Subject: Selection Notification for Netherlands, Maastricht University
Dear Harry Styles,
Congratulations! We have reviewed your application and are excited to welcome you to International Summer School, Maastricht University, Netherlands. Upon confirming your interest, you will receive more details regarding the immediate next steps to remain eligible for participation.
We look forward to working with you to make this the most significant experience of your undergraduate career.
With best wishes,
CNU Study Abroad
Harry draws in a deep breath, doing his best to peer around the man sleeping next to him to get a glimpse out of the airplane window. It’s a damn shame, he thinks, for this man to have chosen the window seat only to sleep through most of the flight.
It’s an overnight flight though, and a long one, so Harry supposes he can’t blame him. It’s just that Harry himself is jittery - anticipation, excitement, and fear each taking turns at dominating his emotional state. It’s his first flight alone, his first international flight, and his first time out of the United States, all at once. There’s plenty to be both thrilled for and terrified of.
There is a small screen on the back of the seat in front of him, currently alternating between an animated map of where their plane is relative to their destination and a table of information comparing the weather and time of Virginia, USA to Brussels, Belgium. There’s plenty of in-flight entertainment, fortunately, and Harry spent most of the flight either sleeping or watching movies. Now, though, there’s an estimated fifteen minutes until landing, and Harry can’t bring himself to put on any mindless entertainment, not when Europe is just below him, begging to be appreciated and explored.
The flight attendants make their last round up and down the aisle, collecting any trash that passengers might have and checking that everyone has properly obeyed the landing protocols – seats upright, seatbelts on, and large electronics stowed.
Harry drums his fingers against his thighs in time to the music he’s listening to, Nirvana playing from his phone through complimentary airplane earbuds. The sound quality is subpar, tinny and drowned out by the sounds of the plane, but Harry hadn’t wanted to root through his carry-on bag to find his own earbuds, which he suspects are tangled near the bottom.
The plane begins its final descent, a steady rumbling noise accompanied by a rhythmic shaking that echoes the pounding of Harry’s heart.
The man slumbering in the window seat jerks awake in response, glancing around before turning to look out the window at the fast approaching city below them.
The thrumming of the plane increases as they descend, and Harry’s body jolts along with the plane as they touch down onto the runway. The illuminated symbol overhead indicates that passengers should keep their seatbelts on, but Harry hears a chorus of clicking sounds as others unbuckle around him. The pilot’s voice comes through the speakers then, apologizing for their delayed flight, and welcomes them to Belgium.
Belgium. Harry grins to himself, giddy at the thought.
A soft ding accompanies the seatbelt sign turning off, followed by an even louder chorus of unbuckling. Harry feels the atmosphere of the plane swell with energy as people begin stretching their legs and gathering their bags. There is an undertone of anxiety, a general eagerness to get off the plane as soon as possible, which Harry sympathizes with.
Fortunately, it’s not too long before the people in the rows in front of him are filing out through the narrow aisle. He pulls his duffel bag from under the seat in front of him and shoulders his backpack, following the last woman from the row in front of him off the plane.
“Welcome to Brussels!” A flight attendant says to him as he exits, smiling wide.
He smiles back.
The first thing he does, after a much needed trip to the bathroom, is connect to the free airport wifi. He sends a message to his family group chat, letting his mum and sister know that he has arrived safely. He’s not exactly sure what time it is back on the east coast, but he certainly doesn’t expect a reply from either of them any time soon.
The line at customs goes relatively quickly, as does the process of talking to the customs officer, a woman with bright lipstick, light hair pulled into a tight bun, and piercing blue eyes.
“Anything to declare?” The officer asks as she takes his passport and customs form from him, motioning for him to stand in front of a camera.
“No, ma’am.” Harry answers.
“What brings you here?” She asks, placing his passport on some sort of scanner.
“I’m studying abroad in the Netherlands.” Harry explains. “In Maastricht.”
She takes his picture, stamps his passport, and then he’s on his way.
Harry makes his way through the airport, following signs to baggage claim. Some signs have English translations, while others don’t, but fortunately the icon of a suitcase is universal enough that Harry doesn’t have any trouble finding his way.
Even better, just as he is passing the security checkpoint, he sees a woman in a denim jacket holding up a piece of blank paper with “CES Maastricht” printed on it in large, bold letters. CES, he had learned over the course of various email communications, stands for “Center of European Studies”.
Admittedly, Harry had been hoping for someone to be waiting for him with a personalized sign of his name, but he understands why this isn’t the case. There are probably a lot of people being picked up at once, after all.
“Hi,” Harry says, walking up to the woman.
“Hey!” She greets him with a smile. “You’re here for CES, I take it. What’s your name?”
She turns her attention to a clipboard in her other hand, scanning to find Harry’s name. “Yep, got you. Welcome! I’m Kelsey.”
Kelsey has thin, blond hair, pale skin dotted with freckles, and a surprisingly low-pitched rasp to her voice. Harry finds himself thinking absently that she could have been a rock singer, in another life. She’s also incredibly young - can’t possibly be much older than Harry himself.
“I studied abroad here last summer,” Kelsey explains. “Now, I’m an intern here to help show you around.”
“That’s awesome,” Harry says.
Kelsey nods, shrugging. “I really love Maastricht. But anyways, you just hang out here with the others, we’re still waiting on one more person before we can head out.”
Harry dips his head in understanding, giving her a grin. “Sure thing.”
Somehow, it feels as though the group of people standing just behind Kelsey engulf him of their own accord rather than him actively joining them. It’s nice - it makes him feel like he belongs there.
“Hi!” A boy with dyed-blond hair greets him, smiling wide to reveal a row of straight teeth. “I’m Niall.” He is currently accessorizing his t-shirt and sweatpants with a blue travel pillow which matches the color of his eyes. Still, there are dark bags under his eyes, contrasting against his pale skin, so Harry doesn’t envy his coziness too much. It seems as if he also didn’t manage to get much sleep on the flight.
“Harry,” Harry introduces himself. He feels out of place next to Niall, as he’s dressed in tight black jeans and a loose shirt. He’s not dressed up in any way, but he’s also not dressed down.
“Amara,” A girl standing next to Niall says. Her skin tone is the darkest of the group, complemented by kind brown eyes. She’s in leggings and a sweatshirt with her braided hair swept up into a precarious bun, so she’s definitely more on Niall’s side of the outfit spectrum.
“Mo,” A guy standing next to Amara introduces himself. He’s dressed more like Harry, in blue jeans and a leather jacket. He has dark brown skin and an even darker beard covering the lower half of his face.
“So, where’s everyone from?” Niall asks cheerfully.
It’s an innocent question, and surely one Harry will hear again and again over the first week or so of this trip, but the way each member of their small group spouts out an answer in a circle reminds Harry of grade school.
Harry answers, then Amara, then Mo.
“Oh, wow, you’re from Los Angeles?” Harry interjects before Niall can even say where he is from, just to break up the monotony. “That’s so cool. How do you like it?”
Mo grins, a hint of relief on his face. “Love it, honestly. Grew up in Wisconsin, if you’ll believe that. LA is about as different as it gets, I think. Not that I didn’t like Wisconsin, but the big city and beautiful weather are hard to beat.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet.” Amara says sarcastically, and Harry remembers that she had said she is from Ohio. She rolls her eyes, but her tone is kind as she teases, “You can brag a little longer, it’s fine.”
Mo laughs, holding his hands up in defeat.
“I’m from Santa Barbara,” Niall adds, making a face. “So you all are probably going to be on my neck, as well.”
“You don’t sound like you’re from Santa Barbara.” Amara points out, tilting her head to one side thoughtfully. “Not to be rude, but if I hadn’t just met you through this study abroad program you probably could have convinced me that you were from Europe.”
“My family is Irish.” Niall explains. “Spend a lot of time with them, and the accent just hasn’t really worn off. Thought it might when I went away to college, but it seems not.” He shrugs.
“Me too.” Harry says, smiling a little. “Haven’t met too many other people in our situation. Not that I’m Irish, but my family is from England. I’ve got a bit of an accent, too.”
“I think your accent might have mixed a little,” Mo jokes. “You’ve got a bit of Southern on you, I’d say.”
“Maybe while you’re here, you’ll add a bit of Dutch to it, too,” Amara says with a grin.
“Oh, speaking of,” Niall says, running a hand through his hair. He pulls at it, tugging the blond tips backwards to reveal his darker roots. “Did anyone actually try to learn any Dutch to prepare for this?”
Harry doesn’t know why it’s funny, but it is. Maybe it’s just that Mo has a contagious laugh, and once he’s started, everyone else has joined in without knowing why.
“I did.” A new voice offers timidly, and the group’s laughter dies down as they turn to face the source of it. “I’ve just been using Duolingo, but I think I’ve picked up enough to get by.”
“Really?” Harry says. “That’s great. You’ll be our guide then.”
“Yeah,” Mo jokes, “You and Google Translate.”
“What’s your name?” Harry asks, giving him a friendly smile.
“Liam,” The boy says, running a hand through his close-cropped hair before extending his hand to shake. It’s a little awkward as he goes around giving everyone a handshake, but it causes Harry to feel inexplicably fond for him at the same time. Whereas Mo, Amara, and Niall come across as carefree and confident, he seems outwardly as nervous as Harry feels.
Harry falls into step beside him deliberately as Kelsey guides them towards the baggage claim carousels.
“Have you been abroad before?” Harry asks as they make their way over to the crowd of people waiting for their bags.
“Once,” Liam answers, “My family went to England for vacation, but I was much younger then. Don’t remember too much of it.”
“Oh, that’s cool though,” Harry says. “I’ve never been to England, but my family is originally from there.”
“Mine too!” Liam says, his brown eyes lightening as he smiles.
Harry smiles back, hoping this means he’s made his first real friend.
They split off shortly afterwards to collect their things as they came on different flights. Harry’s bags are already waiting for him on when he arrives, making lazy circles around the baggage carousel. He’s got one large suitcase, his duffel bag, and a small backpack. It had seemed like a lot of stuff when he was packing, but now, in comparison to the others he feels like he didn’t bring much at all. Amara, in particular, has two massive suitcases in tow when they meet up again at the shuttle. Harry is almost surprised when the shuttle driver lifts them both with ease, seeming unbothered by their size. The driver plays an expert level game of Tetris with their belongings, somehow managing to fit everything into the back of the large blue shuttle.
“Why’re you keeping your backpack with you?” Niall asks him as they get into the vehicle.
Kelsey had called shotgun, taking the front seat next to the driver. That leaves two seats in the middle and three in the back. Harry ends up in the back middle, arguably the worst seat in the entire shuttle. Again, he’s away from any windows which might afford him some view of Belgium and the Netherlands as they drive, and now he’s squished between Niall and Liam as well. At least there’s plenty of room for him to stretch his legs in the space between Mo and Amara.
“Got my camera in here,” Harry explains. “Didn’t want it to get jostled around too much.”
“Oh, sick,” Niall says, grinning. “That’s really cool. I was just going to take pictures on my phone.”
“I’ll probably do both,” Harry says. “I’ve been trying to get better at photography.”
“Well, this is a great chance for it,” Niall says, turning to look out the window. He leans back afterwards, giving Harry a chance to peek out as well.
For being his first real glimpse at Belgium, it’s a bit underwhelming. It’s just a view of busy streets, really.
“Don’t worry,” Kelsey calls back, chuckling at his expression. “It gets better.”
Despite his attempts to stay awake, the soft music on the radio and the steady motion of the shuttle on the highway lull Harry to sleep.
When he wakes up, it’s to the sound of Kelsey’s voice.
“Maastricht is very close to the southernmost border of the Netherlands,” Kelsey is saying to Mo and Amara as Harry drifts back into consciousness. “It’s about a 15 minute bike ride to get to the border. And that’s assuming you’re just an average biker.”
“Did you bike there?” Amara asks.
“Oh, yeah,” Kelsey answers with a grin. “Biked everywhere. You knew that biking is huge here, right? More bikes than people in this country.”
“Yeah, it’s crazy,” Mo says.
“It’s usually pretty easy to buy a bike from other students, and then sell it at the end of summer,” Kelsey says. “Almost everyone does it, myself included.”
Harry finally blinks his eyes open, pleasantly surprised. It seems that the world around him is much different than the one he had seen before he fell asleep. So this is what Europe looks like.
They are driving on what seems to be a cobblestone street, and there are truly more bikes than cars on the road. They come to a roundabout with a towering church at one end, at which Kelsey says, “Remember this. You want the road to the left of the church.” The church is built of the same sort of brick the cobblestone looks to be constructed with. It looks historic and somehow not at all out of place, though Harry is surprised it isn’t a tourist destination in and of itself.
They pull up shortly afterwards in front of a modern looking building.
“We’re here!” Kelsey calls out, swinging open her door and hopping out. “You can pick up your room key through those double doors, and then meet back here in half an hour for a walking tour to the mall.”
“To the mall?” Harry asks, stepping out the shuttle with wide eyes. “Shopping, already?”
“There’s two grocery stores in there,” Kelsey explains. “And it gives a chance for people to stock up on body wash or shampoo if you didn’t bring it because of liquid restrictions on flights.”
“C’mon,” Niall calls out, jogging towards the building with a large duffel bag hoisted over his shoulder. “Let’s go check out our rooms!”
Harry grabs his suitcase and rushes after his new friend, the wheels of his bag clattering over the brick as he hurries to catch up.
The dorm building is apparently a converted hospital, which lends to a somewhat weird atmosphere in the halls. There are two buildings, one of which has a common kitchen area shared by the entire hall, the other consisting of a private kitchen for each pair of roommates. Mo happens to be in the building with the private kitchens, so he splits off from the group, but the rest of them are at least all in the same building.
Amara is the one who figures out how to enter. She inserts her key into a lock on the side of the building, triggering the sliding glass door to open, and Harry is grateful for her cleverness. He would have surely been standing in front of the glass door for another ten minutes, trying various antics to trigger the motion sensor.
She’s on the second floor, so she splits off too.
Harry, Niall, and Liam are all on the fourth floor, though Niall is in a different hallway. Each hallway has a different locked door to prevent them from going into each other’s halls, but as Niall cheerfully points out, each hallway also has its own common space. This means that between the three of them, they have access to two common areas and two TVs. If they count Amara, they’ll have access to three.
“I’m further down the hall,” Liam says as Harry stops in front of his room number. “But let’s meet up for the tour, yeah?”
“Sure,” Harry agrees gladly. “Hey, do you think our roommates are here yet?”
“I don’t have one,” Liam says, shrugging. “Chose the single ‘cos I’ve had some real roommate horror stories in the past.”
“Really?” Harry asks, eyes wide. He’s always lived with roommates, at least ever since he moved out from his mum’s house. He couldn’t imagine living in a single, especially while in Europe. He had been hoping that his roommate would be his one guaranteed friend. At least he has Liam, if things don’t work out with his roommate.
Liam shrugs, continuing to walk down the hall towards his own room. “Best of luck, mate!”
Harry swallows, a new nervousness building up in his stomach. He fumbles with the key, inserting it into the lock without trouble, but struggling with which way to twist it in order to open the door. He’s never been good with keys, for some reason.
Once he’s finally gotten the key to turn properly, the door swings open with ease. It takes his key with it, and the complimentary lanyard they had given him at the front desk slips out of his fingers. “Oops,” Harry mumbles, reaching for it and tugging for a moment, before the door releases his key from its hold.
“Hi,” comes a bright voice from his right, chuckling softly.
“Oh, hey!” Harry jerks his head up, finding the source of the voice.
Harry’s roommate is standing next to one of the beds, having chosen it for himself upon arriving. His suitcase is lying empty on the floor and a heap of clothes is on his bed, as if he had upended the suitcase and dumped everything out of it.
He’s smiling, which is an excellent sign. It immediately quells the spark of fear that Liam had struck in him moments ago. It seems as if he wants to be friends, too, which is really all that Harry could have hoped for.
There is, however, a slight problem that Harry hadn’t even thought to worry about. His roommate is stunning.
Most people have been accepting since Harry came out as gay, so much so that it has become a part of his identity. It’s something that doesn’t occupy much of his mind anymore. But looking at his new roommate now, it’s the only thing on his mind. Wow… I am so gay, Harry thinks to himself, swallowing hard.
“I’m Louis,” his roommate says, stepping away from his bed and towards Harry, extending a hand.
“Harry,” Harry introduces himself, careful not to trip as he steps forward to return the handshake.
“Where are you from?” Louis asks, shoving his pile of clothes slightly to the left to make enough space to flop onto his bed. He crosses his legs and leans forward in interest.
Harry closes the door behind him, dragging his suitcase to the other side of the room and setting down his duffel bag. “Virginia,” he answers. “You?”
“California,” Louis replies, and well, that explains the golden tan of his skin.
“Oh, cool,” Harry says. “I met a couple of other people from California on the ride over from the airport. Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, I think.”
“Oh yeah,” Louis nods knowingly. “I’m from near L.A., too, actually. Gotta be careful when you say you’re from L.A. – people who are actually from the city get mad about it if you’re from the outskirts.”
“Really?” Harry chuckles, unzipping his suitcase. He closely surveys the empty dresser in front of him, definitely paying no mind to Louis, who has stretched his arms upwards in a motion that causes his shirt to ride up a bit. “Don’t run into that problem in Virginia.”
“I’d imagine not,” Louis laughs. “I’ve heard people are much nicer where you’re from than where I’m from.”
Harry shrugs, beginning to hang up his nicer shirts on the few hangers which are provided.
“Ugh,” Louis makes a face. “I ought to hang up my stuff too, I suppose.”
“I’ve heard people in Europe dress up more than in the U.S.,” Harry says. “Tried to bring some outfits that look more… posh and European to me, I guess.”
“Did you, now?” Louis asks, lips quirked up in an amused smile. Harry feels himself blush.
“Well, between your accent and your outfits, I’m sure you’ll fit right in,” Louis teases.
“My accent? You sound like you’re from England!” Harry protests.
“So do you!”
Harry can’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of it. “We’ll both fit in, then.”
“If I get around to putting my clothes away,” Louis says, grinning. “Surely the locals don’t go around looking like they’re living out of a suitcase.”
“Probably not,” Harry agrees. “But more importantly, my mum and sister will kill me if I look rumpled in every picture I send home.”
Louis heaves a dramatic sigh. “That’s a good point, Harold.”
“It’s just Harry,” Harry corrects. “It’s not short for anything.”
Louis studies him for a moment, then shrugs. “I like Harold.” He stands up, stretching again, and begrudgingly begins putting some shirts on hangers as well.
“Hey,” Harry says, narrowing his eyes as Louis opens his closet doors. “You’ve got way more hangers than me.”
Louis holds up his hands, turning to face Harry with wide eyes. “Didn’t nick them from your side, I swear.” He reaches in to grab some, saying, “You take them, though. You’ll put them to better use than me.”
“Nah, I believe you, but you keep them. I don’t know you yet, but I’d daresay it’s more likely that I’ll fold my clothes and you won’t.”
“You think I’ll hang them, though?”
“There’s a better shot.”
“Alright,.” Louis says, returning to hanging up his shirts as if to make sure the hangers get used at least this once. “So, you said you had a sister?”
“Oh yeah,” Harry nods, smiling. “Her name is Gemma. She’s just graduated from NYU and she’s doing journalism now. What about you, any siblings?”
“Loads of sisters, and one little brother,.” Louis says, his features softening with fondness.
“Wow,” Harry says smiling. “That’s a big family.”
“Yeah,” Louis agrees. “That’s part of why I wanted a roommate. It’d be too quiet on my own, you know?”
They’re interrupted by a soft rapping on the door, which Harry can’t help but be grateful for. He had been about to say how he wanted a roommate so he would have a friend, but he doesn’t want Louis to think he is totally hopeless when it comes to socializing. He can make friends on his own, after all.
As evidenced by Liam, who is currently standing at their door.
“Hey,” Liam says, giving them a small smile. “Ready for the shopping mall tour?”
“Already?” Louis asks, forgoing introducing himself to Liam in favor of digging through his pile of clothes for a jacket.
The jacket matches his tracksuit bottoms perfectly, making him look as though he has walked out of a magazine cover, even though Harry witnessed the casual – dare he say, totally haphazard – way the outfit was constructed.
“What?” Louis asks Harry, who jerks as he realizes he has been caught staring.
“Sorry, nothing,” Harry stammers. There’s an awkward silence that follows, which Liam does nothing to help fill, so Harry offers as an explanation, “You look like a model, is all.”
“Do I?” Louis asks, a teasing lilt to his tone.
Harry risks a quick glance at his roommate, just to make sure he isn’t disguising discomfort or anger. Louis doesn’t look mad or uncomfortable though. In fact, he looks pleased. There’s a surprised quirk to his eyebrows, but a matching upwards tilt of his lips, forming a mischievous smile.
Harry feels heat rising to his face, sure his complexion is something akin to a tomato.
“Erm…mall tour?” Liam says hesitantly, as if it’s a question.
“ Yes ,” Harry says, seizing the opportunity to end his embarrassment and all but shoving his way past Liam and out of the room.
The trio catches up to the rest of the group just as they head off to the mall. The group is led by a different student intern, who introduces herself as Lina.
“Are you going on the study tour?” a red-haired girl asks Harry, blinking up at him curiously.
“Erm,” Harry falters, barely remembering what the study tour is. Well, if he doesn’t even know what it is, he probably isn’t going. “No. Are you?”
“Yeah.” She says, shrugging. “How could I pass up the opportunity to see so many places, you know?” She turns to someone else, then, repeating her question. “What about you, are you going on the study tour?”
Louis falls in steps beside him, just as the girl and the next person she had asked, whose answer was an enthusiastic ‘yes,’ drift away. “I’m glad to hear that,” Louis says.
“To hear what?” Harry asks, looking at Louis in confusion.
“That you’re not going on the study tour,” Louis explains. “I was thinking you and I could start a group for weekend trips.”
Harry can’t help the grin that breaks onto his face. “Yeah, that’d be sick. Wait, what even is the study tour?”
Louis laughs. “Instead of taking two classes over summer, for the first block of classes you travel around on a whirlwind tour of Europe. London, Paris, Rome, all the big cities. I think they have you do some write-ups on your experiences to make it more academic, but it’s basically a crash course to Europe.”
“Oh, wow. I hadn’t even heard of that.”
“I don’t think it’s an option for every school. It was for me, but it would only transfer as empty credits and I really can’t justify paying to study abroad if my classes don’t count towards any of my requirements, you know?”
“Yeah, I feel that. I picked classes that would transfer, too.”
“And besides, I don’t think I’d like that kind of traveling very much. It’s too fast. You’re not in the same city let alone country for more than a couple of days.”
“It’d be a good way to see a lot of Europe, though. I’ve never been before.”
“You guys talking about the study tour?” Liam interrupts as he catches up with them. “Seems like it’s all anyone’s talking about right now.”
“Yeah,” Louis chuckles. “You’re not going on it, are you? ‘Cos Harry and I were thinking of starting a group to travel together on the weekends. Plan trips together, share hostels together, look out for pickpockets for each other – that sort of thing. Want in?”
“Sure,” Liam says, smiling. “I’ve heard some others grouping up already, too. I’d be happy to join.”
“Cool.” Louis claps his hands together. “Now that that’s settled, I believe dear Harold was just about to share with us about how we,” Louis gestures exaggeratedly to himself and Liam, and then to the group walking as a whole, “Are bearing witness to the taking of his European virginity.”
Harry feels himself flush red. “I don’t know if that’s a good way to phrase it-”
“You’ve never been to Europe before?” Liam interrupts.
“Is that so surprising?” Harry asks. “It’s expensive. It’s far!”
Liam laughs. “Well, I guess. It’s just your accent, man. You sound like you’re from Europe.”
Harry shrugs. “It’s my first time out of the country.”
And of course, that sets Louis off on another round of antics. “Not only his European virginity, but his world virginity? What a moment. What a big moment this must be.” He staggers dramatically in front of them, waving his arms around somewhat wildly. “Take it all in, young Harold. The cobblestone streets, the people cycling, driving on the opposite side of the road-”
“They drive on the same side as we do, actually,” Liam cuts in.
Louis waves him off, as if this is an irrelevant fact. “The old churches, the new language, the abundance of beer, the lack of water-”
“What are you even talking about?” Harry laughs, taking advantage of a slight pause where Louis needed to breathe. “You do talk some shit, Lou.”
“You’ll see,” Louis says, a glint in his eye. “Your first time out of the country is going to be the best .”
Lina lets them loose at the mall, making them promise to meet her back at the entrance after forty-five minutes. She tells them that there are two different grocery stores, along with some drug stores and other miscellaneous stores to explore. One of the grocery stores accepts credit cards, while the other is cash only. It’s an easy choice for Harry, who had chosen to exchange only a small amount of his dollars to euros.
Up until now, Harry hasn’t encountered much in terms of language barrier. He’s not naïve enough to expect everyone to speak English here, but so far, his minimal Dutch hasn’t even been needed.
Grocery shopping, as it turns out, is incredibly reliant on being able to read. Not that Harry is illiterate, but almost all of the labels in the Netherlands are in Dutch.
“What do you think the difference is between these detergents?” Louis calls out, holding up two different colored containers. “Do you think one is bleach? Or like for whites only? Because that’s really not what I want.”
“Try Google Translate,” Liam chimes in. “I was trying to find milk earlier - you’d think it would be easy, that there’d be numbers about what fat percent it is or something - but I nearly bought buttermilk instead.”
Harry laughs. “Those are very different, mate.”
“And yet, the packaging looks totally the same to me.” Liam shrugs.
“It’s crazy to think that we’re in Europe now,” Louis says, shaking his head. “If you don’t look too hard at what language all the writing is in, it looks nearly exactly like the US.”
“Well,” Liam frowns. “You are inside a grocery store.”
Louis gives him a look as he settles on a purple jug of detergent. “Alright, that’s fair. That’s fine. Find your milk yourself then, Liam.”
Liam laughs. “Already did!”
Harry rolls over in the provided twin bed, not sure whether he’s imagined the sound.
“Psst. You awake?” Louis whispers.
“Am I dreaming?” Harry asks.
Louis snickers. “Think you’d be having dreams about me already?”
Harry feels his face heat up under the cloak of darkness. “Feels like I’ve been in and out of sleep for so long that I can’t tell what’s real and what’s not,” he explains.
“I get it, H,.” Louis says quietly. “Jet lag’s gotten to me too. It’s nearly 3am, but I’m pretty sure we’re both wide awake.”
Harry sings, mimicking the popular Katy Perry song, “I’m wide awake.” His voice is not nearly awake enough for the high note, cracking on the word ‘awake’.
Louis seems to enjoy it, though, his loud laugh a sharp contrast to his hushed whispers before.
There’s a moment of quiet after that, in which Harry isn’t sure whether or not Louis has returned to trying to sleep, before the other boy asks, “Do you want to watch a movie?”
“Right now? We’ve got to be up at eight for the field trip to Amsterdam,” Harry reminds him.
“I know,” Louis says. He doesn’t say anything else, and yet somehow Harry finds the silence harder to resist than if Louis was just outright pleading with him.
“Alright,” Harry concedes. “Just one.”
“Yes!” Louis cheers in a whisper. “C’mere, then.”
Harry forces himself out from under his warm covers, standing on the cold floor. It’s only after he takes a step towards Louis that he freezes, realizing he has not thought the logistics of this through. In fairness, it’s 3AM, and his brain really can’t be expected to function fully in its current jet-lagged state.
Are they going to the common area at this hour? Or is he expected to crawl into Louis’ bed with him? If this second option makes his heart skip a beat, no one has to know.
Louis looks up at him expectantly, Netflix open on his laptop. “Oh,”Louis says, as if he has just realized why Harry is frozen next to his bed, and scoots over to one side. He pats the now vacant spot next to him. “Not much space,” Louis comments carelessly, like it’s not a big deal. “Gonna have to squeeze in.”
Harry swallows dryly, his heart pounding loudly in his ears. Then, he nods, clambering in next to Louis, who immediately pulls the blankets over both of them.
It’s only his first night in Europe, and he is already in bed with another man, Harry thinks to himself wryly.
“Maybe we should watch a show instead,” Louis says, yawning. “It’ll be shorter.”
“But then we’ll be tempted to watch multiple.”
“Alright, fine. Parks and Rec?”
Louis grins. “I like you, Harry. Great taste in shows.”
“It’s practically a classic,” Harry shrugs.
Louis puts on an episode from season four, and before the intro song has even finished, has somehow managed to position himself so that his head is resting on Harry’s shoulder.
By the time they start the next episode - because of course they end up watching another - they’ve moved from a tentative closeness to a full on cuddle.
When Harry wakes up to his alarm chiming at 7:30AM, he finds himself still in Louis’ bed with Louis still in his arms.
All in all, it was a pretty great way to spend his first night.
Harry falls asleep on Louis’ shoulder at some point during the bus ride to Amsterdam. He wakes shortly before they arrive, only to find that Louis had fallen asleep too, his head resting against the window.
“Hey,” Liam says from across the aisle, when he sees Harry looking around. He seems alert, and Harry would bet that he’s the only one on the bus who isn’t from Europe who got enough sleep the night before.
“Hi,” Harry replies, a bit slower than normal.
“Didn’t sleep well last night?” Liam asks conversationally.
“Jet lag,” Harry mumbles.
Louis snorts besides him, and Harry turns to glare at his roommate, despite said roommate still having his eyes closed.
“I woke up for a bit around 2,” Liam says, as if he hadn’t noticed Louis’ reaction. “But I was able to get back to sleep without too much trouble.”
“What a well-adjusted lad you are then,” Niall grumbles from his seat next to Liam, rubbing his eyes and looking around groggily. “Not all of us can be so lucky.”
“Not all of us went out drinking on our very first night in Europe,” Liam counters.
Niall shrugs. “A bunch of us went. It was fun.”
“Worth it?” Harry asks.
Niall rubs his head, shrugging. “I’ll let you know once the hangover’s better.”
Harry thinks about his night, a cozy night in spent cuddling with Louis, and blushes.
“Welcome to Amsterdam, everyone.” One of the program leads, Suzanne, is standing at the front of the bus expectantly. Like most of the people Harry has run into here so far, she is tall, slim, and has a bright smile on her face. “We have a short tour booked. They’ll drop us off around Museumplein afterwards and then you all will have some free time before we meet up again to go back.”
“We should come back here,” Louis says to all of them, as students begin filing off of the bus. It’s a slow process, with what feels like every fifth person having to ask whether it’s okay to leave stuff behind, and every seventh person being shocked that it’s their turn to exit. “For one of our weekend trips.”
“ Our weekend trips?” Niall asks.
“Yeah, H and I are starting a group to take weekend trips together. You’re invited, of course,” Louis says, waving a hand like it should be obvious.
“Yeah, okay,” Harry agrees easily. “We’ll come back.”
“We aren’t even off the bus yet,” Niall laughs. “Wait to fall in love with the city before you go making plans to come back to it.”
Liam leads their group off the bus, and Niall follows close behind. Harry slings his backpack over his shoulder, turning to face Louis as he slides into the aisle, “Don’t mind him. We’ll come back, you and me.”
“Wow,” Liam comments once they’re off the bus, gathered in a group together as they wait for the tour guide. “Now this is a city.”
Harry knows what he means right away. There’s a sense of quaintness in Maastricht, a feeling of it being a small town where everyone knows everyone, although Harry suspects that’s not the case. Still, there’s something about being able to find empty cobblestone alleys around nearly every corner and being able to learn the ‘touristy’ spots to avoid, that make Maastricht feel small and homey.
Amsterdam is very much the opposite.
He’s still standing on cobblestone, but that seems to be where the similarities end. The city is so full of life, Harry can barely hear himself think. There are large shops in front of them, massive clothing stores with bright lights and bold colored displays inside of what Harry might otherwise consider a historic looking building.
And there are people everywhere. Harry doesn’t know how to describe it, doesn’t know how to possibly estimate how many people are in the same square with them right now. There are other tourists, some easily identifiable by their large cameras and backpacks, along with others who Harry can’t quite figure out whether they are actually tourists or not. Then there are those who are clearly locals, seeming to be milling around as if they’ve got all the time in the world, speaking Dutch and joking about.
A man approaches their group, wearing a red vest with white block letters that proclaim “Ask me for a free tour” in English. He introduces himself, welcomes them, and starts them on their way.
They walk along casually behind the tour guide, not trying too hard to stick together. Liam ends up right near the front, sticking closely to their guide. Niall is somewhere in the middle, floating closer to the front to hear when the guide is speaking, but otherwise drifting further back as they walk along. Harry would have usually planted himself in the front, right next to Liam. But Louis is deliberately in the back, and the pull Harry feels toward his newfound friend is stronger than his desire to hear the tour guide’s every word.
“Harold, look,” Louis says quietly, drawing Harry’s attention away from the tour guide’s explanation of how uni students will throw your bike in a canal if you leave it unlocked. “A cheese and weed shop! Isn’t that funny? Do you think they sell, like, edible cheese?”
“Well, of course it’s edible,” Harry says playfully, as if he doesn’t catch Louis’ meaning.
Louis gives him a look that strikingly resembles the ones Gemma gives him when she knows he is messing with her.
“We’ll buy some if they do, when we come back,” Harry assures him, laughing.
The tour guide warns them multiple times to be careful when crossing the streets in Amsterdam, and yet Harry still witnesses Niall grabbing some poor bloke by the arm and hauling him out of the way of a bike. After that, Louis takes to grabbing Harry’s hand before they cross any busy streets. Sometimes, even after they’ve finished crossing, they don’t let go right away. Harry can’t say that he minds.
They pass through the red light district, although there doesn’t seem to be much to see during the day. The tour guide promises them that if they stay for nighttime, there’s plenty of activity. Suzanne quickly interjects that they will not be staying that long today, earning smatters of laughter from the crowd.
“We’ll definitely have to come back, eh?” Louis says with a grin, waggling his eyebrows.
The canals feel as if they loop around the city, and the further outwards they go, the less busy it seems to feel. The water is gorgeous, and Harry finds himself taking more pictures of the canals than anything else. The city has taken the extra effort of putting up flowers along the railing of most of the canals, the bright magenta blossoms adding to their beauty.
The houses lining the canals in the residential areas are funnily narrow and tall. It feels like a fantasy to Harry as they walk through, these oddly disproportional buildings right along the water.
“You see those hooks near the top of the buildings?” their tour guide asks. Somehow, Harry and Louis have ended up close enough that his voice is booming. “Those were used to hoist things up to the top floors, so you wouldn’t have to carry your stuff up all of the stairs. Notice how the windows tend to be large enough to fit some large furniture items through them!”
“I bet you they’ve hoisted people up before,” Niall says to them. “Think they’d lift me? I want to try.”
The tour guide points out the Anne Frank house, explaining that reservations fill up months in advance, but if you wait in line during the day, you can sometimes get in. The line snaking around past the building looks like it will take hours.
“Still want to come back?” Niall teases.
“Definitely,” Louis says without missing a beat. “But maybe we’ll just take a picture with the front.”
“And here is where I leave you,” The tour guide announces. “I hope you all enjoyed the tour, and feel free to ask me any questions. You’ll be meeting back here in a few hours, I believe.”
The group disperses almost immediately, small clusters of friends breaking off to go explore together.
“Where to?” Liam asks as the tour guide answers some questions about Anne Frank. “There’s a bunch of museums around us, maybe we can check one out.”
“I’ve got to buy some postcards for my family,” Niall says.
“Well, we’re at Museumplein, right?” Louis says. “Let’s go to a museum. They’ll have postcards there, I’m sure.”
They end up going to the Van Gogh Museum, a unanimous decision. The museum is laid out based on phases of Van Gogh’s life, and they wander from room to room and floor to floor as a group.
Louis tends to beeline through the room, though Harry notices he does at least pause at each painting. Harry and Liam stick together, taking the time to read through most of the informational plaques accompanying the artwork. Niall is somewhere in the middle, staying longer at paintings which are less crowded and skimming by the ones which are surrounded by people.
“Oh, look!” Louis calls out as they’re on their way out, beckoning them all together. “A group photo station. And it’s free! Let’s take one.”
So, they gather around in front of a replica of a famous Van Gogh self-portrait, smiling wide.
When they emerge from the museum, the world outside is bright and sunny. They don’t have much time left before they need to regroup, so they plan to hang out in the plaza outside the museum square. There are plenty of food vendors and entertainment around, from children running after bubbles to musicians playing lively folk songs.
Louis lets out a whoop and grabs Harry’s hand, tugging him to where a small band is playing by the water. Harry doesn’t recognize the song and isn’t usually one for dancing, but the beat is simple enough and with the way Louis is looking at him, there’s no way he could decline.
They dance goofily at first, both attempting some sort of jig and laughing at the other’s efforts. The music changes a bit, and before Harry knows what’s happening, Louis has wrapped one arm around his waist and grabbed his hand with the other, pulling him along in an attempt at a fast-paced waltz. It’s still silly and light, but Harry feels beads of sweat prickling at his forehead that can’t entirely be contributed to the warmth of the sun shining down on them.
When the song ends, the smattering of applause to the musicians feels partially directed at them, too. Harry and Louis both drop a coin in the open guitar case in front of where the band is playing before joining Liam and Niall, who are standing nearby. Niall is holding recently purchased fries that Harry hadn’t even noticed him buy, and he shares them more willingly than Harry expected.
“Let’s go get some pictures by the ‘I Amsterdam’ sign,” Liam says, wiping mayo off of his fingers with a napkin. “It’s a classic spot.”
At the end of the pool of water, there are huge letters spelling out the words “I Amsterdam,” with the “I am” part in red and the rest in white. The letters are a metal sculpture, and when Harry starts crawling on the ‘s’, it feels hollow inside.
“Wow,” Louis comments. “None of our names start with any of these letters, huh?”
“Nope,” Liam says.
“Last names!” Harry calls to them from atop the ‘s’. “Louis, get up here.”
Louis laughs and willingly climbs up next to him, on the ‘t’.
Liam takes a picture of the two of them, and then asks a trustworthy looking stranger to take a picture of all four of them.
They take some more touristy photos in various fun poses on the letters until it’s time for them to meet up to catch the bus home.
Louis falls asleep on Harry’s shoulder almost immediately after the bus starts moving, but this time, Harry stays awake. He looks through the pictures taken on his camera, decently satisfied with how they turned out.
“Psst,” Liam whispers to him from across the aisle. “Check your email. There’s bus wifi.”
Harry makes a face. “You emailed me, Liam? We’re sitting right next to each other.”
Liam chuckles. “It’s not from me.”
Harry pulls out his phone, connecting to the complimentary wifi and opening Gmail on his phone. Sure enough, there is an email from the Van Gogh Museum with their group picture attached. It’s easily Harry’s favorite picture of the day, all four of them looking happy and at ease. Harry saves the picture to his phone and messages it to his family group chat.
Harry doesn’t notice until later - when Gemma replies with “Who’s the boy you’ve got your arm around, then? ;)” - that he and Louis are indeed the only ones with their arms around each other. He looks at the picture again, and smiles.
“Trip back to Amsterdam this weekend! Who’s in?” A voice hollers, the question punctuated by the sound of the common room doors slamming open.
It’s later that week, and Harry is in the kitchen preparing his dinner.
He recognizes Louis’ voice instantly, and looks up from where he is chopping vegetables to to call out, “I’m in!”
“Of course you’re in.” Louis gives him a look, smiling and shaking his head. “Wasn’t asking you.”
Liam and Niall are seated on the couch, watching a movie along with some girls that they met.
“We just went to Amsterdam,” one of the girls says, sounding judgmental.
“Yeah, and it was great,” Louis says dismissively.
“Well erm…” Niall scratches the back of his neck and Louis’ smile slips a little. “Some people on my floor invited me to come along with them to Prague this weekend.”
“Me as well,” Liam says softly. “I know we had planned on Amsterdam, but,” He looks at Niall, who shrugs. “Well, I’ve never been to Prague.”
“Don’t you want to see more of the Netherlands?” Harry asks, seeing the way Louis’ face has fallen. “What’s the point of studying here if we don’t even get to see anything except Maastricht?”
“We’ve already been to Amsterdam, though.” Liam says gently.
“Amsterdam is pretty far from here. We could stop at other cities along the way. Utrecht is supposed to be fun, I hear,” Harry says.
“Sorry guys,” Niall says. “We’ll travel together next weekend, to somewhere else. Promise.”
“Yeah,” Liam chimes in. “Next weekend for sure.”
Louis’ smile is back on his face when Harry looks at him again. He isn’t sure if he is acting or not, but he looks happier at least.
“You and me then, Harry?” Louis asks brightly.
“Yeah,” Harry smiles. “You and me.”
“You’ll have a great time,” Liam says, earnest.
“We will,” Louis agrees.
This time, they take the train.
Well rested for once, they spend the travel time talking to each other, looking out the window, and people watching. Harry learned early on that Louis is the type of person with little to no personal space boundaries. As such, he’s not surprised at all as his friend leans against him, props his chin on his shoulder, or even grabs his hand during the ride. He’s also very animated, and most of these actions accompany some sort of dramatic expression.
Harry likes it. He likes Louis . And the more he can touch him, get to know him, and be close to him, the happier he is.
“Amsterdam!” Louis cheers as they step out of the train, spinning in a circle on the platform of the train station.
Harry grabs his hand to tug him towards the exit, laughing.
“Aren’t you excited?” Louis asks, as he follows along.
Harry turns to look at him, a smile coming to his face at the contagious enthusiasm in Louis’ expression. “Of course I am. That’s why I want to get out of the train station and into the city.”
“Alright fine, good point,” Louis laughs, skipping ahead of him.
The train station feels like the busiest part of Amsterdam. They emerge from the station and are immediately greeted with busy streets, cars flying by, and pedestrians clustered so densely that it’s hard to walk. If they hadn’t already been holding hands, Harry would have grabbed onto Louis’ backpack so as not to lose him in the crowd.
“Oh, look!” Louis gasps, pointing to a street performer.
Harry yelps a little as he’s tugged suddenly to the left, being dragged into various people heading the opposite direction as Louis charges ahead. When they come to a stop, it’s in front of a man strumming a guitar and singing along soulfully.
“You love these performers, huh?” Harry asks, remembering the last time they were in Amsterdam, dancing to the band on the street.
“Music is the dream,” Louis replies, a distant look in his eyes.
They listen for a couple songs, and when they toss a couple coins into the performer’s cap, he gives them a friendly wink.
“Okay, back on schedule,” Louis announces, pulling a tourist map out of his backpack.
“Oh come on,” Harry shakes his head, snagging the map out of Louis’ hands. “Let’s explore .”
“Do you mean, ‘let’s get lost?’” Louis quips, arching an eyebrow.
“Maybe,” Harry shrugs. “But we’ve got all weekend, you know? There’s time.”
Louis doesn’t look too pleased, but he tucks the map back into his bag without any more protests, saying, “Lead on then, Styles.”
Harry grins, lacing their fingers together and pulling Louis down the street.
They do get lost, but Harry insists it’s a good thing. They start off wandering along main streets with large department stores, before turning to smaller alleys with tucked away shops, ones that seem somehow intended for both tourists and locals. Some of the small shops seem clearly geared towards travelers, selling things like overpriced postcards and keychains. But at the same time, others seem meant for those who live nearby, selling things like fabrics and spices at fairly cheap prices.
They take their time in these little alleyways, popping into any stores that interest them. There’s a tea store with more types of tea leaves than Harry knew even existed, organized in small barrels by type and origin; a cheese store, where Harry does actually buy a sample pack of various cheeses; a stationary store, where they spend too much time trying to decipher Dutch greeting cards; and a dispensary, where Louis insists on getting chocolate infused with weed, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.
Eventually, they wander too far, ending up along the canal in some residential area.
“Now, I think we’re lost,” Louis says through a mouthful of fries that they had purchased earlier.
“We’ve been lost the whole time,” Harry corrects him. “Only now, I think we’ve officially ended up where we don’t want to be.”
“Let’s sit by the canal and eat for a while,” Louis says. “Then, we’ll turn back.”
Fries are a frequent meal in the Netherlands, and Harry loves it. They serve them in a paper cone, topped with mayo and beef if you ask for it.
They find a bench near the canal relatively easily, and rest there while they finish eating.
“Amsterdam is great,” Louis says, after finishing off his food.
Harry hums in agreement. “My favorite city so far.”
“Well.” Louis looks thoughtful. “You haven’t been to many European cities yet.”
“That’s true,” Harry allows, “But I think it’ll always be one of my favorites.”
They head back in the direction they think that the downtown area lies, but can’t quite find the route they came on. They end up near some small art museums, which Louis declares is meant to be, so they pay for admission and spend the afternoon browsing art.
“I don’t think I’m much of a modern art kind of guy,” Harry says, as they near the end of the gallery.
Louis looks at him, biting back a mirthful grin. “Me neither,” he whispers.
By the time they leave the museum, the sun is just beginning to sink below the horizon.
“It’s beautiful,” Harry says.
“Canal tour?” Louis says.
They just barely make it to the evening canal tour, which is advertised as the Lovebirds Canal Tour. Louis doesn’t bat an eye as he requests tickets for two, leaving Harry spluttering next to him at the fact that they’re going on a sunset couples canal tour.
They’re at the end of the line to board the boat, so most of the good seats are already taken. There’s a complimentary informational audio tour, but Louis pulls him along past the rows of seats and out to the back.
Harry doesn’t know how Louis guessed, but it’s much nicer at the back of the boat. Behind the rows of tables and seats, there’s an open area where they can sit right alongside the water, not barricaded away by glass windows like the other seats.
The canal tour is easily Harry’s favorite part of the day. The sunset lighting is gorgeous, casting a soft glow over their surroundings. They had been walking along the canals for the better part of their day, and yet Amsterdam looks completely different from this new vantage point, down in the canals themselves. Harry is glued to his camera, snapping pictures of the bridges, of the buildings, and of Louis.
“Ahem,” An unfamiliar voice interrupts as Harry captures a shot of one of the bridges. “Do you mind taking a picture of us?”
A blonde-haired woman is smiling at him shyly, an iPhone extended towards him with the camera app open.
“Sure,” Harry says, taking the phone from her and snapping a few pictures of her and her girlfriend posing together.
“Thank you!” She says, grinning. She turns to face her girlfriend, then turns back as if she’s just remembered something. “Oh – would you like me to take a picture of you, too? You and your boyfriend?”
“Oh,” Harry blinks, feeling his heart skip a beat. “Oh, no, we’re not-”
“We’d love that,” Louis cuts in, giving her a winning smile. Then, turning to Harry, “Wouldn’t we, babe ?”
“Um,” Harry swallows. “Right. Thank you.”
Harry’s mind feels suddenly blank, but fortunately Louis is already extending his phone to the girl, camera open.
“Smile!” She says.
Louis settles in at Harry’s side, wrapping an arm around his waist and smiling wide. Harry feels himself relax into the touch automatically, smiling as well.
The girl takes a couple of photos, and just before she takes the last one Louis goes up on his toes and presses a quick kiss to Harry’s cheek.
“Cute!” The girl says before Harry has even processed what happened, handing Louis his phone.
“Thank you! Danke!” Louis says cheerfully.
“Danke!” Harry echoes, still reeling in surprise.
“They look good,” Louis says after a moment, quiet enough that only Harry can hear. “Aww,” he coos as he swipes on his phone, before bursting into laughter. “Look at your face .”
Harry blushes, peering over Louis’ shoulder to see the screen. Sure enough, the pictures are all great. In the first few, the two of them have the biggest smiles on their faces, looking so genuinely happy it makes Harry smile again just looking at the pictures. In the next one, Harry is still smiling wide as Louis kisses his cheek. And then there’s one more, where Louis is still kissing Harry’s cheek, but now where Harry’s face has morphed into some mix of surprise and confusion. It’s still a cute picture, but Harry likes the previous one much more.
As they file off of the boat, Louis bumps against Harry’s shoulder with his own.
“Hey,” he says softly.
“What’s up?” Harry asks after a moment, turning to look at Louis when he is still met with silence.
Louis doesn’t respond until they’re off the boat, walking away from the docks and back towards the city.
“I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable earlier,” Louis says, blue eyes wide and earnest. “Pretending that we were boyfriends, and then kissing you. I didn’t really think it through.”
They come to a stop, standing near the canal a short distance away from where the tours board.
“I appreciate that, Louis, but there’s nothing to apologize for,” Harry says, smiling softly. “Don’t worry about it.”
Louis breathes out a puff of air, but he doesn’t exactly look relieved. “You didn’t mind, then?”
Harry feels himself blush. “No,” he says, giving Louis a sidelong glance. Without thinking, he adds, “I kind of liked it, actually.”
As soon as the words are out, he averts his eyes to avoid meeting Louis’ gaze, feeling his face grow increasingly red.
“You did?” Louis asks, voice quiet.
Harry nods after a moment, unable to let Louis go unanswered.
“Harry,” Louis says, leaning in to nudge his shoulder against him again. “Look at me.”
Harry draws in a breath of air, before turning his gaze from the canal and to the boy next to him, blue eyes twinkling under the fading sunlight. His lips are quirked upwards in a small smile, and well, that must be a good sign.
“Can I kiss you again?” Louis asks softly. His voice sounds timid, but there’s a knowing look in his eyes, like he’s confident in what Harry’s answer will be.
Harry isn’t quite convinced that this isn’t a dream – surely this can’t actually be part of his life, can it? A beautiful boy asking to kiss him next to the canal in Amsterdam, as twilight falls upon them? – and yet, everything about it seems real. He can feel the cool breeze from across the canal tousling his hair, the sturdy concrete beneath his feet, the solid metal railing he’s leaning on right against his side. More importantly, he can feel Louis’ expectant gaze on him, the blue of his eyes deeper than that of the canal beneath them.
“Always,” Harry hears himself whisper, feels himself step forwards to close the gap between them, as if he is watching from outside his body.
Then, Louis is kissing him, and any doubts he might have had about this moment being real fade away. Louis’ lips are soft and insistent against his, his body warm and familiar in his arms.
All too soon, Louis pulls away. Harry leans forward, trailing after him before catching himself and pulling back as well.
“Always, you say?” Louis asks, gently teasing. He’s smiling, eyes crinkled happily.
Harry blushes again, but nods. “I know we don’t have a lot of time…” A summer abroad program is not a place to start a relationship. He doesn’t know if that’s what Louis would want anyways, but five weeks from now they’ll be back home on opposite sides of their home country.
“I like you, Harry,” Louis says. “A lot.”
“I like you, too.” Harry pinches himself on the arm, just in case. It hurts.
“So, what do you say we make the most of these next few weeks we have together?” Louis asks.
“And after that?” Harry can’t help but ask. He knows it’s crazy to think that they might start a long-distance relationship based on this, but at the same time, he already feels crazy for Louis.
“Let’s cross that bridge when we get there,” Louis says, taking Harry’s hand in his once more. It feels different this time, more meaningful.
Before, Harry had always attributed their hand holding to not wanting to get lost in the crowd, or needing to be able to pull the other along somewhere. Now, it feels like being united.
Hand in hand, they explore the red light district, eat the weed chocolate Louis bought earlier, and wander along the canals under the starlight. Amsterdam remains very much alive, and even as the moon rises high overhead, its streets are still full of activity.
Louis is in his element, laughing and smiling as he tugs Harry along winding streets and alleyways. He doesn’t seem to get tired, filled with some sort of youthful energy that Harry can’t hope to match. It’s long after Harry’s feet have begun to ache, when Louis finally says:
“Should we call it a night?”
Harry’s yawn is all the response that Louis needs.
They stay the night in a hostel, sleeping in a bunk bed in a room shared with six other people. It’s the first night that they haven’t had their own room together, which is somewhat inconvenient timing.
Louis laughs when Harry voices this and kisses him goodnight, promising they’ll get to cuddle tomorrow night once they’re back in Maastricht.
They still have some time the next day before they have to head back, so they set off wandering in the streets of Amsterdam once more.
Despite Louis insisting that Harry should wait until he sees more European cities before declaring a favorite, Harry is certain that no experience can top this one. As such, he makes it his mission to find tourist gifts for his mum and Gemma before they leave.
“What about a t-shirt?” Louis calls out from a few racks over in one of the small alleyway shops, this one stocked with tourist items. He’s holding up a fitted shirt that reads “I love Amsterdam” on it, with a bright red heart around the words.
“Too tacky.” Harry shakes his head. “I don’t think either of them would wear it. Especially not Gemma.”
“How about wooden shoes?” Louis jokes, holding up a pair of life-sized wooden clogs, the traditional wooden Dutch shoes that have practically become the country’s icon.
“Maybe a keychain with wooden shoes?” Harry wonders aloud, heading over to where a rack of magnets and keychains are displayed. “Oh, look at how pretty this is,” he says to Louis, lifting up a wooden tulip, carved and painted by hand. It’s a bit pricey, and he doesn’t know what his mum or Gemma would do with it, but it’s also absolutely beautiful.
“I think they sell those in Maastricht, too,” Louis says. “But it is gorgeous.”
Harry ultimately ends up buying two pairs of wooden shoe keychains with different colored designs, both with the words “Made in Amsterdam” carved into the bottom. Still, he can’t help but look longingly at the wooden tulip one last time before they exit the shop.
“Bikes!” Louis calls out from behind him, distracting him as he points ahead eagerly. Sure enough, a bike rental stall is stationed just down the street from them. “Let’s do it. What better Dutch experience than biking in Amsterdam?”
It does sound both extremely fun and representative of the city. Harry voices this, and the two take off towards the bike stall.
In the Netherlands, bikes have the right of way on the road. Also, no one biking is wearing a helmet. It’s unnatural to Harry, and takes a while to get used to.
As it turns out, although biking might be a classic Dutch activity, Amsterdam might not have been the best place to give it a go. The streets are just as crowded as the day before, and Harry and Louis have trouble navigating them. Fortunately, they’re both decently good at riding. They somehow make it out of the busiest part of town with no crashes, only encountering one close call when a tourist steps into the bike lane without looking.
“It’s okay, you wouldn’t have been in trouble even if you hit her,” Louis reminds him as he speeds up to bike past Harry, taking the lead.
This time when they inevitably end up in the residential area, it’s a blessing. The cobblestone streets are bumpy to ride over, but at least they’re mostly empty. This way, Harry and Louis don’t have to worry as much about dodging traffic and tourists.
They bike along the canals for a while with the wind whipping through their hair and carrying the sound of their laughter back towards the city.
When they finally stop, it’s because they’re starving, and Louis has spotted a stand labeled “Frites” – fries. Harry is sure he’ll gain weight over the course of this trip, but looking at Louis, with his hair windswept, skin lightly sunburned, and a drop of mayo on his upper lip, Harry finds that he doesn’t really mind. He kisses the mayo off Louis’ lips with a smile.
It’s a miracle that they find their way back to the bike rental stall, and one that occurs only after many incorrect guesses as to which street they had been on earlier that morning.
“Louis?” Harry calls out, having handled the bike returns, losing sight of the other boy in the process. “Lou?”
“Right here!” Louis yells, from the other side of the street, waving his arms.
Harry waits for a couple of bikes to pass by before crossing over to join him. “There you are,” he says.
Louis smiles, taking his hand and squeezing it gently. “As much as I hate to say it, I think we should probably get going if we want to get back to Maastricht before it’s too late. Especially if we want to have time to check out Utrecht on the way.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Harry says with a sigh. “I don’t want to leave yet, though.”
“Maybe we’ll come back, someday,” Louis says, a lilt of hope in his voice.
“Someday,” Harry agrees.
They share another kiss at the train station at Harry’s insistence before they board the train. Harry makes sure to sit by the window facing backwards, so he can watch his favorite city disappear into the distance as they’re carried off to new adventures.
The first thing they do when they get back to their room in Maastricht is to push Harry’s bed over to Louis’ side of the room, so the two twin beds combine into one larger bed.
The next thing that Harry had planned to do was to unpack his weekend bag. The next thing that he actually does, is make out with Louis on the newly set up bed.
“Louis,” Harry gasps as the boy pushes him gently back onto the bed, lips pressed against his own.
“What if,” Louis murmurs, pulling back just enough to get the words out, “Instead of having two beds combined to make one large one,” He pauses for another quick kiss, “We have two separate beds. One where we do things like this,” He demonstrates, turning his head to suck a mark at Harry’s neck and grinding his hips against him. “And another for cuddling afterwards.”
Harry groans. As much as he likes the sound of the things they’ll presumably get up to on this bed, it doesn’t seem practical. “The twin beds are tiny though, Lou” he says. “We barely fit the other night.”
“You don’t like the idea of this ?” Louis asks, feigning innocence even as he reaches down with his hand, rubbing Harry through his jeans.
“Christ,” Harry mutters, nearly forgetting his argument. “No, wait, that’s not what I meant.” Harry stammers, feeling somehow out of his element.
It’s not that he’s never done this before. He’s no stranger to sex, even with men. And yet, there’s something about Louis that makes him feel like the other boy is always one step ahead of him.
“No?” Louis asks, his tone light and teasing. “So then we agree.”
“No,” Harry says, huffing a laugh. “That’s not what I meant either.”
“What did you mean then?” Louis asks, unzipping Harry’s jeans and beginning to tug them down his waist. “Lift your hips, love.”
Harry does so, his heart skipping a beat at the pet name.
“Now, come on then. What did you mean?” Louis asks. His tone is casual, but his hands are stroking Harry’s dick through only the thin layer of his boxers now, and it’s understandably hard for Harry to follow their conversation.
“That,” Harry swallows, grabbing for Louis and pulling the other man close enough to be able to kiss him again, “We should do both things on both beds, pushed together just like this.”
“Hmm,” Louis hums against his lips, as if he is thinking it over. Then, he pushes himself upright and hops off of the bed, trailing a hand down Harry’s chest. “How about we settle this? You’ve said your bit, and I’ve said mine. So now, give me a chance to convince you otherwise.”
“Convince me how?” Harry asks, but even as he is speaking, Louis has already nudged the other bed away, creating a small gap between the two.
“Shh,” Louis shushes him kindly, “My turn.”
Harry willingly falls silent, letting Louis crawl back on top of him, pinning his arms above his head as he kisses him. It’s one of the best kisses that Harry has had – simultaneously deep with passion and yet gentle with care.
“Hold the headboard,” Louis mumbles, pulling back just enough to get the words out before diving in again, letting go of his wrists in favor of cradling his face, thumbs stroking over his cheeks tenderly.
The touch is so soft, Harry wonders for a split second if maybe this is what it feels like to be loved.
That thought jerks him out of his reverie, and Harry shakes his head as if that will help him clear it. That’s not what this is, he reminds himself sternly. He and Louis have a cruel countdown on the number of days they have together. This is a summer fling, and nothing more.
Fortunately, it’s easy enough to turn his thoughts away from the longing of his heart when there is a hand on his dick – which there is.
Louis works him up expertly, mostly pumping with his hand, but occasionally taking the tip into his mouth. All too soon, Harry feels embarrassingly close. He is trying to hold off, not wanting to admit to Louis that he’s close to the edge already, when Louis slows down his motions.
“Hey,” Harry starts to protest, unable to hold it back.
“Shh, I know,” Louis whispers, a pleased smirk on his lips. “Not yet. Would have sucked your dick for real already if I wanted you to come.”
“Wha-” Harry starts.
“Want to ride you. That okay?” Louis asks, somehow sounding coy yet vulnerable at the same time.
The proper response would probably have been to assure him that Harry would like nothing more. Instead, Harry chokes on his own saliva, eyes bulging a little out of his head.
Louis laughs, rubbing his knuckles over Harry’s arm fondly. “Need a confirmation, love.”
“I-” Harry stammers, before clearing his throat and trying again, “Yes.”
Louis gives him another cross between a smile and a smirk before rummaging in his bag for lube and leaning back to begin opening himself up.
“Can I?” Harry asks, motioning to where Louis has worked a finger inside of himself.
Louis shakes his head. “Next time, maybe.” He says. “I’ll probably end up coming if you do it now.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Harry murmurs, settling for rubbing small circles at Louis’ inner thigh instead.
Louis doesn’t reply, but Harry doesn’t mind. He’s a vision, his tanned skin glistening with sweat, his hips rolling onto his fingers as if of their own accord. His hair is the messiest Harry has seen it, probably due to Harry pulling on it while Louis was playing with his dick earlier, but it makes him look the most beautiful that Harry has ever seen him.
“Open your eyes,” Harry whispers, almost pleading, and Louis’ eyes, previously squeezed shut, flutter open. Harry doesn’t know why, but he craves the eye contact, the intimacy that comes with it. Looking into Louis’ eyes, seeing the desire and lust emanating from his gaze, Harry feels a tug of want from his own gut.
There’s an angel of a boy cramped at the bottom of the twin bed, fingering himself open eagerly and looking positively sinful. Harry has never wanted anyone more.
It feels like more than it should, more than a summer fling. Desperate to lighten the mood, to pull his thoughts away from where his heart wants them to go, Harry teases softly, “Wouldn’t it be easier if you had a bit more bed space to work with?”
“Oh fuck off,” Louis says, letting out a breathless laugh as he maneuvers his fingers inside of himself.
“Nah,” Harry replies, though he knows Louis didn’t mean it to begin with.
“You’re right, I misspoke,” Louis amends, removing his fingers and saying, “What I meant to say was, fuck me.”
Harry laughs, raising his eyebrows and surging forwards to press a chaste kiss to Louis’ lips. “Got a condom?”
“Right pocket,” Louis says, waving his hand rather unhelpfully towards where his stuff is strewn on the floor.
It takes Harry a moment of searching before he finds it, in the backpack that Louis took with them to Amsterdam.
“You brought this with you?” Harry asks as he rolls it on.
“What can I say? I was hoping.” Louis shrugs, shameless. “Though I didn’t count on just how many people we were sharing the hostel room with.”
“Fair enough,” Harry says softly, laughing as Louis flips them around so that Harry is laid out on the bed and Louis is straddling him.
“Ready?” Louis asks, drizzling some lube onto the condom on Harry’s dick and pumping his hand up and down a few times to spread it out.
“I think I should be the one asking you tha-” Harry says, cutting himself off with a groan as Louis sinks down onto him somewhat unexpectedly.
For having a dick inside of him, Louis still looks like he wants to make some sort of quip. It’s endearing really, and the small part of Harry’s mind which isn’t occupied with how incredible he feels tucks away the memory of it for later.
Louis seems to decide against saying whatever it was on the tip of his tongue, in favor of beginning to move. He gyrates his hips a bit, before lifting himself up and dropping back down. It’s a bit clumsy at the start, but it doesn’t take him long to build up a rhythm, riding Harry’s dick for all he’s worth.
Harry grips at Louis’ hips, his waist, his arms, his dick, whatever part of him he can reach in any given moment. He realizes belatedly – only once Louis has pressed a finger over his lips and hissed, “Shh, these are thin walls” – that he’s moaning Louis’ name out loud.
Harry does his best to hold back his oncoming orgasm, and fortunately Louis is the one who mumbles, “Gonna make me come if you keep doing that,” first, as Harry works his dick in his hand.
“That’s the goal, babe.” Harry says.
Louis opens his mouth, and Harry fully expects a witty retort, but is instead met with a glorious clenching around his dick as cum spurts out of Louis’ own.
“Oh god,” Louis gasps out a moment later, just as Harry himself goes over the edge.
It’s a blinding orgasm, leaving his body shuddering and his heart pounding in his ears as he recovers. Louis eases off of him, and Harry has at least the presence of mind to remove the condom and tie it off.
“Cuddle?” Harry tries.
“Shower,” Louis insists.
“Cuddle in this bed while we’re gross.” Harry says, trying to sound reasonable. “Then we can shower and get in the other one.”
“So you concede to the two bed plan?” Louis asks, crawling willingly into Harry’s outstretched arms.
“You convinced me,” Harry agrees, holding Louis close to him.
“Good,” Louis says, biting back a grin.
“What’re you smiling about?” Harry asks, the words somewhat muffled as he has his face buried in Louis’ hair.
“I just think it’s going to be a really good summer, is all,” Louis explains.
Harry smiles. “Me too.”
Niall and Liam are thrilled, hooting and hollering when they walk into the common area the next day to find them on the couch, Louis in Harry’s arms.
“Good trip to Amsterdam, then?” Niall asks, eyebrows raised.
“The best,” Harry answers for them both.
The next few weeks fly by, just like Harry’s mum had warned him that they would. Harry and Louis meet up every day after their classes to hang out, usually in Maastricht, but occasionally they make an afternoon trip to Germany or Belgium. There are a lot of fun shops in Maastricht, too, and a huge bookstore inside a church that Harry loves visiting. There are also lots of places to eat, from fancy restaurants to street food, and they make it their mission to try nearly everything. Some days they stay in, buying groceries at the store, and cooking in the common kitchen. Regardless of what they do, every night ends with them curled up together in one of the two beds pushed over on Louis’ side of the room, usually starting in one and ending up in the other after a quick shower.
For the rest of the weekends, they travel with Liam and Niall as a group of four, visiting Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. Their weekend trips always feel too short to Harry, though he does love the adventure. They travel to Berlin, Aachen, Bruges, Luxembourg, and Paris, and yet, out of all of their trips, Harry still finds his mind wandering back to Amsterdam.
He knows they don’t have time to make a final trip back during their study abroad, nor the money, but he still wishes that they could.
“Amsterdam is still my favorite city,” Harry whispers to Louis on their last night, arms wrapped tightly around the other boy, holding him even closer than usual.
“It’s mine, too,” Louis replies.
They don’t say much else, and Louis’ breathing evens out shortly after. Harry lies awake for a while longer, staring into the darkness at the outline of his suitcase, all packed up and ready for the trip home.
A shuttle picks them up from their rooms at five in the morning, so the feeling of sleepiness outweighs any sadness of leaving Maastricht. Nearly everyone falls asleep on the ride to the airport, including Harry, his head tucked into Louis’ shoulder.
“When and where is everyone’s flight?” Liam asks, once they’ve gone through security and are gathering their belongings.
“I’m gate D-31.” Harry says, checking his boarding pass. “At eleven o’clock.”
“C-42.” Niall says. “Nine.”
“D-28.” Louis says. “Ten thirty.”
“Oh wow,” Liam chuckles. “I’m at C-11, eight thirty.”
“We can come to your gate with you,” Harry offers. “To see you off. There’s plenty of time before our flights, and Niall is in that direction too.”
Being in the airport brings an unwelcome dose of reality. It hadn’t felt real yesterday, that their European adventure was actually coming to an end. Now, with his carry-on bag in his hand and a bittersweet smile on his face, Harry feels a melancholy pull in his stomach, sort of like when he feels the number of pages left in a good novel growing fewer and fewer in his hands, slipping by all too fast until none are left.
“Wait, let me give you all my number!” Liam remembers, just before he’s about to line up to board. “And I want all of your addresses – so I can send you postcards of future travels.”
They try to do it quickly, swapping around phones and making sure that they all have each other’s numbers, addresses, and any relevant social media. They had been using Facebook messenger for their group chat, so they already had each other added, but now they’ve all got each other on Instagram, too.
“Okay, is that everyone? I should get going,” Liam says, taking his phone from Harry and giving them all a tight smile. “I’m going to miss you all,” he says, pulling Niall into a hug, then Louis, and finally Harry.
Then, he’s walking away from them, handing the woman at the gate his boarding pass, and giving them one last wave before disappearing from view.
Harry, Louis, and Niall stand together quietly for a moment afterwards, before Niall says, “We should probably get to my gate soon. They’ll be boarding any minute now.”
They follow Niall to his gate, a short distance away from where Liam’s was, and hug him tight just as they had Liam.
“Gonna miss you both,” Niall says. “But we’ll keep in touch, yeah? Facebook, Instagram, texting, whatever. And hit me up if you’re ever in Santa Barbara.”
“Will do,” Louis says. “I’m near enough – we can hang out sometime.”
“And maybe I’ll make it out to the west coast for a vacation. Who knows?” Harry says cheerfully, though somewhere in the back of his mind he’s doubtful it will happen anytime soon.
“That would be awesome,” Niall says, sounding excited. “You should!”
They’re interrupted by the intercom announcing that Niall’s flight is beginning to board, and Niall gives them both a shrug and a wave. “See you around, then,” he says, turning to go line up with the other passengers.
There’s plenty of time before Louis needs to worry about boarding his flight, so they stay until Niall has boarded, calling his name and waving wildly when he walks up to have his boarding pass scanned, as if he were a celebrity.
“And then there were two,” Louis says, giving Harry a small smile.
They have to change terminals to get to where their gates are. It’s a longer walk than the one to get to Niall’s gate, but it feels short – the remaining minutes they have together steadily ticking away. Harry gives Louis’ hand a squeeze, realizing that it might be the last time they walk together hand in hand like this, something he’d grown accustomed to over the past month.
“Here we are. D-28,” Louis says, looking up at the gate in front of them.
“Do you miss home?” Harry asks.
“I miss my family mostly. Not so much the place itself,” Louis replies. “And not nearly as much as I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too,” Harry says, trying to put as much meaning as he can into those four words.
“Hey, cheer up,” Louis says, shaking his head. “You look miserable.”
“Well, we’re leaving. It’s sad, okay?” Harry says, but he feels himself crack a smile at Louis’ words anyways.
“I got you a present,” Louis tells him. “Consider it an early birthday present.”
“My birthday is in February.”
“An early Christmas present, then.”
“It’s August.” Harry laughs.
“I just don’t want it to be a farewell present, alright?” He looks serious about this, so Harry shrugs in agreement as Louis reaches into his backpack. “For you,” Louis says sweetly, pulling an item out of his bag with a flourish and extending it towards Harry.
It’s a wooden tulip, the petals painted by hand in an incredible blend of blues. The stem is painted a lively green, and near the base of the stem are the words “Made in Amsterdam”.
“Oh, Louis,” Harry says, feeling a smile come to his face. “It’s just like that one from the shop we saw.”
“It is the one from the shop we saw,” Louis tells him, looking pleased with himself. He explains, “I snuck away and bought it for you while you were returning the bikes.”
Harry is struck by just how incredibly lucky he was to be able to get to know Louis, this kind-hearted boy who does things like sneakily buy presents for a summer fling. “Thank you,” Harry says. “I really don’t know what to say. I can’t believe you did that for me.”
Louis smiles. “Well, like I said: I ‘ll miss you.”
“It’s too bad we can’t-”
“Harry…” Louis interrupts, sounding regretful.
“I know,” Harry sighs, “We talked about it. Trying to do distance just wouldn’t be the same.”
“We’ll stay in touch,” Louis says, reassuring. “Maybe we’ll even visit.”
Harry nods, takes Louis’ hand once more, and leads him over to the seats in front of his gate. “I’ll sit with you while you wait at least, yeah?”
Louis smiles, and squeezes his hand in response.
They sit together, talking, laughing, and generally enjoying the other’s company. When the woman at the main desk makes the announcement that they are beginning to board, it’s all too soon.
“I’ll miss you,” Harry says again, knowing that now is not the time to say more.
“I’ll miss you too,” Louis says back. He leans in to kiss him softly, sweetly, before he stands and puts on his backpack.
“Stay in touch,” Harry whispers, a desperate edge to his voice that he didn’t mean to be there.
Louis doesn’t hear him, or at least Harry doesn’t think he did, because he doesn’t say anything in response. He goes up to have his boarding pass scanned, waves one last time goodbye, and then he’s gone.
Harry waits for a while after Louis has disappeared onto the plane, though he doesn’t know what for. Eventually, once the plane has taken off, he makes his way to his own gate.
It really was a trip of firsts, he thinks to himself. His first international flight, first visit to Europe, and first time falling in love.
Now, boarding his own plane alone, he wonders if it’s his first heartbreak as well.
His mum and Gemma are beyond ecstatic when he emerges from the airport. They bombard him with questions the whole drive home, and immediately insist on seeing the pictures he took with his camera as well.
Harry doesn’t mind. He doesn’t have secrets from them, and he had called them once a week while he was in Europe, so they know mostly everything already anyways. Still, they want to hear it all again, now that it’s coming from him in person. Their excitement is so contagious, it almost successfully distracts Harry from the hole in his heart. Almost.
He texts Louis as soon as he’s home:
To: Louis Tomlinson 4:45pm
How was the flight back? :)
Louis replies after a while:
To: Harry Styles 4:58pm
it was good !
Harry can’t help but frown a little at the response. He had been hoping for more, for something to go off of to start a conversation or even just a little more emotion.
To: Louis Tomlinson 5:00pm
Glad to hear it. It’s good to be home!
Louis doesn’t reply, and Harry tries not to dwell on it too much. It’s hard, though, especially when Liam had responded with a detailed rundown of how the flight he had transferred to had been delayed for 6 hours and Niall had replied with some pictures of him eating with his family.
He pockets his phone with a sigh. Maybe Louis will text back later.
“Knock, knock,” Gemma says aloud as she pushes open the door to his room.
“That’s really not know knocking works,” Harry complains, sitting up on his bed to talk to her.
“Yeah, yeah, missed you too,” Gemma says, giving him a smile. “You’ve been up here for days, Harry. I know you were probably tired from travelling and just want to be home in your room, but… it’s been like four days now.”
Harry sighs, shrugging, “I don’t really want to go out. Is that a crime?”
“No…” Gemma gives him a look, arching one eyebrow. “But it’s not like you. I’m sure all of your friends here are dying to see you before you go back to school for the semester.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Harry says.
“C’mon,” Gemma prods. “What’s the matter? Post-traveling blues?”
“I miss Louis,” Harry admits. “We’ve been texting a little, but the conversations are so…” Harry frowns, scrunching up his nose, “Stiff. Stilted. They aren’t good conversations.”
“Maybe that’s a sign,” Gemma says gently, flopping down on his bed next to him. “Summer flings aren’t always meant to carry on afterwards.”
“He was the one who didn’t want to do distance,” Harry mumbles, thinking of how he and Louis had talked things over. “Said he’d been cheated on once before when he tried it, and so even though he trusts me, he doesn’t want to try it again.”
Gemma makes an understanding noise, reaching over to squeeze his shoulder. “Sounds like you know what you have to do, then. You just don’t want to.”
Harry nods. “How am I supposed to move on, when only a week ago we were together like we’d be forever?”
Gemma gives him another dubious look.
“Well, alright, we knew it wasn’t forever. But I just didn’t think the end would come so soon, or hurt this badly.”
“It’s like mum says,” Gemma tells him. “Time heals all.”
And it does. It takes Harry a while to start dating again, though never anything serious, as the texts to their study abroad group chat steadily dwindle. He still sees updates from everyone on social media, but it’s not the same.
As the years pass, their lives head in different directions - at least as far as Harry can tell based on his friends’ posts on Facebook. Niall starts working as the co-owner of a restaurant, still located in Santa Barbara, and Liam gets a job at a finance company in New York. Harry is happy for the both of them, but even they haven’t been as successful as Louis has.
Harry still remembers the way Louis had been drawn to the street performers in Amsterdam, the wistful look in his eyes as he had said “Music is the dream” back when they were still getting to know each other. And now, Louis has made it as a singer. He has singles that play on the radio regularly, a group of diehard fans dedicated to him, and rumors of a full album coming out soon.
Harry has thought about messaging him, some sort of congratulations or at least to let him know that he’s listened to his music and likes it. But every time he opens their text thread and sees the remains of their last stilted conversation, he decides against it.
Summer love lasts only the summer, he can hear Gemma telling him in his head.
“See you later, Harry!” one of Harry’s coworkers calls out, waving to him as she exits the building.
It’s officially six and a half years since Harry had studied abroad, and four and a half since he had graduated from college.
“Bye!” Harry returns from where he’s standing near the curb, before turning his attention back to his phone to call a Lyft.
He always has a great time at his company’s annual summer bash, and this year was no different. But, it’s nearing two in the morning, and the party has died down. At this point, there’s not much that sounds better than being home and in bed.
His driver pulls up a few minutes later in a gray sedan, giving him a friendly wave.
“Harry?” the driver asks, looking at his own phone screen to check that he’s picking up the right person.
“That’s me.” Harry confirms, tucking his phone into his suit pocket and clambering into the back seat. Considering how drunk he is, he thinks he does a decently graceful job of it.
His head is fuzzy, but it doesn’t prevent him from recognizing the pop song that’s currently playing on the radio. He hums along to himself as the car pulls into the street, feeling content.
The radio announcers come on after it ends, enthusiastically explaining how that was the number one song on their countdown.
“And that was it, folks, your number one most requested song,” one of the radio hosts says. “And up next, we have the song we’ve been playing every hour…”
“Louis Tomlinson’s new hit single!” the other host finishes.
Harry hums tiredly to himself, smiling fondly. Good for Louis, he thinks. It’s been a while since he released new music.
There’s a short instrumental beat as an introduction, and then:
“ I went to Amsterdam without you,” Louis’ voice croons through the car speaker, “ And all I could do was think about you.”
Harry jerks up from where he was leaning against the car window so suddenly, he bangs his head.
“You want me to change the station, mate?” his driver asks, looking at him through the rearview mirror with concern.
“No, no, no,” Harry rushes to say. “No, leave it.”
The song continues on, and Harry loves it. He wants to hear it again, immediately after it’s finished, wants to call up the radio station and demand that they play it over and over.
“And that was Always You , by Louis Tomlinson,” the radio announcer says after the song finishes, before playing a throwback Adele song.
“Always you,” Harry echoes quietly to himself.
Part of him, the rational part of his brain which is feeling rather small in comparison to the dreamy, drunken side of his brain, knows that it has been six full years since he has seen Louis, and probably five since their last message to each other. It’s a long time, certainly long enough that they’re practically strangers.
And yet the other part of him, hopeful, maybe foolish, and definitely drunk, can’t help but think that this song was written about him.
“I went to Amsterdam without you,” Harry sings in a whisper, “And all I could do was think about you.”
It has to be about him. Amsterdam was their city, their favorite city which they discovered together . It may have been six years since then, but Harry remembers it as if it were yesterday.
“Hey,” Harry says to his Lyft driver as the next song starts playing. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” The driver replies.
“Let’s say, hypothetically, you met someone six years ago and you fell in love with them.” Harry starts.
“Okay,” The driver says agreeably.
“And then you fell out of touch and haven’t spoken for the last five years.” Harry continues.
“’S a long time,” The driver says, a worried crease between his eyebrows that Harry swears wasn’t there a moment before.
“And then he became a famous singer, and all those years later you hear a song by him that just has to be about you.”
“You know it’s about you?”
“I think so.”
“What do you do?” Harry asks.
“Did he love you, too?”
Harry hesitates. He doesn’t know the answer to that. He and Louis had never broached the topic of their feelings for each other, both knowing that they had limited time to work with.
“Ah,” The driver says, interpreting Harry’s silence as his answer. “And there’s the problem.”
“Yeah,” Harry sighs.
“You got his number?” The driver is pulling up in front of Harry’s apartment now, putting on his emergency lights as he parks illegally in front of the building.
“I do” Harry nods.
“Give him a call. Once you’re sober,” the driver says. “That’s my advice.”
Harry gives him five stars and a generous tip.
But, he doesn’t quite follow the driver’s advice.
Waiting until he’s sober, until tomorrow, sounds so far away. Besides, what if once he’s sober, he loses his courage to call? He can already feel the doubts creeping in, whispers of “What if there’s someone else Louis is in love with?” and “What if Louis doesn’t think of Amsterdam as being our city?” beginning to swirl in the back of his mind.
Harry goes inside his apartment and searches for Louis’ contact right away, flopping down on his couch as the phone rings.
It rings four times, and then Louis’ voice comes across the line, sounding far away. “Hey! I can’t get to my phone right now, but leave a message and I’ll get back to you. Thanks!”
His voice on the recorded message sounds just like he used to, back when they were in Europe. Harry wonders if Louis even uses this number anymore. Maybe once he became famous, he changed it.
“Hey, Lou,” Harry says slowly. He hates leaving messages. He probably, definitely should have considered this scenario and practiced for it. “Er, Louis.”
They’re probably not on nickname terms anymore.
“I just wanted to say that… I miss you.” Harry says. “I heard your new song on the radio, Always You.” Harry hums a little from the song before remembering himself. “Sorry, you already know what I’m talking about, of course. Anyways, that lyric about Amsterdam…”
Harry trails off, not sure how to say this. Is it too presumptuous to say that he knows the song is about him? It would be beyond embarrassing if he’s wrong.
“And I miss you.” Harry says again. “I thought it was about us, and our time in Amsterdam, but maybe… I don’t know. I just miss you.”
A short beep sounds in his ear, indicating that the message has been cut off.
Harry sighs, lowering his phone from his ear. “And I’m in love with you,” He adds, though there’s no one around to hear, except for the walls of his apartment.
Harry wakes up the next morning with a pounding headache and vague memories of the night before.
He knows that Louis wrote a song about him, that he called Louis, and that Louis didn’t answer. What he doesn’t remember, is what he said in his message to Louis. He thinks he remembers confessing his love for Louis, but he isn’t sure. He hopes that he’s wrong, but the more he thinks about it, the more certain he becomes.
He fumbles for his phone, feeling frantic. It’s dead, so he has to wait another agonizing minute after plugging it in for it to turn on.
No new messages, and no missed calls.
Harry sighs, flopping back into bed with a groan.
He gets up eventually - still no new messages on his phone – and makes himself some breakfast. He plays Always You softly on repeat as he does so, trying to analyze the lyrics with a fresh mind.
It has to be about him.
And yet, if it was about him, wouldn’t Louis expect that Harry would try to contact him? Hell, shouldn’t Louis have tried to contact Harry himself? Harry’s number hasn’t changed in the years, and he thinks they’re still Facebook friends.
The longer Harry waits, his phone woefully silent, the more worried he feels. Louis has probably listened to the message already. Maybe the song isn’t about him and Harry drunkenly humiliated himself by confessing his love unprompted.
He hopes that Louis will reach out, even if it is to tell him gently that the song was about someone else. Maybe he’ll suggest they catch up sometime, even if it’s an insincere offer that will never actually be followed up on.
By the end of the day, Harry is desperate for a text, even a message that reads “Sorry, it’s not about you,” just so long as he gets some sort of response from Louis.
A small part of him holds out hope that the song is about him, and that the message he’ll receive from Louis will be something better, maybe about how Louis misses him too and has loved him since summer six years ago.
But that message doesn’t come either.
The next morning, Harry still has no new texts or calls. His phone goes off once as he’s about to leave work and he nearly drops everything else he is holding in his haste to check it, but it’s just a text from Gemma.
After the third day, Harry resigns himself to his fate. Louis isn’t going to reply. Harry bared his heart and won’t even get a response.
It’s fine, Harry tells himself. It’s been six years, anyways. Louis is probably busy, probably listened to his message and didn’t even care.
Harry swallows the lump in his throat at the thought.
It’s a week later, when the response that Harry has been waiting for finally comes.
Harry knew that Louis had a flair for the dramatic, but he never expected this. His phone has still been silent, no new texts or calls from Louis, but his mailbox brings good news.
Amongst the usual coupons and bills he receives, there is a small envelope, addressed sloppily by hand to a Mr. Harold Styles. The return address says Louis’ name.
Harry sucks in a sharp breath as he sees it, letting the rest of his mail fall to the ground in front of the apartment mailbox as he tears open the envelope.
Inside, there are two pieces of paper. One is a handwritten note and the other is a thicker piece of paper – a plane ticket to Amsterdam.
Harry holds out the ticket with a trembling hand, not believing that this is real. It looks real, though, and Louis isn’t the type of person to pull a prank on him as grand as this.
He shifts the plane ticket to his other hand to focus on what Louis has written to him.
I miss you, too. So much that I wrote a song about you, as you already know. I hope you liked it.
I know we can’t relive that summer or even recreate it, but I’d love to experience it again with you, somehow. I know that we talked about visiting each other and never did, and now it’s been years, but... meet me at our favorite city?
Harry wants to shout with joy, wants to write his answer, “Yes, of course I’ll meet you,” across the sky for Louis to see from afar. He settles for a whispered, victorious, “Yes!” to himself, before collecting the rest of his mail off the ground and heading upstairs to start packing.
This time, he spends the flight to Europe doing some last minute work – his boss wasn’t exactly thrilled to hear that he was spontaneously embarking on a vacation abroad – and when they land, Harry is exhausted.
As he walks towards the baggage claim, he sees a man in a suit with dark hair and sunglasses, holding a piece of white paper with the words “Harold Styles” written on it. Harry can’t help but smile at the sight. He had always wanted this, after all.
“Hi.” Harry walks up to the man with the sign, who removes his sunglasses to reveal kind, brown eyes. “I’m Harry.”
“Harry,” The man smiles, extending a hand to shake, “I’m Zayn. It’s nice to meet you.”
They walk towards baggage claim together, and while they wait for Harry’s luggage to make its way around the carousel, Zayn explains a little more about himself.
“I’m part of Louis’ security team. Louis wanted to come greet you himself, of course,” Zayn rolls his eyes, and Harry laughs. He can picture Louis putting up a fight about it, which is what he’s sure Zayn is thinking of now. “But he’d be mobbed with fans if he came here. And then you’d both be in the spotlight, and well – I’m sure that’s not what either of you wants just yet.”
“Yeah, agreed.” Harry shakes his head, liking Zayn already. “Thanks for coming to get me instead.”
“Oh, of course,” Zayn says, giving Harry a conspiratorial smile, “I mean, I’m getting paid to do it, you know. So I don’t mind.”
Harry laughs, “Fair enough.”
“Nah,” Zayn says, smiling, “Even if I wasn’t, I’d be happy to. After all, I’ve got to meet you, haven’t I? Louis has been talking about you nonstop lately it seems.”
“Really?” Harry says, feeling surprised. He had thought that surely there would be other people in Louis’ life far more interesting than him, especially since Louis is famous now. “Hey, uh… is he single?” Harry can’t help but ask. “I see a bunch of stuff in the tabloids about him, you know, but never much serious so it’s hard to tell.”
Zayn raises an eyebrow at him before letting out a laugh, one that he seemed to be trying to hold in. “Don’t believe what you read in those trashy magazines,” Zayn advises.
He hasn’t answered the question, but Harry sees his bag approaching them just then, so he lets their conversation fall short as he steps forward to grab it. Zayn insists on helping him carry it back to their car, a fancy looking black van.
“So listen,” Zayn says after they’ve been driving for about fifteen minutes, “I wasn’t able to talk him out of this. He wanted to meet with you in public rather than back at his hotel. So to keep both of you out of the press, he’s going to be in a disguise.”
“Sure,” Harry says, completely understanding. “What do I look for?”
“You’ll find him.” Zayn replies unhelpfully. “Don’t worry about it.”
“How am I goi-” Harry starts to ask, but Zayn cuts him off.
“Here’s your stop.” He says, pulling the car over to the side of the busy road as best as he can. He doesn’t seem inclined to say anything else, so Harry opens the door and slides out.
“Thanks, Zayn,” Harry says. “See you later?”
Zayn gives him a wave, and Harry shuts the car door behind him before turning his attention to the city before him.
He hasn’t been back to Amsterdam since the last time he was here with Louis. It’s changed, but seems largely the same. There are still tons of people, still more bikes than anything else, and in front of him is the canal, looking the same as it did all those years ago.
The Lovebirds Canal Tour is still in operation, though the dock looks recently refurbished. Harry smiles to himself at the memory of their canal tour, reminiscing. And there, a short distance away from the entrance to the Lovebirds Canal Tour, is where he and Louis had shared their first kiss.
Harry wanders over there fondly, standing at the railing and looking out over the canal. The sun is bright overhead, but otherwise the spot feels the same. Harry is immensely fond of it, his mind filling with memories of what it was like, back when he and Louis were young and foolish and falling in love. He digs through his bag for his camera, pulling it out to snap a couple of pictures of the spot and of the canal.
After getting a few good shots, Harry hums in satisfaction to himself. He goes to put his camera’s lens cap back on, but accidentally drops it. He reaches down to pick it up at the same moment that someone else does, and they bump their heads.
“Oops,” Harry says, rubbing his head as he stands back up.
“Hi,” comes a familiar voice, accompanied by a small hand extending Harry’s lens cap to him.
Louis is standing across from him, wearing a black sweatshirt with the hood pulled up and large sunglasses to disguise himself. It’s not much of a disguise - Harry can see the golden tan of his skin and the soft curve of his lips, and he knows he would recognize him anywhere.
“Louis,” Harry breathes, somewhat unnecessarily.
“Well that’s funny, innit?” Louis says, a smile playing at his lips. “Pretty sure that was the first thing you said when we first met back in Maastricht: ‘Oops’.”
“And then you said ‘hi’.” Harry says, and it’s hard to not read into that, to stop himself from thinking that it’s surely a sign that they are meant to be. “What a coincidence.”
There’s a moment where no one says anything. Harry is acutely aware of his heart hammering rapidly in his chest, and words on the tip of his tongue that he can’t help but think are better left unsaid.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Louis says, after a while.
It takes Harry a minute to remember what Louis is responding to. When he does, he nearly chokes, trying to come up with some response that isn’t Because we’re meant to be?
“Maybe not,” Harry says eventually, hoping it sounds casual enough.
There’s a beat of quiet before Louis asks, “So you like the song?”
“Love it,” Harry assures him, biting back a smile. “I’ve been listening to it nonstop ever since I first heard it.”
“Yeah?” Louis says, as if he doesn’t believe him. As if somehow it was possible that Harry wouldn’t have liked the song.
“Yes, of course.” Harry says earnestly, “I’m so touched that you wrote it about me.”
Louis shrugs. “I did an interview here a while ago, and that was the first time I’d been back since I was here with you. I really couldn’t stop thinking about you, Harry.” Louis reaches over to where Harry’s hand is resting on the railing overlooking the canal, tentatively placing his hand over Harry’s. “I mentioned to the interviewer that it’s one of my favorite cities, but when she asked me what I liked about it, I couldn’t think of a single thing that wasn’t directly related to you.”
“Well,” Harry says, swallowing hard. It’s harder to read Louis’ expression without being able to see his eyes. Harry doesn’t know if he’d be able to read Louis anymore, anyways, now that they have so many years between them, but he wishes he could try. He can’t tell what Louis wants, and that’s the problem.
Maybe Louis intended for this to be a casual catching up between friends. His letter didn’t exactly imply anything romantic. Would Louis buy a plane ticket for just a friend? Harry doesn’t know the answer. He certainly wouldn’t have six years ago, but now that he has become a celebrity and probably has more money right now than Harry will see in his entire life, it seems possible.
“Well?” Louis says, eyebrows raising above his sunglasses, and Harry remembers that he was mid-sentence.
“You’ll make new memories here, I’m sure,” Harry says, pressing his lips together in a smile and ducking his head down. “It’s still a great city.”
“I don’t want new .” Louis says, his mouth turning downwards. “I wish we could go back in time. Did you know they took down the ‘I Amsterdam’ letters?”
“Really?” Harry asks, genuinely shocked. The letters were such a famous tourist attraction; Harry had thought that surely they would be there forever.
“Hey, Lou?” Harry asks, the nickname slipping off his tongue without him realizing. “Will you take off your sunglasses?”
“I want to see your eyes.”
“But then…” Louis says slowly, “When I kiss you, everyone will know that it’s me.”
Harry blinks, staring at the other man as he replays the words in his head. “When you…what?”
“When I kiss you,” Louis replies. He says it easily, like it’s simple and uncomplicated, as if there aren’t years of distance and change between them.
“You want to kiss me?” Harry stammers, dumbfounded.
Louis laughs, then obligingly pushes his sunglasses further down his nose so that his eyes are visible as he peers out over them at Harry. His eyes are the same light blue, twinkling with amusement. “I want more than that, Harold,” Louis tells him, feigning seriousness, and Harry feels his heart swoop with joy, “But yes, I’d like to start with a kiss, if that’s alright with you.”
“Always,” Harry breathes, smiling wide as he echoes his reply at this exact spot six years ago.
Louis leans forward, and Harry wraps his arms around him eagerly, greedily, cradling him close in the way that he had thought he’d never be able to again. Kissing Louis is like a breath of fresh air, as if the world around them and their worries all fade away for the moment. It’s familiar yet completely new, Louis’ lips warm, soft, and knowing against his own.
“Did you know,” Louis whispers, just loud enough for the words to cross the fraction of space between them, “That every time I said I missed you, what I meant was that I love you?”
Harry feels a loopy grin spread on his face of its own accord, his heart doing backflips inside his ribcage. “Me too,” he says. “Me too, Lou. I love you, too.”
They go on the Lovebirds Canal Tour for old time’s sake, reminiscing together as they sit again at the back of the boat.
“This time we actually are lovebirds, huh?” Harry jokes, squeezing Louis’ hand.
“Well,” Louis says, pressing a fleeting kiss to his cheek, “I think last time we were too. We just didn’t know it.”
When they return to Louis’ hotel, which is infinitely nicer than the hostel they stayed in last time, Zayn has already brought up Harry’s suitcase for him. Louis pushes Harry back onto the plush bed, promising that he has told Zayn not to bother them until he hears from them - and even then, to only interrupt them long enough to deliver fries - as he strips off their clothes. They make love, and it’s even better than Harry remembers – probably because it actually is better, now that they’re both a bit older and more experienced.
Laying in bed together afterwards, cuddled close, Harry thinks it’s the happiest he can remember being.
It turns out Louis hadn’t pushed his sunglasses back up before kissing Harry, and the next morning pictures are circulating across the media.
“And here’s our welcome back to the real world,” Louis says good-naturedly, as he shows Harry one of the articles on his phone.
It seems like cause to panic, or at least to worry a little, but Louis seems completely unbothered. He takes it in stride, whispering loudly, “Worth it,” to Harry while he’s on the phone with his agent.
As Louis talks to his agent, Harry calls his boss at work, negotiating to be able to work mostly ‘from home’, so that he can be with Louis while he is touring or traveling for interviews. His boss agrees.
Niall and Liam both text them later that day, messages of surprised congrats and cheers that they’re back together, and the four of them make tentative plans for a reunion sometime soon back in California.
Somehow, it feels like everything is working out.
When Harry voices this to Louis, the other man smiles. “It’s because we’ll make it work,” Louis tells him.
And they do.