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ever ever after

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Louis's life changes forever on a Tuesday.

He's sat in a cab with Zayn, leaning his head against the window and trying not to fall asleep after the day he's just had. The sky outside has long gone dark, and the ever-present London rain is breaking into droplets on the windscreen, blurring the streetlights. The kaleidoscope effect almost reminds Louis of the stars. It's been a while since he's seen those from underneath the bubble of city smog.

“Lou,” Zayn keeps murmuring at every turn they take, running soothing fingers through Louis's hair, trying to keep him awake.

“M'here,” Louis always slurs in response, burrowing deeper into his threadbare denim jacket. It's full of holes, smells of cheap detergent and takeaway, and is the only piece of home Louis gets to carry with him all day.

Louis isn't sure why this particular Tuesday feels like he's been run over repeatedly by something very heavy. He'd woken up, had breakfast, gone to work, taken the exact same routes and done the exact same things he always does - he'd even called his mum during lunch break, right on schedule. Maybe it's something in the air, he reasons. Or something in the coffee fumes he's been smelling for twelve hours straight.

It seems to be taking forever, the ride, and short of physically propping up his eyelids, the only way to keep himself awake is watching the lights behind the windows pass them by. He recognises the route soon enough - the big Sainsbury's they go to every week, the Chinese restaurant, a bookshop that closed down ages ago.

Then, there's the casino right off Bernard Street. It's an old place called The Palace, with a massive billboard always lit up in bright white and pink and gold, and Louis is inexplicably fond of it. The lights are on no matter what time of day or night it is; standing guard and blinking down at Louis when he's walking from work long after dark. It's his own bizarre lighthouse of sorts, always guiding him home.

This time, though, something is different. The cabbie stops the car at a red light, and the raindrops on Louis's window shift just so—and maybe the universe stops expanding for a while, or the Earth stops spinning, or something equally cliché. Louis doesn't know that, of course. He just knows that his blissful routine has been punctured, and that he's strangely excited about it.

There's a person sitting by the billboard - no, on the billboard - yelling something that's getting lost in the rain. They're pounding on the plastic door of the castle with long, wet hair obscuring their face.

Louis gets out of the cab. He's not sure why he does it, almost feels like there's an invisible force pulling him closer, and he barely registers Zayn yelling after him.

Once he makes it safely across the road, the dark silhouette of a person takes on more detail. It's a man, Louis thinks, going by the wide, wide shoulders and slim waist, and he's completely drenched.

“Oi, mate!” Louis shouts. Then, two things happen at the same time.

One, Zayn catches up, barrelling into Louis's back and swearing up a storm. Two, the stranger stops shouting and turns around, obviously misjudging the small ledge he's standing on, and Louis gets a front-seat look at his terrified face. With flailing arms and mouth wide open, the man teeters and falls.

Louis moves forward on instinct, arms extended. He accidentally jumps into a puddle and soaks his trainers, and the rain beating down on them is making it hard to see when he tilts his head up, but in the split second it takes the man to fall into Louis's arms, none of that registers. He pivots through the air, big and long and ungraceful, waving his legs about like a bird trying to fly, and finally lands in the cradle of Louis's arms.

Louis, unfortunately, spends his days serving coffee and has not been to the gym in years, and as a result, they both tumble to the ground.

The sidewalk is hard and cold and wet. Louis bangs his head so hard he sees stars.

“Louis!” somebody shouts - Zayn, probably, lovely lovely Zayn who hopefully paid off the cabbie and sent him on his way, because Louis's only got thirty quid that have to last him till the end of the week— “Lou, Jesus Christ, you alright?”

“Fine,” says Louis, struggling to sit up. The first gust of wind has him shuddering; he's completely drenched. This mysterious stranger better be worth it.

Mysterious stranger. Right.

Louis blinks a few times, trying to get the world to stop spinning. Above him, Zayn's ridiculous eyelashes are dripping water right into his face, and right behind Louis's concerned best friend is the man Louis has just almost killed and then kind of saved. He's lying on the cement with limbs spread out like a starfish, blinking up at the cloudy night sky, and he mostly looks alright.

“Mate,” Louis tries, taking Zayn's offered hand and standing up. “Hey, mate. You okay? You're not hurt too bad, are you?”

The stranger sits up at the sound of Louis's voice, and then quickly jumps to his feet. He slicks his hair back, and Louis finally gets a good look at his face.

Staring at him looking like a wet mouse is a—a boy, really. He's definitely younger than Louis, all doe-eyed and innocent-looking; his eyes are a vivid green and his lips the reddest Louis has ever seen, even though he's shuddering from the cold.

“Hello,” he says, with a voice that seems too deep. “I'm terribly sorry for that. I didn't mean to fall on you.”

Louis blinks. “That's, um. That's okay.”

He's not a man of few words, never has been, but there's something about this boy. Maybe it's the lamplight, the way it makes his face look young and soft, or his small, tentative smile. Something buzzes underneath Louis's skin when he looks at him, like a flurry of white-hot sparks, an energy, magic. Louis goes through life with barely-concealed apathy these days, but now, dripping wet on a sidewalk in Camden, he feels suddenly alive.

Alive or not, he's probably silent for too long. The boy bites his lip, obviously nervous, and Zayn is the one that has to step forward.

“What's your name?” he asks, in the same voice he uses on Louis's sisters.  

The stranger blinks, then yelps. “Oh no,” he says with wide eyes. “Oh, how terribly impolite of me. My name is Harry.”

“Zayn.”

“It's lovely to meet you,” Harry says, and steps just a little closer, out of the shadows. His big eyes settle on Zayn's face, and there's a strange spark in them, something like constant excitement. “Oh, you are beautiful.”

Louis chokes on saliva. Next to him, Zayn visibly stiffens, but a dark, obvious blush quickly makes its way up his neck. It's a little hilarious to watch, actually - it's not that Zayn doesn't constantly get complimented on the occasional night out. He does, very much so. But there's something about Harry still, an earnestness the likes of which Louis hasn't seen in a long time.

“T-thank you,” Zayn actually stutters, and Louis is so telling his as of yet nonexistent children about this. “Your, uh. Shirt. It's nice.” He scratches his neck, tilting his head down and peering up from underneath his lashes like he does when he's not quite sure what to do. Louis is having a blast.

“I'm Louis,” he says loudly, deciding to put Zayn out of his misery because he's the best friend the world has ever seen. “I made you fall from up there. Sorry about that.”

“Hello, Louis,” Harry's disturbingly green gaze immediately moves to him, wet eyelashes sticking together. “And you have nothing to apologise for, it's quite alright. It seems like nobody's home anyway,” he gazes sadly up at the billboard.

“Home?”

“In the castle. I got terribly lost, you see, and I've been wandering this place for hours. Nobody's been very nice to me, and now that I finally found a place that could send a letter to Liam for me…” he trails off, then sighs, and folds into a sad little heap right on the sidewalk.

From his periphery, Louis sees Zayn's eyebrows climb higher. Louis sympathises, but he's also met much stranger people in this part of town.

Acting mostly on big brother instinct, he steps forward and drops into a crouch in front of Harry. “I'm sorry that happened to you,” he says, and finds himself being actually honest. “Is there anything we can do to help? Get you a cab? Post that letter you wanted to send?”

“You don't need to go to all that trouble,” Harry smiles sunnily. All traces of his earlier gloom disappear. “But I would love to borrow your pigeon, please.”  

Louis blinks. “We, uh. We don't have a pigeon?”

“Oh, is it away? I am sorry, it was awfully presumptuous of me to assume you didn't have a need for correspondence.”

Zayn sways on his heels, then shifts away a little; Louis can tell he's getting restless. Louis himself feels just a little unsettled at the easy way with which Harry talks of things that don't belong in the modern world. He could be a really good actor, Louis reasons. He could be on his way home from a convention of some sort, which would explain the clothes too, but.

He's wearing an eccentric costume. He's got the floaty look of someone who's just smoked up in a side alley with their friends. He should fit into Camden perfectly, and yet, Harry sticks out like a sore thumb. There's an ethereal quality about him, like he's from a whole different world.

“I should get going before the night gets any darker,” Harry says suddenly and jumps up. “Thank you so much for your help, Zayn and Louis. I'll never forget it.”

“We didn't actually help you with anything,” Louis points out 

“But of course you did,” Harry turns to him just as Louis manages to stand. Suddenly, they're barely a foot apart. Louis sees the flecks of gold in Harry's eyes from this up close, sees the tremors racking his body and the suppressed chattering of his teeth. “You were nice to me. A little compassion is all I needed.”

Louis is—charmed. He can't help himself from mirroring Harry's absurdly big smile, though he doesn't quite feel his lips anymore.

Harry is about to walk off, Louis can tell by the restless shuffling of his feet. Louis should let that happen. He should let Harry go, with all his quirks and wonderful smiles and sparkly eyes. It would be the rational thing to do, seeing as Louis has just had an exhausting day. He also lives in a flat that could double as a matchbox.

“Wait,” he says. Let it never be said that Louis Tomlinson is rational. “You, uh. Would you like to come to mine for a bit? Just to, you know, dry off. You seem cold.”

Zayn coughs loudly behind Louis's back.

Harry looks completely overwhelmed for a second. Then he stops shuffling and turns his whole body towards Louis, almost blocking out the streetlights. “You'd do that for me?” he asks, obviously delighted.

Louis isn't sure what such a lovely, earnest presence might cause in his nest of cynicism and week-old washing up, but it's too late to take the offer back. Not that he'd want to. He's still, like. Charmed. And stuff.

“Sure,” he offers, smiling. Zayn coughs again, and Louis happily ignores him. “Yeah, of course.”

“Oh, thank you!” Harry squeals, and actually hops in place and claps his hands. Were it any other human being, Louis would probably step away and keep a polite distance, but it's Harry. In the past five minutes, Louis has already established that everything about him is an exception. “Thank you so much. You truly are a lovely person,” Harry gushes, clutching Louis's forearm with long fingers. “And you too, Zayn,” he assures, hopping towards Zayn and spraying rainwater everywhere. “I'm so lucky. Oh, this is just wonderful!”

Louis bites his lip, hard, to stop another smile. He's a little scared now, at his sudden ability to conjure up smiles when not an hour ago he'd been ready to murder London's entire population in cold blood. He's supposed to be a lifeless limpet - he does work a service job, after all.

Zayn, to his credit, doesn’t do any more coughing. Instead he smiles and steps away. “I'll go get a cab, yeah?”

Once they've got a car waiting, it takes a lot of effort to actually get Harry in, as he keeps wanting to touch the roof light. He's not much better inside - Louis has to grab him by the wrist halfway through the ride, lest he accidentally open the door pulling on the shiny handle and tumble out.

As they pass Louis's favourite ice cream shop, now closed down for the autumn, he's reminded of his sisters. A thought occurs to him.

“Hey, Harry?”

“Yes,” Harry turns to him immediately. He's got his hands folded on his lap, back ramrod straight, and he looks like the very picture of happiness.

“Where are you from?”

“Andalasia. It's a beautiful land, just beyond the Meadows of Joy and the Valley of Contentment. You should come visit sometime!”

Louis blinks. Zayn catches his eye in the rearview mirror and raises an eyebrow.

So Louis may have gotten himself into a bit of a pickle.

 

*

 

Their building is blissfully empty by the time they finally get home. Despite the late hour, Harry is bouncy as ever, enquiring about the purpose of the mailboxes, getting his fingers stuck in the slots and stumbling up the stairs singing a song that Louis doesn’t know.

Zayn says goodbye before Louis has a chance to invite him in. He claps Harry lightly on the back and gives Louis a hug, whispering something about Louis bringing this on himself and also good luck, and then his door is closing and Louis is alone with the stranger he’d taken in because he has no common sense.

“Where do you live?” asks Harry, ogling the peeling golden 3B on Zayn’s door.

“Right here,” Louis points to the flat right opposite, fishing in his pockets for keys.

The inside is just as he’s left it that morning – namely, a mess. Louis doesn’t care much, though; right now, he’s wet and exhausted and just about ready to go to bed.

He remembers to step aside and let Harry through, watching his face carefully. Harry’s expression remains the same shade of blank and pleasant as he takes in the microscopic living room in front of them.

“Um. Welcome?”

“Thank you!” Harry turns to him immediately and smiles, all while trying to take his shoes off like he’s just seen Louis do. “You have a lovely home.”

Louis surveys the dirty boxers hanging from a coat rack just behind Harry’s head. “Well. I’m glad you like it, do come in,” he says, manoeuvring around a pile of old newspapers and into the kitchen. “Would you like some tea?”

Harry gallops right after him on his deer limbs. “Tea would be wonderful, thank you.”

Louis would be lying if he said he doesn’t like the constant thanks. It’s rare to be thanked so genuinely and so often in his line of work, and in the real world, he doesn’t do enough for other people to deserve gratitude.

Louis fills the kettle, sets out the cups, pulls out the tea box all on autopilot, trying to pretend he’s not watching Harry out of the corner of his eye. He’s found the light switch now, and is flicking it up and down. Every time the light bulb buzzes to life, he squeals, claps, and brings his hands up to his mouth like he can’t believe what he’s seeing. Louis hasn’t seen this much enthusiasm since he got the twins those horrid Monster High dolls for Christmas.

In the light, though flickering, Louis can finally observe the stray he’s brought into his home. Harry is still dripping wet, but now that Louis can get a better look at his clothes, he realises they look a little too expensive to be a regular, run of the mill costume from a shop. Harry’s white shirt is embroidered all along the seams in delicate, shimmery gold thread, and his trousers fit better than anything Louis has ever bought for himself. Maybe Harry’s rich and likes to sew things in his spare time. Who knows.

They sip their tea in a peaceful silence. Once they’re done, and after Harry has loudly appreciated the flower pattern on his cup, Louis realises that he’s still soaked to the last thread and shivering; Harry, by the looks of him, is not doing much better.

“Right, so,” Louis clears his throat, awkward as ever. “Would you like to borrow some clothes?”

Harry frowns for the first time since Louis has met him. “What for?”

“Yours are wet. You’ll get sick if you stay in them all night.”

He looks down at himself, long fingers pinching at the stiff folds of his shirt. “You’re right! Oh, of course you’re right. That’s so nice of you, thank you,” and then he. Takes the shirt off. Right in Louis’s kitchen.

It plops onto the floor with a squelch, but Louis barely registers it. He’s too busy being horrified at the way his throat suddenly goes dry, because the thing is, Harry is fit. He’s all wide shoulders and lean waist and these stupid little love handles that poke out above his waistband and make him look all soft and squishy, and what if Louis is not at all as selfless as he’d thought and this whole thing happened because his subconscious realised Harry was hot before he did and. Okay. Louis needs to start breathing.

“Is everything alright?” Harry peers at him from underneath long lashes, concerned.

Louis swallows. “No worries. I’m going to get the, uh. Clothes.”

If Louis’s flat was big enough, he’d run out of the kitchen at full speed, but as it is, all he can do is square his shoulders, bury his hands in his pockets, and walk out without looking back. He shucks his own clothes as soon as he gets to the bedroom, leaving them in a pile he’ll take care of later, if he remembers. He changes straight into his pyjama trousers and a soft, worn vest, too lazy to shower tonight. Then, he takes his time digging in his wardrobe for something that’s been washed in the past two weeks and is big enough to fit Harry’s disturbingly fit frame.

Harry thanks him profusely – again – when Louis hands over the small pile along with a flannel for his hair, and leaves Harry alone to give him privacy. He settles on the sofa with another steaming mug of tea, alone with his thoughts. He tries his hardest to focus on the uncomfortable burn of ceramic on his palms instead of Harry probably being naked five feet away.

He tries turning on the telly to distract himself. It’s late now, though, and all he catches are reruns of the news and comedy shows. He spends a while listening to the patter of rain against the windows, happy to be dry, thinking of streetlights spilling into puddles and mysterious strangers lurking in the rain.

His very own mysterious stranger brings him out of the daze with a soft clearing of his throat. Louis looks up to see him standing in the doorway, and feels his breath catch somewhere deep in his chest.

Harry’s standing, dressed in Louis’s old Joy Division shirt that stretches tight across his chest and a pair of trackies, ankles crossed and hands clasped together. His hair is dry, sticking up in a curly mess around his head like a halo, and Louis has the inexplicable urge to get up and hug him. He doesn’t look so big, so foreign anymore; he’s just a boy standing in Louis’s living room, soft and young and uncertain.

Louis’s head is a mess of thoughts, but he makes himself smile at Harry and beckons him closer.

“Everything alright?” he asks, sweeping a pile of Zayn’s old sketches off the sofa to make room.

“Yes, thank you,” says Harry, carefully walking over. He sits on the very edge of the couch, and makes a surprised face when he sinks into the soft cushion. It’s then, while Louis is trying to come up with something to talk about, that he notices the TV.

“Oh,” he breathes, and the soft lines of his face fill up with the now-familiar wonder. “Is that a magic mirror?”

Louis looks at the screen, where a plastic-looking happy family seems to be enjoying a big tub of yoghurt, then back at Harry. It kills him a little to shake his head.

“It’s not, I’m sorry.”

Harry doesn’t seem perturbed. “That’s okay. There’s bound to be one around here somewhere.”

Louis folds his legs under himself and turns to Harry, genuinely interested. “What do you need a magic mirror for, then?” he asks, and only remembers that boundaries exist after the question’s already left his mouth.

Harry sighs and watches the ad change. It’s for perfume now, a half-naked man wrapped around a woman, complete with sensual music playing in the background.

“I need to find Liam! I just disappeared, he must be worried sick about me. If only there was a way to let him know where I am…” he stops then, considering. “Where am I?”

Louis can’t help a smile. “London, mate.”

“I’ve never heard of London,” says Harry sadly, looking at his hands. Louis doesn’t like it when Harry looks sad. Louis also may be in over his head.

“So who’s this Liam bloke, then? A friend of yours?” he ventures, trying to bring Harry’s attention back to nice things.

“No,” Harry giggles – giggles – and a pretty blush spreads across his cheeks. “We’re meant to be, he and I. We were supposed to be married today, but I fell in a well and ruined everything.”

“Wait, you’re. You’re getting married? Aren’t you a little young for that?”

“Of course not,” says Harry immediately, brows furrowing. “I have been waiting for today since I was a little boy.”

Louis suddenly feels fidgety. He puts his mug on the coffee table and folds his arms across his chest. “You love Liam that much, then?”

“Oh no, we’re not in love,” Harry beams sunnily. “We were betrothed as children, but we only met yesterday. We will fall in love, though, that’s what happens in a marriage. We’ll move to Liam’s castle and live happily ever after.”

Louis blinks, then bites his tongue. He has a few choice words he could say about marriages, about how most of them are doomed to fail before they even start, about the falseness and the lies and the pain.

He won’t, though. He’s a grown man, and capable of understanding that other people haven’t witnessed their mother’s marriage fall apart the same way he has. Harry seems so happy, so excited at the prospect of a wedding to a man he doesn’t know. It’s not Louis’s place to worry about him.

“Happily ever after, huh?” he can’t help asking, in a voice that’s softer than he’d like.

Harry seems to sense the fragility of the moment. He settles down, containing the excited flailing of his hands, and mirrors Louis’s position. “Of course,” he says. “Don’t you have those here?”

Louis bites his lip. “M’ afraid not. It doesn’t really work out that way for most people.”

Harry’s eyes are big and shimmery, almost liquid in the low light of the living room.  His expression falls, and it would be almost comical if Louis’s heart didn’t do a painful flip in his chest. “But that’s… that’s so sad. How is that possible?”

Louis shrugs. “People just…fall out of love, I guess. It’s nobody’s fault, that’s just the way it is.”

“Oh no,” Harry whispers.

Louis feels suddenly cold. Before he can change his mind, he reaches out and lays a tentative hand on Harry’s knee. “You don’t need to worry about it, Harry. You’ll find a way back to Andalasia, and I’m sure you and Liam will have a wonderful life together.”

“I do hope so,” Harry whispers and gives Louis a watery smile. “Thank you for saying that.” And he takes Louis’s hand in his own, fingers intertwining easily. His palm is warm and dry and big, and Louis has to take a moment to remember how to breathe again. Harry is looking at him with a knowing expression, and Louis thinks he’s probably much more perceptive than Louis ever gave him credit for.

There’s not much more to say after, or rather, Louis fears saying anything else. He doesn’t want to ruin Harry’s ideals about this world, like bringing up any of what’s on his mind right now would probably do.

The clock on the wall says it’s a little past one in the morning. Louis only works the afternoon tomorrow, but he’d been hoping to get a good night’s sleep.

Except he’s got a Harry sitting on his couch, all wrapped up in a blanket as he watches infomercials with wide eyes. Harry, whom he was all set to kick out after he’s dried off, and yet here he is, still, bringing with him thoughts that Louis doesn’t much like having in his head.

Looking at Harry’s earnest face, his soft head of hair and his big hands twisting in the blanket, Louis can’t bring himself to say a thing. He gets up quietly, cleans his face, brushes his teeth, and by the time he’s come back into the living room, Harry is fast asleep. He’s curled into a ball on one end of the couch, head pillowed on his hands. His face looks pale and young in the blue light, cheeks drowning in long shadows cast by his eyelashes. There’s something innocent and childishly enthusiastic about him even in sleep, and Louis is drawn to him like a moth to a flame. He can’t stop himself as he crosses the room and gently slides a pillow underneath Harry’s head, as he touches a couple of his fingers to Harry’s temple and whispers a good night. He turns off the telly and all the lights, but he can still feel Harry’s presence all the way to his bedroom.

It’s only when he’s turning in his bed, trying to fall asleep, that it occurs to him that somewhere along the course of the night, he’d stopped pretending that Andalasia is real just for Harry’s benefit.

For those few hours, he’d been part of Harry’s bizarre little world, and he didn’t think twice about it.

 

*

 

Louis doesn’t wake up to his alarm. Nor does he wake up to Zayn dumping a bucket of cold water over him as usual. 

He comes to slowly, softly, and as he blinks the sleep out of his eyes, he realises that he actually feels rested. The sun is already out outside the window, accompanied by the happy chirp of birdsong. Louis finds it just a little strange – this late in the day, his street is usually drowning in traffic noise – but he doesn’t question it.

He sits up, stretches, throws on some clothes. Yawning, he opens the door. Then he shuts it. Blinks. He’s probably still dreaming.

Except. When he sticks his head out the door again, he’s greeted with the same picture.

Louis’s tiny, tiny living room is covered in animals.

There are rats and mice scratching his priceless flea market rug, an army of cockroaches crawling up the walls, buzzing clouds of flies, what looks like Mrs. Johnson’s african grey parrot, and pigeons. So many pigeons.

Louis stands, leaning against the wall and having what feels like a minor heart attack while he contemplates what to do. The first step in any emergency is always to call Zayn, except Louis had left his phone in the kitchen last night. Screaming probably wouldn’t do him any good. All his neighbours hate him. He has no money to pay for pest control.

Empirically speaking, Louis is fucked.

A big, brown rat scurries right by his foot and into the bedroom. Louis watches, equal parts desperate and fascinated, as it runs under the bed and emerges with a pair of Louis’s slippers in its teeth. It stops at Louis’s feet again, leaves the slippers, wiggles its tiny nose and disappears. Louis is numb as he puts the slippers on and steps out.

Hundreds of sinister, beady eyes immediately bore into him. There’s a moment of tense silence while he stares them all down. Louis doesn’t dare breathe.

Then, chaos ensues. The birds, crashing into each other and squawking, flee through the open window, the rodents scurry out through the propped-open front door, and within seconds, Louis’s colourful hallucination is gone.

He immediately notices something different. His flat, a pigsty at the best of times, is now absolutely squeaky clean. The floor is shiny and rid of all the clutter, and further on in the kitchen, all the dirty washing up is gone. The windows gleam in the bright morning sun they’re letting in, for a change. Everything smells of citrus and lavender and cleaning product.

It’s then that Louis hears the shower running. He writes it off as Zayn on a mission to use all his hot water and goes about making his tea - he’s already in the kitchen holding the fridge open when realises that Zayn must be at work by now. 

Suddenly fraught with nerves, he pulls a skillet out of the kitchen dresser, ready to face the intruder. He creeps to the bathroom door; as he passes through the living room, he marvels once again at the soft, clean-looking rug, the fluffed-up cushions, the blankets Harry slept under last night folded into neat rectangles—

Oh.

Louis lowers his weapon, takes in the rushing sound of water and what sounds like light, happy singing, and finally remembers last night.

The bathroom door is, unsurprisingly, unlocked. Louis abandons all rational thought, overcome with curiosity, and presses the handle down.

He’s greeted with a wall of steam, a pair of pigeons flapping their wings and holding up a towel, and a very naked Harry standing under his shower. Louis freezes in the doorway and squeaks.

Harry turns to him with a beaming smile. “Louis! Good morning,” he says happily, and Louis would respond, except he’s incapable of not being a pervert and his eyes travel slowly down Harry’s flushed chest and dripping wet stomach and. Yes. Okay. Louis can control himself. Harry is the most innocent person he’s met in a while, and Louis rationally understands that he has no business staring at his. Thing.

So Louis hasn’t had a good shag in a while. So what.

“Good, uh. Good morning,” he finally manages to stutter out and, to his horror, feels himself flush all the way to the tips of his ears. He’s saved by the pigeons that fly up to Harry and wrap him in the towel like he’s a proper Disney princess.

“Oh, that’s so thoughtful of you, thank you!” Harry tells them, smiling, and the birds finally fly out the door and away. Some of the awkward tightness in Louis’s chest fades with the flapping of their wings.

“Did you…sleep well?” Louis goes on, eloquent. Harry doesn’t seem to mind his sudden loss of communication skills, getting out of the shower and giggling as he wipes his feet off on the bathroom rug. God bless Harry, really.

“I did, thank you,” says Harry. “But I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about this room!” he exclaims, throwing out his arms to encompass all of Louis’s tiny, formerly very dirty bathroom. “Where does the water come from?”

Louis blinks. It’s too early for this, he thinks. “The, um. The shower? And the shower gets it from the pipes, I guess?”

Harry leans back into the shower stall, peering curiously up the shower head. “And where do the pipes get it?”

“I. I don’t know. Someplace that makes the water clean, probably,” Louis says, perplexed, and watches as Harry leaves wet footprints on the pristine tiled floor.

“Oh,” says Harry, sounding intrigued. “It is magical.” 

He skips out of the bathroom then, in just a bright smile and a towel billowing behind him. Louis is, once again, left staring at the wall. He doesn’t understand anything about Harry. He doesn’t understand anything about life right now, if he’s honest with himself. 

For breakfast, he makes them both tea and sets out some cereal and milk, which seem to excite Harry to no end. He eats half of Louis’s brand new box of Coco Pops, but the four quid is so incredibly worth his face when he tastes it for the first time.

“Oh goodness,” he says, blinking up at Louis with big, big eyes, smiling like he’s never been happier. “I never knew food could taste like this!”

Louis indulgently pours him more milk, feeling a little like he’s back at home, having breakfast with his sisters. Except Harry’s more or less a grown man, which may or may not be causing Louis some serious problems.

An actual problem arises after Louis gets Harry to put on clothes. It’s almost one by then, and Louis starts work at two, and Harry needs to be gone by then.

Louis has done this before. All he needs to do is walk up to Harry, thank him for cleaning up, pat him on the back and send him on his merry way, because really, Louis was supposed to kick him out last night.

He psyches himself up for the difficult task of making Harry sad in the kitchen, standing by the sink and occasionally splashing cold water on his face. He can do this, he thinks. Harry is not actually as important as he feels right now. Louis will forget all about him once he puts on his apron and gets to work. He’ll be fine all alone with just Zayn for company, and nobody to make the world seem like it’s made of magic.

It all feels like lies, but Louis is, after all, an expert at lying to himself.

Except then he walks into the living room, and sees Harry sitting criss-cross applesauce on the carpet, leafing through a magazine Lottie left the last time she visited. He’s got his mouth open a little in fascination, squealing quietly every time he turns the page, and Louis can’t do it. He’s a selfish prick, and he can’t just let Harry skip out into the sunlight and disappear forever.

“Hey, Harry. Want to go to work with me?” he asks, crouching down next to him and looking over his shoulder. He’s got the magazine open on a fashion spread, staring at tall women in heels and dresses.

Harry looks up, torn out of his daze. “Where do you work? Is it something dangerous? Are you a knight?”

Louis will forever deny the blush that rises to his cheeks. Still, he drops Harry’s gaze, in dire need of a break from the painful, child-like honesty. “No, I. I work at a coffee house. I’ll let you have hot chocolate, come on,” he gets up, looking for his shoes in the newly organised cupboard by the door.

“Can I take this?” Harry asks in a small voice, and Louis turns back around to see him holding up the magazine. His heart clenches, and it’s not the worst feeling.

“Course. Come on, let’s go.”

They walk out into the surprisingly bright afternoon sun. On the way, Harry has to stop and smell every single flower he spots growing out of a crack in the sidewalk, and despite not being the most patient of people, Louis finds that he doesn’t mind at all.

 

*

 

“Aren’t you just the cutest thing,” Perrie titters, again, as she slides another steaming mug of hot chocolate in front of Harry. Harry preens and immediately dives forward to bury his nose in the whipped cream, laughing.

Louis sighs and goes about bagging up some scones. He really is trying to pay attention to the customers, but Harry doesn’t make it very easy. He’d charmed all of Louis’s co-workers within five minutes of the two of them walking in, and continues to be an absolutely disarming presence. Throughout the day, Louis has watched children and adults alike be absolutely charmed, and he can’t say it’s all that surprising. Harry compliments everyone he meets, chats enthusiastically about things even he doesn’t understand and gives surprisingly useful advice. He’s become the coffee house mascot; everyone wants to talk to him, and Louis has been trying to convince himself that the insistent burn in his gut is not jealousy. Because, like, it’s incredibly childish to think of Harry as belonging to him in any way. He has no right to be thinking things like “he’s mine” and “I brought him here first” and “he should be talking to me”. Harry is lovely. Everybody deserves his presence in their life.

Louis really just wants Harry to pay attention to him. Which is pathetic. Louis doesn’t care much. 

It’s almost closing time now, and the steady trickle of customers is finally starting to die out. Louis takes the empty counter as an opportunity to sit down after six hours of being on his feet. Harry greets him with a smile.

“How’s it going?” Louis asks, already feeling better. The atmosphere is different now; there are a few last customers lingering by the tables, and Perrie and George are pottering around the espresso machine, but the insistency and rush of a working day is gone. The lights have been turned down; Harry’s face is only illuminated by the orange mosaic of streetlights. The breeze from the open door tosses his hair every which way, and it falls down his neck in perfect little ringlets. He looks soft and approachable, still hunched over his magazine, dressed in Louis’s clothes.

“Wonderful,” Harry says, because of course he does. “There are so many interesting people here,” he whispers, and his eyes sparkle. “And this!” he waves his spoon, indicating his half-empty mug.

“Hot chocolate?”

“Yes,” Harry nods enthusiastically. “I can’t believe we don’t have it in Andalasia.”

“You should take some back with you, then, ” Louis says, reaching over the counter to grab a few packets of the cheap chocolate mix the employees drink. He resolutely ignores the stutter of his heart when he realises that yes, Harry will be taking it back, because Harry has a home to get back to, a future that Louis has no place in.

Harry lights up, accepting the packets with a grateful smile and shifting the powder inside with his fingers. He bounces in his seat a little and leans forward, and before Louis can react – like maybe squeak or turn beet red or faint – Harry presses a smacking kiss to his cheek. Louis touches it automatically as soon as Harry’s lips are gone, feeling the slightly damp spot like a brand. 

Zayn will laugh at him so, so hard when he finds out about this.

Louis occupies Harry by asking him to politely throw out the rest of their customers. Harry takes to Londoners like a fish to water; he knows exactly how to act and what to say to get them to loosen up and respond, and he chats amicably with them all as he walks them to the door and holds it open for them. Louis watches with a look on his face that is probably way too soft, wiping down the counters.

“Good catch, that one,” Perrie nudges him in the ribs as he’s putting the rag away. She giggles and winks at him conspiratorially, and Louis has no energy to resist, so he just smiles.

They’re the last to leave, as Harry insists on holding the door for both Perrie and George and literally waving them off until they disappear down the street. Louis turns off the rest of the lights, locks up, and follows Harry into the chilly night air.

Harry, polite as always, requests that they walk. Louis indulges him, leading them through the empty streets and enjoying the bright lights of the city painting on Harry’s face. 

“What are these?” Harry asks suddenly,  jogging up to a shop window and pressing his nose against the glass. There are flashes plastered all over the front, and a tacky neon sign above the door that simply says TATTOO.

“They’re tattoos,” Louis answers, catching up. “They’re pictures you put on your skin, like the ones I have on my arms.”

Harry’s eyes widen. “You put them there forever?”

“Generally, yes,” Louis looks over the designs curiously. Most of them seem to be nautical – a pair of swallows, a ship, a compass, an anchor with a rope. They’re quite pretty, too, if not as good as Zayn’s; Louis can’t help imagining them spilling over Harry’s pale skin.

“Do people get them when they get married?” Harry asks, and Louis is brought back down to Earth. No thinking of boys from fantasy lands half-naked. Bad Louis.

“I suppose,” he says, contemplative. “Some people do. But it’s generally frowned upon, I think. Too much of a commitment and all that.”

Harry touches his fingers to the glass, tracing over the lines of a delicate-looking rose. “Marriage is supposed to be forever, too.”

“I know,” says Louis sadly, watching Harry’s reflection in the window. 

Harry sighs. “I’d like one of them. Maybe I could get one before it’s time to leave?”

Louis doesn’t appreciate the reminder that Harry’s time here is so very limited, but. Harry’s face is so soft, so open, so full of questions. It’s not time to think about himself right now.

“Maybe you could,” he says, tilting his head. “Zayn’s a tattoo artist, you know. He could give you one, if you wanted.”

Harry nods violently, smiling. Louis resists the urge to take his hand and bounce off with him down the street.

As they round the corner to Louis’s building, Zayn’s dark silhouette emerges on the backdrop of bright streetlights. He’s pacing in front of the door, smoking, and Louis can immediately tell that something isn’t right.

“Z!” he calls. Zayn raises his head and meets Louis’s eyes with a loud, relieved sigh, then jogs up to them, trailing smoke.

“Hey,” he nods, but he barely acknowledges Louis – he’s very obviously focused on looking Harry up and down with a strange curiosity. He stops at Louis’s clothes stretched to fit Harry’s body, and Louis’s bag that Harry offered to carry about halfway home, but he blessedly doesn’t say anything. Zayn is good. Louis loves Zayn.

“What’s going on?” he asks, perplexed at Zayn’s jittery hands and rapid blinking.

“Right,” says Zayn. “Right. Harry. Your Liam guy – brown eyes, very strange hair, looks like a puppy?”

Harry’s eyes widen. “You’ve seen him?”


Zayn pinches the bridge of his nose and nods. Louis feels something cold and heavy settle in his stomach like a ball of lead.

“Come on,” Zayn beckons and starts back towards the front door. Harry squeaks and runs after him, more wound up than Louis has ever seen him.

It doesn’t hurt at all.

 

*

 

“Listen, mate,” Louis chokes out in a voice that’s only trembling a little. “How about you put the sharp thing away and we talk like civilised people?”

The mountain of muscle – Liam, Louis reminds himself – furrows his incredibly thick eyebrows. His eyes are dark and stormy, and Louis thinks his life could be in actual danger right now.

“Sire,” says the weird blond kid, sounding like he’s seconds away from rolling his eyes. “Listen to him. You promised your mother you wouldn’t behave like a barbarian.”

To Louis’s surprise, Liam actually does listen. He blinks once, twice, then jabs a sharp finger into Louis’s forehead, and the blade of his sword finally leaves the vicinity of Louis’s throat. Louis immediately stumbles away from the wall, putting as much distance as he possibly can between him and the hairy angel of vengeance.

Harry, who had tried to protect Louis earlier and then been told not to speak, is immediately at his side. 

“Are you okay?” he whispers, delicate fingers tugging at Louis’s collar and running down his neck.


Louis manages to level out his breathing and wrap his hands around Harry’s wrists, feeling his erratic pulse. “I’m fine,” he says, low. “Are you?”

Louis is still a little shell-shocked, if he’s honest with himself. So many things just happened in the span of minutes, and he wasn’t prepared for any of them – not to be accused of stealing Harry from his husband-to-be, and least of all to see Harry, beautiful, excitable, happy Harry, be snapped at the way he was.

He does understand that the nerves are running high, and all, but. This man is supposed to be marrying Harry soon. According to Harry, Liam will be the one he spends the rest of his life with, falls in love with, finds happiness with, but. Liam, thus far, doesn’t seem to be treating Harry the way he deserves to be treated. He’s the eighth fucking wonder of the world, and he should have everything.

Of course, it’s none of Louis’s business. He doesn’t really know any of these people, really – Harry quite literally fell into his life not twenty-four hours ago. He has no right to judge or meddle just because he’s jealous. Which he’s not, but, you know. If he was.

“Of course,” Harry says, perfectly delighted. “I’m sorry about Liam. He’s a little protective.”

Just then, the prince in question steps up to them. “I do apologise,” he says to Louis, leaning forward and resting a hand on Harry’s lower back. Harry curls into him a little and Louis feels it burn. “I don’t always think before I act. We haven’t been properly introduced, my name is Liam,” and he reaches out a hand.

Louis swallows down a hundred quips at once and shakes it like a normal human being. If he grips a little too hard, nobody has to know.

“Louis,” he says with a pleasant smile. “And who’s this?” he points with his chin over Liam’s shoulder, where the blond is flipping the light switch on and off.

“Oh,” says Liam. “That’s Niall. He’s my trusted advisor and confidante. He has experience with traveling through dimensions, apparently.”

Dimensions. Huh.

“Hello, Niall!” Louis shouts, just to be obnoxious. Even Zayn stirs from where he’s staring at the wall in what looks to be very intense concentration.

“Hello!” Niall shouts back just as loudly from three feet away.

Zayn, now woken up from his trance, politely asks them all to take their shoes off and herds them into the kitchen. As an automatic reaction to stress – one that he’d picked up from Louis – he puts the kettle on for tea.

Louis sits next to Niall, who’s talking about how proud he is to know what an automobile is, and resolutely stares at Zayn’s hideous tablecloth. Opposite him, Liam and Harry have pushed their chairs close enough that their thighs are touching, and they’re having a conversation in small whispers.

This is it, Louis thinks. Harry’s happily ever after has come to take him back to fairytale land. In the past day, Louis’s life has been changed completely, rebuilt from the ground up by this impossible boy, and now he’s as good as gone. It doesn’t just sting, like something he’ll get over and forget about soon enough; it actually hurts. Louis misses Harry already, in every painful breath he takes and every blink that brings Harry and Liam closer together, until Louis is not sure where one begins and the other ends.

He can see it, he thinks. They look right next to each other, like they could be wonderful, one day.

He excuses himself soon after and ignores the murderous glare Zayn sends his way. He needs to be alone for a while.

Harry smiles as Louis passes him and looks up from his conversation with Liam. “Good night,” he whispers, like he thinks he can’t be heard in the silence that falls on the room.

Louis’s heart skips a beat right inside his chest. He smiles back, as genuine as he can manage, and feels the smile wobble and fall as soon as he closes the door behind him.

He unlocks his own flat, kicks off his shoes, and falls face-first onto the sofa.

He barely gets a minute to think – about what, he’s not sure – before the door opens and closes with a quiet snick. Louis would expect Zayn to be the one to come after him, but whoever’s standing at the door isn’t breathing raspy and audible the way Zayn usually does.

“Louis,” Harry says quietly. Inexplicably, it makes Louis’s blood boil just a little bit.

Who is Harry to walk in and embed himself into Louis’s life like this, anyway? How dare he be everything Louis has been missing? Why does he seem to fit perfectly into every crack and crevice of Louis’s life?

“Harry,” he replies finally, tired. His voice sounds cold even to his own ears.

“Are you alright?” Harry asks. His footsteps are soft as he approaches, light feet in Louis’s too-small socks padding across the wooden floor and fluffy living room carpet. “I wanted to apologise for Liam again. It had to be scary when he pounced on you like that.”

It’s scary having you here, Louis thinks. It’s not what he says out loud.

Jesus, Harry,” he crows, and he can tell what’s coming even as everything inside him is screaming in protest. “I’m fine. Stop being sorry all the time and go reacquaint yourself with your boyfriend.”

He’s harsh, snippy, the way he gets when he’s had a long day at work or when Zayn drinks all his milk or when he forgets to call his mum or when he’s in pain. It’s a coping mechanism, one that he needs to get rid of, but he hasn’t had the time. He never has time.

Silence. Louis swallows the lump that rises in his throat, squeezes his eyes shut, and sits up. Harry’s breath is loud and shaky, somewhat surprised, coming in short little bursts that break against Louis’s bare ankle. By the time he’s brave enough to open his eyes and look, Louis regrets ever learning how to talk.

Harry, as expected, looks absolutely devastated. His shoulders are slumped, wide eyes filled to the brim with tears that make their way down his cheeks silently.

“I’m…sorry,” Harry says slowly, then claps a hand over his mouth. “I mean. Sorry. No, I’m not meant to apologise,” he says the last words to himself, frowning, and Louis feels completely, irrevocably broken. Trust him to fuck everything up. “I didn’t mean to upset you.” 

Louis finally regains control of his vocal cords. He shuffles closer on the sofa, still safely outside the bubble of Harry’s personal space. “No, Harry, you didn’t upset me, I’m sorry. I was… angry at something else. It’s not your fault, I’m sorry I snapped like that. I, shit. I didn’t mean to ruin this for you. You must be so happy to have Liam here, and here I go acting like a fucking idiot.”

Harry reaches out a hand halfway through Louis’s desperate monologue, wrapping his fingers around Louis’s forearm and moving them in gentle circles.

“You were angry?” he asks, bizarrely.

“I was. I’m sorry.”

Harry shakes his head. “That’s okay. I… is there anything I can do to help with what’s upsetting you?”

Louis actually has to blink the sting out of his eyes. Harry is the loveliest thing he’s ever seen, the most amazing boy he’s ever met, nothing short of a miracle. Louis orbits him like a little puppy planet.

“I’m afraid not, but I’ll be just fine. Don’t worry.”

“Okay,” Harry says, “if you say so.” He’s silent, long fingers still painting invisible patterns over Louis’s skin. Then, “What’s it like?”

“What?”

“Being angry.”

Louis blinks. “You’ve never been angry?”

“No,” Harry shakes his head. “I don’t think angry exists in Andalasia.”

“Liam seemed pretty fired up in there,” Louis points out.

“He would never have done that, back home. He’s the calmest person I’ve ever met.”

“Haven’t you known him for two days?” Louis asks, and immediately bites his own tongue. The ability to talk should definitely be optional. Louis should give it up.

“I’ve known you for less, and I already know so much about you,” Harry smiles pleasantly, finally letting go of Louis and folding his hands in his lap. Louis immediately misses the point of contact, Harry’s warm, soft skin against his own. At Harry’s words, he smiles.

“You’re right, I’m sorry. So. Anger?”

Harry nods enthusiastically, his eyes wide and excited like a child’s.

Louis thinks, for a while, about what it would be like to not feel anger at all. He can’t quite imagine it – he’s angry all the time, at customers and himself and the world and the universe that brings people like Harry into his path. It’s a part of him, something integral that took seed when he was sixteen and listening to his parents fighting with his ear pressed against the door.

“It’s…hot,” he thinks back, trying to recall the storm of emotion he was feeling when he held Daisy and Phoebe in his arms as they cried because daddy was gone. “Like something inside you is on fire and you need to let it out in whatever way you can. I always feel like punching things, or yelling at people, even if they don’t deserve it. It’s irrational, you know? You’re hurt, and you want other people to hurt with you. That’s where anger comes from, I think. Pain.”

Harry nods quietly. His eyelashes tremble as he blinks once, twice, and breathes out. “Thank you,” he says, simple.

Louis smiles, scoots the last bit until he’s back in the wonderful bubble of Harry again. There’s something soft between them, tentative and lovely, hiding in the shadows of the living room. 

“No problem,” he says eventually. “You should get back to Liam, though.”

That gets Harry’s attention, and the mellow expression slips right off his face. “Oh,” he says, too loud in the silence. “I didn’t tell you yet. I’m not going back with Liam.”

The bottom of Louis’s stomach falls right out, followed by what feels like every single one of his internal organs. He struggles to take a breath. “What?”

Harry props his chin on a hand and lowers his eyes, focusing on where he’s picking on a fraying thread in the sofa cushion. “I’m not going back, not right now. I want to stay.”

“Why?” Louis asks. His entire brain is filled with white noise. 

“There’s so much more to see here!” he says. Louis thinks he can see him glow in the dark. “I want to see everything. I want to know how the airplanes fly and where the horses are in cars and I. I want to know how people fall in love.” 

“How will you learn all that?” Louis whispers, barely forming words. His throat is still closed up.

“Can you show me?” Harry looks up, finally. The world stutters and stops spinning.

He is so beautiful, Louis realises as catches his gaze and holds. Harry is incredible.

And Louis, well. He has responsibilities. He’s got work. He has a visit home scheduled in a couple of weeks. And still, none of that matters – Harry looks at him, smiles at him, breathes in his direction, and none of it matters.

“I’d love to,” he says softly, smiling so wide his cheeks start hurting. Harry matches him, sparkling white teeth and full lips stretched into a grin, and claps his hands.

“Thank you! Thank you thank you thank you!” he shouts, breaking the fragile atmosphere for something better, and Louis barely sees him coming when Harry throws himself around his neck.

Louis’s nose comes to rest just underneath his ear, buried in Harry’s hair. He smells like flowers and fresh air, everything Louis craves when the city smog gets him down. He’s warm and broad and firm underneath his borrowed shirt, and he fits into every curve of Louis’s body like they were meant to come together. When Harry presses their temples together there’s a sharp tug in Louis’s chest, and he knows.

This is not going to end well for him. That’s probably a given by now, but Louis is not one to give up before he’s even tried. He has time with Harry. Days, weeks, maybe months, and he’ll take it all.

He’s excited, for once in his life. He’s going to live.

 

*

 

They sit down and make an actual list of things Harry wants to see. It’s not exactly easy, since Harry wants to see everything.

The first thing to do, Louis insists, is to buy Harry some clothes. If he’s going to be staying for a while, Louis absolutely cannot let him wear his own old shirts and trackies and too-small socks. He’s not stingy; it’s just that seeing Harry in his clothes, well. It’s an experience.

What Louis doesn’t expect is that shopping with Harry is eerily similar to shopping with his little sisters. He’s there to provide the contents of his rapidly thinning wallet and carry the bags while Harry ducks into shop after shop and struggles to contain his excitement.

They find a few packages of plain underwear and socks quickly enough; the real problem arises when Harry spots things he wants to try on. He wants Louis’s opinion on everything, and Louis has to actually duck into the changing room with him. He tries, of course, to keep his eyes to himself, but Harry’s ridiculously toned chest is right there in front of his nose. It’s a struggle.

“What about this?” Harry asks in H&M, putting on a red striped shirt. He pulls on the hem a little, pats down the collar and grins at himself in the mirror. Louis feels warm down to his tiptoes.

“Wonderful,” he says immediately, and he’s not at all lying. Harry looks good in literally everything.

He seems to take a liking to this shirt in particular, and he keeps it on as he wanders the store in search for more quirky things. The price tag hangs down his back; several employees move towards him when they spot it, but that’s what Louis is there for – he puts on the glare that Zayn says makes him look at least a little intimidating, and they’re left alone.

Harry wanders, under Louis’s watchful eye, into the female clothing section. He seems drawn to the bright colours and chaotic patterns, rifling through a discount bin of scarves, racks of sunglasses and shelves full of sun hats. He emerges, finally, with a scarf tied around his hair and a pink top in hand.

He looks confused as he comes to stand in front of Louis, washed pale under the bright lights of the shop. “The nice lady there,” he points over his shoulder to a middle-aged woman who’s looking at his back with distrust, “told me that I can’t wear this because this is a girl shirt.” And he giggles, like he can’t believe somebody would actually say that. Louis wants to protect him from the world forever.

He looks at the top Harry’s holding, long and flowy, made of semi-transparent fabric. The sleeves are tiny and the neckline plunges deep; the tag says women.

“I suppose she’s right,” he says carefully.

“Really?” Harry asks, blinking. “Isn’t all of this supposed to be for everyone?”

Louis smiles. “It should, shouldn’t it.”

“Then why isn’t it?” Harry asks curiously, hugging his top.

”Don’t know. We get a little hung up on boys being boys, I suppose. Don’t want anyone to find out how pathetic we actually are.”

Harry tilts his head, considering. “You’re not pathetic.”

Louis steers them gently back towards the changing rooms. “I’m surprised you have that word in Andalasia.”

“I’ve never heard anyone use it,” Harry says, closing the door behind them and tugging the striped shirt off his shoulders. “But I read a lot.”

He folds the garment neatly and puts it on top of the ‘yes’ pile, and then he’s half-naked again. The muscles in his back twist as he tries to get the colourful scarf out of his hair.

“Here,” Louis says and puts down all this bags. “Let me help.”

He steps up right behind Harry, level with his shoulders. He looks enormous from this close, blocking out the lights of the changing room and presenting Louis with a front row view to the play of muscles beneath his skin. He feels warm and smells absolutely tantalising, and Louis only feels a little like a creep.

He clears his throat and gets on with what he’s supposed to be doing. Harry tilts his head back to give him easier access, but Louis still has to plaster himself to his back to reach. He can actually feel Harry’s skin, just this side of damp, stick to the front of his t-shirt.

The knot of the scarf is worked deep into Harry’s hair, woven through with long strands. Louis digs his nails in, trying to resist combing his hands through all of Harry’s soft, clean curls. It’s difficult.

Louis, concentrated as he is, drops his gaze to watch Harry in the mirror. The line of his body is absolutely sinful, the column of his neck long and pale where he’s got his head tilted back, towards Louis. His eyes are closed, and a small smile is pressed into the corner of his lips. Louis, swallowed by Harry’s body heat as he is, wants to press himself all along his front; maybe kiss his chest just a little.

Just before Louis can start having another crisis, the knot finally comes loose. He wraps the ends of the scarf in his fingers and pulls it out of Harry’s hair, careful.


“There you go,” he says, too quiet, and the air goes thick and heavy in his lungs. He stares for a few seconds, watching Harry drop his chin down, meeting his eyes in the mirror. They’re a pale, otherworldly green; a colour that Louis could drown in, if he let himself.

He makes himself step away, clearing his throat awkwardly, but it works – Harry visibly shakes himself, and the atmosphere is broken.

“Thank you,” he smiles brightly, searching the messy changing cabin for the shirt he came in, a plaid button up they’ve bought in one of the previous shops. Louis is mesmerised, just for a second, by the natural glow of his skin.

“This too?” he asks as he unfolds the scarf and re-folds it into a neat square. Harry’s got good taste – it’s a lovely material, silky and soft to the touch, with a subtle dotted pattern on the fabric.

“Yes, please,” says Harry, gathering up all his new picks, pink shirt on top, and leading the way to the cashier.

After Louis pays and tries to not look at the total, they wander out and towards the food court. Harry follows the wildly mixed scents and, unsurprisingly, comes to a stop outside a Pinkberry.

“Louis,” he says, as Louis is already pulling his wallet out of his back pocket. “What is this?” He’s looking at the bright array of sprinkles and gummy bears and fruits behind the glass, leaving fingerprints smeared all over.

“It’s frozen yoghurt. It’s, uh. It’s good. Very cold.”

“Can we have some?” Harry asks the young girl behind the counter. She blinks at him in surprise, but mostly looks endeared; Louis is glad he doesn’t have to stare down another stranger asking Harry if he’s foreign like it’s contagious. 

Harry picks strawberry with every kind of topping imaginable, drowning his yoghurt in candy and cereal and chocolate.  Louis gets chocolate, with kiwi and strawberries and lots of coconut shavings, because he deserves to treat himself.

It’s really the cashier that makes Louis decide they should go home. She leans over to him as he’s hunting for a fifty pence inside his wallet, wearing a perfectly pleasant smile.

“You two are very cute together,” she says, and Louis freezes. “I’m sorry, I just really wanted to say that.”

Louis turns around, looks at Harry who’s got his little plastic spoon sticking out the corner of his mouth and is making eyes at a tiny baby sat in a high chair. He feels warm at the thought of them looking like a couple, he really does, except that it’s not going to happen. They have a fantastic time together, sure, and Louis feels like he’s about to float off whenever Harry smiles at him, but that’s all it is. All it ever can be.

Still, he turns to her with a smile that’s kind, if tight. “Thanks,” he says as he finishes up, and doesn’t look back when he jogs to catch up with Harry.

They sit down at a table in the middle of the food court, the shopping centre bursting with life all around them.

Louis looks at Harry, and forgets to look away.

 

*

 

“So they’re not real people?”

“They are real people,” Louis sighs. “They’re just pretending to be somebody they’re not. They’re being characters.”

Harry nods slowly, puts another kernel of popcorn on the tip of his tongue and claps when is sticks there. Louis smiles despite himself, guiding Harry to their seats with a hand on the small of his back. 

“I’ve heard of theatre,” Harry says, lifting his drink out of the cup holder and letting it drop down again. “But I’ve never been. It’s castle entertainment.”

Louis thinks, as he takes off his shoes and folds his legs underneath himself, about where Harry actually comes from. Maybe they’re more alike than Louis would like to think.

He doesn’t have time to ask before the lights go down. Harry quiets, staring transfixed as the screen lights up and the film trailers come on. Louis opts to watch his face instead.

He’s still not entirely sure what they’re doing here, if he’s honest with himself. He was supposed to go to work in the morning, but then Harry woke him up by sitting on his legs, dripping wet and smelling like tea, enthusiastic to start the day. He asked Louis if they could please go see a moo-vie, because Zayn and Niall had been the day before and Niall wouldn’t shut up about it. 

Which is how Louis ended up at Cineworld, twenty quid lighter, sitting next to a boy who’s so excited he grips Louis’s hand like a vice and doesn’t let go.

The film’s average, like every romantic comedy Louis has seen in the past ten years. What makes it magic is Harry’s running commentary, his tiny gasps and whispers and excited squealing when the couple on the screen finally kiss. Louis looks at him most of the time, watching the screen reflected in his eyes and trying to feel like he’s not falling.

They walk home after, still holding hands. Harry doesn’t let go, and Louis enjoys the warmth of their intertwined fingers far too much to tell him to.

“Looks like you were wrong, then,” Harry says, lit up blue and red and white underneath the late night city lights. “Happily ever afters do exist." 

Looking at him, soft and bright and wonderful as he is, Louis almost wants to believe they do.

“It was just a film, Harry,” he says instead. “They’re made to make us feel better about life. Like, you know, there’s somebody perfect waiting out there for every single one of us."

“Maybe there is,” says Harry softly. He sounds different to the last time they talked about this; more subdued, like he’s trying to convince Louis, not just tell him about the way things are where he comes from.

“Maybe,” Louis concedes. He thinks of his parents, his grandparents, his aunt and uncle married for thirty years and traveling the world together. Inevitably, he thinks of Harry, even as he’s walking right next to him. “But even then. It doesn’t mean we’ll ever get to meet them. What if they live halfway across the world?”

Harry smiles like he knows something Louis doesn’t. “I’d like to ask you something.”

Louis’s heart flutters in his chest, just this side of panicky. He squeezes Harry’s hand tighter. “Of course. Ask away.” 

“What’s a date?”

Louis raises his eyebrows, surprised. A minute silence falls between them, warm and comfortable.

“You don’t have those, either?”

Harry shakes his head. “We have official dinners. You sit down with the family of your betrothed, and they ask you questions.”

“Really?” Louis frowns. “That sounds uncomfortable.”

“It’s not, really. Liam’s family is nice,” he says. “But tell me about dating, please.”

“Well,” Louis tilts his head, considering, “I haven’t been on one in ages, but it’s what you do when you want to get to know someone better. You go to a dinner, or a museum or something, and you talk.” 

“What do you talk about?” 

Louis looks up at Harry, enamoured. He can’t help picturing the two of them on a date, building up a fantasy like a teenager with a crush; Harry is like an endless enigma, the kind of person who could withstand Louis’s million questions and give a new answer to every one. 

“About each other. Your likes, your dislikes, you just…talk.”

“Oh,” says Harry quietly. “Okay. Do you…get married after?”

Louis laughs a little, squeezes Harry’s hand to let him know it’s not at him. “No. Well, some people do, I guess, but it’s frowned upon. Some people never get married.”

“Never?” Harry gasps, eyes wide.

“Never,” Louis says, watching the bright circle of the moon swim in Harry’s gaze. “Sometimes they don’t like each other and they break up, and sometimes they’re just comfortable living without marriage. A lot of people say that it’s just a paper, nowadays.”

“But…how can they find true love, then?” he sounds devastated. Louis wants to punch himself in the face.

“You don’t need marriage for that, Harry,” he tries in a soothing voice, curling closer to Harry’s body heat. “I promise you. So many people are in love and perfectly happy together, even if they’re not married.”

Harry is quiet for a long time. They cross another street, away from the ever-present bustle of the city centre. The sky is a little darker here, the stars a little more visible, and Louis can’t help but think about what a great date it would make – just climbing on somebody’s roof and watching the night pass by, mapping out pictures in the stars with fingers intertwined.

“Your world is strange,” says Harry finally, and Louis won’t argue with that. “I can’t wait to get married.”

And then he’s animated again, like the brief stutter in his good mood never happened, like he wasn’t weighed down with the reality of this world for even a second.

“To Liam,” Louis reminds him. “Married to Liam.”

“Uh,” is the first thing Harry says, clearly audible, though he covers it up with a cough. “Yes, to Liam. He’s my betrothed. Of course I’ll be married to Liam. We’ll live happily ever after.”

“You know,” Louis says, careful to keep his voice soft, “maybe marriage and love aren’t really the same thing. What will you do if you get married and don’t fall for him?”

“That won’t happen,” Harry shakes his head immediately. “Things like that don’t happen in Andalasia.”

“But what if?” Louis whispers.

Harry shakes his hand and lets go of Louis’s hand. He wraps his arms around himself, and the air around Louis suddenly goes icy cold. “Then we’d stay together anyway. Marriage is about taking care of each other.”

He falls silent then, closed off.

“Okay,” Louis says immediately, scrambling, desperate to fix what feels broken between them. “I’m sorry." 

Harry smiles at him, his skin a warm orange in the glow of the streetlights, but it doesn’t look the way Harry’s smiles usually do.

Louis prays that, in trying to protect the way Harry looks at life, he’s not the one who ended up ruining the illusion.

 

*

 

Louis watches Harry’s face carefully, trying to spot any signs of discomfort as he leans back in the chair. Zayn is shaving the inner side of his forearm a little more forcefully than strictly necessary, glaring at Niall, who’s sat in the window and waving to the passersby. He seems to just have materialised out of thin air, following Zayn everywhere like a very loud, blond shadow.

It's a Sunday, and they’ve all somehow come to be in Zayn’s tattoo shop. Things between Louis and Harry seem alright, as far as Louis can tell; they’re back to singing together over breakfast and discovering the secrets of London like a pair of tourists. Today, though, Louis had different plans, and Harry requested to come along, even after Louis had warned him there would be blood.

After Zayn transfers the stencil to Louis’s wrist, Louis looks over the design one more time. It’s so simple and still so impressive, like all of Zayn’s tattoos are, but this one feels different. Louis himself is not entirely sure why he picked it.

A sharp chin digs into Louis’s shoulder suddenly, bringing with it the familiar smell of Harry and a warm gust of breath on Louis’s neck.

“It’s so beautiful,” he says, tracing his fingers over the flash. “Just like you. It will suit you so well.”

Louis only chokes a little, used to Harry’s casual compliments, but his heart speeds up and stays racing. He’s got Harry’s words breaking right against his ear, his warm presence pressed along the back of the chair, and a painfully clear memory of Harry’s nose pressed against the window of a tattoo shop, looking at a pair of swallows and a coil of rope eerily similar to this one.

That’s not what this is, though. It can’t be. Louis is not in that deep, he thinks, even as he stares at the transfer standing out dark blue against his skin.

“Ready?” Zayn asks, rubbing ointment over the design and effectively shutting down Louis’s terrifying thoughts. Louis nods, silent, and grips the arm of the chair with his other hand.

Harry squeaks a little when Zayn turns the tattoo gun on. “It buzzes!” he explains when all eyes in the room fall on him, not at all embarrassed.

He stays close even as Zayn lays into Louis’s skin, starting his line work. He holds on to Louis’s shoulder, his upper arm, his free wrist as Louis breathes through the sting and waits for his skin to get used to it.

“How much does it hurt?” asks Harry five minutes in, just as Louis is starting to relax.

"I heard it’s awful,” says Niall from his perch in the window. “Like sticking your arm into the fire.” 

Harry looks at him with wide eyes.

“It’s really not that bad,” Zayn shoots back, sounding both fond and annoyed. It’s been a while since Louis has heard him use that tone, and he wonders, suddenly, what it is about Niall that pushes Zayn’s buttons so much.

“Yeah,” he says belatedly. “It’s alright.”

“But isn’t it a needle?” Harry asks, motioning at the gun with his chin while his hands are busy gripping Louis’s.

“It’s three, actually,” Zayn supplies, “but don’t worry. Louis has done this before, he’ll be just fine.”

Just then, he wipes away the droplets of blood pooling on Louis’s skin and dips his machine into the ink cap, looking away. Harry takes the opportunity to send Louis an alarmed look.

Louis grins up at him and squeezes his hand. “You wanted to get one of these too, remember?”

Harry gulps. “I think I’ve changed my mind,” he tries to whisper, but the echo of it is clear in the tiled room. Zayn laughs.

“Maybe I should get one,” Niall pipes up, finally hopping down, and comes to sit on a chair close to Zayn’s. “They look like something the protector of the prince should have." 

“I thought you were his advisor and confidante,” Louis quips. Zayn laughs again, hard enough that he has to get the needle away from Louis’s skin.

Niall, in a display of knightly dignity, sticks out his tongue.

They quiet down after, listening to the buzz of the tattoo gun jumping as Zayn takes it over Louis’s skin. It’s soothing, relieving the pain in Louis’s tattooed wrist and the hand that Harry is making a valiant effort to crush.

Harry's presence calms Louis down even though he didn’t actually know he was nervous. The tattoo shop is usually cool, somehow impersonal, even when it’s just him and Zayn and top 40 music in the background, plus the occasional irresponsible joint they smoke after they’re done. 

With Harry here, even the cold, blue lights overhead feel like sunshine.

It’s a small tattoo, and it’s done quickly. The sky has gone dark orange and ruby red behind the window, dark blue chasing it to mark the end of the day, and the whole street seems deserted. It’s peaceful, as far as peace goes in the city.

“Oh,” Harry is the first to speak while Zayn cleans Louis up and presses a hot towel to his wrist. “It’s beautiful.”

“You said it was going to be,” Louis says. He doesn’t drop Harry’s gaze as Zayn rubs ointment into the wound and dresses it, and in those minutes, he feels himself give.

“I’m glad you like it,” he says.

It’s for you, he thinks.

 

*

 

Inevitably, Louis runs out of things to do. They’ve done the tourist round and gone to the markets more times than he can count; Louis even took Harry to the fucking Eye and spent half a day standing in line, entertained only by Harry’s undying enthusiasm.

He has to go back to work eventually, which brings worlds of perspective into his life. He somehow enjoys the coffee house even less than he did before, now, thinking about what Harry’s doing at home while he shines mugs and cleans the machines and wipes down the counters. He comes to look forward to opening the door and seeing Harry greet him with a soft smile; comes to think of Harry as synonymous with home.

He’s taught Harry how to use the telly for when he’s bored, showed him how to work the kettle and the stove and stuck a post-it on the fridge door with a reminder to close it. He’d even found more of Lottie’s old magazines, which Harry seems to have taken an avid liking to. Zayn is on duty when he can, checking up on him on occasion and making sure nothing is burning. Harry’s well taken care of, really, and he’s got the immense comfort of everything Louis’s shitty flat has to offer.

Louis is still the first one out of the door after his shift ends, and he becomes that person who pushes through everyone else just to get on the tube sooner. He’s not proud, but. Every minute he spares in the dingy London streets, he can spend with Harry instead. That’s worth a lot.

On a sunny Thursday in June, Louis takes the early shift and makes plans. He’s done by one in the afternoon, home by two, and when he pushes the door open, he’s almost shaking with how excited he is. It’s been a while since he could take Harry anywhere, is all. 

Harry, as expected, is easily found in Louis’s bedroom. He’d proclaimed the bed to be a soft piece of heaven a while ago, and Louis is too selfish to try and get him out of there.

He looks like home and like sin; wearing Louis’s old shirt that serves him as pyjamas, with hair messy and cherry red lips stretched into a pleasant smile. His legs are bare and long and deliciously pale in Louis’s dark blue sheets, and one of his hands is resting over his own face, fingers tapping out an absent-minded rhythm against his skin. Louis knows that when he goes to sleep tonight, the bed is going to smell like flowers and fresh breeze and Harry.

He stands in the doorway looking at him for longer than he should. It takes him a while to register that there’s music playing, but sure enough – Louis’s laptop is open, tangled in the quilt, blasting Hold On, We’re Going Home.

“Hi,” Harry says as soon as he spots him, rolling over. He looks soft and sleepy and rumpled. “This music is amazing.”

“Really?” Louis grins, steps inside and falls, boneless, right next to Harry. “You like it?”

Harry nods, lying back, hair spread around his head like a halo. He looks up at Louis with wide eyes, then reaches up and tucks a wayward strand of Louis’s hair back behind his ear. He’s in no rush, and his palm brushes slowly, softly against Louis’s cheek.

“How was work?” he asks, and if Louis wasn’t already having trouble breathing, he’d start now. It just…slams into him, how terribly domestic Harry is being and how Louis doesn’t mind one single bit.

It’s so intimate, this softness between them. Louis can’t believe he used to be scared of it.

“It was alright,” he says finally, pressing a peck to the back of Harry’s hand. “I hope you weren’t too bored.”

“Not at all,” Harry smiles, reassuring. “Niall came by. We had tea and biscuits and a nice chat." 

Louis only fights the hopelessly fond stretch of his mouth for a split second. “I’m glad to hear that,” he says, then remembers why he’s here so early. “Right, um. Would you like to go to the park?”

Harry perks up. “The park?”

“Yeah. Since it’s nice out, and all,” says Louis, like he hasn’t been thinking about this for the past three days. Which. Is a bit pathetic, perhaps, because he hasn’t even had the presence of mind to come up with something to do. 

“Oh, I’d love to!” Harry wraps his arms around Louis’s neck, pulling him straight down into bed with him. “I miss the forest,” he says, softer. Louis feels an unavoidable pang of guilt.

“That’s settled, then,” he smiles into Harry’s shoulder, terrifyingly comfortable. “We should change first, though. I smell like coffee.”

And they do. Harry rummages in his allocated section of Louis’s wardrobe, humming contemplatively, and pulls out his favourite items – the pink shirt and the scarf. Louis ties it in his hair for him, smiling at Harry’s pleased expression. Louis’s bank account still hasn’t recovered from what their shopping spree has put him through, but it proves to be worth it every day that Harry wears something from his wonderfully quirky little collection.

They take the tube back into the city, mostly because it’s one of Harry’s favourite things to do. He loves watching people, making up stories about their lives and whispering them into Louis’s ear. His imagination is endless, and Louis finds himself equal parts endeared and fascinated.

They get out at Victoria and walk the rest of the way, close together with shoulders bumping. Hyde Park stretches right in front of them, vast and green and peaceful, if full of people.

“Oh, this is wonderful,” Harry says quietly; Louis thinks he’s not meant to hear, and doesn’t say anything. 

Generically speaking, Louis hasn’t had much time to relax surrounded by greenery since he’s moved here, and most of the parks are a big maze to him. He’d been to the Albert Memorial once, with Zayn, back when he was in uni and trying to talk random passersby into posing for his final project, but that’s about all the experience he has. He’s a little lost, if he’s honest with himself.

Thankfully, Harry assumes control of the situation rather quick. “Can we go sit by the water?” he asks.

“Course,” Louis smiles. Harry grabs his hands like it’s the most natural thing in the world, and pulls him towards where the Serpentine is peeking, blue-grey, between the trees.

The park is swarmed with people, but it’s easy enough to find an empty bench. Harry looks like a right tourist, absolutely enthralled with the vast space around them, asking Louis questions he can’t answer. The surface of the lake is dotted with pedalos and rowing boats, ducks treading the water and splashing whenever an oar comes a little too close. Right in front of them, a lone swan is swaying with the gentle ripples in the water.

As unexpected as it seems, the park is almost eerily quiet around them. There’s gaggles of children and couples holding hands and what looks like a study group sprawled in the grass with books, but the soft hum of wind in the trees hides their conversations. It makes Louis feel a little like him and Harry are the only people in the world.

“We always have swans at weddings,” Harry says, after what feels like hours of peaceful silence. “In Andalasia. They’re a symbol of love.”

“I know,” Louis says, matching his quiet tone. The swan in front of them comes out of the water on its short legs, shaking out its wings.

Without a word, Harry stands up, crosses the path and crouches right on the bank. He extends a hand towards the bird, humming a light tune under his breath; it doesn’t sound like a song that Louis has ever heard, more like the tinkling of a music box. 

To Louis’s immense fascination, the swan actually comes closer to Harry, until his hand is resting on its arched neck, and rubs its beak all over his forearm.

“Look,” Harry whispers, grinning.

“I’m looking,” says Louis shrewdly. As if he could tear his eyes away.

It’s mid-afternoon now, and the sun is slowly moving towards the horizon. It lights up Harry’s lean silhouette and makes his swan’s white feathers shine brilliantly; Louis pulls his phone out of his pocket and takes a picture, but he doesn’t feel like it’s enough. He wants a bucket of paint and a canvas the size of his flat to capture what he’s seeing, and even then, he wouldn’t be able to fit in everything that Harry is.

“How are you doing that?” he asks, daring to come closer in slow steps.

Harry shrugs, smiling softly, letting the swan curl its neck over his shoulder. “Animals are my friends.” Louis remembers the morning he woke to a flat full of rats. Of course animals are Harry’s friends.  “He’s lovely, do you want to pet him?”

“The swan?” Louis chokes a little. He seizes up the bird in front of him, intimidatingly large. “No, I think. Um. I think I’m good.”

Harry beams at him anyway, sitting down to withstand the swan’s rather forceful displays of affection. Louis can only assume that this isn’t an ordinary thing to witness in Hyde Park, as they’ve soon got an audience comprised of mostly small children.

They all close in on Harry, tiny hands reaching for him, shouting out a barrage of indecipherable questions. Louis winces a little at the noise they’re making, but Harry seems to thrive under the attention; he engages every one of them, repeating that animals are his friends, letting everybody pet the bird. He reminds them to be nice to each other, with no force but rather a friendly smile on his face, and to Louis’s astonishment, they actually listen. They form an orderly line, all hugging Harry when they get to him, absolutely beaming.

The parents, of course, soon catch up to them, and more than a few shriek with horror when they see what’s going on. Swans don’t exactly have the reputation of the friendliest of birds, Louis is fairly certain.

“Do you know who the guy is?” a woman asks with a strong accent, nudging Louis impolitely in the ribs.

“I do, yeah,” Louis sighs fondly.

“Is he some creep?”

“What? No,” Louis crows indignantly, turning to her and crossing his arms in defence. He doesn’t quite understand how anybody could look at Harry and think anything but sun and stars. “He’s…” mine, his mind supplies. “He’s with me. You don’t have to worry, really.”

“Well,” she eyes him with suspicion and a generous amount of disdain, looking over his t-shirt and threadbare jeans. “Okay.” She still moves to pull a child out of the huddle, all but dragging him away.

Luckily for Louis, no other parents decide to approach him. They talk quietly amongst themselves whilst Harry entertains their kids with tales of Andalasia. They’ve all sat down around him right there on the concrete like it’s story time, listening to a fairytale about a prince named Liam who hunted trolls.


Louis grins to himself and tries to cover it up with his hand. Troll hunting seems like something Liam would do – not that Louis is at all biased against him. One just tends to remember sharp things being held to their throat.

After a while, he sits back down, just outside the circle of children, and listens with them. Harry has a way, he thinks, of absolutely enrapturing his audience; he changes voices and facial expressions and bends his back every which way to indicate a troll, eliciting giggles from them all, Louis included. As he watches him, with the setting sun in his back and a swan floating on the water at his feet, he feels proud. It’s misplaced, perhaps, because everything Harry has achieved in this world, he’s done for himself, but he’s such an integral part of Louis’s life now. He can’t control the way he feels about him, regardless of how much he’d like to.

Harry’s swan friend gets bored of him eventually. He’s not paying it much attention, just absentmindedly running his hands over the bird’s neck while in the throes of a thrilling tale about Niall and some smelly cheese. It ruffles its feathers, kicks up some water, and smoothly slides away.

“Bye!” Harry waves after it, cheerful as ever. When he finishes his story, the kids pick themselves up too, hurried along by impatient parents; Harry gives every single one of them the warmest goodbye hug Louis has ever seen.

Soon enough, it’s just the two of them again, Harry looking poutily into the distance where a group of birds are swimming on the shimmery surface of the lake.

“I’m sure he’ll come back,” says Louis, picking himself up and coming to sit next to Harry, leaning into his shoulder just so.

“Oh, no, I’m glad he’s gone back to his friends. I just miss it a little.”

“Miss what?” Louis asks, and the familiar guilt catches up with him again. He’s sort of what’s keeping Harry here; he should let go. Funnily enough, he always feels like he is, except then Harry smiles or breathes and Louis is right there, attached to him and entirely hopeless.

Harry shrugs and ruffles his hair, dislodging the scarf. “I don’t know. Being in Andalasia, I suppose. It’s much easier to make new friends there. Everyone’s in a hurry here, even the animals. It’s sad.”

Louis reaches up and gently pulls Harry’s headband back into place. “I’m sorry,” he squeezes out through his constricted lungs, at a loss. “You know you can just…leave. If you want. Liam’s waiting for you, I’m sure he’d be glad to hear you can finally get married.”

It’s probably Louis’s overly vivid imagination, but he thinks he sees Harry’s face fall a little more at the mention of Liam’s name.

“I don’t want to leave. I told you I wanted to see everything, and I haven’t, not yet,” he’s smiling, still, even through the sadness that’s plain to be heard in his voice.

“What do you want to see next, then?” Louis asks, letting his hand rest in the juncture of Harry’s shoulder and neck. The skin there is silky soft and warm, Harry’s pulse dancing at Louis’s fingertips.

“This park,” Harry says immediately. “Let’s take a walk.”

Louis grins. The get back on their feet somehow, and head slowly down the path along the lake, towards Kensington Gardens. The sun is level with them, bright in their eyes as it sets over the bridge. It paints the water with fiery reds and rich yellows.

“Louis, look,” Harry whispers. In an endearingly childish gesture, he points a finger to a bench in front of them, where an old man and woman are sat, holding hands. “Aren’t they just lovely?”

Louis wants to tell him it’s impolite to point at strangers, but he also kind of doesn’t. “They are.”

“I’m going to go tell them,” he decides. Louis sputters, but before he can say anything, Harry’s gone. He jogs a little ways up the path, and Louis can only watch with a mix of horror and consternation as he comes to a stop in front of the bench with a little bow.

“Excuse me,” Louis hears him say as he debates whether to come closer. “I just wanted to wish you the best of luck. You make such a beautiful couple.”

He watches through his fingers as the couple’s faces light up. Of course they, too, would fall for Harry’s charm. He’s so bright, so irresistible in that way; he draws people closer, like a light out on the sea.

“Thank you, darling,” the lady says, and then something else that Louis doesn’t catch. Harry thanks her back, bows again, and steps away just as Louis catches up.

“Louis,” he says immediately, threading his arm through the crook of Louis’s elbow. “They were lovely.”

He can’t resist a smile at Harry’s enthusiasm. “What did you talk about?”

“They said they’ve been married for forty-five years. Isn’t that amazing?”

Louis looks up at him. “It is,” he says, staring at the bow of Harry’s eyelashes, and thinks that with Harry by his side, forty-five years wouldn’t be nearly enough.

They reach the bridge then, and Louis pulls Harry forward, until they’re standing right in the middle, leaning on the railing and looking out over the park. Harry leans his head on Louis’s shoulder, nestles underneath his jaw, and intertwines their fingers as they stand and watch. Louis presses a soft kiss into his hair.

He can just spot the spires of Westminster Abbey in the distance. He’s in the heart of one of the world’s most famous cities, surrounded by people and water and the hum of trees, bathed in the setting sun, and still Harry is the only thing occupying his senses.

“Hey, Lou?” Harry says quietly. Louis’s heart skips a beat at the nickname. 

“Yeah,” he presses just above Harry’s ear, soft.

“Thank you.”

The horizon blurs for a moment, a mess of oranges and greens, while Louis blinks the temporary weakness out of his eyes. He takes in Harry’s scent and the wonderful weight of his body against his own side, and pulls him just a little closer.

“You’re welcome, sweetheart.”

He can’t help thinking that, once Harry’s gone, the sunsets will never look the same.

 

*

 

“I have so many fingers.”

“You’re high,” says Zayn.

“Bloop,” Louis confirms. Zayn takes away the joint and puts the last of it out in the ashtray.

“This isn’t why I wanted to hang out,” he says, exhaling his last puff of smoke and joining Louis in his holy mission of lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling. Louis is fairly certain there’s some sort of secret language hidden in the insect splatters there. 

“Why did you want to hang out, Zaynie-poo?” Louis asks, then giggles at himself.

“I wanted to talk to you about Harry, actually.”

Louis immediately feels a little too sober. “Nooo,” he whispers. “Harry is wonderful and asleep, let’s not talk about Harry.”

Zayn rolls over onto his stomach, propping himself up on his elbows and staring right into Louis’s face. Louis can see up his nose. “You need to do something about all this,” he says. His nose hairs quiver, and Louis chooses to poke them instead of being an adult that has adult conversations.

Zayn, to Louis’s chagrin, slaps his hand away quite violently. “Louis.”

Louis had forgotten how deep Zayn gets when he’s high.

“Alright, fine,” he concedes. “What do I need to do?”

“Well, first and foremost, you need to accept that you’ve gone and fallen arse over tit in love with him,” says Zayn, poking Louis in the chest.

“I’ve already done that,” Louis shoots back immediately, sighing. He concentrates harder on the ceiling, but the white paint only makes his eyes ache.

He thinks of Harry who’s sleeping in Louis’s own bed, sweet, wonderful Harry. Louis would do anything for him; he doesn’t need Zayn telling him what he’s feeling. He already knows.

“Oh,” Zayn blinks. He looks like an owl with his eyes open wide a pupils blown; Louis can’t really blame him – he, too, would expect himself to be emotionally constipated about this, because that’s the way Louis gets sometimes. This far in the game, though, he supposes it’s just not happening – is just another way in which Harry is incredibly special to him. “Okay. Are you…telling him?”

He sounds gentle, and Louis spends a few seconds reflecting on how much he loves Zayn.

“Nah,” he says eventually. “Too complicated. He’s already in a different dimension or whatever, he doesn’t need this.” 

“But—“ Zayn frowns. 

“No,” Louis repeats and sits up. The room spins around him for a second, and he thinks he should get up and go find another joint, seeing as this conversation is quickly bringing him down from his pleasant high. “I’m not doing it.” 

“He’d want to know.”

Louis looks back at him. He’s almost blending into the rug with his dark clothes and dark hair and dark eyes, and his gaze is just this side of accusatory. They’ve dealt with each other enough to know the drill by now – Louis gets stubborn about something, Zayn stares at him like a puppy until he breaks, Louis goes and does it and, more often than not, cocks it up.

“You can’t possibly know that,” he gives up on standing and lies back down, facing Zayn’s armpit, which. It’s not the best-smelling place to be.

“You can’t possibly know he wouldn’t,” Zayn throws back. They always talk in circles when they’re high.

“I spend more time with him than you do.”

“Hey! We do talk a lot when you’re at work, you know. All that shit about true love? You could very well be his, you know.”

“Right,” Louis snorts. “Like that would happen.”

“Why not?” Zayn asks, leaning his head against Louis’s. He’s warm. It’s nice.

“True love doesn’t exist,” Louis says immediately, parroting too many younger versions of himself. “Or maybe it does for him, I don’t know. But he’s getting married to Liam, alright? He’s going to leave and have his dream wedding and live happily ever after in fairytale land.”

“Lou,” says Zayn, quiet. Louis can’t stand the hint of pity he hears in his voice. 

“It’s fine. I always knew this was temporary, didn’t I?” To his own shock, he can feel a bitter lump rise in his throat, threatening to choke him.

It just stings, is all. It’s shit that when Louis finds someone who makes him want to see beauty in the world again, they have to leave.

“It doesn’t have to be. He could stay.”

“But he won’t,” Louis rubs a hand over his face. “He’s got a castle waiting for him back home. There’s nothing to keep him here.”

You can keep him here, idiot. That boy is mad about you. He’ll break his own heart if he leaves and gets married to somebody he doesn’t love.”

“I asked him,” Louis clears his throat. “Before. I asked him what he’d do if he got married and never fell in love with Liam, and he said he’d stay with him anyway, because marriage is about taking care of each other. They’ve been promised to each other since they were kids, he won’t just leave that behind.”

“You don’t know any of this for sure,” Zayn runs a soothing hand through his hair. “He may’ve changed his mind since then. Maybe he’s realised that he’s already in love with you.” 

Louis closes his eyes and exhales. His nose is full of smoke and dust, but underneath it, a steady, reassuring presence, Harry’s scent lingers. Louis clings to it desperately as he lets himself figure out the truth.

“Maybe,” he says, tentative, “maybe it’s just too much expectation. He believes in happily ever afters, and that’s. That’s not me.”

Zayn gives up and finally wraps his arms around Louis, pulling their bodies flush against each other. Louis finds solace in his familiar warmth. “It could be, Lou. Happily ever after is not about living a perfect life with no worries, is it? It’s about staying together through everything and learning from your mistakes and coming out the other side stronger. It’s about love, and you’ve got plenty of that. You’re every bit as worthy of him as a fucking fairytale prince. Who, by the way, is a prick and keeps stealing milk out of my fridge." 

Louis laughs wetly, burrowing deeper into Zayn’s arms.            

“Thanks, Z,” he says quietly. He feels floaty and peaceful, even as his mind spins.

He can’t let himself think about this, he can’t; especially not when he’s still high. He might just do something he’ll regret later, like getting into his bed and wrapping around Harry like a human octopus.

“Yeah,” Zayn whispers back, lazy and drawn out – he’s probably falling asleep. “Just promise me you’ll think about this.”

“Promise,” Louis says as he buries his nose in Zayn’s shirt, getting comfortable. He’s lying, of course.

It can’t happen, he reasons, fighting against every little bit of him that’s desperately trying to claw and grab on to his chance with Harry. It’s better like this for everyone.

Louis falls asleep as unconvinced as he’s ever been.

 

*

 

“Alright?” he asks, ruffling Harry’s hair as he whizzes by with a paper tray of coffee cups.

“You’ve already asked me that!” Harry shouts after him again, laughing. Louis has, in fact, already asked him that. Ten times.

“Never hurts to check,” he smiles sunnily and dances back to the machine to start on the next order. In the gleaming silver metal, he catches a reflection of Harry’s brilliant smile.

He serves their last customer of the day - a venti Americano with two pumps of hazelnut - and ushers Perrie out the door with a wave. After he locks up, it’s just him and Harry and the bright lights overhead.

Louis has always liked this best – when he’s the only one left in the shop, and has as much time as he likes to clean everything up in silence. He’s not alone this time, but Harry blends perfectly into this peaceful image of Louis’s, like he’s a puzzle piece that’s been missing from the beginning. He looks like he belongs there, sipping on hot chocolate hunched over his magazine. 

Louis goes about cleaning out the grinder and backflushing the machine. When Harry realises he’s cleaning, he perks up immediately. Louis is expecting him to ask before he even opens his mouth. 

Oh, can I help again? Please?”

Louis grins and disappears into the staff room to get him a mop and a bucket.

They move around each other in sync, quiet except for the simple melody Harry is whistling under his breath. While he glides around the shop, putting the chairs up on the tables and righting the small tablecloths, Louis soaks the portafilters and baskets, unloads the dishwasher, and washes Harry’s empty mug.

It only feels a little like they’re married and cleaning up after dinner.

Once everything is shiny again, prepared to be ruined by the morning rush of customers with poor manners and muddy shoes, Louis sighs in satisfaction and takes off his apron. He’s got two free days coming up – just enough to catch up on sleep and spend hours on the sofa showing Harry every one of his favourite movies. 

He turns off the lights and waits for Harry to catch up and curl under his arm. Even though Harry, tall as he is, has to crouch, they’ve taken to walking that way everywhere. Louis can’t say he minds. 

They head towards home, and it only occurs to Louis halfway there that he’s starving and the only thing to eat at home is cereal, which he’d already had today. Twice.

“Hey, H,” he says softly, burying his nose in Harry’s hair. “D’you want to get something to eat?”

Harry nearly knocks Louis’s teeth out with his enthusiastic nodding. “Can we go get pizza?” he asks, and Louis, of course, can’t say no.

Harry has been pizza-obsessed for days, ever since Niall informed him of how every bite tastes like a piece of heaven. It’s only fair, Louis thinks, that he gets to eat as much of it as he wants while he’s here, since Andalasia is probably void of trans fats and pre-made tomato sauce.

“Sure,” he smiles, steering them left to a small Italian place Zayn had recommended ages ago. It’s named something ridiculously cliché, like Alessandro’s or Rico’s, maybe, but the pizza is supposedly fantastic.

It’s a tiny restaurant, squished between a cinema that shut down years ago and a small semi that looks like it’s seen better days, but the atmosphere charms Louis before they even set foot inside. The window is shimmering with warm, yellow light, spilling out onto the street, and the scent of tomatoes and basil is captivating.

On the inside, it’s full of small round tables with checkered tablecloths and straight-backed wooden chairs, warm and cosy.

“This is wonderful,” Harry says under his breath, like he doesn’t mean for Louis to hear. The light of a hundred shimmering candles on the tabletops lights up his eyes. 

Louis takes his jacket just as a flustered hostess comes up to them and seats them at a table for two. It’s just small enough that they have to weave their legs together to fit, pressed up against a wall in a secluded corner; even through the chatter and clinking of utensils, Louis feels like they’re alone.

“How was your day?” Harry asks after they order, tilting his water until the ice cubes clink against the glass.

Louis bites his lip to keep from grinning. “It was great,” he says, honest, and marvels at Harry sitting in front of him, so at ease. He’s picked up the habit to ask about Louis’s day, lately, even when they spend all of it together. It’s the only way, he'd explained, to know what Louis is thinking about. “Really good. How was yours?”

“Wonderful,” Harry beams. “Perrie gave me one of those muffin things, did you see?”

Louis did. And definitely wasn’t jealous about the easy way with which Perrie carried herself around Harry, sweet and friendly and attentive, always knowing exactly what to say to make him laugh out loud.

“I did,” he says. “Apple and cranberry, right?”

Harry nods, playing with a toothpick. He’s full of restless energy, even after an entire day of charming strangers. “It was lovely. I’m glad you work with such nice people.”

Louis swallows and hides a blush behind his glass. He doesn’t even know why he’s blushing anymore. It’s his body’s natural reaction to Harry’s presence, probably. 

Their pizza arrives in just a few minutes, complete with a complementary side of salad, and saves Louis from trying to make grownup conversation. He loads his plate with three slices, and Harry immediately gives him the stinkeye until he plucks a tomato out of the salad bowl and adds that, too. Harry is very particular about his fresh produce, and Louis is a hopelessly endeared man.

“Hey, Lou?” Harry says about halfway through the meal, picking curiously on a piece of salami.

“Mhm?”

“This is a very nice place,” he says with no inflection whatsoever.

“Yeah?” Louis says, wiping his mouth.

“And we’re eating dinner.”

“Yeah,” he frowns.

Harry grins, eyes bright, and hops a little in his chair. “This is a date!” 

“Yeah,” Louis says automatically, then chokes on his food. “I mean—no. No, no, no, we’re just, um. We’re just friends.” He can feel another blush rise into his cheeks alarmingly fast. Louis has blushed more since Harry appeared that he had in his entire previous life.

He takes a deep drink of water, trying to soothe his oesophagus and his nerves all at once. 

“Oh,” Harry says, probably to indicate he understands, but he’s tilting his head and smiling like he knows something Louis doesn’t. It’s an unnerving look on him, and suddenly, Louis can’t breathe.

Harry’s face is the softest thing he has ever seen, awash with light and a sparkle that’s Harry’s own; his curls are settled on his head like a crown, falling to his shoulders in perfect ringlets, making him look like chocolate tastes, and Louis can’t breathe. Harry is incredible. This is not news, but it hits Louis all over again, with pizza-greasy fingers and marinara down his chin, how incredibly much he wants to give this human everything he has.

After what’s probably hours of staring sightlessly at the soft angles of Harry’s face, Louis comes back to himself and clears his throat. The atmosphere stays comfortable, like it always does when Harry’s present, but there’s tension in Louis’s chest that makes him feel like he’s seconds away from snapping.

“Excuse me for a minute,” he wheezes and flies out of his seat, stumbling towards the loo. As he bumps into somebody’s chair and forgets to apologise, he wonders, idly, if he’s having a panic attack.

As soon as the door closes behind him, he leans his forehead against the cool tiled wall and pulls out his phone.

It takes Zayn four rings to pick up, at which point Louis’s lungs have started attempting to leave his body.

“’lo?” is Zayn’s greeting. Louis can hear the buzz of a tattoo gun in the background and Jay-Z on the stereo; he’d feel bad about pulling Zayn away from work, but. It’s an emergency. Zayn has to know that – Louis never calls him during work hours. 

“Z,” he croaks out, sliding along the wall until he’s sitting with his legs stretched out. “Z, I need help.”

Fuck,” Zayn swears, not at all quietly, “Lou, what happened? Are you okay? Do you need me to come get you?”

“No, no, I’m—“ he stops to take a shallow, quick breath. “I’m fine, Zayn, I’m okay.”

“Why are you breathing so fast?" 

“Harry,” he says, hoping to explain. “I’m fucked.”

The sounds in the background slowly fade as Zayn walks away – to the back of the shop, probably. “What happened?” he asks, quiet and attentive. 

“He’s just—I. I don’t know what to do, Z. I want him so much. We’re at that place you told me about, eating dinner, and he assumed we were on a date and I automatically told him we are—“ he has to stop again, pull his knees up and lean his head against them, curled into a ball. “And I want us to be. I want us so fucking badly.”

Zayn breathes slowly on the other end, calm, and Louis tries to attune himself to the rhythm, stop the panicked rise and fall of his own chest. “Then go for it, Louis.”

He closes his eyes, presses them shut until he’s got dots dancing in his vision. “You think I should?”

Yes. I told you already, Lou, if you don’t do this, you’re going to regret it forfuckingever. Even getting shot down is better than just not knowing.”

Louis presses the phone to his ear tighter, and suddenly wishes Zayn were here. “Alright,” he says finally, and it feels monumental. Some of the pressure in his chest eases, little by little. “Alright, I’ll do it. I—when we get home. I’ll tell him then.”

“That’s good,” Zayn’s smile is practically audible. “That’s really good. I’m glad.” 

“Yeah,” Louis tilts his head back, staring at the lights. His muscles relax, like his own body isn’t trying to squeeze the life out of him anymore, but this unspeakable tension, this fear, still lingers, sleeps just beneath his skin. “Yeah, just. Be next door with a bottle of something good. Just in case.”

“Just in case,” Zayn echoes, and the noise of the shop rises in volume on his end of the line. “Done. Good luck, babe.”

“Thank you,” Louis says, and he means it as much as he’s ever meant anything. “Thanks, Z. I love you.”

He hangs up and scrambles off the floor. He avoids looking at himself as he splashes his face with ice-cold water. Still, he can’t help catching his own eyes, a dark blue like a storm is brewing inside him.

He’s doing this.

 

*

 

He’s not doing this.

“Harry!” a booming voice echoes down the corridor as soon as they get out of the lift, and Louis freezes. He removes his hand from the small of Harry’s back stiffly, letting him walk first, as he realises just how idiotic he is. Hello, reality.

Or, as it were, hello, Liam.

He’s sitting on Louis’s welcome rug in front of the door, wearing a ridiculous-looking snapback and a shirt that looks five sizes too big. He’s got a beard, too, as opposed to his clean-shaven face when he’d just dropped in for a visit from fairytale land.

“Liam,” Harry says slowly. Louis most probably imagines the distaste in his voice. “What are you doing here?”

“I should ask you the same question,” he replies. Louis barely stops a sneer at the stiff way he holds his back, the properness with which he speaks that’s disappeared from Harry’s voice long ago. “We were set to marry six weeks ago, Harry, and yet you’re still holed up here.” 

“I like it here,” Harry says, so quiet even Louis struggles to hear him.

“The air is so dirty,” Liam says, sighing. Louis wants to punch him just a little bit. “You can’t see the stars at all. I know how much you love the stars, Harry.”

Harry recoils, bumps into Louis big and clumsy without his usual air of grace. Louis wraps a firm hand around his elbow, holds on tight. Harry smiles at him gratefully over his shoulder.

“They’re there,” he tells Liam, stepping forward and away, leaning against the wall just next to Zayn’s door and towering over his husband-to-be. “If you look hard enough.”


He gives Louis a look then, soft and open and as breathtaking as it is painful. Louis thinks that maybe all the stars have fled the sky and hidden in his eyes.

The hallway light buzzes and flickers above their heads. Louis feels the air get heavy with tension.

“We’ve been here for too long,” says Liam finally. His voice shatters against the washed-pale walls and tall ceilings, echoes in Louis’s mind like a constant reminder of a line he cannot cross. “Harry.” 

He gets up, then, and as ridiculous as he looks in a shirt that’s falling to his knees, he fills up the corridor in a way that has Louis taking an involuntary step back. He moves right into Harry’s personal space, crowding him, touching a hand to his wrist. 

“I want to go back to Andalasia.”

Immediately, before he’s even closed his mouth, Harry stars shaking his head. “No,” he says, once. “No. You can’t make me, Liam. We’re to be married soon, you should respect my wishes.” 

“And you should respect mine!” Liam throws back, not quite vicious. “I’ve seen dozens of dawns in this city, and it disgusts me,” he says, and his words bite.

Harry whimpers.

“Maybe you’re just not trying hard enough,” he says, desperate like Louis has never seen him. “Please, Liam. There’s so much beauty to be found here, let me show you.”

Louis’s entire body itches with the need to get to Harry, wrap his arms around him and still the shaking of his hands. Harry looks small, hunching his shoulders, soft and sweet the same way he did when Louis first saw his face scrambling off a dirty sidewalk, but there’s something about him – a different spark in his eye, a resilience that wasn’t always there. He seems bigger, too, a presence that pulls all eyes in the room to him; like he’s grown from boy to man in a matter of weeks, and maybe he has. All Louis knows is that he’s irrepressibly proud, and that he’d go to the ends of the earth to make Harry happy. 

It’s then that it all comes falling in pieces around them. Louis can tell what’s about to happen before it does, recognises it in the tense line of Liam’s shoulders.

“I am your Prince,” he says, and the reluctant, surprising warmth he’d always seemed to hold for Harry disappears. “And I am giving you an order. We’re going home.”

What the fuck, Louis wants to say. Instead, he stands still, arm outstretched like he wants to salvage what he can and put it all back together, but his muscles won’t move. 

Harry’s eyes explode in a vivid green, clear and bright under the fluorescent light. He straightens up, balls his hands into fists.


“No,” he says again, and this time it’s sharp enough to cut. “I’m not going.”

“You’re not going,” Liam repeats. 

“I’m not.”

“May I ask why?” Liam crosses his arms across his chest, ruining any illusion of politeness his words might have accidentally caused.

“You just—“ Harry huffs, runs a hand through his hair and dislodges the scarf Louis tied there for him this morning. He’s shaking. “You just used your title to get me to do something. That’s not what you say to your future husband, Liam! Marriage is about being equals, and you promised – you promised – that if it made me happy, I could stay here for however long I wanted. You can’t just take it back!”

He’s blinking furiously, twitching like he’s about to jump out of his skin. That’s when Louis recognises this strange, twisty emotion that’s taken over Harry’s face. It’s anger. 

Opposite him, Liam sighs, and all the fight draws out of him, just like that. He shakes his head. “What happened to you, Harry?” he asks, quiet. 

“Nothing happened. I’m still me,” says Harry softly, dropping Liam’s gaze and looking at his hands like he’s a stranger in his own body. “I’m still me,” he repeats in a whisper. Louis’s heart aches. 

“Oh no, you are not,” says Liam, and nobody protests.

They lapse into another silence. Harry is breathing like he’s just run a marathon, gasping for air, and Liam paces down the corridor and back, eyes shut tight, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Louis tries to put himself back together, finally approaching Harry. He steps lightly, with a hand outstretched in front of him, whispering soothing nonsense under his breath. Still, when he finally touches Harry’s forearm, Harry jerks. 

“Harry,” Louis tries. “Haz. Are you okay?”

Harry frowns. Blinks. “I… I don’t know. I was angry.”

“I know, love, I saw. How are you feeling now?”

Finally, Harry raises his head and looks Louis in the eye. “Amazing,” he says, and that’s not at all what Louis was expecting to hear. 

“Really?” 

“Yes,” Harry confirms, flexing his fingers. The shaking subsides right in front of Louis’s eyes. “Yes. I’ve never felt anything like this before, goodness, this is exciting!”

Louis blinks at him, dumbfounded, and from the corner of his eye, he can see Liam do the same. Harry’s excitement doesn’t last long when he, too, remembers the future love of his life standing right next to them. Liam’s eyes travel from Harry’s face, to his hands, to Louis’s hands that are very much wrapped around Harry’s wrists. 

Louis lets go like he’s been burned. Just seconds ago, he’d had certainty, knew just how to touch Harry to get him to calm down, but he’s reminded now, again – Harry is not his to comfort, to hold. To love.

Fuck Zayn, really. Louis will find a way to make this all his fault.

(He’ll drink his entire liquor cabinet and yell at him for a while and break down and ask for a hug and they’ll fall asleep that way and it will take Louis some time to want to wake up again.)

“Perhaps,” Liam starts, and Louis couldn’t meet his eyes if he wanted to, “perhaps you should leave us.”

Louis laughs, a desperately ugly sound. I’ve been telling myself the same thing, mate, he wants to say.

He checks in with Harry, a quick glance, and doesn’t let himself analyse what he sees on his face.

“Perhaps I should,” he says. He wants to look at Liam, say something about treating Harry right, but he realises how ridiculous he’s being soon enough.

“Louis,” Harry starts, but Louis gently cuts him off with a smile.

“It’s fine, Harry. Will you be alright?”

“I… yes, I think so,” he says. He peels himself away from the wall and straightens up.

“Then I can go,” Louis tells him, pulling his jacket tighter around himself. “Good luck.”

He turns away, opens the door, and barely breathes past the lump in his throat. Without the light from the corridor, the flat is heavy with darkness, still smelling like the breakfast they made that morning; a pair of the ridiculous boots Harry likes is wedged right between two pairs of Louis’s trainers by the threshold, and his fedora, hung on the back of the door, just brushes the top of Louis’s head when he leans back and closes his eyes.

If he looked, he knows he’d see Harry’s magazines and the brand new knitting Louis got him and the smiley face he drew on his plate with chocolate syrup that morning. He’s imprinted on Louis’s pillows and inside his heart; the essence of him runs through every wall of the flat and every piece of furniture he’d attempted to disassemble and put back together with Louis’s single screwdriver.  

Everything’s fucked up, really, but Louis knows – as much pain as he’s going to be in, he won’t regret a second. Now – after Harry – life actually seems like it’s worth living again.

He kicks off his shoes and pads into the living room. There’s a streetlight flickering out behind the window. A pigeon is sitting on the windowsill, stretching out its neck. 

Louis smiles.

 

*

 

By the time Harry comes back, it’s past midnight. Louis is still sitting in the dark, eyes closed, trying to convince himself that he’s not crying.

Harry’s footsteps are always soft, like he’s dancing with the ground rather than rushing to conquer it and leave it behind. This time, he makes his presence known, stumbles a little on the living room threshold and takes down a stack of old newspapers while trying to right himself. He’s breathing loud and ragged; Louis can’t quite imagine the expression on his face.

“Lou,” he says eventually, after they’ve both sucked the silence into their lungs and let it back out.

Louis opens his eyes. The ceiling is midnight dark and streaked orange, out of focus. The space between him and Harry feels like miles of fragile glass.

“Harry,” he says back, aeons later. He turns his head, finally, takes Harry in, and this floaty vacuum he’s been in shatters, just like that.

Harry looks awful. He’s got tear tracks shining from his eyes all the way to his chin, disappearing in the hollow darkness around his neck, and his eyes are bottle green.

“Harry,” Louis says again, and gets his legs to work with pure power of will. The things shattering in-between them don’t matter when he reaches Harry and wraps his arms around him, feeling him shake like a leaf. “What happened, love?”

Harry brings his own arms up slowly, stiffly, and pulls Louis into him tight enough to bruise. Louis revels in the warmth of him, the weight of body against body, and resolutely doesn’t think about this being a goodbye. 

“He’s—he’s gone,” Harry stutters out, an exhale through his nose. “Liam’s gone.”

And. Wait. “What—“

“No, no,” Harry murmurs soothingly when Louis jerks at his words, makes to run into the street and chase Liam down or maybe something less ridiculous. “No. I told him to go. It was the right thing to do.” 

Louis pulls away, just enough to tilt his head up and see Harry’s face. “How? You—you were supposed to go back to Andalasia with him and get married. Get your happily ever after.”

Harry looks down, hair hiding his face, and if Louis didn’t know better, he’d say Harry is embarrassed. “I’m not going back to Andalasia with him.”

“Are you going back to Andalasia alone?”


Harry laughs, small and tentative, but it’s still the sun coming out in the darkness of the room. “I’m not going back to Andalasia at all.”

Louis freezes. It’s not the casual kind of freeze, either – his lungs literally stop mid-breath, and his heart free falls out of his body. Harry couldn’t have actually—

“Louis?” he’s asking, big eyes peering all the way into Louis’s soul, and.

Harry’s staying.

He’s staying.

He’s staying.

“You’re staying,” Louis parrots his own mind and stares with his mouth open. 

It’s safe to say that today has been a bit of an avalanche. In this scenario, Louis is the unknowing skier who got buried under all the snow and is now trying to fight his way back to the surface. “You’re. Really?”

“Really,” Harry grins, then bites his lip, unsure. “If it’s okay with you, of course. I don’t have another place to go just yet.”

Louis almost laughs. Almost. Please stay forever, is what he wants to say. “Of course it’s okay, don’t be silly,” he says instead, runs his fingers through Harry’s hair and squeezes, just to make sure. This Harry is very much real, and Louis is touching him. That means all of what he’s just said is real, too. Happy days.

“But. Why?” Louis asks, as he finally lets go and makes himself step away. He’s still close enough that their toes are all but touching, and he can feel Harry’s breath break across the bridge of his nose, but it’s still distance. Louis can now totally prepare himself for whatever’s coming.

Harry smiles. “You really don’t know?”

“I don’t,” Louis says. Still, in a hidden little place that’s fuelled by Zayn’s undying optimism, a spark of hope comes to life.

“Well,” says Harry, reaching for Louis’s hand, “it doesn’t make much sense to leave here and get married to someone I don’t love and could never fall in love with.”

“But… true love?”

“Oh, Louis,” Harry says ever so quietly, with the biggest smile on his face; a dimple carves itself deep into his cheek, and Louis, through everything, is hit with an overwhelming urge to poke it. “Louis. I’ve already found true love.”


And just like that, Louis isn’t breathing.

“You see,” Harry goes on, and his fingers find their way in-between Louis’s, like an anchor, the one place that Louis can ground himself, “it came to me when I least expected it, on a very rainy night, wearing a fluffy jacket and calling me mate like I was a sailor." 

Nothing moves. Not a single molecule of oxygen makes its way into Louis’s lungs. 

Harry smiles again, wide and so, so beautiful. “And I didn’t fall in love the way I was told I would. It was so fast, and so wonderful, and I remember,” he reaches out a hand, runs his thumb over the soft skin under Louis’s eye, rests his palm against Louis’s cheek, “I remember falling. That one night, when you took me up on the roof – I looked into your eyes, and every single star I’ve ever admired was right there. It was like—like somebody reached inside your soul and painted the world with all its colours. I spent so much time thinking about how beautiful it was here, how different, when really…” he pauses, breathes. “When all this time, it was you.”

Louis pinches himself and finally, finally takes a breath. His throat is tight and his eyes are burning, but even through his blurry vision, Harry shines like the brightest, most wonderful thing in the world.


“Harry…” he manages to get out, stepping right back into Harry’s body heat, right back into his arms. “Harry, this is. I don’t know what to say.” 

“Say what you feel,” Harry presses a grin into Louis’s hair. 

Louis huffs, but he knows Harry is right. Sometimes, things really are just that simple.

He looks up, up to meet Harry’s eyes.

“I love you,” he says, and it’s the easiest thing in the world. “Harry, I love you so much.”

Harry’s smile, impossibly, widens. His eyes shimmer wetly; Louis thinks that one of them eventually has to start crying.

“I love you,” he whispers. “I never thought it would be like this, that it’d be so—so much. I feel so much, Louis, and all of it is because of you. For you.”

“You’re impossible,” Louis tells him, and something tight starts rapidly unraveling inside him. This is real life, and it’s happening. Harry loves him.

“So are you, and yet here we are.”

“Here we are,” he repeats. Then, in typical Louis fashion – “Are you sure about this? What about when you’re angry, or sad? Don’t you miss not feeling that?” 

Harry turns out to be the one with enough common sense to steer them over to the sofa and sit Louis down. He looks very determined all of a sudden.

“Not a bit,” he says while holding both of Louis’s hands, commandeering all his attention. He sounds vulnerable. “Whenever I’ve felt those things before, you explained them to me. You were by my side, you took care of me, and it’s—it’s so worth it, all of it. I don’t care if I get angry, I just care that I’m in this world, with you, because Louis, this is where I belong. I want to become somebody here, and I can’t do it without you. You’re everything.”

Louis cracks, and he’s not surprised at all. He wipes the tears away with his sleeve even as new ones come rushing out like words he has yet to say, and pulls Harry to him until no space is left between their bodies. 

“You’re staying here,” he says, and he imagines the dawn creeping in through the window. “With me.”

“I am,” Harry says, and pulls his head away. Their noses touch.

Louis looks down at Harry’s lips, soft and pink and plush, and realises – true love’s kiss. The fairytale world’s most powerful force. Kind of a big deal to Harry, and he wants to do it with Louis, he wants to, because he leans in and they’re kissing, just like that.

The warmth that explodes in Louis’s chest in unlike anything he’s ever felt before. Everything, every single particle of the universe slots together and the world, temporarily on hold while Louis was trying to battle it out with his feelings, starts spinning again.

Harry’s lips are pliant and warm, and he’s holding Louis close with the gentlest of touches. There’s fireworks and butterflies and every other fairytale cliché Louis can think of.

And right on, Louis thinks. There’s something to be said for fairytales.

He’d heard once, from a boy that looks like the sun and smiles like forever, that they always end with a happily ever after.

 

*

 

“How much longer do you think?” Louis asks. 

Harry hums contemplatively, propping his chin up on Louis’s collarbone. “Few weeks,” he says, lazy, still sleep-warm and drowsy from his nap. “Zayn is too shy.”

“I know, it’s awful,” says Louis, tilting his head back to see better. His idiotic best friend is still swirling a spoon in his ice cream, looking at his shoes. “I don’t understand. I’ve never seen him like this.”

Harry takes Louis by the chin and pulls, effectively bringing his face right to his own. He grins, playful as ever, and pecks Louis on the lips. “I think they’re cute,” he says, wiggling to get comfortable. He’s already draped over Louis like an octopus, and Louis is quite sure some of his extremities have gone permanently numb, but it’s worth seeing his boy sun-bright and happy.

I think they’re insufferable,” Louis huffs.

“You would, love,” Harry says through a grin and presses a kiss to the underside of Louis’s jaw. “Give them time. They’ll get it right, just like we did, and they’ll be great together.” 

Louis looks into the sun and yawns. “Speaking of us. How’s Liam?”

Harry, as usual, laughs at Louis’s attempt at subtlety. “He’s okay, last I heard. Doing just fine running the castle on his own, but Niall tells me he’s getting suspicious of all his missions.”

“D’you reckon he’ll ever tell him he’s sneaking out here to almost-date Zayn?”

“Probably not,” Harry smiles, plucking Louis’s sunglasses from his nose. “Maybe at their wedding. Which will probably have to be in Andalasia, because Liam will flat-out refuse to step foot here ever again.”

“They can just not invite him,” Louis says. They both laugh, and Louis finds one of Harry’s hands to take it in his own.

He can’t believe himself, really. He’s lying on a blanket in the middle of a park, content and in love and too lazy to move an inch, and it’s the happiest he ever remembers being. It’s just the effect Harry has on life, he supposes. 

“What are you thinking about?” Harry asks, lying on Louis’s chest, green eyes alive.

“Nothing,” Louis smiles at him, running his free hand up his back. “I love you.”

"Aw,” Harry says immediately, grin out in full force. Beneath it, Louis sees a hundred other grins – the good morning one and the are you eating cereal again one and the I’m so proud of you even though you just quit your job one. “I love you too.”

And life is good, Louis thinks, for the first time in a long while. There’s no obstacle too big when he’s got Harry by his side, nothing he can’t tackle with Harry’s hand in his and supportive words whispered in his ear. He’s actually going into teacher training, for God’s sake, and all of it is on Harry.

Inside their dingy little flat, the sun is out even when it’s raining outside, and pancakes with chocolate syrup smiley faces are a household staple.

Inside Louis, everything is at peace.

He looks down at his boy, smiling sleepily into Louis’s shirt, as content to just be as Louis is. He lifts their joined hands and kisses the dark lines of an anchor wrapped around Harry’s wrist.

This is a happy ending, he thinks – and a brand new beginning.

~fin