groans in anticipation anyway. He likes that he can’t see him. Yesterday they fucked facing one another, which allowed for too much eye contact. Louis denied him none of it. Looked at Harry as much as he wanted. Kissed him as much as he wanted. He’s so generous in bed. Good in every way Harry wants it to be good.

He’s used to Louis looking at him as though he’s made of cellophane. Out of bed, mostly. But lately, he feels like he has more to hide.

At any rate, Louis doesn’t have him turn over. He fingers him and fucks him like that. The timer on Harry’s phone goes off at some point, but it’s buried beneath the towel Harry used after his shower and the music playing on his laptop drowns the faint sound out. And Louis probably doesn’t hear it anyway because he’s just come, his forehead against the back of Harry’s neck.

Then, actually, he does turn Harry over. But there’s no time for Harry to care. Louis’ mouth is on his cock. Something inside Harry buckles almost instantly. “Gonna come,” he says. And then, frantically, “I’m going to come in your mouth.”

Louis does a half-roll of his eyes. He’s so unbothered by the notion. The way he looks at Harry says he’s even eager. After Harry comes, he continues to suck him. And only stops when Harry is spent and oversensitive.

“I’m starving,” Louis says.

“There’s a joke in there somewhere,” Harry says. “Sorry to be a poor host, but I can’t move.” He can’t feel his limbs. Except when Louis presses a kiss to his inner thigh, he feels that.

“Guess I’ll serve myself dinner,” Louis says and Harry hears him a second later bustling around the kitchen. Harry wriggles his pants back on. He clicks around on his laptop, starting a different playlist. Something less romantic, but just as thoughtful.

Louis returns with the whole dish, two plates and the bottle of wine. He serves them both. Pours Harry’s wine.

“Whose albums in the corner?” Louis asks after he’s worked his way through half his plate already. He nods towards the TV console, where Zayn has a turntable set up. The guitar Harry hardly plays is in the corner beside it. It’s like a musical No-Man’s-Land.

“Mine mostly, but I’ve got more in the room. All the records I really like.”

“What’s the point of having all the one you don’t really like?”

Harry thinks about it. “I don’t know. My dad had a massive collection and I went through this phase in my early teens where I was so desperate for his attention, I thought music could keep us connected. I collected so many albums, even ones I didn’t fully like,” he says. He’s a bit embarrassed. In the way that tales of rejection embarrass everyone. “I used to send him mixtapes. Doubt he ever listened to one.”

“Christ,” Louis says. “Why are all fathers absolute shit?”

“I think he just didn’t have the time.”

“That’s no excuse.”

“I don’t think we’d be shit fathers,” Harry says. “I’d hope that men with shit fathers didn’t become shit fathers themselves.”

But that’s not to speak ill of his own father. He genuinely doesn’t think of him as a bad guy. He doesn’t think of him all that much in general. He finds that weeks will go by before he hears from him or gets in touch, but it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long and he doesn’t feel his absence.

“Tends to be the case, though, doesn’t it?” Louis slides his plate away. He’s either full or talk of fatherhood has ruined his appetite. He lifts the lid on a box at the centre of the table. Zayn’s stash of weed. Which isn’t quite a stash considering it’s out in the open.

“Thought so,” Louis says.

Harry pushes his plate away. “Want to?”

Louis smiles. “Might as fucking well.

 

 

The second time they have sex, Louis calls him ‘baby’ right before he comes. It’s the weed that does it, probably. But after, when Louis leaves to take a shower, Harry thinks about it incessantly, struggling to read a book, struggling to rationalize that degree of affection, or even to nullify it. He realizes that, as contradictory as it seems, they do have a good bit of self-control between them. They’re sleeping together, but it’s transactional. Their exchange of pleasure is precise. And it never strays. Terms of endearment, hand-holding, even the caress of their ankles beneath a restaurant table— they’re all signposts on a diverted course.

“Do you have clothes to lend me?”

Harry lowers his book and regards his professor at his door. Just a slim towel around his waist. He looks like the highlight of every fever dream. The thing that inspires the fever. The evening sun is like a nimbus on him. His arms and his chest glisten.

He’s the fever itself.

“Pants, at least?” Louis asks.

Harry sets his book aside. He shakes his head, his smile sly. “Don’t think I do.”

Louis feigns disapproval, rolling his eyes and more. But he climbs onto the bed, towering over Harry for an instant. He runs his hand from Harry’s knee to his pelvis. “This what you want?”

Harry lets his legs fall apart in lieu of ‘yes’. He pushes his fingers and the tip of his nose into Louis’ damp hair when he’s close enough, his breath catching at the touch of Louis’ mouth on his collarbones and neck. He smells of Harry’s shampoo, but it’s somehow more pleasing on him. Harry tugs lightly. Louis lifts his head, his lips curve. Harry fists his hands in Louis’ hair and earns the enthusiastic, open-mouthed kiss he wants. Seconds pass. Maybe minutes. Hours could go by kissing him, but eventually they’re hard and Louis’ towel has slipped off and there’s a condom and lube within arm’s reach.

They have sex again, slowly. Dusk beyond the window seems infinite. Morning might never come and Harry wouldn’t notice. Time is measured in the push and pull of Louis’ cock. In the way he buries himself inside like he never wants to leave. Harry wishes he never had to. That he could suspend them in this forever.

“Don’t stop,” he even says, despite the fact that he’s up against the edge of his limit. If he lets go for a second, he’ll come. He resists for as long as possible. He wants to shut his eyes, but he holds Louis’ gaze as long as he can. And begs, “Don’t stop.”

For what it’s worth, Louis outlasts him. It starts to rain. Hard. And at the sudden  drumming on the roof, some part of Harry’s attention slips, dragging his control along with it. The white-noise rush of the rain makes the perfect soundtrack for the dizzying mind-numbing orgasm he has then. Louis stills, tucking his face into the crook of Harry’s neck with a whimper Harry will replay in his head over and over.

He lies sapped and sweaty beside him afterwards.

Louis discards his condom and digs around in his coat on the floor. “Mind if I smoke in here?”

“No,” Harry says, although he does get up and light a candle. He pops the window open too, magnifying the sound of rain. He hands Louis a teacup to use for his ash, then takes a seat facing him. With his legs crossed, his thigh overlaps Louis’ and their skin brushes so softly it tickles. Harry watches him for a bit. He loves when he’s allowed to just watch him. To study him. To catalog him in every part of his memory, temporary and timeless.

“The one you said I remind you of. Daniel,” Harry begins. He hates how loud his voice sounds, despite his attempt to be as quiet and gentle as possible. “Did you love him?”

“Odd thing to ask,” Louis says.

“I didn’t think so. Sort of came to mind with us here naked together. Am I not the first man you’ve been with since him?”

“You’re not. There were others before I got married.”

Harry vaguely remembers Louis mentioning as much, but he wishes he hadn’t. “Either way. I think it’s fair if I have questions. So I know where we stand.”

Louis frowns at the ceiling. “Where we stand on what? I’m your advisor. You’re my advisee. There’s not much else to sort out, is there?”

“I won’t always be your advisee.”

“What does that mean, Harry?”

Harry sighs, pressing his fingertips into his eyelids. “Did you love him or not?”

“I don’t think I had the chance,” Louis says finally.

Well, then, there’s no hope for Harry at all.

“We should stop doing this, shouldn’t we?” Louis asks, stubbing his cigarette. He isn’t harsh at all. Merely matter-of-fact as if either way, it’s inconsequential to him.

“Again,” Harry says, clearing his throat, “you’re the wise one here. You tell me.”

They fall into silence. Harry draws his knees up to his chest and folds his arms atop them. He rests his head on his arms, face turned away from Louis. If he stays that way, Louis will likely get the hint and he’ll leave and then Harry can cry in peace. It’s too bad, that even now, Harry wants him to stay.

Louis sits upright, bed sheet falling away from him softly. His elbow brushes Harry’s. “I’d miss you to be honest.”

Harry shuts his eyes and burrows further into the bend of his arm. “Me or the sex?” he says, voice muffled.

“I’d miss you,” Louis says. “I’d miss fucking you too.”

In spite of himself, Harry smiles. But he doesn’t lift his head.

“You don’t remind me of him anymore. Of anyone,” Louis says. “It’s what I said at the award ceremony. You’re not like anyone else.”

“Don’t be sweet.”

“I’m being honest. Haven’t I always been honest with you?”

“Sometimes you need a little nudge.”

“Can count on you for that,” Louis says with a laugh. He leans into Harry. Harry looks at him finally. Eye to eye, at first, before he realises that’s a mistake. He focuses on Louis’ mouth instead, which inspires Louis to kiss him, his lips tragically soft.

“I thought we were deciding to stop,” Harry says.

Louis runs their noses together. “Do you want to stop?”

Harry shakes his head.

“Tomorrow then, maybe.”

 

 

Stretching his arm across the mattress, Harry’s knuckles meet warm skin.

“What are you feeling around for?” Louis asks.

Harry opens his eyes. There’s a book lying open on Louis’ chest. One of Harry’s books. His glasses are on too. Louis rolls his head to the side and looks at him expectantly.

“You’re here,” Harry murmurs.

“Seems so.”

Harry smiles, slow as honey. The euphoria of waking up beside Louis is exactly as he imagined it. He’s wholly gratified. His day is immediately explicitly blessed. And then it’s all undermined by thoughts of the night before. Of what, to anyone, would seem like a defeat. He lowers his gaze to the space between them.

“I need to finish my drawing,” he decides. “Promise I’ll control myself this time.”

For half an hour, he distracts himself with his art while Louis reads. At some point Mosley wanders onto the bed and without pause, Louis pets her with his free hand. Harry flips the page and spends another half-hour sketching Louis’ hand in her fur. He never really finishes. (Because if he finishes, he has to stop. He has to think. He has to tell the truth.) Louis closes his book all of a sudden and says, “I need the loo.”

Harry’s pencil stills. “Put the kettle on, would you?” he says as Louis slips out of the room.

Harry puts the sketchpad aside and prostrates himself, burying his face in Louis’ pillow. He has the worst feeling in his stomach, made worse by a hunger pang. He shuts his eyes and wonders what he’ll make for breakfast, wonders if Louis will stay and for how long. He can hear the sound of the pipe running in the loo, then the door opening. Then the sound of the front door opening as well. Both at the same time, it seems. His eyes pop open. Instantly, he’s out of bed.

The sight in the living area is of course Zayn and Louis regarding each other with an identical degree of muted surprise. There’s no room for misinterpretation because Louis is dressed in briefs and nothing else.

“You’re back,” Harry says to Zayn like an idiot.

Zayn lifts his brows. He slides the grocery bag in his arms onto the counter. “How’s it, Lou?”

“Not bad,” Louis says. They all stand in silence for a second longer. Finally, Louis turns and steps into Harry’s room. He returns within an instant, wearing his clothes from yesterday, pulling his arms into his coat, swiftly. “Lads, I’m off. See you around.”

The sound of the front door shutting comes shortly after. It seems too abrasive in the small space of their flat. Harry looks at Zayn. He registers the tiredness there, but he’ll have to deal with it later. He hurries to the door and into the hallway. Louis is just at the landing.

“You don’t have to leave,” Harry says.

Louis toys with his keys in his coat pocket. “I should. I’ve got work to do,” he says. “Don’t look so sad.”

“I’m happy actually,” Harry says. “Or at least, I have been happy all weekend. It just took me a second to realize it. I think it’s the happiest I’ve been with anyone.”

Louis is not quite looking at him.

“How about you?” Harry asks. “Were you happy?”

Louis digs the heels of his hands into his eyelids. “I was, yeah.”

“I think it could be like that all the time,” Harry says. “I know it doesn’t make sense but I think you should consider it. I could make you happy if you let me.”

“Harry,” Louis says. He sounds exhausted. “That wasn’t the plan, was it?”

“We never really had a plan,” Harry says. “Just think about it, at least.”

There’s silence between them. Around them. Within them. It’s all-encompassing and terrible. Louis takes the next step. He does smile, although it’s so hollow, it could come from anyone. Could be directed towards anyone. “See you in the morning,” Louis says. “Bright and early.”

Chapter Text

Harry waits for Louis in his office for as long as possible. He finishes his croissant and has a chunk from Louis‘, then pokes at the ice left in his coffee cup. He refreshes his email. He refreshes it again. Around the twentieth tap of the refresh button, there’s one new message. Nothing in the body. Just a subject:

‘Out today. Will send notes in nxt email. - LT’

Louis’ notes on the reading come immediately afterwards. Without any further explanation. If there’s one on the way, Harry no longer has time to wait for it. He discards what’s left of Louis’ croissant and collects his things. Arriving to the classroom, slightly out of breath and sweaty, he’s immediately met with fifteen rounds of undergraduate curiosity.

“Good morning,” he says, approaching the desk. He doesn’t feel comfortable standing behind it or sitting on top of it the way Louis does. He stands just to the side. “Sorry, I’m late. Dr Tomlinson won’t be joining us today.”

“Aren’t you lecturing this week, Harry?” one of the students asks.

“I am, yes,” Harry says. “I was just hoping to have some back up.”

He laughs nervously and thankfully, miraculously , some of the students laugh too. He lifts his bag off his shoulder and lets his shoulders fall. He withdraws his copy of Never Let Me Go and his notepad and reluctantly stands behind the podium that Louis never uses.

“Nice weekend, everyone?” he asks, looking around. There are a few nods, a few so-so tilts of the head. He leans into the podium. “What’d you get up to, Natalie?”

“Went to a wedding in Croydon. It was awful. Wedding planner quit at the end of it.”

Harry lifts his brows. “We’ll come back to that later. David? How about you?”

“The Swim Club had its last relay. We came in first.”

Harry makes a show of being stunned and leading the class into applause.

“Hopefully everyone had as good a weekend as David or an eventful one. And hopefully the reading didn’t ruin it. Or make it worse, in some cases.” He flips his book open. “It’s a tough read, but it’s worth reading. Even if you’re on a beach holiday.”

More laughter. This is fine.

“Maybe especially then,” Harry says. He runs a hand through his hair. “Alright. I know you’re all desperate for this question, so what did you think? First impressions?”

He’s expecting to have to pull some teeth. He’ll be a menace if necessary. But he hates to call on students who are genuinely unprepared. It’s awkward for everyone. As it happens, he doesn’t have to wait long for a volunteer. In fact, he gets five of them. Two eager, three reluctant but willing. He takes a random pick.

 

 

On Tuesday, Harry attempts lunch outdoors. But not even Zayn’s culinary moxie or the warm breeze or the hypnotic sway of the willow tree nearby is enough to entice him to eat his pasta salad. He’s been anxious all morning, which now has made him nauseous. It’s irritating. He’s dramatic enough on his own without it manifesting physically.

Louis cancelled his classes for the day with cancellation pending for the entire week. Ten seconds after Harry dismounted his bike at the coffee shop, a blast email came through. Instead of turning back, returning to bed, he bought his coffee and has been lingering on campus ever since. Sort of working on his thesis, but not really. Sort of eating his lunch, but not actually.

The most intention he applies to anything is looking around. Scanning the courtyard only to stop himself when he realises what or who he’s looking for.

His gaze drifts around again. This time he sees Dr Lee headed into Teddy Hall. His instinct is to look away before he’s seen or spoken to. But then he thinks of Louis. He packs his lunch up quickly and darts inside.

Marie, standing in the hallway, has caught Solomon first. Or Solomon has caught her. She seems to draw away from him just as Harry comes into view.

“You’re still here?” she asks Harry, sounding flustered.

“I’m heading home soon, probably,” Harry says. “Dr Lee, I was hoping I could speak with you?”

Solomon, with only a slight glance Harry’s way, says, “Of course.”

There’s something foul in the air, but Harry can’t figure out if it’s him or if it’s them. Maybe they know something he doesn’t. About Louis. Maybe it has nothing to do with Harry at all. He tries to catch Marie’s eye again but she moves eagerly past him with her head down and Harry follows Solomon to his office, two flights up, secluded at the end of a hallway. It’s a bit larger than Louis’ and cleaner too, although that’s not an endorsement. It’s the size and clutter of Louis’ office that makes it feel so cosy in Harry’s opinion. And Louis himself, of course. He gets another sweep of nausea in his stomach at the thought of him. A tender thought, in particular.

Behind the desk, there are rows of untouched, prized liquor bottles, gifts from industry chums. Certificates and plaques and a signed football. There are, of course, books upon books, old and new. A few pictures of colleagues, just as white, weathered and tenured, and male as Solomon.

It’s clean, but it’s stuffy, and Harry doesn’t want to be there for any longer than necessary.

“I’m assuming you’re here to inquire about Dr Tomlinson’s whereabouts,” Dr Lee says.

“I am, yes,” Harry says, resisting an audible sigh of relief. “I’m instructing his undergraduate classes this week. He’s meant to be supervising things, of course.”

“You’re right. Very important indeed.”

“He and I could reschedule, but the semester is winding down, and we’ve had this planned for months, so—”

“You’re rightfully worried. I’ll speak to Barchard. We should be able to get an adjunct professor in to facilitate things.”

Well, that backfired. Harry doesn’t want an adjunct. He wants the powers that be to drag Louis back to campus. “Thank you,” Harry says, hoping he sounds less disappointed than he feels.

“He did get in touch. Says he’s with his wife,” Solomon says. A minute or so passes. “You look surprised.”

Harry wasn’t aware his face changed at all. He can’t entirely feel his face, though, either. “Do I?”

“The last time Louis disappeared like this, I mentioned things weren’t the best with Emily. As far as I knew, they had filed for divorce. Not sure what became of that.”

Harry shrugs. Now it feels like his face is burning. There’s an explicit rush of blood to his cheekbones. The banks of his eyes feel heavy. “He hasn’t said anything to me.”

“But it’s the least he could do for you, isn’t it?”

Harry goes to shrug again and decides against it. He doesn’t know what to do with his limbs anymore. He tries crossing his arms. “He’s a secretive person,” he says.

“Yes, but it’s not a secret that you’ve gotten close. Too close maybe?”

It seems idiotic to deny anything, but he feels like he owes it to Louis to try. It would defeat the purpose of all their furtiveness if he were to see them exposed here. His brows crease. “If we’re being candid, I probably like Louis a little more than I should. But I think most of his advisees are at least a little infatuated. It’s embarrassing but that’s all.”

Solomon laughs. “You know, you might actually be the more discrete between the two of you but it’s still obvious we’re not talking about harmless admiration on your part,” he says, parting his hands, palms up. “I’ve known Louis for most of his life. I think I’d know what he’s like around someone who’s caught his attention.”

“I’m genuinely flattered,” Harry says, with a smile. “As far as I know, it’s very one-sided.”

“Harry,” Solomon deadpans.

“Solomon?”

Harry is austere and unrelenting, and he thinks Louis would be proud. There’s a smile on the old man’s face, but it doesn’t matter that he’s amused. Except that Harry isn’t in the mood to amuse anyone. Nor to deny his involvement with Louis any further when what he really wants is to tell everyone.

“Marie seemed upset,” Harry says. “Do you know why?”

Solomon sits forward in his chair, waking his computer. “I never do.”

“Might go find her then,” Harry says. “Have a good night.”

 

 

Halfway through tea with Gemma and Ramona, he gets a text from Louis. He decides to ignore it. Or he thinks he’s ignoring it when Ramona says, “He’s not listening to you, Mummy.”

Gemma cuts her story off abruptly and zeroes in on him. “Are you listening to me?”

“Of course I am,” Harry says. He sends Ramona a glare. “Can’t believe you’d say such a thing. Of course I’m listening.”

“Then what did she just say about Michal?” Ramona asks.

Harry scoffs, then capitulates. “I have no idea,” he says. “Sorry, could you repeat it?”

Gemma frowns. “He’ll be home on Monday. That’s all. What’s up with you?”

“Louis wants me to meet him in an hour,” Harry says. “I shouldn’t go.”

“Yeah, you should. He owes you an explanation.”

“It’s going to be bad. I can feel it,” Harry says. “Genuinely wish he’d break things off over a text message like a normal person.”

Gemma laughs. “You have to go. Eventually, you’ll have to talk to him,” she says. “We can always meet up again afterwards if you need to vent.”

“You should tell him you love him,” Ramona says. “That always works.”

“What makes you think I love him?” Harry asks.

Gemma and Ramona look at one another, brows arched.

Harry swipes his phone off the table and stands. “Bye,” he says with feigned irritation. When he reaches the doors of the cafe, he blows them kisses.

 

 

He spots the back of Louis’ denim jacket and his dark hair from across the street and keeps his eyes on him as he crosses and approaches the restaurant where Louis has chosen to break his heart. He doesn’t know how it will happen, obviously. He just knows it all. He doesn’t know how badly it will hurt on account of this never happening to him before. But it will hurt. And all he can hope is that copious amounts of booze will mend some. And if not, he’ll soak in his tub tonight until his skin sloughs off and scales grow in its place. Mermaids don’t have to love anyone. Why would they with the whole sea at their disposal?

Louis spots him immediately when he steps inside.

Harry takes a seat at his table, situating himself comfortably. He shoots him a smile. One of those smiles people reserve for strangers on the tube, especially the miserable looking ones, the parents with cantankerous children, the ones with their woes written all over them.

“Ordered us tea,” Louis says.

“Just had a cup with Gemma and Ramona,” Harry says, just to say something. “Not that I won’t have another.”

He pours himself a cup, adds sugar and a splash of milk, and stirs slowly.

“I’m sorry about Monday,” Louis says. “I meant to cancel the class, but you said it was one of your favourite books, so I thought maybe it’d be fine.”

His random display of thoughtfulness makes Harry squirm. Makes him want to curl into Louis’ lap or curl his arms around his torso. “Thank you,” he says. “It was fine. Had a nice discussion. The silent ones were silent as usual, but lots of participation otherwise.”

Louis’ lips twitch. “That’s great. I’m not surprised you pulled it off.”

Harry can’t take it. “What about you? Are you alright?”

Louis nods, but it’s hardly convincing. “A lot’s happened,” he says, taking a sip of his tea.

“With Emily?” he asks, then adds, “Dr Lee told me you’ve been with her.”

“I have been, yeah,” Louis says. The waiter comes by again, eager for a food order. They shake their heads and sit quietly, looking at one another while their water glasses are refilled, even though they’ve hardly been touched. Harry waits until they’re alone. And in that time, he rips a napkin into fourths beneath the table and then self-consciously tucks it into his pocket.

“Suppose that explains a lot, then,” he says finally. “I stopped by two days ago and the place was dark. Were you in Manchester?”

“Not Manchester, no. I’m selling the flat. Renting something smaller for a bit.”

The ease of this terrifies Harry. That Louis could have fled the country in the last few days and Harry would never have known. And that if he did, there’s nothing he could do. What can Harry do but grovel? “Can I see it?” he asks meekly.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

There it is.

Harry wants to ask: When has any of this been a good idea? But that wouldn’t help his cause.

“Are you together again?” Harry asks. “You and Emily? Is that it?”

Louis shakes his head, then stops. “It’s complicated.”

“Explain it to me anyway.”

Louis puts his head in his hands and stays that way for a whole minute. “I made promises to her,” he finally says. “The things you say when you get married, it means something to me. Til death do you part.” This, he says feebly with a chip in his voice. “She needs me now more than she’s ever needed me before. And I need to be there for her.”

“And that’s fine,” Harry says. “I get it. I’m not dealing you an ultimatum. I would never— It’s not me or her.”

“But it is . That’s exactly what it is. When I’m with you, I don’t think. And it feels great. To just shut things off and be happy for a bit. This, between us— It’s a break from reality every time. Or it’s a different reality where I was raised differently and I met you at Oxford. And we graduated together and moved in together. Things like that seem possible when I’m with you, right? But it’s not. And it’s not that I don’t think. I think too much. I think about how much different my life could be if it were you, not her. And that’s wrong. She doesn’t deserve that. She doesn’t deserve any of this. What I’ve I’ve done to her. How I’ve wasted her time. It isn’t fair. To even consider being with you, it’s not fair— I never should have left her. It was insane to leave her. To agree to a divorce—”

“Is Solomon threatening to expose us or something?” Harry asks like a complete idiot. Obviously this is bigger than Solomon Lee. But Harry wants so badly for it not to be. Because if it’s Solomon, he and Louis can run off together or something and hide from the dean or whoever else. But if it’s over thirty years of deep-rooted self-punishment, where does he possibly start with that?

Louis’ face goes slack. “What are you talking about?”

“He knows about us,” Harry says. “Did you tell him?”

“No, of course not. I never said anything.”

“But he knows. So did he threaten you?”

“No, why would he— He’s got nothing to do with this. It doesn’t matter now that he knows.”

“Because it’s over?”

“It has to be,” Louis says. He pushes his cup of tea away. “Emily is in hospice now. She’s got weeks left. Days, maybe.”

Harry’s shoulders fall. Immediately, his eyes begin to sting, but it seems unfair for him to cry. He looks down into his lap, folding his hands together. Obviously this was coming someday. Maybe not so soon. Not before he had a chance to prepare himself. Before he had a chance to fortify this thing between him and Louis, knowing how tenuous and easily tested it was from the start. He’s heartbroken for Emily and for Louis. And for them. He wants to reach across the table and take his hands. But he knows not to. “I’m sorry—”

“I need to make sense of things now. Of what my life will look like after she’s gone,” Louis says. “I wanted to tell you that I’m taking the rest of the semester off. You’ll have a new advisor starting Monday. And I know that puts you in a tough spot with your thesis—”

“I couldn’t give a fuck about my thesis,” Harry says, surprising even himself, and Louis goes quiet.

The restaurant din swells momentarily. Harry looks at the strangers across from him. They have a baby. Fast asleep in a bassinet. But looking at its fluffy cheeks or serenely pouted mouth doesn’t abate the constricting tension in his chest.

“You never actually considered me at all, did you?” he asks. “I didn’t factor into your plans at all?”

“I can’t understand why you’d want to. I genuinely can’t see why you’d want any part of this,” Louis says. “You’re young. You’re brilliant. You could have anyone, anything you want. Go anywhere.”

Harry covers his face with his hands. “Jesus Christ,” he hisses, dragging his palms away wet. He laughs. Has to laugh at himself. “I’m in love with you. Don’t look away from me. I’ve never said that to anyone, so I want your full attention for it.”

Louis draws a breath and lifts his gaze and Harry is surprised to find his eyes red-rimmed.

“You knew that, right?” Harry asks.

“I was hoping you knew better.”

Harry leans back into the seat. “Did you ?”

Louis, for what it’s worth, looks terrified.

“Do you love me?” Harry asks.

Louis presses his fingertips into his eyelids.

“I asked you to look at me.”

Louis does.

“Do you love me or not?”

Louis shakes his head. "I can’t,” he says.

Harry feels his heart split into two. He hasn't picked up a bible in over a decade but he recalls an image he always found striking: that when Christ died, the heavy curtain in the temple dividing man from God was torn apart. The relationship between man and his maker, irreversibly changed. It would make a lovely painting, but this wouldn’t: Harry’s heart is split, torn in two, and it’s going to hurt like this forever.

He stands abruptly, pushing the seat back noisily. If he tries to speak, he’ll scream and cry and rage, and Louis won’t be receptive to any of it. There’s no getting through to him now. He put all the walls back up overnight while Harry was dreaming.