Actions

Work Header

Have Faith In Me

Chapter Text

 


* * *

AUGUST 

“I don’t need a babysitter,” Harry said, feeling like a track on replay.

He’d been saying the same thing to his mum for two months before she finally decided on a new assistant.

And he was happy for her now that she had. Her search seemed increasingly hopeless with each new candidate proving to be a greater nightmare than the one before. He'd sat in one day on interviews, reclined in one of the armchairs in his mum’s office, and tried to focus on the book in his hands but he couldn’t help a giggle whenever an interviewee displayed a blatant lack of fashion know-how. He might as well have been watching X Factor auditions with a gag reel of the most talentless of young hopefuls.

Seeing an end to his mum’s misery was good. Having a new “babysitter” was not. And it was inevitable that every time his mum hired a new assistant, Harry also got a new babysitter.

It was the nature of the position. Assistants did whatever their employers asked them to do. Keep track of the schedule. Fetch a cup of tea. Water the plants. Babysit the wayward son. Harry’s mum’s assistant did it all.

And technically, she needed any help she could get in any way she could get it. Because Harry’s mum was the Anne Styles, millionaire-owner of Styles Incorporated, one of the world's most luxurious fashion lines. Styles was an ever-increasing empire, with offices in London, Paris and New York and stores in almost every major city around the world. Anne had her hands full. She was starting another line for children and babies and opening a new store in Sydney.

Harry understood the dire need for a new assistant after Joan, the previous girl, fucked off back to Ireland as soon as her boyfriend proposed. But Harry was seventeen now. He was less than a year away from "officially" being an adult and starting university. The thought of having a caregiver just seemed crass. Frankly, it was insulting.

“Harry,” his mum sighed, checking her watch. “I can’t do this with you right now, love. He’s almost here.”

“Could we just agree now that he won’t be my babysitter?” Harry asked determinedly. His cereal was getting soggy and he should have been dressing for Caroline’s party. But this was a priority situation.

“He won’t babysit you,” his mum said. “He might look after you sometimes, yes. But he isn’t a babysitter.”

Harry looked at his sister, Gemma. “Is that not the exact definition of a babysitter?”

Gemma smiled but otherwise offered no agreement in an attempt at diplomacy.

“Harry,” his mum said. “I understand you’re going through this phase where you want to be treated like an adult, I do. First, the job and now the complaints about my assistants…”

Anne said the word “job” the way one might say “scrotum” or “pustule.” The idea of Harry working at a bakery was as offensive to her as fake Louboutins and genuine snakeskin. But she was right: Harry was all about being treated like an adult, although it wasn't a phase.

He didn’t want to wake up one day and realise that everything he possessed had been given to him. He didn’t want to be one of those rich kids riding on the waves of mummy’s money. He was grateful for every aspect of his life, grateful for his mum and her success. But in the future, he wanted to be proud of something he’d done too.

Maybe working at a bakery wasn’t the key to being successful. Maybe he wasn’t anywhere near the key. But Harry liked baking. He liked it a lot and even if he wouldn’t be the next Nigella Lawson, he figured that following his passion was a good place to start.

“I’m not complaining about your assistant,” he said, ignoring the comment about his job. “I’m complaining about being treated like a kid.”

“I’m not treating you like a kid,” Anne said. “I’m looking out for you. That’s all. Please, Harry, go check on the house and make sure everything is ready for him? He’ll be here any minute. Please. We’ll talk more about this later if you want.”

They probably wouldn't talk about it later. Harry sighed, standing and dumping his soggy cereal. “Want to come?” he asked his sister.

“Can’t,” Gemma said. “I’m meeting Aaron for lunch.”

Harry rolled his eyes. Aaron was Gemma's musician/model boyfriend who Harry wasn't convinced deserved her.

“I wanted both of you to be here when he arrived,” Anne said, pausing on the number she'd dialled into her mobile.

“I’ll meet your new assistant tomorrow, I promise,” Gemma said, kissing their mum on the cheek as she left.

Harry and his mum looked at each other and she smiled sweetly, waving her towards the glass door. He sighed again, more loudly, and left her to make a call. He pulled the glass door leading to the garden open and stepped out onto the patio. From there, he could just see the guesthouse, slightly hidden behind a collection of trees. Before he could pull the glass door closed, Bacon, Gemma's brown pug, scurried outside, walking circles around Harry’s ankles. He lifted the dog into his arms and started down the stone steps, past their small swimming pool and stopped at the end of the garden where a wooden fence separated the main grounds from the guesthouse. He pushed through the wooden door and headed up the steps to the back door of the guesthouse and punched in a security code.

Harry put Bacon down and surveyed the space.

When he and Gemma were younger, his mum hired an actual nanny, in addition to her own personal assistant. There was just too much that small children needed for an assistant to cover it all while seeing to administrative duties. This house had belonged to all of their nannies at some point. Eventually, when there was no longer a need for a nanny and an assistant, it belonged solely to Anne’s assistant. It wasn’t required of assistants to live on the grounds, although Anne preferred having someone available 24/7. It worked out that most of the people she hired were looking for a place to live, and who wouldn’t want a posh guest house in Anne Styles’ backyard to call home?

Harry walked into the kitchen and made sure it was spotless. He opened some windows, trying to get fresh air circulating. The carpets had recently been steamed but Joan had been a smoker. Despite explicit instructions not to smoke in the house, she still lit up often enough that the odour stuck to whatever it could. Harry made a mental note to mention it to his mum. For now, he lit a Diptyque candle and left it on the countertop.

The bedroom was clean. He fluffed and righted the pillows and opened the windows there too. He headed back into the front room and turned the television on, just to check that the cable was working. An episode of Sherlock was airing and he got a little distracted, watching the show so intently that he didn’t hear Bacon yapping his head off until the alarm system started blaring.

“Fuck,” someone said down the hall, followed by a string of expletives. 'Shit, shit, shit', and then a 'fucking hell'.

Harry shut the telly off and hurried to the alarm keypad mounted on the wall. There was a man standing by the door, surrounded by two suitcases, his head bowed as he sorted through his pockets, pulling the lining out in a desperate search for God-knows-what. Harry glanced at him, punching in the code and shutting the alarm off. The man looked up in surprise and Harry’s stomach rolled. It was cliché the way it did that. He thought this entire moment was cliché.

There he was, in front of this person who he’d never met, and there were butterflies swarming his stomach. Butterflies and beetles and fucking wasps.

Louis, if Harry remembered his name correctly, was a vision, to put it simply. He was that guy you had dreams about and spent your entire childhood and adulthood looking for. He was the guy in all the teen movies, Edward Cullen and company. He was the lead singer of your favourite band. But he was also the boy-next-door and the grocery store clerk. He was both out-of-this-world and down-to-earth with his bright (too bright) blue eyes and his chocolate-coloured hair beneath a navy blue snapback. He wore a grey T-shirt and black joggers and wasn’t dressed the way Anne would have liked but looked amazing all the same.

Louis smiled. He was beautiful. Harry’s stomach was rolling. And it was cliché but no other reaction made sense.

“Hi,” Harry said quietly. It was odd. He was normally so good with strangers, could have a group of people at a party wrapped around his finger before anyone was even drunk. He was a pretty confident kid, always had been, but maybe not so much right now. “Sorry,” he said. “I thought my mum would have left you the code.”

“You’re Harold, then?” Louis said, fixing the lining of his pockets, before stepping forward to shake his hand. He was aiming for professional, obviously, which Harry thought was endearing.

“Harry,” Harry corrected, leaning forward and shaking Louis’ hand. “And I’m not just saying for you to call me that because Harold is embarrassing. I’m legally Harry.”

“Oh,” Louis said, smiling. “Right. Harry it is then. Also, your mum did give me the code. I just seemed to have misplaced it.”

Harry didn’t know if Louis should be saying that to him. It wasn’t exactly reassuring for the new assistant to be misplacing anything as important as a security code. But Harry didn’t mention it. Luckily, Louis seemed to figure it out on his own.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have said that…” he murmured. “I have it somewhere. Just not in my pockets like I thought.”

Harry nodded. “Don’t worry. It’s not like I’d tell my mum.”

Louis looked relieved. He glanced down at his ankles, eyebrows quirked. “What’s this,” he said, bending over and picking Bacon up. “Didn’t know the place came with a dog…”

“That’s Bacon,” Harry said unhelpfully.

Louis scratched the space below Bacon’s ears. “Is he mine?”

“No,” Harry said. “Sorry. Technically, he’s my sister’s.”

“Where’s she?” Louis asked, putting Bacon down.

“Out with her boyfriend,” Harry said, which reminded him: He was supposed to be heading out for Caroline’s party. “Is there anything you need for me to do?”

Louis thought about it for a moment. “If you could maybe write the security code down? In case I did leave it on the train after all.” He said the last bit with a laugh but Harry could tell he was genuinely afraid of that being the case.

“Sure. Do you have a pen and paper?” Harry asked.

Louis patted his pockets again, though he should have known they were empty. “Maybe you could text it to me?”

Harry didn’t know how safe that was but he shrugged and pulled his mobile out of his pocket and handed it to Louis to enter his number. Louis tapped it in quickly and handed it back. “Done,” Harry said when he’d sent the message. Somewhere behind them, a notification tone sounded in one of Louis’ bags.

“Sorry I can’t help you move in or something. My friend’s having a bridal shower,” Harry said.

“Your friend is getting married?” Louis questioned. “How old is she?”

“32,” Harry said.

Louis raised both of his brows in surprise. “You’re 17, aren’t you? Do you normally hang out with people twice your age?”

Harry pursed his lips, feeling a bit scrutinized and not really knowing how to answer the question. He shrugged. “I guess I just have a lot of older friends.”

“Sorry,” Louis said with a wince. “That's cool, honestly. I didn’t mean to offend you or anything. You seem like someone people would want to have around. Regardless of their age..." He trailed off.

“Well, thank you,” Harry said. He wanted to ask Louis how old he was too. He thought vaguely that his mum had mentioned it. He knew for sure that Louis was much older than him. He had stubble above his lip and lining his jaw, as well as defined muscles and a confident, easy way of speaking that Harry rarely experienced with boys his age. He didn’t ask him though. He nodded towards the luggage. “I’ll leave you to it then.”

“Sure, see you around,” Louis said as he turned back to retrieve his things. Harry watched him momentarily as he bent over and grabbed the strap of his duffle, the lean muscles of his back printed through the thin material of his shirt. Harry clucked his tongue a few times to call Bacon and then reluctantly turned away, slipping through the back door.

 

* * * 

 

Harry didn’t think he was gay. He'd always been attracted to men, but he found women attractive too. In primary school, he 'dated' a girl named Jennifer who everyone agreed was the cutest in class and had breath that smelled like scones. He still didn't know how she did that. A year later, there was another girl named Allison. And then in year 5, he kissed a boy for the first time, named Peter, and for a while considered him to be his boyfriend until Peter turned out to be not as fond of the title.

In year 7, after dating another girl, he started dating Ritchie who was gay and proud even at such a young age and no one gave him shit for it because he knew karate and his father owned a petrol station chain that Ritchie threatened would refuse to fill their parents’ tanks if they ever talked bad about him or Harry. Despite that, no one really knew Harry liked boys too, or that he and Ritchie kissed all the time in the boy's toilets.

It wasn’t until Year 9 when Harry was 14, that he actually, officially dated a boy named Andy. It was so official that Harry told Gemma about him and even confirmed their relationship on Facebook. For a while, Harry believed one day he would marry Andy. He believed Andy was the love of his 14-year-old life. But then Andy’s dad found out about them and the family conveniently transferred military stations later that month. Andy deleted his Facebook and Harry never saw him again.

Harry cried for the remainder of Year 9, it seemed. He cried until he met a girl named Tilly and started making out with her by the creek behind his house. Then they stopped just making out and she started kissing in places below his waist.

It wasn’t like Harry was sexually advanced, though he was no virgin. He’d only had full sex twice and not with boys. But he'd always hoped one day he’d meet a nice lad and it would feel right and perfect when it finally happened. He wasn’t confused about what he wanted. (He didn't think.) He knew what he liked and how he liked it.

At Caroline’s bridal shower, there were mostly women everywhere — beautiful women, of course, because Caroline was particular about who she kept in her company. Harry and Grimmy and about two other lads were the only men there. It wasn’t until later when they were eating cake and a pretty brunette seated next to him started chatting Harry up, that he realized. He wasn’t really finding any of the women attractive.

He thought he could definitely go home with a pretty girl if she wanted and he could probably get it up. But he didn’t want to. He just wasn’t interested.

“Do you want to go soon?” Harry turned and asked Nick loudly over the party din.

Nick turned away from the boy he was speaking to, a twink who was entirely Nick’s type. Harry felt sorry now for interrupting. “So soon…? What’s the matter?”

“I have work in the morning. I should probably get a good night’s sleep,” Harry said lamely. He could tell by the way Nick’s lip twitched that he didn’t believe him.

“Since when do you ever get a good night’s sleep?” Nick wondered.

Harry didn’t answer right away and Nick’s brows creased with concern.

“Yeah, we’ll leave. Let’s say bye to Caroline?” Nick said, taking the dinner napkin from his lap and placing it on the table. The boy next to Nick frowned and glared up at Harry, causing a pang of guilt in his chest. Just because Harry didn’t want any tonight, didn’t mean he should infringe on anyone else’s chances.

“You should stay,” Harry said to Nick before he could stand. Harry added quickly, “I promise I’m fine. I’ll explain later.”

Nick opened his mouth to protest anyway. Harry leaned forward and said to him quietly, “If you leave now, that boy beside you is going to hunt me down and murder me in my sleep. Seriously. Stay to save a life.”

Nick laughed out loud and Harry didn’t miss the way the boy’s frown deepened. “Are you sure?” Nick asked.

Harry nodded. “Absolutely.” Before Nick could say anything else, Harry stood and left to say his goodbyes to Caroline.

 

* * *

 

Harry got a ride home with a woman he knew from Caroline’s previous parties. She handed her his number as he got out of the car. “Call me if you ever need a ride?” she’d said with a wink. Harry had to give her credit for her clever line and an honestly noble attempt but he slipped the piece of paper in his pocket and hoped he remembered to take it out before washing his trousers.

He headed up to the front gate of his home as the women sped off. He glanced over at the private entrance to the guesthouse and then doubled back to peek through the fence. He wasn’t being a creep. He was just curious. It was a Saturday night and he wanted to know if Louis was the kind of guy who spent those watching TV at home.

Sure enough, there was a light on towards the front of the house where the lounge was and Harry imagined Louis curled up on the couch watching a movie by himself.

He backed away from the fence, reluctant for reasons he didn't know right then.

When he opened the front door, he heard cheerful voices from down the hall. He pulled off his shoes and headed toward them, rounding the corner into the kitchen.

His mum was trembling with laughter, one hand pressed into the marble counter to keep herself upright and the other clutching a glass of red wine. Robin was there too, a wide smile on his face as he listened to the third person in the room, gesturing animatedly with his hands while recounting some story. His back was to Harry but Harry knew it was Louis. If his voice hadn’t given him away, his messy brown hair would.

“Harry,” his mum said happily when she noticed him standing there. “You’re home so early.”

It was only 8 o’clock and he normally wouldn't return home until 10 or 11. “Yeah, I have work in the morning,” he said. Anne made the same face she always did at the mention of his job but said nothing. They had a guest after all and she was nothing if not decorous.

Harry glanced at Louis, who was watching him, and smiled.

“You have a job?” Louis asked curiously.

Harry nodded, sliding his hands into his back pockets. “At a bakery.”

Anne ran her hands through Harry’s hair, which normally he loved. Nothing beat a good head rub. But at the moment, it made him seem smaller than he wanted to seem in front of Louis.  

“Close by?” Louis wondered.

“It’s not far. I walk or bike every morning,” Harry said and Louis seemed impressed, his bottom lip poking out as he nodded.

Robin smiled at Harry. “It’s a nice little place. Sometimes I grab a scone before work.” Harry returned Robin’s smile gratefully.

“I’ll have to stop by sometime,” Louis said earnestly and Harry couldn’t help it, he blushed a little. Or he felt like he was blushing. He wasn’t sure. He looked away from Louis and the smile he wore.

“Louis, you could give Harry a lift over there in the mornings. On your way to the office?” Anne said. Louis opened his mouth to agree most likely but Harry cut him off.

“No,” Harry said. This was exactly what he’d been worried about, a new assistant for his mum to force into cocooning him. “I like walking.” His mum looked like she wanted to argue. “It’s good for the exercise,” he added. She couldn’t argue with that. Being a fashion guru meant she was all about staying healthy and keeping in shape and set her standards just as high for Harry and Gemma. They even did yoga together occasionally.

She ruffled his hair again and drew him in to kiss his forehead. “As you wish.”

Harry glanced at Louis again, who was taking a sip of his wine while eyeing them both. “Well,” Harry said. “I’m knackered. See you all in the morning.”

“Goodnight, darling,” Anne said.

“Goodnight,” Robin added.

Harry wiggled his fingers at them both.

“Goodnight, Harry,” he heard Louis say, though he was deliberately trying not to look at him. His eyes were drawn to him anyway and before he left the room, he met his gaze and said, “Goodnight.”

Chapter Text

Harry woke while the sky was still a deep blue and the birds were just beginning to chirp near his window. He got dressed quickly in black jeans and a simple white T-shirt, and scrutinized himself in the mirror as he brushed his teeth. His hair was getting much longer than usual and he’d started needing headbands to keep it off his face. But he liked the way he looked, despite his mum’s complaints that it was “untidy.”

By the time, he was out of the house, the sun had risen just enough to cast everything in a reddish-yellow glow. Despite coming home early and crawling into bed before midnight, a part of him was ready to go back inside and sleep another five hours.

But there was also something lovely about waking up this early, something that made the day seem abundant with possibilities.

When he passed the guesthouse, without really thinking about it, he once again peeked in through the fence. Louis should have been up already. A good assistant was always up and ready before their employer, and Anne had been seated in the kitchen, sipping an espresso when Harry left.

But there was no movement near the guesthouse. For the first time, Harry noticed a black Volkswagon parked in the drive. The windows of the house were still open which gave Harry an odd sense of pride, like Louis enjoyed them the same way Harry did. He was just turning away from the fence when he heard someone say, “Hey.”

He jolted and then clapped a hand to his chest to calm his racing heart. Louis was standing about four feet away from him, wearing track pants and a red sweatshirt. He was breathing a little heavily with sweat making his hair stick to his forehead and neck.

“Hi, good morning,” Harry said quickly. “I was just checking to see if the sprinklers were working. For the grass.”

Louis nodded. “What’s the verdict?”

“Well, they haven’t come on yet…” Harry trailed off, knowing they wouldn't for another hour. “I’ll check again after work and let you know.”

“Thank you." Louis smiled knowingly. He was insufferable.

Harry didn’t like how awkward he felt. He crossed his right arm over his stomach to clutch his left, then crossed both over each other. “I should probably go.”

“Probably,” Louis said, still smiling. He almost looked amused. “Oh, listen. I hope you don’t mind but your mum gave me your schedule. Or like a brief idea of what you normally do during the day. And contact numbers for your friends.”

Harry cringed. Of course she had. But being used to it didn’t make it any less embarrassing. The most unusual part of all this was Louis seeking Harry’s approval. Assistants didn’t do that. Assistants didn’t really care. It was almost as if all Harry had to do was say the word and Louis would get rid of it. He wouldn't do that though, not when such a move could get Louis fired.

But still, he was curious.

“What would you do if I did?” he asked. “Mind, that is.”

“Well, you’re 17. I can understand why someone having that information might seem invasive," Louis said. "I’m Anne’s assistant, not yours. I don’t think I need to know your schedule or have contact numbers for your friends. Whatever information you do want to share with me, feel free to do that. Otherwise, if you need me for anything,” Louis tilted his head toward the house, “you know where to find me.”

Harry just about came in his trousers.

Louis punctuated his little speech with a smirk. Harry stared at him, his lips parted, until his mouth started to go dry and he had to swallow.

This was like that time his family spent a month in Sweden without a translator and even though he'd devoted plenty of time to learning the language, Harry could only blink helplessly whenever the locals were introduced to them.

He’d developed ways of dealing with his mum’s previous assistants, ways to avoid and outsmart them, so he knew how to deal with people intent on treating him like a child. But from the minute he set eyes on Louis, he knew he would be different. So far, Louis hadn't proved him wrong.

Coupled with the fact that he was absurdly attractive, Louis made Harry feel too much in that moment, way more than Harry could process or sort into words. All he could manage was “thank you.”

“For what?” Louis said.

Harry shrugged. “For not treating me like a kid?”

“You’re not a kid."

Harry stared at him a second, speechless.

“Um--" He wanted to laugh, gleefully, but he'd look like a lunatic. “Thank you anyway. I do think you should keep whatever she gave you. She might ask you to 'look after me' sometimes." He does air quotes. "Pick me up from school. Drive me places. Order food for me. It sounds ridiculous, yeah, and I can manage all that myself, really. But she’ll ask you anyway. Best that you’re prepared when she does.”

“And you don’t mind?” Louis asked to be sure.

Harry shook his head, smiling. “Nope.” And oddly enough, he meant it. He started moving past Louis, “I really should go now. I’m going to be late.”

“I could give you a ride," Louis offered. "Just for today,”

“I’ll be fine,” Harry said. “See you later, Lou.” He froze once the nickname had slipped out and glanced at Louis to see if he’d even noticed. Louis was unbothered. Possibly, he was even smiling wider.

“See you later,” Louis said, walking backwards to the guesthouse and then he turned and slipped through the front gate.

 

* * * 

 

“What’s his full name?" Niall asked. "We can look him up on Facebook.”

Harry considered it, stirring his spoon around his cup slowly. “No. I don’t want to be a creep,” he decided. “What if he posts nudes or something?”

“You can’t post nudes on Facebook. We’d have to find his Tumblr for that,” Niall explained, and Harry snickered.

“We can’t do either. It’s wrong,” Harry said. “Especially after the conversation we had this morning.”

“What conversation was that?” Niall asked almost incomprehensibly as he took a huge bite of his sandwich. Harry watched him chew, mildly disgusted.

“He basically offered to get rid of the schedule my mum gave him. He didn’t want anything I wasn’t comfortable with him having,” Harry said, thinking back to Louis’ assurances, the little smirk he gave, and the tilt of his head when he said, “you know where to find me.”

“Sounds like a real charmer,” Niall said.

Harry didn’t disagree. Louis seemed like the kind of guy who could pull for days. Harry imagined that Louis had a little black book and names upon names of people wanting to spend a night with him. He also suspected that Louis was gay or at least bisexual. Most of the men who worked for Anne were. Regardless, he was sure Louis had no trouble wooing people of any gender.

“He doesn’t even have to be. It’s like his face could do all the charming for him,” Harry said. “I’m not lying when I say he’s the most attractive man I’ve ever seen.”

“Ever?” Niall asked in disbelief.

Harry nodded confidently, “Ever.” It was insane but he believed it to be true, despite the myriad of attractive people he’d met over the years. He’d been to his mum’s fashion shows. He’d seen the models backstage that looked as though they’d been carved out of marble or fine jewels. But Louis… There was something about him or multiple things all coming together to make him, by far, the most attractive man Harry had ever seen. He was sure of it.

Niall wiped his hands on a napkin and pulled his mobile out. “Seriously, what’s his surname?”

“I don’t even know,” Harry said. “Tholmton? Tomlins, maybe?”

Niall started tapping away on his phone.

Harry thought harder. “Might be Tomlinson but that doesn’t sound quite right.”

Niall's thumbs flew over the screen and Harry leaned in, attempting to get a look at what he was doing. He was good at these kinds of things, could find anyone online, even the most obscure people, though his methods might not have been completely legal. Eventually, Niall spoke up. “This him?” he questioned, extending the mobile to Harry. Harry studied the picture, saw the Facebook page labelled “Louis Tomlinson” and then he took the mobile right out of Niall’s hands.

“How’d you do that?” Harry gasped. “This is such a good picture of him.”

Niall looked smug, taking a sip of his lemonade. “He’s definitely a looker. Maybe not the most attractive man I’ve seen…”

"You're not even attracted to men," Harry said, shooting him a glare before looking at the screen again. “Why can’t I see his relationship status?”

“Privacy settings, maybe? Let me see,” Niall took the mobile back and scrolled through the page. “I could hack it later on and let you know what I find.”

“What, no,” Harry said seriously. “Jesus, Niall. Do you want to end up on a terrorist watch list?”

Niall laughed. “Or you could just request to be his friend.”

Harry thought about it for a minute. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea. He still works for my mum. It’s not like we could actually be friends. And he’s like 25.”

“24,” Niall said, still looking down at his phone. “And you’re friends with Nick and Caroline and Lou who are all older than him…”

“It’s different,” Harry insisted.

“Because you fancy him?” Niall wondered.

Harry’s cheeks coloured. “I don’t,” Harry said, crumpling up his sandwich wrapper. “I just met him yesterday.” He stood up. “I have to get back to work.”

“Hey, Haz,” Niall said. “It wouldn’t be a big deal if you did. It’s okay to have a little crush on someone. Especially the most attractive man you've ever seen."

“If I fancied him at all, I’d tell you.”

“Sure,” Niall said. “Off with you now before you’re late twice today.”

Harry smiled and turned to start walking back to the bakery. “Thanks for meeting me for lunch,” he called back and Niall smiled, waving him away.

 

* * *

 

By the time Harry got off of work, he was more than a little exhausted from lifting heavy boxes and moving machinery. But all the activity did wonders for his body. He wasn’t as soft as he’d been a year ago and he thought his biceps were more pronounced.

While that was all great, he never had a chance to do much baking. Sometimes if he was lucky, George or Ivor let him measure the ingredients and get the mixers started. As of late, he’d been putting more of the trays and pans in the oven to bake. But he mostly just swept the floors and washed dishes and moved industrial mixers. The best part of the job was after the shop closed and Ivor let him watch while he experimented with new recipes.

Harry would ask questions like “when do you use allspice?” and “what’s the difference between baking soda and baking powder?” He still didn’t know anything about the actual craft and so he'd never made a thing on his own, which was likely for the best if they wanted to keep the place from burning down. But he was learning bit by bit and that made everything else worth it.

He hung his red-checkered apron up on a hook and pulled the hairnet off his head and tucked it in the pocket. He ruffled his flattened curls as he stepped outside and breathed air that didn’t smell of bread and sugar.

Sometimes after work he got together with Niall or Nick and he whipped out his phone to send them a text. But there was a message already waiting for him.

'This is Louis. :) Anne wants you to come to the office.'

Harry frowned. Not exactly the afternoon plans he’d had in mind. Trips to the office were normally exhausting, and most often Anne only wanted Harry around to show him off to business partners. His ability to charm the most random people hadn’t gone unnoticed by his mum.

Reluctantly, Harry began to hail a taxi.

'I’ll be there in about three minutes to pick you up.'

A black carriage pulled up in front of Harry right then and he felt stupid waving the driver off as if he hadn’t been flagging him down moments before. Harry ran his hands through his hair again. There was probably flour or something all over his face. He probably smelled like flour and stale oil.

He slid his phone back into his pocket and waited.

It was a good thing he’d seen Louis’ car earlier or he’d have no idea what to look for. He spotted Louis about thirty seconds before he pulled up next to the pavement.

“Hello,” Louis said cheerfully as Harry got into the car and buckled up. “How was work?”

“Not bad.” Harry wasn’t sure if he should elaborate or not. He saw Louis glance at him, his eyebrow raised. So he added, “I watched George make tiramisu today.”

“Sounds delicious. George is your boss?” Louis wondered.

“Well, one of them. He technically owns the store with his boyfriend, Ivor,” Harry said. “And then there’s Roberta. She makes the best doughnuts in the world.”

Louis smiled. “Dunno ‘bout that. There’s actually this bakery I used to go to in Doncaster. Aside from my family, since moving to London, it’s like the one thing I miss most. All because of the doughnuts.”

“If they’re so good, why didn’t you bring a few dozen before moving in with us?” Harry suggested cheekily.

“Well, I would have but I haven’t been home since Christmas,” Louis explained.

Harry’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Where were you before coming to live with us?”

“Living with a friend in London for about a year,” Louis said. “And I did a bit of travelling.”

A bit of travelling? Harry checked that off on the long list of things to swoon over. He felt like the list grew each time Louis opened his mouth, piling good things upon amazing things upon perfect things. And now this... Who could resist a well travelled man?

“So you’ve been without these phenomenal doughnuts for a year?” Harry asked. “How sad.”

Louis’ answering laugh was light and airy. Harry studied his profile as he spoke. “And…it was the only place where I’d tolerate a cup of coffee.”

“I make a really good espresso,” Harry said.

“Yeah?” Louis asked. “Is it the best espresso in the world?”

“No,” Harry said, smirking. “I mean, I only learned how to make it two weeks ago. But I’m really good at it.”

“I don’t doubt that,” Louis said. “Whenever I manage to stop by, I’ll have you fix me a cup. And I’ll have a doughnut too just to see what you’re on about.”

Harry grinned. He stared at Louis some more until he came to a traffic light and glanced at Harry and Harry was forced to look away. He looked out the window for the remainder of the ride.

They pulled into the car park beneath his mum’s office building. Styles was emblazoned at the top of the mostly glass building in large silver letters with plenty of space between them so it looked overly dramatic.

“Do I smell like flour?” Harry asked Louis as they got out of the car. He thought maybe Louis had gotten a whiff of him during the ride. He didn’t expect Louis to step in front of him and lean in and breathe him in. Harry swallowed and the sound was loud in his ears. He wondered if Louis could hear it too. He took note of Louis’ face up close, of his long eyelashes and sharp cheekbones and thin pink lips that were parted as he inhaled. He and Louis were about the same height, maybe with a half an inch difference. But Harry hadn’t stopped growing yet and he imagined someday soon he’d be at least a foot taller.

“You smell like bread. And chocolate,” Louis concluded taking a step back.

Harry sniffed himself too. “Is that weird?”

Louis shook his head and smirked. “Who doesn’t like bread and chocolate?” he wondered and then added, “you smell great.”

The doors of the lift opened just as Harry was beginning to blush. They stepped out onto the white marble floors with large swirling S’s carved in here and there. Off to the left was a wall made entirely of jagged stone and water trickled down from the ceiling to the floor where it caught in a little streamlined by benches. Against the fountain wall was “STYLES” with backlights giving it an angelic glow. There was a large receptionist desk of dark polished wood and slate where a solitary woman sat, speaking into a headpiece.

“Good evening, Mr Styles,” someone said off to Harry’s right and he smiled, nodding his head in their direction.

Someone else repeated the words to his left and again to his right. He acknowledged everyone who greeted him and stopped to shake hands with a few people he hadn’t seen in a while.

“Harry,” an older muscular man dressed in all black said when he spotted him. “Good to see you again.”

“You too, Paul,” Harry said smiling. Paul had been head of security for Harry’s family since Harry was five. In recent years, he mostly just looked out for Anne but Harry still saw him at parties and shows. “This is Louis,” Harry said, stepping aside. He didn’t think it was odd to introduce Louis to Paul but then he saw the cordial smile they gave each other and realized that they’d probably already met.

Louis confirmed this when he said, “Paul helped me out this morning at the vending machine.”

“Oh, how so?” Harry asked curiously.

Paul laughed. “He got his hand stuck trying to rescue a bag of crisps.”

Louis shrugged. “I really wanted those crisps. Would have done anything,” he said matter-of-factly.

Harry smiled widely, his eyes glinting with amusement. “Did you get the crisps?”

Louis nodded, pointing two fingers at Paul, “thanks to him.”

Paul shook his head slowly at Louis but he hadn’t stopped smiling. He patted Harry on the shoulder. “Look out for this one,” he said.

Harry didn’t bother to tell Paul that technically Louis was supposed to be looking out for him and Paul had walked away from him before he could. Despite their age difference, Harry already felt a bit like he and Louis were equals, like Harry looking out for Louis made as much sense as Louis looking out for Harry.

Harry stepped up to the receptionist desk and smiled at the woman there. “Hello, Jean.”

“Good evening, Harry,” she said smiling back.

“Could you let my mum know I’m on my way up?”

Jean nodded, “will do.” Before Harry turned away, he noticed the way her eyes darted to Louis and stayed on him for a moment longer than necessary. She even gave Louis his own smile with a suggestion of something. As they got into the larger, fancier glass lift, Harry stole a glance at Louis to see if he had noticed and maybe to catch a smug grin on Louis’ lips.

Louis looked unfazed.

They rode the lift all the way to the top floor. There was another, smaller receptionist desk there and a man wearing a burgundy button-up and tapping away at an iMac in front of him. His name was Cole.

“Harry,” he said happily, stilling his hands on the keyboard. “Glad you could make it. Anne’s waiting for you with some people from Berlin.”

Harry didn’t sigh out loud. His mum had taught him better. But inside? He felt like his exhaustion just increased 100% percent. As predicted, he'd only be called in for a showcase in front of his mum's foreign associates.

“Great, thanks,” Harry said politely. Again as he started to walk away, he saw the way Cole looked at Louis. And again, Louis seemed to either not notice or not care. Harry made a mental note: Obviously, he wasn’t the only one who had to pause and take Louis in slowly. Maybe he wasn’t the only one who got the butterflies and beetles and wasps.

But it was odd the way Louis lacked any reaction to the way people behaved around him. Maybe he was just used to it.

In her bright massive office, Anne was seated in one of the creamy white leather armchairs off to the side. In the chair just beside her, there was a stocky, balding gentleman wearing an outfit that looked like it'd been constructed via window drapes. He wore black glasses and a thin smile, legs crossed and hands positioned on his knee. Beside him was a redheaded woman wearing a similar curtain-inspired ensemble with sunglasses tucked on top of her head.

“There you are,” Anne said cheerfully as Harry made his way over to them. Already he had worked his most charming smile onto his face, leaning forward and pressing a kiss to his mother’s cheek. “Harry, this is Elmar and Wilma Mencken.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Harry said as he reached out to shake Elmar’s hand and kiss Wilma’s.

“Elmar and Wilma are showcasing their new line at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Berlin this coming January,” Anne said as Harry took a seat. Louis drifted off to the side of the room, tapping something into his iPad.

“Great show,” Harry said, recalling the time he’d attended Berlin Fashion Week with his mum and Gemma. “The most talented designers are emerging from Berlin. They never disappoint.”

Elmar and Wilma seemed pleased, flashing open-mouthed smiles. “We enjoyed it too,” Wilma said. “Such colour. And the designers are so young and full of ideas.”

“In previous years, we weren’t able to showcase our own clothing,” Elmar added. “But in January we hope to do bigger than ever before. We want to make Berlin an even greater hotspot for fashion. We’re using new colours and fabrics and models. But fresh faces are what we need.”

“I’m sure my mum is connecting you to the best people in London,” Harry said smiling. He still didn’t know where this conversation was going, but he had an inkling and didn’t like it one bit.

“Yes, well, that’s exactly what we’ve been talking about,” Anne said. “I’ve given Elmar and Wilma all of my best contacts. Cara and Barbara for instance. Jeremy and Oliver too.”

Harry wasn’t familiar with the last two names, though, from the way his mum was mentioning them, he felt like he should have been. Cara Delevingne and Barbara Palvin were names he recognized. At one point Niall and Barbara, who met at a show he and Harry had attended in London, exchanged numbers and went on a few dates. They seemed to like each other at the time but Harry wasn’t sure what had become of their connection. As for Cara, Harry had frequented enough of the same parties that he now considered Cara to be a friend, though he had her number and never really used it.

“But Berlin needs a few more fresh faces,” Anne said smiling at Harry. The inkling grew stronger. He shifted in his seat. “Which is why I think you would be a great addition to the show. You have the experience, maybe not as much as some of your peers. But this would be a perfect opportunity for you, and it would benefit Elmar and Wilma greatly.”

Harry stared at his mother. He was sure that all of the thoughts rushing through his head were trickling into hers, all of his displeasure and discomfort with the idea. His smile was fading and he had to think quickly to gain control of his facial muscles again. Frowns weren’t acceptable in front of business partners. Harry had always been taught that you either smiled or wore a poker face. There were no other options. There was no in-between. Happy Face or No Face, his mother had always said.

“We think you have just the look to really catapult this show in the direction that we’re aiming for,” Wilma said. “Quite frankly, you’re stunning.”

Harry smiled. “Thank you.”

The room was quiet momentarily. This was the part where Harry accepted their offer. That was what he should do. He felt instead like he’d eaten peanut butter or caramel. He felt eyes on him, Elmar and Wilma’s, and even Louis’ from wherever he was in the room.

“Perhaps you need time to make your decision?” Elmar asked but his tone was less friendly and accommodating.

Harry jabbed the mental play button in his head. He unfroze and forced himself to be the person he needed to be in this moment.  “No, not at all,” Harry said. “Sorry, I was just thinking about how great it would be to take part in this. Really, I'd be honoured.”

Elmar and Wilma beamed at him. Wilma clapped her hands together, “Fantastic! Excellent!” she said to both Harry and Anne. Anne looked away from Harry, her gaze lingering on his face.

“Yes,” Anne said. “We’re both so excited.”

Harry continued smiling. He felt like he didn’t stop smiling until he was seated in Louis’ car ten minutes later.

“All right?” Louis asked once he'd pulled out of the car park.

Harry blinked at him. “Yeah,” he said absently. Then more firmly, “Yeah, I’m fine.”

Louis drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. He reached over a second later to fiddle with the radio and some swanky sort of music started flowing softly out of the speakers. They were quiet for another minute and then Louis said, “modelling isn’t your thing, is it?”

Harry had been leaning his head against the window. When he heard Louis speak and registered the words, he picked his head up and looked at him. “What?”

“You didn’t seem too happy about Elmo and Willie,” Louis said, shrugging.

For a minute, Harry thought Louis was joking. But he looked completely serious, waiting for Harry’s response. Harry’s cheeks dimpled as his face broke out in a smile and then he was laughing and laughing until he cried. “Oh my god,” he breathed unable to control his laughter.

Louis was smiling at him in amused confusion. Which only made Harry laugh harder. Two traffic lights later, Harry finally got himself together.

“Louis,” he said sympathetically. “Elmo and Willie?”

“What?” Louis said, still confused. Harry’s lips quivered with the threat of another round of laughter.

Elmar and Wilma,” Harry said and finally, Louis seemed to understand, his lips forming an “O.”

“Right,” Louis said, chuckling softly.

“What was their surname?” Harry tested.

Louis thought about it for a moment, still drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “Munchkin?”

Harry snorted. “Oh my god,” he said again. “Mencken. You're not good with names, are you?”

“I manage,” Louis said smiling. He didn’t seem embarrassed at all. He didn’t even seem to care. “It’s good to see you smiling again.”

Harry’s cheeks coloured. He wasn’t used to people making him blush. It was usually the other way around. And as far as he knew, he hadn’t yet made Louis blush.

“So, modelling,” Louis began.

Harry sighed. “Not my thing,” he confirmed.

Louis nodded. “Does Anne know that?”

“Of course,” Harry said. “I’ve been in three shows before when I was much younger and never once have I asked to be in any of them. She volunteers me every time. She must know I’m not interested.”

“Have you tried just saying that?” Louis wondered. He glanced at Harry. “You know, like just say ‘I’m not interested.’”

No, Harry definitely had not attempted that strategy. He didn’t know if he ever could. “I don’t think it would be that simple.”

“But you haven’t tried,” Louis said lightly. “I know it’s not simple. But it can’t hurt to try.”

Harry stared at him for a long time. Eventually, Louis was staring back at him and Harry wondered how he was doing that while driving. Certainly, it wasn’t safe. Then he realized the car had stopped moving. He turned his head and saw that they were parked in front of the house.

“Thanks,” Harry said turning back to Louis and unbuckling his seatbelt, “for the ride and the advice.”

“Sure, anytime. We can talk about it again whenever you want,” he said.

Harry nodded, opening the passenger door.

“Harry,” Louis said when Harry had put one foot out the car. “Just remember that it’s your life. You’re the one who has to live with what you make of it. Don’t be afraid to make it what you want.”

Harry smiled. "I'll keep that in mind. See you, Louis."

Louis returned his smile before Harry shut the car door and made his way up the drive.

Louis’ words stayed with him all the way into the house and remained at the front of his mind as he showered and ate dinner with his family once Anne and Robin had come home. He thought of those words when he peeked out one of his bedroom windows that conveniently faced the backyard and saw the faint glow of light in Louis’ bedroom. They were his last thoughts as he climbed into bed and shut his eyes, and his first thoughts when he woke in the morning.

Chapter Text

Harry was hunched over a bowl of cereal in the kitchen, looking exactly like he’d just crawled out of bed. His hair was all over his face with no headband to hold it back. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, just shorts and the 17Black tattoo on the left side of his chest. Quite frankly, he looked like shit, and nearly choked on his Cocoa Puffs when Louis walked in through the glass door.

Louis was sweaty again, dressed in a similar getup, and breathing heavily from his morning run. His neck was damp and flushed, tendrils of hair sticking to his nape. This time he had a leash in his hand and Bacon panting at his feet.

“Morning,” Louis said smiling.

Harry waved at him with his spoon because his mouth was full. As Louis shut the glass door behind him, Harry swallowed his mouthful of puffs even though he hadn’t chewed most of them properly. They were jagged pebbles going down his throat. He tucked his hair behind his ears and rubbed at his eyes in case they were crusty.

“You took Bacon for a walk?” Harry asked Louis once he had turned back to face him.

“Anne asked me to,” Louis said as he bent down and unclipped the leash. The dog didn’t make it far before he slumped to the marble floor and promptly fell asleep. “Took him for a run instead. You think he’s alright?”

Harry leaned forward to peer at Bacon. “He doesn’t get much physical activity, to be honest. But I think he’ll live,” he said, not too convinced himself. “Thank you for taking him. You didn’t have to…”

“Anne wanted you to get your beauty rest,” Louis said, sitting down on a stool opposite Harry. Harry watched Louis grab the box of cereal and shake some out into his hand. “I love Coco Puffs,” he said as he ate them out of his palm.

The embarrassment about his appearance lessened. Louis didn’t seem to care about the way either of them looked.

Harry started eating his own cereal again, not minding when his limp hair fell over his face.

“So,” Louis said as he reached for the box again. “Have you gotten a chance to talk to your mum about the modelling thing?”

“Uh…no, not yet,” Harry said. “I think I’ll just wait until after Berlin. Maybe go through with this show and then mention it.”

After a second of hesitation, Louis nodded, extracting his phone from his pocket. “Alright. Well, if you’re sure, I’m supposed to get a solid idea of what your schedule’s like today. Anne wants to start working in some fittings for you. That okay?”

“Sure,” Harry said, sitting up a little straighter. Louis scarfed down some more cereal before dusting off his hands and waking his iPhone. He looked at Harry attentively. So Harry began, “I’m off work today. Later, around noon, I might go golf with Niall.”

“Niall?” Louis said, typing something in. “Should I know who he is?”

“My best mate,” Harry said happily. “We grew up together and we go to the same school. You’ll meet him eventually.”

Louis smiled, his eyes flitting up to Harry’s. “I hope so.”

Harry smiled too. It was a nice thought, that Louis might like to meet someone important to him. “After golf, I planned to do a bit of yoga.”

Louis looked up from his phone again, another devastating smirk on his lips.

“What?” Harry said, feeling instantly self-conscious.

Louis shook his head. “It’s nice that you do yoga is all.”

“Do you?” Harry wondered.

“When I can,” Louis said. Harry mentally added that detail to his list of Amazing Louis Things. He’d have to start another one if the current one kept growing the way it did. “When I need to relax, I go to the easy classes just to take the edge off. I’m not advanced or anything.”

Harry considered his next words carefully. He didn’t want to seem like a show-off. But Louis was an impressive person and he was beginning to feel less impressive in comparison. “I teach sometimes,” Harry said. “Like just some beginner or intermediate classes.”

Louis’ mouth dropped open. “Well,” he said in exaggerated dismay. “I feel a little pitiful now, to be honest.”

Harry laughed. “You’re not pitiful,” he said. Louis just continued shaking his head slowly in disbelief while looking down at his phone. Harry reached out and flicked his forearm to get his attention. Louis looked up, the corner of his eyes crinkled from smiling. “You’re not pitiful,” Harry repeated. “It’s great that you do yoga at all.” Harry pulled his fingers away from Louis’ forearm and settled them in his lap.

“Thanks, I suppose,” Louis said, playfully dismissive. “So now, I have to have an espresso and a doughnut at your bakery and take one of your classes. I’ve only been here for three days and you’ve so much work cut out for me.”

“Jesus, please don’t,” Harry said. “If you want me to teach you, you’ll have to have a private lesson.”

“A private lesson?” Louis asked suggestively and smiled at Harry’s subsequent blush before he looked back down at his phone. “I’ll have to take you up on that. Any other plans for today?”

Harry took a moment to answer. He was still trying to get over the “private lesson” jab. “Uh, nope.”

“Would you be free to come into the studio after yoga?” Louis asked, still looking down at his phone.

“Sure, why not,” Harry said unenthusiastically.

Louis glanced at him. “You know, it might get me fired for saying this but it really isn’t too late to change your mind. Berlin Fashion Week would go on fine I’m sure.”

“I can’t disappoint my mum like that,” Harry said.

“Eventually you’ll have to,” Louis said. “Otherwise, you’ll be stuck modelling for the rest of your life and you’ll just be unhappy.”

Harry stared down at his hands, not in disagreement but for lack of an adequate reply. He heard the barstool slide away from the counter and he looked up again to find Louis standing and tucking his phone back into his pocket.

“I have to go. But I’ll just say this. My dad wanted me to be a dentist,” Louis said as Harry watched and listened to him intently. “The man hardly comes around. He’s about as permanent as a snowflake, which is quite accurate since I only ever hear from him every other birthday.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Harry said frowning a little. He didn’t know where this was going, but he was happy Louis felt he could talk to him about his family.

“It’s quite alright, trust me,” Louis said smiling and he genuinely did look alright, not at all bitter like Harry would have expected. “I’m not saying this to make you sad. I’m saying this because, as lousy as he is, he had expectations of me too. Even my mum wanted me to do something a bit more sensible. But I like fashion and clothing and art, and if I’m going to help people, it won’t be by filling cavities. It’ll be by finding them proper clothes to wear.”

Harry grinned. “I think you would have been a great dentist. But this suits you better.”

“Well, that’s good to know. If your mum fires me, at least I have a backup,” Louis said laughing. “The point is, do what makes you happy. I may not be exactly where I wanted to be at 24, but at least I’m not doing something I hate. I don’t know you all that well yet, Harry, but I think you deserve to be as happy as possible.”

“Thank you,” Harry said, tucking his hair behind his ears again and pressing his lips together to stop from smiling too widely. Normally the wider he smiled, the goofier his face became. He felt the butterflies starting up in his stomach again and slowly morphing into champagne bubbles and cotton candy. He felt for the first time like someone believed in him, or at least encouraged him in all of his odd aspirations. He felt like he could tell Louis that he wanted to bake cakes for a living and Louis would smile just as widely as if he said he wanted to be a model. And years from now, he felt that no matter what he chose, Louis would either show up at the first fashion show he did on his own or be the first customer at his bakery.

“Thank you,” Harry said again, looking up at Louis, his cheeks warm.

“Anytime,” Louis said after a pause. Harry was still smiling at him, practically morphing into a sunbeam. Louis cleared his throat. “Alright, well, I really do have to go now. I’ll pick you up later, yeah?”

Harry nodded.

“Thanks for the Cocoa Puffs,” Louis said.

“Maybe you can have an actual bowl next time,” Harry said.

Louis laughed as he opened the glass door. “Cheeky,” he smirked. “Have a good day, Harry.”

Through the windows, Harry watched Louis walking back across the yard and then he rested his head on the counter and released a heavy sigh.

 

* * *

 

Harry had just stepped out of the shower after yoga when his phone chimed. He continued drying off his hair while taking a look at the message waiting there from Niall.

'Looks like your friend has a twitter!'

'@L_Tommo'

A third message came in shortly after.

'Ur welcome!! ;)'

Harry tossed his phone back onto his bed and focused intently on drying off and getting dressed. He found his eyes constantly drawn to the spot on his bed where his phone rested. He huffed loudly, walked over to his desk, found his MacBook and pulled up twitter.

“Ridiculous,” Harry muttered as he typed Louis’ handle in the search bar.

Louis’ profile picture was of him wearing a blue snapback while holding a shaggy brown puppy in his arms. Harry groaned at the unnecessary amount of cute contained in that one photo.

Louis’ tweets weren’t protected, unlike his Facebook, which Harry had viewed four times since having lunch with Niall yesterday. He still hadn’t requested to be Louis’ friend on Facebook, much like he probably wouldn’t work up the nerve to follow him on Twitter. The most recent tweet was simple:

Louis Tomlinson (@L_Tommo): First day working with Anne Styles… what a life!

The tweet before that read:

Louis Tomlinson (@L_Tommo): Nice to be back in London! 

And before that:

Louis Tomlinson (@L_Tommo): Bummed about leaving Spain... Wish I could stay forever :(

Before Harry could spend too much time reading Louis’ tweets, his iPhone chimed again, this time with a message from Louis himself.

'Be at yours in ten minutes. :)'

Harry shut his laptop so he could finish getting dressed, feeling completely overwhelmed. In the past three days, it seemed like Louis was always around, all the time. And even when he wasn’t, there was Niall, who oddly enough, without ever having met Louis in person, was a bigger Louis enthusiast than Harry had been.

Like today while they were golfing, each time they spoke about Louis — and Harry counted ten times total — it was because Niall brought him up.

Harry tied a headscarf around his slightly damp hair. He had just enough time to grab his sunglasses and a banana before Louis texted that he was “here” with another smiley face.

When he was seated in Louis’ car a minute later, he felt oddly self-conscious like maybe Louis knew he’d been snooping on his twitter minutes ago. To make matters worse, Niall texted him just then.

'Did you follow him or what?'

Harry titled the screen away from Louis where he held it in his lap and then jabbed the lock button. He shot Louis a smile.

“How was yoga?” Louis asked as he pulled out of the drive, past the decorative shrubs that surrounded the Styles estate.

“Good,” Harry said, not sure if he should elaborate. Louis glanced at him expectantly. “Uh, I practised some harder poses. And like, I almost got my headstand down.”

“That’s definitely important. A yoga instructor has to have a proper headstand,” Louis said.

“Yeah but I think my feet are too big or something… They throw everything off,” Harry said. “Do you mind if I eat my banana?” He’d already started peeling it but stilled his hands to ask. Louis’ car was nothing like the luxury cars Harry had driven in in the past, where he’d been expressly told as a child that he wasn’t allowed to eat. But still, the seats were a nice smooth leather, the interior, in general, was clean and smelled fresh, like Louis himself. The last thing he wanted to do was get banana bits all over everything.

Louis glanced at him and smiled almost like he wanted to laugh. “Yeah, of course. There’s food at the studio too if you get hungry,” Louis said. “Also, big feet don’t actually matter, do they? Anyone can find balance if they know how to work with their body weight, right?”

Harry looked at Louis curiously. “Yeah, that’s the idea.”

“I know how to do a headstand. But it’s probably because I’ve played footie for most of my life. Balance is a little important,” Louis said. “And I mean, I don’t have big feet or anything but…”

“But?” Harry said slowly, chewing around a piece of banana.

“People say my bum is sizeable,” Louis shrugged, a somewhat smug look on his face.

Harry resisted the urge to a laugh. “Sizeable enough to prevent balance?”

“Possibly,” Louis said. “But that’s why it’s all about working with your body.”

Harry nodded, pressing his lips together. “You got it.”

“Not that I’m a yoga expert like you or anything,” Louis said.

“Maybe you should be,” Harry said. “I bet you could do anything. Be a fashion designer, be a dentist, and now a yoga instructor.”

“Don’t forget a dog walker,” Louis said, pointing a finger and tilting his head toward Harry.

“God, no. You almost killed Bacon,” Harry laughed.

Louis scoffed. “You’re so dramatic.”

Harry raised his brows at him. “Before I left, I had to check that he was sleeping and not dead,” he explained. “You took my dog out for a run this morning and he’s still asleep.”

Louis laughed unapologetically. Harry shook his head at him though his cheeks dimpled. “How fast do you run anyway?” he asked.

“Not too fast,” Louis said. “You should take a run with me and see.”

Um, yes. “Could I?”

Louis glanced at him, perhaps surprised by the eagerness in Harry’s voice. “Yeah, of course. I’ll text you the next time I go. Tomorrow probably,” he said.

“Great,” Harry said. He wasn’t even sure if he would be able to keep up with Louis, but he'd give it his best.

 

* * *

 

“He would look so much better in the blue, really,” one of Anne’s interns said, holding a long piece of blue fabric across Harry’s chest. Elmar, or Elmo as Harry had taken to calling him in his head since Louis’ slip of the tongue, stood a few feet away next to Anne, his chin resting in his palm as he studied Harry.

“I think he’d look good in anything,” the American intern, Amanda, said from where she stood a little to Anne’s side. She made absolutely no attempt to hide the lust in her voice, so blatant that even Anne turned her head slightly and looked at the girl questioningly. Louis, who was seated at a little desk off to the side, tapping away at his MacBook paused and looked up as well, his eyebrows arched. He met Harry’s gaze then and made a horrified face at Amanda’s back. Harry pressed his lips together to suppress a smile, looking down at his feet, and then looking back up at Louis’ face because he couldn’t resist.

“Seems you’ve made him blush,” Elmo said. Which, no. She definitely had not. But maybe it was better for them to believe that was the case, as opposed to him and Louis making faces at each other.

Elmo added, “I agree. Both the blue and the purple look exquisite.” Though that wasn’t exactly what the tech had said. And Harry would have disagreed with her. He definitely did not look good in anything. He wouldn’t look good in a clown suit or dressed as a banana. At least he didn’t think so. But he hadn’t tried any of those things yet.

“Louis?” Anne said and Louis’ silly face dropped so fast it seemed superhuman. He looked at her attentively and then in the next half-second seemed to understand what she needed. He looked at Harry again, his eyes now intent in way that made Harry feel he was actually blushing. Louis glanced at the blue and the purple fabric held across either of Harry’s shoulders. Harry could tell by the deep crease between Louis’ eyebrows that he was having a hard time deciding and, well, that was a nice thought. Louis thought Harry looked good in both colours.

But Louis was smarter and more intuitive than Harry might have realized. Because Anne didn’t want to know that Harry looked good in both. Surely, she already knew that. She wanted to know which one looked really good, which looked better.

“The blue,” Louis said finally. “It’s a more neutral colour to start with. I think incorporating the purple should be gradual.”

Anne shot him a smile. “Yes, I was thinking the same.” She looked at Harry. “Alright, love, you can take a break.” She waved at the girls holding the fabric and they withdrew, leaving Harry, bare-chested and a little chilly. He reached for his shirt, making eye contact with Louis as he did. He had to break it while he pulled his head through his shirt. By the time he did, Louis had already stood up to follow Anne across the room.

Harry sat down in one of the cream-coloured lounge chairs next to a platter of fruit and cheese. He spent the next fifteen minutes, nibbling on fruit, texting Niall, scrolling through Twitter, and trying not to openly stare at Louis as he followed Anne around. Staring at him was rewarding, since every now and then Louis would look in Harry’s direction and smile when their eyes met. Each time it happened, Harry would smile back, too widely and too eagerly, sitting up a bit straighter until he reminded himself that self-control was an actual, attainable thing that he needed to practice during his free time.

The concept was completely lost on him the moment Louis approached him. It seemed to happen in slow motion, with imaginary leaves billowing around Louis’ feet and an unexplained breeze fanning the tips of his brown hair. Louis looked amazing today, with or without the theatrics, but Louis managed to look good every day even when he was sweaty and tired after a run. Today he was wearing tight (too tight) black jeans, a loose-fitting grey silky-looking shirt and a black blazer with the sleeves rolled up to reveal the bird tattoo on his forearm.

“You look bored,” Louis said, plucking a piece of cheese off the platter beside Harry and smiling around it as he chewed.

“I’m not really,” Harry said, realizing it was actually true. Normally when he came to his mum’s studio he ended up falling asleep on one of the fluffy suede couches. But he wasn’t tired at all today. He suspected (but wouldn’t admit) that it had everything to do with Louis. “I’m ready to eat something besides cheese and fruit though.”

“How about once you’re done here, we go for dinner?” Louis asked.

Harry blinked at him. “Like…together?”

“Uh, yes?” Louis said, one brow arched.

“Yeah,” Harry said, already sitting up in the chair. “That sounds good.”

Louis smiled. “Alright, then,” he said. “Shelly wanted to get another measurement of your waist and shoulders. I think once you’re done with that we’ll be free to go.”

Harry nodded and stood up, rocking and bouncing a little on his feet. He had probably never looked this excited about someone measuring his waist and shoulders before.

But today had been different.

Today, he knew that putting up with all the bustle that came along with this line of work meant another silly face from Louis, another open-hearted conversation, or even a promise for dinner. And Harry knew that none of those things meant anything to Louis. He didn’t think Louis was interested in him and even if he was, Harry was the 17-year-old son of his employer and surely, Louis knew better than to even entertain the idea.

Harry knew it, but it didn’t really matter.

By the time he was seated in Louis’ car, Harry had gotten his phone out of his pocket and sent a message to Niall.

'He’s taking me to Nando’s… :D'

Niall sent back the heart-eyes emoji, followed by a winky face, and a few thumbs-up emojis.

'I love this guy.'

Harry rolled his eyes.

'You haven’t even met him.'

Louis glanced at him then and Harry imperceptibly tilted his phone away, shooting him a smile before lowering his gaze to the new message from Niall.

'But I will. If you two intend to marry, I’ll have to approve of him.'

'it. isn’t. like. that!'

'But you like him. Just say it. It’ll make you feel better.'

A second later, Niall sent another one:

'Say it Harry!'

Harry locked his phone because Louis was starting to give him funny looks and also because he felt a little rude seemingly ignoring him.

“Sorry, Niall was just being weird,” Harry said, putting his phone face down in his lap.

“No need to be sorry,” Louis said. After a second he started, “Is Niall…” He trailed off, his eyebrows creased deeply as he considered the question he wanted to ask. “I know you said he was your best mate. But are you two…” Louis lifted one hand off the steering wheel to gesture the remainder of his question. He added, “you know, more than that?”

Harry’s eyes widened slightly as he understood and then he shook his head. “No,” he said. “No, we’re just friends. I think we’ve known each other for too long now for me to see him as anything more.”

Louis nodded. “Makes sense. Though I find it hard to believe he’s never at least thought about it.”

“What do you mean?” Harry asked.

“Well, you know how in romance films, there’s always the main character and then the love interest and his best mate? The best mate always turns out to have secret feelings for the main character. Always.”

“That’s true,” Harry said. “But as far as I know, Niall’s not gay. Not even close.”

“That happens too though. I’ve seen one where the best friend isn’t gay but he falls for his best mate anyway,” Louis said. “Not to worry you. But I could see it happening. Maybe not with Niall. But at least one of your friends.”

“I’ve always thought my friend, Grimmy, might have a bit of a crush on me. But he’s almost 30, so maybe not,” Harry said.

“Jesus,” Louis mumbled. “Hopefully not. But I guess I'd understand if he did and Niall too.”

“You would?”

“Yeah, I mean, you’re you,” Louis said. “You know?”

“Not really…” Harry said, looking at him intently. “Maybe you should explain.”

“I feel like I shouldn’t be saying this. But I mean, if I was one of your friends, I’d probably have a crush on you myself,” Louis said.

Harry’s mouth dropped open a little. “Why?”

“Now you’re just fishing for compliments,” Louis said suspiciously.

Harry laughed. “No, promise I’m not. I wasn’t sure if you were actually complimenting me.”

“Allow me to make it more clear then, yeah?” Louis said. “I’ve only known you for a few days but you’re smart and funny and, I probably shouldn’t be saying this either, but good-looking too. So, yeah, if Niall wanted to be more than friends, I’d understand. I’d say it was inevitable.”

"Inevitable," Harry repeated to himself. Louis smiled, nodded.

Harry would be happy to continue this conversation and have Louis shower him in never-ending compliments. But he was blushing, more so than he had in previous conversations with Louis, more than ever really, and that was embarrassing. He had to settle with saying “Thank you” and then trying to redirect the conversation so as to distract himself from the overwhelming urge to climb into Louis’ lap and spread kisses over the prickly stubble on his jaw.

Later he would tell Niall exactly what Louis had said and Niall would most likely have a good laugh about it. But for now, Louis had practically just admitted to finding Harry attractive and that meant everything. He unlocked his phone and pulled up his message with Niall, typing quickly.

'I like him a lot.'

Chapter Text

Harry's eyelids felt like lead, weighed down each time he tried to keep them open. His iPhone chimed loudly on his bedside table and he stretched his arm out from under the covers to turn it off. He meant to pull himself out of bed then but it was 5:15 in the morning and even with all the willpower in the world, he couldn’t do it. His eyes slipped shut again and with a little exhale, he fell back to sleep.

It was a good thing he'd set two alarms. When the next one went off, Harry sat up with a miserable groan and swiped at his phone. He rubbed his tired eyes before glancing down at his phone where it sat on top of the duvet, unlocked. There was a text message waiting there from Louis.

'Completely understand if it’s too early for you. We can take a rain check.'

Harry tried to type out a coherent response.

'noooo meet you outside.'

That would do.

Waking up that early normally wasn’t a problem. Sometimes George or Ivor would ask him to come into the bakery around then to help open up and Harry never minded too much. It wouldn’t have been so awful if Harry hadn’t stayed up all night thinking about dinner with Louis and about Louis in general. He couldn’t help freaking out about the mess he was making.  Leave it to Harry to fall for the one person he absolutely shouldn’t have fallen for.

“Fallen” wasn’t even the right term. It was too early to consider himself that far gone. Tilted maybe and slipping fast, but not completely over the edge.

Not yet.

He pushed the duvet off his body and hurried to the sink to brush his teeth and wash his face. He brushed while pulling on a pair of sweats and a heather grey t-shirt. Lastly, he pushed a stretchy elastic headband back around his hair, tied it up into a bun, and laced his trainers.

He hurried down the staircase and stopped short when he saw his mum seated in the kitchen, sorting through the post from yesterday. She peered over the top rim of her reading glasses at him.

“I thought you were going to work late today,” she said.

“I am,” Harry said. “I’m going for a run with Louis.”

His mum blinked. “You are?”

“Yup."

“You like him then?” Anne wondered, removing her glasses.

Harry pressed his lips together, pretending to be giving the question much thought. If only she knew… “Yeah, he’s nice.”

“See, I knew it. You two have the same sense of humour. I knew that from interviewing him,” Anne said smiling. “Go on then. I don’t want to keep you from your run.”

Harry smiled. He’d been backing slowly out of the kitchen before but now he stepped a few feet forward, closing the distance between him and his mum, and he kissed her cheek. He was still a little irritated with her and the entire modelling thing. But she’d also hired Louis and he had to be grateful at least for that. Anyway, Harry wasn’t very good at holding grudges. “Have a good day.”

His mum seemed pleasantly surprised by Harry’s fondness. Most often they were never together long enough for moments like these to happen. Harry was naturally an affectionate person, maybe due to all those years as a toddler nestled almost constantly in his mum’s arms. Even when he was past his nursery days and starting secondary school, Anne always had time for a cuddle. Now not so much and Harry would be lying if he said he didn’t miss that.

Being wealthy was a blessing, one for which Harry was rightfully grateful. But as nearly every wealthy person knows, having money and fame and security often meant sacrificing something more precious.

“Same to you, love,” Anne said smiling. Harry returned her smile as he left the kitchen. He waited until he was out of her view to rush to the door and to Louis who probably thought he’d fallen asleep on the stairwell.

Louis was sitting on the edge of the pavement, scrolling through his phone when he must have heard the sound of Harry’s trainers hitting the blacktop. He looked up, through the cast iron bars of the black front gate.

“Was starting to think you weren’t coming,” he said loudly for Harry to hear him as he got closer.

Harry reached the gate. “And stand you up?” he asked pulling the gate open and slipping through. “Never.”

Louis smirked. “You look surprisingly eager for someone awake before 6.”

“I’m feeling pretty eager,” Harry said, pumping his legs back and forth, swinging his arms around.

“Alright then,” Louis said, beginning to jog in place. “We’ll start slow.”

“What, no. I can keep up with you,” Harry said, mimicking him.

Louis laughed, brows arched. “Well…then, we’ll start fast," he said and took off. Harry made a squawking sound and hurried to catch up.

 

* * *

 

It had been a whole week since Harry started taking morning runs with Louis and already they had fallen into a pattern. They greeted each other with banter, set about through the neighbourhood at an easy pace, before speeding up, lengthening their strides, and then finally slowing down again to normalize their breathing as they returned to their respective homes. During the slower periods of their run, Louis would ask Harry about his schedule for the day, mentally cataloguing whatever Harry said. During the faster periods, Harry didn’t do much talking. He only had two options: make smart oxygen choices or pass out in front of Louis and die of embarrassment.

Harry would probably die because of Louis, no matter what. If not from embarrassment, then from the sight of Louis as he ran, the sweat slowly building along his forehead and then running down the sides of his neck, pooling at the dip in his throat. Harry didn’t know how he managed to not run into a tree or some other obstruction in the pavement when he spent at least 90% of the time with his eyes glued to some part of Louis’ body.

Why he thought the jogging thing was a good idea was beyond him. At seventeen, his hormones could hardly handle the torment.

“So who’s this Louis person I’ve been hearing about?” Nick asked leaning back in his chair though he kept a hand around his cup of tea.

Honestly, there was no escape.

“How’d you hear about him?” Harry asked, not looking up from his salmon salad. Just then a hostess walked by with a pitcher to refill Harry’s glass of water. Harry said, “thank you,” before shooting an expectant look at Nick.

“Saw Gemma at Wyld a few nights ago and she mentioned him. Then yesterday, I was talking to Niall on a Twitter and he said how great the lad is. I just wonder why you haven’t said anything about him,” Nick said with a nonchalant shrug. Harry wasn’t fooled though. Nick was never nonchalant about anything. He was good at fooling other people, but not Harry. They’d known each other for almost three years now, long enough for Harry to know better.

Why Niall felt the need to mention Louis at all was what Harry didn’t understand. He still hadn’t even met the man.

“He’s my mum’s assistant,” Harry said easily and then smiled for good measure, awaiting Nick’s response.

“Christ, Harry. Don’t go sharing his whole life story,” Nick reprimanded.

Harry took an innocent sip of his tea before picking his fork and knife back up and slicing a piece of salmon. “Not sure what you want me to say,” he said, sticking his fork into his mouth.

“Why didn’t you mention him?”

Harry held his hands out, making a face of dismay as he finished chewing. “Why would I? When have I ever told you about any of my mum’s assistants?”

“When have you ever gone running with any of your mum’s assistants? Or spent any amount of time with them that wasn’t absolutely necessary?” Nick said. “I’m just curious what he’s like because you’ve been more than tolerating him. And with you keeping him a secret, I would even say you probably like him.”

“Not a secret,” Harry said. “He’s nice.” He sounded silly repeating the same thing he’d said to his mum a while ago. “Nice” wasn’t quite the word Harry would use to describe Louis. “Nice” wasn't just an understatement: it was borderline insulting. Louis was beyond nice. He was amazing and splendid and lovely and perfect. Those were adequate descriptions, not nice. And yet, Harry didn’t let himself venture into all the adjectives he could find, not for his mum or Nick. He was too worried that even attempting to do so would make his feelings transparent and the last thing he needed was anyone, aside from Niall, knowing how he felt. "Nice" would have to do.

Problem was, he suspected, Nick already knew exactly what Harry wasn’t telling him.

“You like him, don’t you?” Nick said, grinning.

“No,” Harry said, brows creasing. "I don't." He was pretty good at denying it by now.

“Oh, please,” Nick said still smiling.

“Believe what you want,” Harry said with a cool dismissive shrug.

Nick watched him carefully. “Niall already told me.”

Harry couldn't hide the shock.

“Don’t look so worried, love. I’m only kidding,” Nick said. “But your reaction says it all. So not only do you not hate your mum’s new assistant, or your nanny if we’re being honest, but you also fancy him. Wonderful.”

“Fuck off,” Harry whined.

“There’s no need to be hostile. I think this is lovely and I'm sure your mum would agree,” Nick said laughing.

“Sometimes I wonder why I spend time with you,” Harry said, putting his cutlery down next to his plate and placed the napkin in his lap on the table.

“Have I teased you too much?” Nick asked. “Come on, Harry. Don’t leave.”

“Relax. You’re annoying but not that much,” Harry said. “I told you I have a fitting today at 2:00. I have to go.”

“Right, for Berlin. I’m surprised you’re going through with this show. Didn’t you swear off modelling after Anne's children’s line, the one she debuted in Paris?”

“Don’t remind me,” Harry groaned. “Let's leave the dark times in the past.”

“And yet, here you are, hitting the runway again.”

“Just for Berlin. Then never again,” Harry said. “I mean it this time.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Nick said as Harry stood up.

“I hope that by the time I see you again you’ve decided to be less of a dick,” Harry shot back.

Nick raised his teacup to Harry. “Wish me luck, mate.”

Harry shook his head at him. “See you, Grimmy.”

“I want to meet this Louis person. We should all have lunch sometime,” Nick called to him.

“He works for my mum. I’m sure you know where to find him,” Harry said, wiggling his fingers. “Bye.”

 

* * *

 

It was almost September with only two weeks left before the new school year started. Harry and Niall had decided to make use of the pool while they still could. It had already cooled down enough that Harry preferred to wear jumpers or long-sleeved shirts more often now, but today was the warmest it'd been in a while and Harry had a feeling this would be the last warm day for the year.

They lounged on pool chairs at Harry's home, scrolling through their phones in companionable silence, their damp skin drying off slowly after the hour-long swim they’d taken. Harry had been looking at pictures of dogs in banana costumes, which seemed like an odd thing to do but he needed to find something for Bacon to wear on Halloween.

“I followed Louis on Twitter,” Niall said all of a sudden. He sounded like he was admitting to having killed someone. And the crime might not have been as bad, but Harry looked just as horrified. He lifted his head up off the lounge chair. Niall looked past the phone in his hands to smile sheepishly at him.

“You did what?” Harry gasped.

“In my defence,” Niall started. “It was an accident. I was only looking at his Twitter and then I accidentally pressed the follow button. And it’s not like you can press unfollow because he would already have gotten the notification.”

“Niaaaalll,” Harry groaned resting his forehead down on the arm of the chair. “Why?”

“Also, he followed me back,” Niall said.

“Oh my God,” Harry said. After a moment, he lifted his head and murmured gravely, “He’ll know that I’ve been talking about him.”

“I feel that he already knows you talk about him,” Niall said.

Harry had an even more terrifying thought. “Do you…” he began. He swallowed and tried again. “Do you think he knows I like him?”

Niall grimaced. “You did say he was intuitive. It might not have taken him much to figure it out.”

“Oh my God,” Harry repeated. “And now you’ve gone and followed him and he’ll know for sure.”

Niall sat up. “It may not be a bad thing that he knows. How do you expect anything to happen, if he doesn’t know how you feel?”

“Niall, nothing is going to happen regardless of what I do. He works for my mum. He’s 24. He’s supposed to be ‘looking after’ me. When my mum hired him, dating her seventeen-year-old son was not in the job description,” Harry said. “I like him enough that I don’t want him to lose his job.”

“You shouldn’t be so negative,” Niall said.

Harry looked at him like he was insane. “What positive aspect of this am I missing?”

“Well, let’s say he likes you back. Because there’s a chance he does. Who gives a fuck about the rest of that stuff if you like him and he likes you? Would you turn him down because he worked for your mum or because he’s 24?”

“No, definitely not. But he would. Even if he did like me, which he doesn’t, I think he’s wise enough to know that it would be a bad idea. He’d feel something and then he’d tell himself not to feel that anymore,” Harry said. He shot a glance over to the guesthouse where it sat hidden a bit by trees a few yards away. Louis was supposed to be at the office but Harry lowered his voice anyway, just in case. “Louis likes his job. I don’t think he’d jeopardize it for me.”

“You don’t know that. You—”

Harry didn’t hear the rest of Niall’s sentence, as it was drowned out by the sound of the glass door sliding open. He turned his head looking back towards the house and there Louis was, stepping outside with a smile on his face. Harry felt caught somehow.

“Hey,” Louis said, making his way closer. Harry took in Louis’ black jeans, his navy and white striped shirt, and the denim jacket he wore with the sleeves rolled up. His brown hair looked like whipped chocolate and probably smelled just as nice.

Inwardly Harry was dying. Outwardly, he smiled coolly, despite being in a state of hysterics only seconds before. “Hey," he replied.

Louis came down the steps toward the pool, glancing at Niall as he did. Then he came to a stop, looking at Niall more intently.

“Wait,” Louis said, a slow smirk spreading on his lips. “You’re Niall.”

“That’s me,” Niall said, happily.

Louis smiled back just as happily, like he’d been reunited with a long-lost friend. “Finally,” he said. “I was starting to think Haz had made you up.”

Niall glanced at Harry, his eyebrow shooting up suggestively at Louis’ use of his nickname. Harry wanted to die.

Louis had only started calling him H, Haz or Hazza a few days ago and honestly, Harry would never get tired of it. Louis rarely said “Harry” anymore, which was more than fine. Harry didn't need to be Harry. Harry was pretty sure that Louis could start calling him Fish Stick and he would still melt on the inside.

“Trying to keep you to himself, I imagine,” Niall said.

Harry shot him a glare.

“No,” Louis said in disbelief. “Harry loves to share.”

“I do love to share. Sharing is caring,” Harry agreed.

The look Louis gave him was one of equal parts endearment and amusement.

“So what brings you here, Lou?” Niall asked like they were already the best of friends. Louis didn’t even seem fazed.

“Came to pick up Gemma. And I saw you out here, thought I’d say hi,” Louis said.

“Pick up Gemma for…?” Harry wondered.

“Photoshoot,” Louis said. “How was work earlier?”

“Not awful. George actually let me mix the dry ingredients today,” Harry said cheerfully.

“That’s great. I think you could handle more than dry ingredients though. You’ve baked on your own, haven’t you?” Louis said. Niall huffed a quiet laugh and Harry glared at him again.

“I’ve helped my mum make biscuits,” Harry mumbled stupidly.

“I believe he asked if you’d baked on your own,” Niall corrected.

At this point, if Niall spent the night at Harry’s like he’d been planning, Harry would off him in his sleep.

“I’ve tried. I just haven’t yet made anything that tastes very good. And I don’t have space to practice either since Flora would kill me if I wasted any of the ingredients she kept in the kitchen,” Harry said.

Flora was the maid Anne had hired only five years ago when doing housework no longer seemed plausible with her schedule. Flora mostly stuck to cleaning but she cooked when Anne requested it of her, though Harry had gotten to the point where he mostly ate away from home and cleaned his own room or washed his own clothes. And since Anne was never really home to dirty much of anything and Robin was a relatively tidy man, as much as Harry adored the cute Scottish woman, he wasn't entirely sure why Flora was necessary.

“Also, even if I did bake a whole cake, who would eat it?” Harry added. 

“Is Gemma still on that no-sugar diet?” Niall wondered.

“Yes,” Harry deadpanned. “And my mum mostly avoids sweets in general.”

Louis took in Harry’s rant, his expression sympathetic, and he said, “I’d eat whatever you baked.”

“Easy there, Louis,” Niall cautioned, “Don’t want you to die when I’ve only just met you.”

Harry flashed Niall his middle finger, drawing a hearty laugh out of Niall as he returned his gaze to his mobile in his hands. “Such a twat,” Harry mumbled under his breath.

Louis laughed too. “Truthfully, I can’t see it being that awful. And you could use my kitchen too. We could get the ingredients and then you could just have at it.”

Harry smiled. “Don’t tempt me.”

“Sorry but I am,” Louis replied. “Consider yourself tempted.”

Niall glanced back and forth between them smiling like a father seeing his newborn for the first time, like he’d been instrumental in bringing Louis and Harry together, and like this conversation about baked goods was the beginning of their epic love story and Niall would be there to witness it unfold.

“Well, if you insist…” Harry trailed off.

“I’ve been insisting,” Louis replied cheekily. “I’ll be expecting cakes and biscuits and diabetic shock from you, Chef Styles.”

Harry grinned even wider, not sure how that was even possible. Chef Styles? Could he be more perfect?

“As you wish,” Harry said sweetly and Niall made a quiet gagging sound.

“What are you boys up to for the rest of the afternoon?” Louis asked.

“Mourning the end of summer and dreading the start of the semester,” Niall explained, tapping away at his phone.

“Right, that reminds me. Your mum wants me to take you shopping for school? Like to freshen up your wardrobe?” Louis said. “I wasn’t sure if that was something you normally did. I thought I’d ask before adding it to your schedule.”

Harry cast a furtive glance sideways. Niall knew better than anyone that he hated shopping, especially in the posh stores where his mum would have preferred for him to shop. Harry mostly wore the same four pairs of mildly tattered jeans and black or white plain t-shirts with an optional jumper or plaid button-up if he was feeling especially fashionable. Of late, if Harry did any shopping at all, it was at charity shops where he found old band t-shirts in fine condition. As for the clothing his mum would want him to wear, Harry had enough of those to last a lifetime.

So Harry didn’t want to go shopping but Harry also didn’t want to not go shopping if that meant spending time with Louis.

And Niall seemed to figure it out too because his gaze slid on over to Harry knowingly and then back down to his mobile.

“Yeah, that sounds good," Harry said. "I’ll text you my work schedule for the week so you can schedule it.”

“Great,” Louis said. If he caught Harry’s apprehension, he didn’t seem to think anything of it. “Niall, you should come too.”

Niall looked up from his phone again, surprised by the invitation. But being Harry and Louis’ biggest advocate, he didn’t seem too keen on potentially cock-blocking. “Aw no, you two should just go. I’m not much fun shopping,” Niall said.

“You and ‘not much fun’ don’t belong in the same sentence,” Louis said, again as though he and Niall had known each other for years. “Come on. We can all have lunch afterwards. It’ll be great.”

Niall glanced at Harry again, seeking some sort of approval. He clearly didn’t want to say “yes” but it seemed Louis wasn't receptive to "no."

“You should come, really,” Harry said sincerely.

Niall shrugged. “Well, hell, since you lads want me there so badly, why not?”

Louis laughed. “Good. Then, I’ll wait for your schedule,” he said to Harry. “And then I’ll let you both know when we’re going.”

“Sounds good,” Harry said, watching as Louis started to turn away.

“See you later,” Louis called as he made his way back up the steps. He waved at them both before sliding the glass door open, stepping inside and then sliding it shut behind him. Harry and Niall looked at each other simultaneously.

“I get it now,” Niall said. “Like I really, truly get it.”

“What?” Harry wondered.

Nodding slowly at some private thought in his head, Niall said simply, “I almost wish I was gay, just for him.”

Harry stared at Niall, waiting for him to elaborate and hoping that he would.

“Honestly, you should be lucky I’m not gay 'cause I’d definitely go after him myself. Best mates or not."

Harry rested his head down on the lounge chair. “What the fuck is happening?” he said mostly to himself.

“Does he have a sister?” Niall asked.

Harry decided right then that it was time for another swim.

Chapter Text

"Harry pulled a hairnet on over his messy bun and grabbed the apron he kept hung near the swinging door as he entered the kitchen of Maison de Sucre.

“Fucking babies everywhere,” Harry heard Ivor say bitterly.

Harry stopped short, looking around the dimly lit kitchen at the ovens and cabinets, half-expecting evil babies to come crawling out from dusty nooks. He loved babies (and little ones in general), could spend hours with them without growing irritated the way most people did. But Ivor sounded as if they were under attack. As far as Harry could tell, there were no babies in sight.

Ivor rounded the corner with a large metal mixing bowl in his arms and froze. “Harry!”

“Hi,” Harry said cautiously.

“God, I'm so sorry for my language."

Harry gave him a small smile. “It’s alright,” he said. Ivor probably wouldn't believe Harry swore himself, or that his closest friends, Niall and Nick especially, swore religiously.

Ivor, his 35-year-old boss, more likely believed Harry was still the same child Anne brought into the bakery for the first time seven or eight years ago, which would explain why he still tried to censor himself around Harry, and probably the same reason why he only trusted Harry with small, pre-measured quantities of dry ingredients.

“Where are the babies?” Harry asked, just as George came out of the storage closet with a large bag of flour over his shoulder.

George laughed tiredly as he dropped the sack onto the long wooden island in the middle of the kitchen. “Ivor’s sister has to go to New York for a few days and since her husband’s visiting family in France, she’s asked Ivor to watch her three children, all of whom are younger than 4.”

“Which wouldn’t be terrible," Ivor said, "if I hadn’t already agreed to watch our friend Laura’s 10-month-old son during that same week, which also happens to be the week of the gala we’re catering for.” He turned on a mixer and pulling the measuring cups and spoons from a low cabinet. “I thought I could handle taking care of Laura’s son during the gala. Roberta even said she wouldn’t mind keeping an eye on him while I was here with George. But four babies?”

“Four fucking babies,” George said in disbelief.

“Language, love,” Ivor reprimanded for Harry’s sake yet again. The simple solution to the unnecessary censorship was for Harry to just swear too. But he was actually reluctant to burst Ivor's illusion of him as an adolescent cherub. He wasn't sure the poor man could handle it, especially not now.

“So what are you going to do?” Harry said.

“I’m going to have to stay late the night before the gala and prep as much as I can. Hopefully, George and Roberta can handle things without me there,” Ivor said, while he was pouring melted butter and sugar into the mixer, letting it churn on low speed.

At 8:00 on a Saturday morning, Ivor already looked defeated. Harry suspected that when this was all over, Ivor wouldn’t want to look at another baby, much less consider having some of his own, not anytime soon, which Harry thought was unfortunate timing. Ivor and George had been together for longer than Harry could remember. They’d started every chapter of their lives together, including opening the bakery, and though they weren't looking to settle down and start a family, he knew it was in the cards for their future. George at least wanted children. He’d once slipped up while speaking to Anne and mentioned having a family of their own someday soon. Harry hoped for his sake that this ordeal didn’t leave Ivor too jaded about the idea.

“We’ll have to hire a stand-in chef for the evening,” Ivor added and George hummed in agreement.

Harry simply stood there, blinking at both of them.

Of course, he didn’t expect to be considered a chef. He understood why that wasn’t even plausible. Harry still had a hard time understanding why sugar was added to the wet ingredients and not the dry, even though George and Ivor had both explained it to him in detail. Baking chemistry, blah, blah, whatever.

And yet, he couldn’t help but feel overlooked.

It was odd the way Louis sort of materialized at the front of Harry’s thoughts in that moment and he was drawn back to one of the first conversations they had in Harry’s kitchen while eating Cocoa Puffs. It had been a little while since then but he felt empowered all of a sudden like he had back then, conjuring Louis' words up. He wandered a little further into the kitchen and leaned back against the counter, watching as George spread a nut mix onto a baking sheet for roasting.

“Um,” Harry began, clearing his throat. Ivor looked up from the cookbook he’d been peering into.

“What is it, Harry?” he asked.

Harry glanced at George, who also turned slightly to face him. “About the gala. Like maybe- Instead of you having to hire someone new for the night, maybe…I could, like, help?” Harry shoved his hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched. “I mean, I know I couldn’t do everything a chef could do, but I can do more than mix dry ingredients and I could practice and if you show me what needs to be done, I can do it without a problem.”

Both of George’s eyebrows were raised in surprise. Ivor seemed equally caught off-guard.

Harry wasn’t sure if he should stop talking or go on. But neither George nor Ivor seemed to know what to say. “The gala isn’t for another month or so, yeah? That’s plenty of time for me to prepare. And then you won’t have to waste the money on someone else. And I practically have all the recipes in your book memorized too. I’ve been studying them.”

George and Ivor glanced at each other.

“Not in a weird way or anything. Like I would never share your recipes with anyone. I just mean—”

“Of course, you wouldn’t, Harry,” Ivor said.

“Right,” Harry exhaled. "I'm just- This is more than just a job or a hobby to me. It's something I'm really interested in. So I'd like to gain some experience while I'm here. I'm a quick learner, really."

George started spreading the nut mix out on the baking sheet again. “Well, I vote ‘yes.’ If you want to be a pâtissiere, you'll have to start somewhere.”

He shot a wink Harry’s way, making him grin wide and duck his head.

Ivor looked away from George’s back and studied Harry. He was biting his bottom lip, his face contemplative. Then he turned back to the cookbook and tossed a cup of flour into a mixing bowl. “Well, I don’t see why not,” he said.

Harry smiled even wider now, placing a hand over his mouth to keep from laughing. “Thank you,” he murmured. He dropped his hand so he could speak clearly. “Really, thank you. I promise I won’t disappoint you.”

“We don’t think you will,” George said. “You’ll have to work overtime though so you can practice. And work on the recipes on your own time too. You’ll have homework and training. And you’ll still be expected to sweep and wash the dishes.”

“Not a problem,” Harry said eagerly.

“You’re starting school in two weeks. You sure you can handle all of this?” Ivor questioned.

“Yes, of course, absolutely,” Harry said, nodding.

George smiled, sliding the tray into the oven. He dusted his hands off and then turned to Harry, pointing towards the large industrial fridge. “Fetch the flour. We’ll start you off slow.”

Harry practically beamed himself over to the fridge and from that moment on it was as if antennae had sprouted from his head, tuned to every instruction that George or Ivor issued. That was the first day he not only mixed the dry ingredients, but mixed the other ones too, and kneaded the bread dough and coated fruit and nuts in the glaze that he made himself. He finished the workday by washing the dishes and sweeping the floors and unlike on the days before, he did both happily.

He couldn’t wait to get home. The first person he wanted to tell was Louis.

 

* * *

 

“He’s probably not even here,” Harry said to Nick as they stepped into the lift. “He’s always out running my mum’s errands.”

“I thought it was his job to be acquainted with your schedule. Not the other way around,” Nick said, draping his arm over Harry’s left shoulder.

Harry shrugged him off. “Stop. It’s hot in here.”

Nick laughed, leaning back against the glass walls of the lift as it ascended. “I hear he’s got an impressive bum. Any truth to that?”

“Who told you that?” Harry said.

“Louise,” Nick chimed. “So is it true?”

Harry focused on the horizontal row of numbers above the doors of the lift lighting up as they moved up a floor. “It’s nice,” he said unable to stop himself from smirking.

“You and your vivid descriptions. You’re sure you don’t want to be a poet?” Nick wondered, shaking his head. “Nice, Harry? I need more than that.”

“No, that would be objectifying. Louis is more than his massive bum,” Harry said.

“Ah, massive! There we are,” Nick laughed.

The conversation cut off as the doors to the lift opened and a few people entered. Harry pressed his lips together to keep from laughing as they greeted him. They spent the next four floors of their ride in awkward elevator silence and then exited along with two other people.

“Really, I’m just here to see your lovely sister. But if I get to see this Louis creature I won’t complain.”

“Why are you so obsessed with him?” Harry said.

Nick chuckled. “I have a vested interest in the man my boy has a crush on,” Nick said, this time draping his arm around Harry’s shoulders and ruffling his curly hair.

All would have been fine with Nick’s fondling if Louis hadn’t stepped into the corridor right then, holding a small stack of black portfolios in his hand. Harry shrugged Nick off again, more quickly this time, as Louis looked up and saw them.

“Hey,” Louis said, sounding a little surprised.

“Hi, Lou,” Harry said, self-consciously running a hand through the back of his hair in case Nick had made it look weird.

“What are you doing here?” Louis asked. “Wait, did you have a fitting scheduled?”

“Wouldn't you know?” Nick asked Louis, his tone falling just short of playful. Harry elbowed him, successfully putting some space between their bodies as well.

Louis looked at Nick, eyebrows creased but with an amused smirk on his lips.

“I don’t have anything scheduled,” Harry said. “I was just dropping by to see Gemma. I heard she has a shoot today.”

“She does,” Louis said. “I can show you where she is if you’d like.”

“Thanks, yeah,” Harry said. Nick returned his arm to Harry’s shoulder again, clearing his throat. Harry huffed. “Louis, this is Nick, by the way.”

“Nick Grimshaw,” Nick clarified.

“Right, the radio host,” Louis said.

Nick’s smile was toothy. “Oh, do you listen?”

“Can’t say I have. But Harry’s mentioned you before,” Louis explained, flashing a similar grin. Harry listened to their exchange, amazed at the way the tension formed between them seemingly out of nowhere. Neither was saying anything particularly rude and yet it seemed every word out of their mouths gradually antagonized the other.

This wasn’t exactly how Harry had expected this to go, though Nick could be a bit of a shit when he was ready and Louis didn’t seem like the kind of person to lose in a game of wit.

“Did you both come to see Gemma’s shoot?” Louis asked.

“Mostly. I also came to meet you,” Nick replied, still smiling.

Louis’ gaze flickered from Nick’s shoes to the top of his coiffed hair. Harry might have imagined it too, and maybe it was simply wishful thinking, but he thought Louis’ gaze might have lingered on Nick’s arm draped over his shoulder. Just in case, Harry shrugged Nick off once more.

“And now you have,” Louis said. He smiled at Harry. “To Gemma then?”

Harry nodded, following quickly behind Louis as he turned away from them and headed down the corridor. Harry had a nagging suspicion and he glanced at Nick, finding Nick’s eyes trained on Louis’ bottom like he’d suspected.

Harry elbowed him again, glaring. “Stop,” he mouthed.

Nick shot him a thumbs-up and a wink.

“Pervert," he hissed quietly. Nick only smirked, seemingly pleased with himself.

They stepped into another room, this one darkly lit. Up ahead, light stands and flash umbrellas were set up, focused on the centre of a brick wall, draped with sheer black fabric. There at the heart of the arrangement was Gemma.

“We’ll have to be quiet,” Louis said quietly to Harry as he led them closer to the photography area. He was whispering so Harry had to lean in a little to hear him. “The photographer’s name is Georges Antoni. Apparently, he hates 'din'. His exact words.”

Louis made a face and Harry snickered quietly. “Come. You can see best over here,” Louis whispered. He reached out and hooked his hand around Harry’s elbow. Harry let himself be guided by Louis and revelled for a moment in the feeling of Louis’ firm grip on his arm. Harry had forgotten Nick was trailing closely behind them and he knew that later on, Nick would never let him forget how he probably looked like a doe-eyed child. But Harry didn’t care.

Louis manoeuvred them over long wires and extension cords, secured to the ground by tape, and past junior assistants, technicians, hair and makeup personnel, and the rows of clothing racks with ten ensembles hung up and covered in plastic. Some people waved to Harry if they noticed him but mostly the room was dark and Harry kept his eyes on the ground to make sure he didn’t trip on anything. Finally, Louis stopped at an area off to the side of the room with a perfect view of Gemma, wearing a gold dress that Anne had designed.

Gemma’s eyeshadow looked to be crimson red, her hair had been dusted with something that gave it a metallic lustre, and she wore teal strappy heels. Around her neck were draped gold and pearl necklaces. All together it should have looked crazy but it didn’t. At least not on Gemma.

Modeling wasn’t for Harry. As much as he had wanted it to be when he was ten, as he’d grown older, any and all interest in the work expired, much to the disappoint of his mum. For a while, she’d given up on roping him into the fashion world, perhaps because she’d hoped he would return to it on his own. The job at the bakery must have confirmed for her how unlikely that would be. She’d either have to force his hand.

But it wouldn't change anything. She could force all she wanted and still learn that not all people walked the same path. Or the same runway for that matter. 

Anyway, it wasn't Harry's thing, but the same wasn't true for Gemma.

Harry liked to be praised, but he didn't like to boast. It was one of the problems he had with the wealthy and the ingrained need to flaunt one’s own success. But Harry didn't mind boasting about Gemma's success, or about Gemma, in general.

She was beautiful in every way the word could be applied to a person. Harry knew it and he told people so. When he was younger, when they weren’t fighting about something silly, he told everyone. One year, he’d asked his mum if he could bring Gemma in for show and tell, and upon learning that no, you couldn’t bring humans in for show and tell, he brought in a photograph instead.

“This is my sister who I love very much. Her name is Gemma and she’s pretty,” Harry had said holding the photo up. He then handed it to a classmate. “Here, you can all look at the photo. Just don’t get it dirty or she’ll be mad.”

When Louis dropped his hand from Harry’s elbow, Harry turned his head, a smile on his face, and said, “she looks beautiful.”

He must have said it a little too loudly because Louis put a finger to his smiling lips. “Yeah, she does,” he whispered back.

They spent the next 30 minutes of Gemma’s shoot in relative silence. Harry focused on Gemma but was always aware of Louis by his side. How could he not be with the scent of Louis’ cologne, light yet fragrant, in the air and the heat of his body palpable along his side?

When it was time for Gemma to take a break and change wardrobe, the hushed silence around the room broke, an overhead light was turned on, and people began to bustle around them.

“I have to hurry back to your mum now,” Louis said. “Are you staying for much longer?”

Harry glanced at Nick, who had already wandered closer to Gemma so he could speak with her. “Probably not for long. I think Grimmy has to go back to work.”

Louis nodded, looking away from Nick when Harry did. “Hey listen, Haz,” Louis said moving closer to Harry so he could speak privately. “I wanted to say this this morning but your mum was there. She’s asked me to start working shoots into your schedule, including a joint shoot with you and Gemma. Along with your fittings, you’ll be here almost every other day in the next few weeks. And I just don’t know how you’ll manage school, the bakery, and this business here, especially while preparing for the gala. I just don’t want you to take on more than you can handle.”

“I won’t," Harry said softly. "I promise I can handle it."

Louis studied him momentarily. “You’re so determined."

“I am.” Harry smiled.

Louis released a breathy laugh. “Alright then,” he said. “In that case, I’m still available if you need someone to bake for. I make a proper lab rat when necessary.”

Harry laughed. “Right, I’ll—”

“What are you two giggling about?” Gemma asked, as she and Nick joined him and Louis.

“We were just saying how everyone in the room secretly wants to be you,” Louis said to Gemma. Harry pressed his lips together to suppress a laugh.

“Well, yes,” Gemma said. “But I know you’re lying.”

Louis laughed and then glanced at his watch. “Your mum’s going to kill me if I stay here any longer. I'll see you both later. Oh, and Nick. It was nice meeting you.”

Even if he hadn't completely meant that, Harry thought it was nice that Louis said it anyway. Louis flashed one last grin Harry’s way before brushing past him and heading back the way he’d led them in.

 

* * *

 

Kate Mills (@KatieKat92): Met @Harry_Styles today! He smelled like chocolate. 

Harry Styles (@Harry_Styles): @KatieKat92  Hope you like chocolate then. :)

Mia Lou (@Louie_Boo): @KatieKat92  Did you ask him about modeling?! When’s he coming back?!!

Kate Mills (@KatieKat92): @Louie_Boo  No. Seems like he’s working at a bakery though. That’s where I saw him. Try asking him yourself!

Mia Lou (@Louie_Boo): @Harry_Styles  When will you start modeling again? Please tell me you haven’t retired!

When Harry unlocked his phone after climbing into bed, the tweet waiting for him was from Mia Lou, a girl Harry knew had been following him for quite a while. Mia was only thirteen but from her tweets, Harry knew she was absolutely obsessed with the fashion world, obsessed with his mum and by association and the brief work he’d done, obsessed with him.

Harry wasn’t obscenely popular on Twitter. He had about 60,000 followers, most of which were run-offs from Anne, Gemma, Nick, or Niall’s twitter. Another large percentage of them were fashion experts attempting to keep up with any person who’d ever modelled ever. Pretty much anyone he’d ever gone to school with in primary and secondary school and most of the people Gemma had gone to school with followed Harry as well, even his professors. The rest Harry hoped were people who actually liked him, just because he was him, because he was kind of good-looking maybe, and because he was a little funny when he tried to be.

Mia might have been one of those people. But Harry wasn’t ready to answer questions about modelling. He was still trying to hold off on letting anyone outside of Styles Inc. (aside from Niall and Nick) know that he was hitting the runway once again. Lindsey would just have to wait.

Niall Horan (@Niall_Official): @Harry_Styles  Stop being such a flirt !

Harry snorted as he picked his glass of water up off the nightstand while tweeting a reply with his free hand.

Harry Styles (@Harry_Styles): @Niall_Horan  Sorry that I smell amazing and everybody loves me. 

Niall Horan (@Niall_Official): @Harry_Styles  Everybody?

Niall Horan (@Niall_Official): @L_Tommo  Hey Lou. Why don’t you follow @Harry_Styles? Everybody loves him. 

Harry choked on his water as he sat forward on his bed. He closed Twitter and texted Niall:

'Am going to kerll u.'

"Fuck," he hissed.

'kill*'

Another notification from Twitter popped up on his phone and he hurried to reopen the app.

Louis Tomlinson (@L_Tommo): @Harry_Styles  Why am I not following you?!

Harry bit into his lip, suppressing a hysteric giggle. 

Niall Horan (@Niall_Official): @L_Tommo @Harry_Styles  Good question! 

Harry Styles (@Harry_Styles): @L_Tommo  Bc you like Niall better? =/

Niall Horan (@Niall_Official): @Harry_Styles @L_Tommo  Good point!

Harry was interrupted from waiting for Louis’ next tweet to another twitter notification: @L_Tommo is now following you!

The time it took Harry to follow Louis’ back was non-existent. He might've followed Louis so quickly he reversed time.

Louis Tomlinson (@L_Tommo): @Harry_Styles @Niall_Official Come on boys! I don’t have favourites! 

Niall Horan (@Niall_Official): @L_Tommo  Tell the truth Lou.

This had gone on long enough. Harry smiled as he typed his next tweet.

Harry Styles (@Harry_Styles): @L_Tommo @Niall_Official  Yes, Lou. Tell him that you like me better.

Louis Tomlinson (@L_Tommo): @Harry_Styles  Shhh not like this.

Harry fell backwards on his bed, actually giggling into the back of his hand, rolling over to press his face into his pillow. His phone chimed with another text message. 'Well, would ya look at that!!' Niall sent.

Harry rolled his eyes as another message from Niall popped up.

'You’re welcome.'

And then another: 'I don’t expect gifts in return. But if you feel inclined, some of George’s pastries would be great.'

Given his current mood, Harry actually considered buying those pastries for Niall. As he went to respond to him, his phone chimed yet again and this time, the message he’d received was from Louis. 'Shouldn’t you be asleep?'

Harry couldn’t help but smile as he typed a response. 'Probably. our twitter war took a lot out of me.'

'But you were victorious!'

'I was. You like me better and Niall is sad.'

'I’ll buy him ice cream tomorrow to make up for it.'

'Ice cream is always a good idea.'

'How do you expect to fall asleep if your lamp’s still on? Unless…is that a nightlight?'

Harry glanced at his lamp and then at the window, sitting up in bed again and stretching his neck to peer out of his window that faced the guesthouse. He could just see the roof of the guesthouse where the skylight Harry knew was over the bedroom and the window somewhere beside Louis’ bed was illuminated.

'I don’t have a nightlight :P' Harry sent. 'But your lamp is on too! If I should be asleep, so should you.'

'I’ll go to sleep if you do.'

'Turning my lamp off now.'

While he waited for Louis’ response, he reached over and shut off the lamp by his bed and then looked out the window toward the guesthouse again. The skylight and the window went dark as Louis shut off his lights. Harry burrowed further under his duvet.

'There. Go to sleep!'

'If you insist…'

'See you in the morning.'

'Goodnight Lou!'

'Goodnight Haz.'

Chapter Text

Louis had been tied up in meetings and conference calls with Anne and the rest of the board members all morning, but he kept the rest of his day free for back-to-school shopping with Harry and Niall and sent a car around to pick them up.

The driver had fetched Niall first. While Harry made his way down the drive, Niall popped the door of the sleek black Mercedes open and smiled widely, the sun reflecting off his black sunnies.

“I bet you slept like an angel,” Niall said.

Harry climbed into the car, pushing Niall over as he did. “I don't forgive you,” he said.

Niall laughed. “Did you two continue your foreplay in a direct message?”

“Foreplay?” Harry said in disbelief. “On Twitter? He's better than that." Harry got his phone out of his pocket, unlocked it and passed it to Niall. "He texted me instead.” 

“He wants you,” Niall confirmed, reading over the messages.

“Don't think so. He’s just a nice person,” Harry replied. “Also, as I’ve said, I don’t think he'd want to lose his job.”

“Your mum doesn’t have to know,” Niall said.

“My mum wouldn’t like you as much as she does if she knew half the shit you said to me,” Harry said, taking his phone back from Niall.

“Again...she doesn’t have to know,” Niall said.

Harry spent the remainder of their ride trying to explain why: a) Louis most likely wasn’t interested in him, b) why, even if he was, nothing would happen, c) why Harry was best off not liking Louis at all, and d) why, as Harry’s best mate, Niall should probably be encouraging him to do exactly that.

“But I like him,” Niall said as they pulled up in front of Styles, Inc. and the driver came around to open the door for them.

Harry stepped out and thanked the driver, turning to respond to Niall. “You barely know him,” he said.

“Yeah but you know him well enough now and you like him,” Niall said. “That’s enough for me.”

Harry greeted everyone in the massive lobby as usual, and so did Niall. He'd grown up alongside the family and knew everyone within the corporation almost as well as Harry did. They were still chattering on by the time Louis stepped off the lift across the lobby.

It seemed inevitable that each time Harry saw Louis he'd be momentarily rendered breathless. It was melodramatic, yes, and internally, Harry shamed himself for it. Still it happened every time. Louis was dressed more formally than Harry had seen him in the past few weeks -- the necessary attire on an executive day with meetings full of directors from the offices abroad. Louis wore an actual black suit with crisp black trousers, a black fitted jacket, a light blue button-up shirt, and shiny black shoes.

As he was exiting the lift, he glanced at his silver wristwatch, seeming a little frenzied and clearly overworked.

“Good afternoon, Louis!” Jean, the receptionist, said once she spotted him.

Louis flashed a smile her way but otherwise couldn't spare much attention for her. He scanned the lobby and spotted Harry and Niall seated off to the side, sipping on bottles of sparkling water someone had brought for them while they were waited.

“Hi,” Louis said sighing.

“You look exhausted,” Harry noted.

“I’m very exhausted,” Louis agreed.

As much as it pained Harry to say it, he said it anyway. “You know, we don’t have to go shopping today. We could wait until you feel more up to it.”

“No, no, I need a break,” Louis said. “I appreciate retail therapy as much as the next man.”

Louis fished his keys out of his pocket. “Ready to go?” he asked.

Niall hopped up first. “Sure am," he said excitedly, starting off ahead of them with a bounce to each step.

Harry shook his head. "Sorry about him. We don't take him out much," he said.

Louis snorted. "Please," he said. "I was just sat in a room with the same boring people for five hours. You two are a breath of fresh air." He reached up to unbutton the first button of his shirt and tug at his tie. "Trust me," he added.

Harry smiled. Well, alright then.

Louis led them into the lift that descended to the car park. Harry started to wave at Jean as they walked past the receptionist desk but her eyes were on Louis, so intent it seemed the woman had a thirst that only Louis could quench.

And Louis couldn't have been more unaware. Harry almost felt sorry for her.

When they got to the car, Niall hip-checked Harry towards the front passenger door and with a wink, he slid into the back seat. Harry climbed into the front beside Louis, ruffling and righting his curls in the second before Louis slid into the car.

“There’s an audio cable by your feet,” Louis said to Harry once he'd started the engine. “You can plug your phone in if you’d like.”

“Sure,” Harry said, finding the cable and plugging it into his phone. “My music is kind of weird.”

“Can’t be that bad,” Louis said as he pulled out of the car park, “Anyway, I like weird.”

 

* * *

 

Harry ended up with at least six shopping bags full of clothing by the time they were seated for a late lunch. In his defence, it had been hard to walk away from things that Louis said looked nice on him and there were a lot of things.

Originally, Harry thought Louis would be more hands-off while they were shopping, lingering in the background so Harry and Niall had the space they needed to pick out what they wanted without judgement. But that hadn’t been the case at all. Louis was almost as hands-on as Harry secretly wanted him to be.

He matched jackets with shirts and neckties. He let Harry dress himself for the most part but stepped in to tie his necktie. He looped a perfect Windsor knot every time while a bit of his tongue peeked out the corner of pink lips, his brow furrowed in concentration.

Louis probably helped dress people all the time now and Harry, who’d been dressed countless times himself, shouldn’t have been so affected by Louis buttoning and straightening and smoothing his hands down the arms of Harry’s blazer.

But Harry was incredibly affected.

Of course, none of it compared to this moment near the end of their shopping expedition: Harry had stripped down to his pants to pull on a pair of grey trousers and glanced into the mirror and for just the smallest fraction of a second, he found Louis’ eyes on his legs. Such a minuscule amount of time, he'd almost missed it. In the next half-second, Louis seemed to remember where he was, where he was looking, and looked away, studying his phone instead.

So, altogether? Shopping had gone better than expected and if Harry was likely to be dressed and fondled and admired by Louis every time, he'd be doing a lot more shopping in the future.

Afterwards, they stopped at a record store where Louis and Niall geeked out over old-school cassettes and ate lunch at an outdoor café and finished off the day with ice cream, as Louis had promised. Sitting in Louis’ car again, Harry tried to catch any melting drops of strawberry ice cream with his tongue before it could ruin the interior. Louis didn’t seem to care at all, even when his own ice cream dripped onto the edge of his seat.

“So, my mum’s having Flora prepare dinner tonight,” Harry said after they’d dropped Niall off and were headed back home. “And I think I’m going to ask her if I can help.”

“I bet she’d love that,” Louis said.

“Hopefully,” Harry said. He paused, pulling at the frayed knee of his jeans. “Anyway, I was just mentioning it 'cause maybe you'd like to come over too? Like for dinner? My parents and Gemma’ll be there. And Flora too. She eats dinner with us sometimes.”

Louis thought about it for a moment. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “If everyone’s fine with it. Can’t refuse a good meal.”

“Especially one made a bit by me,” Harry said smiling.

Louis chuckled. “Especially that, yeah.”

 

* * *

 

They entered through the back door into the house.

Trailing behind Harry, Louis paused, looking past the dining room into the front parlour. “Didn’t notice the piano there before,” he said.

Harry came back to stand beside him and looked too. “Oh yeah, my mum was having it repainted.”

“Hm,” Louis hummed. “Is it tuned, do you know?”

“It should be.” Harry glanced at Louis questioningly. “Do you play?”

Louis smiled. “Not so much anymore.”

Harry's reaction was miraculously civilized. “Show me? Please?” he asked, near to bouncing on his toes. He grabbed Louis’ forearm and tugged him towards the piano.

“I’m really not that great,” Louis said, though he was laughing at Harry’s eagerness.

“Doesn’t matter,” Harry said a little breathlessly as they came to stop in front of the piano. “Come on, come on.”

Louis plopped down on the bench in front of the piano, smiling up at Harry. “What do you want me to play?” he said.

“Your favourite song,” Harry said. “Or whatever you want. Doesn't matter.”

Louis lifted his hands up from his lap and settled his fingers lightly on the keys. “Sit,” he said nodding to the space on the bench beside him. 

He didn’t have to tell Harry twice. If Harry weren't so intent on hearing Louis play, he might have perched himself in his lap instead.

Harry sat down on the edge of the bench next to Louis as he pressed the first set of keys. Harry marvelled at the delicate ease with which Louis’ hands moved over the keys and the fan of his eyelashes over his cheeks as his gaze moved to follow his hands.

“This is ‘Look After You’,” Louis said softly and added, “One of my favourites.”

Harry nodded, unable to speak, his eyes flitting from Louis’ face and the tiny smirk on his lips to Louis’ hands and the way they almost looked to be dancing on a floor of black and white marble. Louis glanced at Harry as he played and smiled.

In an ideal world, when Louis was finished, this was the part where he would lean over and kiss Harry. Harry had seen scenes like that in movies. Pretty Woman, to be exact. It'd be perfect. He was so ready for it.

Instead, Louis finished playing, smiled contentedly, and returned his hands to his lap.

“Didn’t think I could still do that,” he said. “It’s been a while.”

“You were amazing,” Harry muttered.

Louis’ smile turned sheepish and he scratched at his scruffy chin. His bashfulness was the closest thing Harry would get to making Louis blush. “Thanks, H,” Louis said, his eyes crinkled at the corners.

Harry couldn’t stop staring at him. He tried, but he was stuck in the moment, enthralled by the heat of Louis’ leg against his own. And he’d honestly never wanted to be kissed more than he did right then. He'd trade every kiss he’d ever gotten if he could have this one from Louis.

Louis seemed to sense the change in the air around them, the shift from the friendly music session this had started out as to something fraught with tension. It seemed to surprise him. Harry could see it on his face, and thought, 'Good. I've got your attention.' He felt himself move. Maybe he leaned in.

The sound of a door closing echoed throughout the house and Louis tore his eyes away from Harry’s, his brows creasing. He blinked as he pulled the fallboard down over the piano keys and stood up, his eyes passing over Harry again. Harry stood up too, shuffling off the bench.

Flora stepped into the open then, holding a few grocery bags in her arms. “Oh, hello,” she said.

Louis nodded politely. Harry waved and then, noticing the bags, hurried forward and took two of them from her, happy for something else to do besides feel awkward. Before he followed her to the kitchen, he turned back to Louis. “Um. I’m going to help her with dinner now,” he said. “You’re still staying, yeah?”

Louis stood beside the piano, one hand gripping the top of it. He still had that confused, wary look in his eyes, as he said, “yeah, of course."

“Good,” Harry said and then taking a breath, he turned and headed after Flora.

 

* * *

 

It would be a lie to say that Louis texting him around midnight to cancel their run in the morning hadn’t freaked Harry out. Because it had. After last night, after that moment at the piano, Harry didn’t know what to think.

Things had ended on an average note, although Louis still seemed pensive whenever he met eyes with Harry across the table. Nonetheless, he’d said goodbye to everyone, saving his last goodbye for Harry. Before he’d slipped out of the glass doors, he’d even said: “see you in the morning” by habit because Harry was always rushing down the drive to meet Louis for their run.

Harry stared at the ceiling now, trying and failing to stop his mind from cycling through horrible reasons why Louis had cancelled. Maybe he knew for sure now just how Harry felt about him. Maybe he knew and he needed space.

Harry had to get out of bed. He grabbed his mobile and went downstairs to the kitchen for breakfast.

Gemma was just turning on the kettle when Harry entered and squinted at him through her glasses. “Why are you up so early?” she asked.

“Not tired,” Harry replied.

“Why can’t you be a normal teenager?” she said.

“Normal teenagers come from normal families,” Harry explained.

“Ah!” she said. “Good point.” She extracted another mug from the cupboard for Harry, placing it beside her own. As they waited for the water to boil, she came and sat across from Harry where her bowl of granola waited.

“What are you up to today?” Harry asked.

“More fittings. Lunch with the girls,” Gemma said, spooning granola into her mouth. “You could come too if you’ve got nothing on.”

“Can’t. Driving to Leeds with Niall after work, remember?” Harry said.

“Right. Lucky shit,” Gemma drawled. “How do you even have the time?”

Harry laughed breathily, unlocking his phone. “I don’t really.”

He pulled up twitter. “I’d probably not go if not for Niall. I promised him I would for his birthday.”

“What a good lad you are,” Gemma said.

Harry smirked at her and dropped his gaze to his phone and Louis’ twitter, just as the kettle began to boil and Gemma stood up to fix their tea.

Louis didn’t tweet often. Harry knew because ever since following him a day ago, he’d been checking his feed periodically. Harry would admit in his own time that he had a slight problem.

“Did Louis tell you about the joint shoot? In October, I think?” Gemma asked. "With Nick Knight. He's quite fond of you, isn't he?"

Harry started to respond to her but then forgot whatever he’d been planning to say. He felt a little jolt of excitement when he saw Louis had tweeted earlier that morning. But it lessened immediately once he realised both tweets were only responses to someone else. Harry read them anyway, quickly and half-heartedly.

Louis Tomlinson (@L_Tommo): @EleanorJCalder Hmm...perhaps you’re right. x

Louis Tomlinson (@L_Tommo): @EleanorJCalder What do you think..?

He read them again and then a third time and finally, he clicked on the handle of the person Louis had been tweeting.

The twitter that came up belonged to the Eleanor Calder that the handle referenced with a picture of a pretty dark-haired girl who looked to be Louis’ age. Harry hesitated for a moment before scrolling down. Surely, this was a minor violation of privacy. But Twitter was a public space, he reminded himself, and if Louis and his friend wanted their conversation to be kept private, they would've spoken privately.

Eleanor had sent three tweets to Louis that morning. The first, which Harry assumed had started the conversation, read this:

Eleanor Calder (@EleanorJCalder): @L_Tommo Wouldn’t your girlfriend be your favourite person?

“Why do you look like someone’s just murdered David Bowie?” Gemma asked when she’d turned around to pour water into their cups. Harry heard her opening the fridge but he didn’t turn to look at her or respond. He scrolled up to the next tweet.

Eleanor Calder (@EleanorJCalder): @L_Tommo I would think yes. :)

Harry scrolled to the final, most recent tweet:

Eleanor Calder (@EleanorJCalder): @L_Tommo Love you! xx

Harry put his phone down on the countertop and stared at it.

“What’s wrong with you?” Gemma said, coming to his side.

Harry shook his head. “Sorry. It’s nothing. I’m fine.”

“You didn’t answer my question about the photo shoot,” Gemma said. “It’s in October. Did Louis mention it to you?”

“Um, yeah. He might have said something about it. I’ll be there,” Harry said, mechanically.

Gemma placed both hands on Harry’s shoulders, turning him to face her. She ducked her head and looked into his eyes. “What is the matter with you?” she enunciated.

“Nothing,” Harry answered.

“That’s bullshit and you know it,” Gemma said dropping her hands but staying close. “Did Niall say something weird? Was it Nick?”

Harry shook his head again. Both were good excuses but he didn’t like to lie. “It's neither of them...” Harry said. “Sorry. I’m feeling a bit poorly.” That at least was the truth. “Should probably go lie down again. Need to feel better before work.”

Gemma gave him a little space, looking at him warily. “You do look pale,” she said. “Go then. I’ll bring your tea up.”

“Thanks,” Harry said, standing and shuffling back up the stairs and to his room. Once he’d shut the door, he leaned back against it and reread the conversation between Louis and Eleanor a few more times. No matter how you looked at it, the implication seemed clear: Eleanor was Louis’ girlfriend. Louis had a girlfriend.

Harry closed twitter and sent a text to Niall: 'Look at Louis’ twitter. Tell me I’ve read something wrong.'

He didn’t explain much more than that. He expected Niall to figure it out on his own. He locked his phone, tossed it on the bed and then went to take a shower. He didn’t want to have to face Gemma when she came in to bring him his tea. So he remained under the spray of hot water for a long while, listening to music from his waterproof Bluetooth speaker.

He didn’t want to think of Louis anymore. He didn’t want to think of anything, really. He let the music and the water drown it all out.

 

* * *

 

“I’ve read it like fifty times,” Harry said. He threw his rucksack and duffle into the boot of Niall’s car. Beside him Niall lifted the cooler into the boot and then shut it.

“It could be a joke,” Niall said. “People say shit like that all the time. I’ve called you my boyfriend before.”

“I’m almost positive you haven’t,” Harry said when they were seated in the car.

Niall started the engine. “But people do all the time,” Niall said.

Harry sighed. “I don’t think that’s what this is,” he said.

“You don’t know,” Niall insisted.

“Niall,” Harry said. “Honestly? I don’t think there’s anything you could say to make this better. But thank you for trying.”

Niall frowned and reluctantly turned his attention to the road. Harry reached over and turned up the music, and then settled back in his seat, staring out the window as they pulled away from his house.

He felt bad for acting the way he was, for being selfish and childish when this was supposed to be an early birthday celebration for Niall. The next two days were supposed to be explosive. He was supposed to be having more fun than he’d had all summer. He was supposed to be living out the rest of his summer hypnotized by unforgettable music and swaying bodies, not whining over some man he’d only met less than a month ago.

Nonetheless, when he drifted off to sleep somewhere along the M1, those tweets were the last things he thought of and the first when he woke up an hour later. Niall was stopped at an Asda to refill on petrol and fetch them bags of crisps and bottles of water.

“Look who’s awake,” Niall said, getting back into the car and tossing the snacks in the centre console.

Harry yawned into the sleeve of his jumper.

“Are you feeling like actually talking now?” Niall asked.

Harry sighed. “I just woke up.”

“We should still talk about it,” Niall said as they started back on the motorway, music playing softly out of the speakers.

“I don’t know what there is to talk about? Louis has a girlfriend. Whatever I thought was happening between us definitely wasn’t happening,” Harry said. “That’s it.”

“Okay,” Niall said.

Harry sighed, scrubbing at his eyes with the heels of his hands. “I’m sorry I’m being such a twat,” Harry said after a moment.

“It’s alright,” Niall smiled.

“No, really,” Harry said, sitting up a little. “We’re supposed to be celebrating your birthday and I’m here being moody. That isn’t fair.”

“Well, I understand,” Niall said. “To be honest, I feel a little shit myself for pushing you so hard. I don’t think either one of us thought he might be with someone already. ‘Spose it makes sense given how he is and all.”

“Yeah,” Harry said softly, looking out the window again. “’Spose it does.”

Niall groaned, shaking himself back and forth while clutching the wheel. “Come on, Haz,” he said, reaching over and ruffling Harry’s hair. “Don’t even think about it. Just think about Leeds! Think about how fucking amazing this’ll be!”

Harry didn’t have to try too hard to smile. Niall’s manic enthusiasm made him laugh in spite of the sick feeling he’d had in his stomach since the morning.

“You’re right,” he said forcing himself to sound somewhat cheerful. “I’m excited.”

“Maybe not right now,” Niall said, not fooled at all. “But you will be. If you keep telling yourself that, eventually it’ll just be true.”

“I’m excited,” Harry repeated.

“There you go,” Niall said. “Again!”

“I’m excited,” Harry said a little louder this time.

“Yell it!” Niall urged.

Harry looked at him questioningly.

“I’m serious,” Niall said, jabbing the window button to lower Harry’s window. “Stick your head out of the window and just scream. It’ll make you feel better.”

Harry hesitated for only a second and then he leaned over to the window, poked his head out as much as he dared, letting the wind swirl his hair about his head, into his eyes and his mouth. He didn’t care. He actually laughed.

“I’m fucking excited,” he shouted.

Niall was laughing too and when Harry sat back in his seat, he cranked the volume on the music.

“That felt great,” Harry said and he meant it that time. He felt better already. A little deranged, maybe. But better than before. And that was all that really mattered.

 

* * *

 

Harry woke in their tent feeling even better than when he’d fallen asleep. He was at Leeds with his best mate and maybe 100,000 other fun-loving people. Today he would get drunk and dance and scream his head off. When he got back to London, only then would he give proper thought to Louis and the now unclear state of his bachelorhood. But there was too much else to be excited about here.

He and Niall were up early, sipping coffee outside of their tent and eating eggs over easy that Niall had made. They struck up a nice conversation with their neighbours who gave them both some of the fruit they’d bought.

One of the girls with those campers kept giving Harry sidelong glances that he assumed were meant to be furtive but weren't at all. She was pretty and it would have been easy enough to spend a night with her if she were up for it. Their tents were only a few feet apart.

But thinking about fucking anyone anywhere only made him think about Louis, and he likely wouldn't stop thinking about Louis while fucking her. So it was best to spare them both.

They spent the rest of the day making new friends and wandering the grounds at Leeds, paying scant attention to the line-up schedule. They shared a spliff with a young rich gay couple who recognized Harry from a few fashion shows they’d been to. 

“When are you getting back to modelling?” one of them had asked.

Harry shrugged. By now he was feeling a little foggy. “Someday,” he said, which was true with Berlin coming up in January.

One of the men nodded. “That’s good news,” he said, reaching out and patting Harry on his shoulder. Harry didn’t understand why but he smiled at the man anyway.

By nightfall, Harry had downed two pints of some fancy ale Niall bought him and Niall disappeared to fetch him a third. Harry was stood there, with his hands in his pockets, swaying and bopping his head to the beat of some swanky house music. He had a flower crown made of daisies around his head that one of his neighbours had given him, wearing a plaid knit jumper and dark green Hunter boots. So far they'd been blessed with clear skies but when it rained -- and it absolutely would -- there'd be mud everywhere. Faintly, he could already hear a rumble of thunder.

Harry glanced around for the millionth time and finally spotted Niall’s blond hair as he cut through the crowd, making his way to Harry. The look on his face was less than pleasant, tense in a way that made Harry’s own smile falter and then dissipate altogether when he saw who was with him. Niall’s face turned apologetic as he came to a stop in front of him but Harry smiled reassuringly at him.

And then he looked at Louis.

“Hey,” Louis said, grinning. Beside him was another man, someone Harry had obviously never met before.

"Hi," Harry said. “Why didn’t you tell me you’d be here?”

“Someone only recently gave us their passes for the day. Had a death in the family,” Louis said with a frown. “Pretty morbid reason, I know.”

“Only for today?” Harry asked.

“Unfortunately. Would have loved to stay and camp with everyone. But tomorrow’s a pretty busy day at the office,” Louis said. “Anyway, there’s this band that comes on in an hour that I’ve always wanted to see.”

Harry glanced at the man who was with Louis, shooting him a smile, earning one in return.

“I’m Stan,” he said, nudging Louis out of the way with his shoulder and holding out a hand for Harry to shake.

“Harry,” he said shaking Stan’s hand. “And this is Niall.”

“We met,” Stan said.

“We were in line for pints and I saw Niall’s hair," Louis said. "Distinguishable mop you have, mate."

Niall snorted even though he’d been standing quietly and tensely since they’d returned. “That’s why I did it. Wanted to stand out."

“Did you do it yourself?” Stan asked.

“No, my mum actually,” Niall said. He started to explain in more detail his mum’s artistic skills but whatever he was saying faded to the background for Harry. He felt his gaze drawn to Louis. Their eyes met and Louis smiled in a private way that made Harry’s stomach flutter.

“Do you want to sit with us?” Harry asked Louis and Stan when Niall had finished his tale about his hair. The last band had finished their set and now people were sitting down on the grass or on blankets they’d brought with them.

Louis glanced at Stan for approval. “Yeah, we should."

“I’ll go get us those pints,” Stan said, as Harry and Louis sat down. “Niall, want to come with?”

Niall looked apprehensive about leaving Harry alone with Louis, which Harry found ridiculous but endearing. Niall liked Louis, Harry knew that, but at the end of the day, he was Harry’s greatest friend, and if Harry didn’t want to be alone with Louis, Niall would park his arse by Harry’s side and remain there as long as Harry needed him to.

“Bring one for me too, please?” Harry asked, as a way of reassuring him.

With that, Niall sauntered off after Stan.

“So, how’s your day been?” Louis asked when they were alone.

“Fun, yeah,” Harry said. “And crazy. Everyone here is crazy. But like, the good kind of crazy. Like, I wouldn’t mind being that crazy too.”

“I’m sure you are. You just have to wait for the right song,” Louis said. “The right music makes everyone crazy.”

“The band coming on next, are they the ones to make you crazy?” Harry asked raising his brows.

“Oh, Harold,” Louis said, tilting his head and giving him a disapproving look (though with his bright blue eyes, the effect was mostly diminished). “You’ll just have to wait and see.”

Harry snorted, pulling his knees up to his chest and resting his head down on them. Louis smiled, his gaze lingering on Harry’s face for a second.

“I think they’re coming on soon,” Louis said.

“Good. 'Cause I’m knackered.”

“What? No, you’re young. You’re supposed to be full of life, full of energy. Leave the getting tired to me.”

“You’re young too, Louis.”

“Not as young as you,” Louis teased.

He was only joking, but Harry had a sudden flare of annoyance anyway, which was annoying in and of itself. He wished they could go back and start all over again. He wished he could rewind to a time when he wasn't so sensitive to Louis' every word, every thought, every feeling. (If that time even existed...) Because he couldn't deny that he was bothered now by such a slight comment. The last thing he needed was Louis pointing out their age difference.

“You’re not that much older than me,” Harry said.

Louis picked up on the irritation without fail. “No, you’re right. I know.”

They drifted into silence that wasn’t entirely comfortable. Harry picked at a blade of grass at the edge of the blanket, looking at the people seated around them. He caught the eye of a girl off to the side and slightly in front of them, her knees close to her chest in a similar position as Harry. He thought at first that she was looking at him but when he’d caught her gaze a second time, he realized she was looking just a bit past him, looking at Louis.

Harry thought about all those times before with Jean and the other receptionist named Cole where they had openly gawked at Louis. Their eyelashes were practically fluttering and tiny pink hearts might as well have been floating around their heads. But Louis hadn’t even given them a second glance. All along, Harry thought that Louis was simply used to the attention. Because he had to know how gorgeous he was. There'd even been a foolish degree of arrogance on Harry's part, thinking that even if Louis wasn't interested in Jean or Cole, Harry could be different.

And all this time-

Perhaps, it'd been because of his girlfriend. Because he was a faithful boyfriend. Because neither Jean nor Cole nor Harry had been lucky enough.

“Looks like they’re starting,” Louis said, beginning to push himself up.

Harry did the same, slowly, glancing at the girl again, who made eye contact with him this time and looked away shamefully. Harry glanced at Louis who was looking at the stage, not at him, not at her.

Harry didn’t realize when Niall came back to stand on his right. Only when he felt Niall’s arm around his shoulders did he look at him.

“Alright?” Niall asked, voice laden with concern.

Harry nodded, taking the proffered beer. “Yeah, I’m good.” He forced a smile and then looked towards the stage again.

In truth, he felt sick to his stomach and embarrassed and stupid. He'd made his feelings so transparent. He’d flirted openly with Louis and worst of all, fooled himself into thinking he had a chance. Even now, as he was erecting walls and shutting himself off, there was still the slightest ray of hope, prompting him to seek definite answers and definite rejection. Because without it, even the slightest ray was allowed to shine.

He glanced at Louis. “Hey,” he said, loud enough to be heard over the music.

Louis looked at him, inclined his ear closer to Harry’s mouth.

“See that girl over there?” Harry asked, “Wearing the pink dress?”

Louis glanced over to their right, finding the girl. “Yeah. What of her?”

“She’s been staring at you for the past thirty minutes,” Harry said, exaggerating a bit.

“Yeah?” Louis wondered, laughing a little.

Harry could just laugh too. He could let the conversation end right there. But he forced himself to keep going. “Yeah. I set Niall up on dates all the time,” he said. “I could probably do it for you too, if you want. I could ask her for her number? Or get her to come over?”

Louis’ smile faltered. He looked at Harry, his eyebrows furrowed. “Why would you want to do that?”

Of course he fucking didn’t. Harry shrugged. “You’re my friend. And she’s pretty. I just like to help.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to do that, Harry,” Louis said, frowning. "Even if I was interested. And I'm not."

“Even if I wanted to? If you were interested?” Harry asked.

Louis stared at him for a few seconds longer than was comfortable for Harry, his greyish-blue eyes seemingly looking right through Harry’s façade, insusceptible to the smoke and the mirrors. "Not even then," he said. “But thanks.”

It started to rain right then. Not the warning drops Harry had been feeling for the past hour. Not a downpour either. Just enough to dampen his hair and wet his eyelashes.

Harry glanced up at the sky and then he turned to Louis and asked, “Why not?”

After a second of unexplainable hesitation, Louis answered. “I have a girlfriend.”

There it was. Harry looked towards the stage again. "Oh," he said, swallowing. He blinked rapidly as though dust had gotten into his eyes, which was the only explanation for the way they burned around the edges. No fucking way was he about to cry. But at least if he did, the rain would provide cover for tears.

“Good for you,” Harry said stupidly.

He could feel Louis’ eyes on him for a moment longer, while he forced himself to keep blinking. Finally, Louis looked away and Harry felt a second of relief, a second of ease before the hurt came settling back in, taking shelter in the fragile space of his heart with the promise that it would be there indefinitely.

Chapter Text

It seemed that if nothing else was true about God, he at least had to have a sense of humour. That was the only way Harry could explain why that morning unfolded the way it did. The only explanation that made sense was that somewhere, in some castle in space, God—despite his unending compassion—was laughing at him.

Several mornings after they returned from Leeds, Louis texted to tell him that he couldn’t go for their run. Harry woke up early anyway. He had to be at the bakery by 9 AM and Bacon couldn’t walk himself. (Well, he could but there was a chance he wouldn’t come back.)

Harry got out of bed, tied his hair up into a bun, and pulled on some comfy sweats. He was more tired than usual but that only made sense with all the craziness of Leeds and the craziness of Louis. Harry would be happy to sleep for a year if possible.

He clipped Bacon’s leash on and then exited out the front door, walking down the drive. Passing the entrance to the guesthouse, it was impossible to not turn his head and look to see if Louis’ car was still there. He should have left for work hours ago and the drive should have been empty. But while Louis’ car was gone, there was another parked in its place.

Harry frowned at the small white vehicle. It wasn’t likely to be an intruder because Harry didn’t think many intruders parked their conspicuous-looking vehicles right in the drive of someone’s home. Doing so was also impossible with the black gate locked and sealing off the entrance. Whoever it was, Louis had to know they were there.

And then it hit him.

Harry tried to weigh the odds of the car belonging to Louis’ girlfriend, the odds of potentially running into this girl he’d only found out about three days ago. Given that the universe probably had it out for him and somewhere God was readying his punchline, Harry would say the odds were great.

If it was Eleanor, he didn’t really want to stick around to find out. He wrapped the end of Bacon’s leash around his hand more tightly and started walking him down the pavement, eager to clear the area.

Not that it mattered. It was on his way back around the neighbourhood at the end of his walk, that she decided to leave. He was passing the guesthouse when the sound of the front door shutting made him look instinctively. He saw a slender woman making her way down the steps, tucking her long dark hair behind her ear as she headed toward the white car. Harry looked away and hurried forwards, pausing by his mailbox. He heard the front gate of the guesthouse open behind him but he didn’t turn, not even to the sound of the car peeling away from the drive. Eleanor in her small white car passed him, hair blowing away from her face. She didn’t look at him. She didn’t even seem to notice anyone there. Harry waited until she had rounded the corner all the way at the end of the street and disappeared from view.

 

* * *

 

Harry tapped on the glass door of the guesthouse and waited. Louis appeared moments later, unlocked the door and pushed it open.

“Hey,” he said, clearly confused.

“Hi. Want to help me frost cupcakes?” Harry asked, holding up the small pink box in his hands.

Louis stepped away from the door in reply, allowing Harry to step inside.  “More homework from George and Ivor?” he asked.

“Yes. Well, kind of,” Harry said, sliding the pink box onto the kitchen counter and then placing the paper bag full of ingredients and supplies beside it. “These are the rejects. After I’m done icing them, Ivor says I can eat them. I thought I’d share them with you.”

“Good lad,” Louis smiled at him. He opened the box and peeked inside at the misshapen unfrosted cupcakes.

“They’re just unique looking. They taste just as good as the others,” Harry assured him.

Louis laughed. “I’m sure they do,” he said. He sat down on one of the bar stools. “So how can I help?”

“I’ll do the actual frosting part and then you can eat them afterwards and tell me how the frosting tastes,” Harry explained.

“That’s exactly the kind of assistance I’m best at giving,” Louis said.

Harry chuckled, unpacking the bag he’d brought along. He lined up the ingredients: confectioner’s sugar, two small cases of strawberries or blueberries, a stick of butter, and vanilla extract.

“What kind of frosting are you making?” Louis wondered.

“It’s George’s recipe. Berry frosting? Turns out purple because of the combination of blueberries and strawberries. It tastes amazing,” Harry said. “Normally it does. I don’t know how mine will taste.”

“Bit hard to mess this up, innit?” Louis asked.

“That’s what you’d think. But I’ve been following their recipes exactly as they’re written and nothing ever tastes as good as when they make it themselves,” Harry said.

“I’ll have to be the judge of that,” Louis said.

Harry withdrew the heavy stand-mixer from a cupboard beneath the sink.

“I didn’t even know that was there,” Louis said.

“Funny story. Four years ago, my mum’s assistant at the time put up a fuss because she claimed this house wasn’t furnished well enough to support life. She said she shouldn’t have to buy appliances like a mixer if she was expected to live here. So my mum bought her a mixer and every other appliance a person could ever need in a home,” Harry explained while he got the food processor out. “There’s an ice cream maker somewhere around here and one of those contraptions to make your own pasta. Literally anything you could ever need to make anything.”

Louis raised both eyebrows. “If I complain about the lack of a trampoline, do you think your mum would buy me one?”

“Why do you want a trampoline?” Harry asked.

“Are you kidding? Why wouldn’t I?” Louis said incredulously, looking at Harry like he’d personally offended him.

“I think my mum would get you one if you were really insistent,” Harry said. “Want to pull the leaves off the strawberries?”

“Sure,” Louis said. He pushed his sleeves up like they were at risk of getting dirty and took the case of strawberries from him. Harry found it endearing how serious he got about the minuscule task and of course, Louis’ tattoos were always a sight for sore eyes. Louis began plucking away and couldn’t resist sneaking one of the strawberries into his mouth.

“So,” Harry said. “You never told me what your girlfriend’s name was.”

Louis looked up at him as he chewed. “You never asked,” he said.

“Well, what’s her name?” Harry said.

“Eleanor.”

Harry tossed the stick of butter into the mixer and turned it on. “How old is she?”

“24,” Louis said. “What flavour are those cupcakes?”

Harry looked at him confusedly. “Some are vanilla and some are lemon.”

“Sounds ace. ‘Specially the lemon with the berry frosting,” he said.

Harry added the package of confectioner’s sugar to the mixer. “So how long have you been dating Eleanor?”

“Two years, I think,” Louis said after a moment.

“Where’d you meet her?” Harry asked.

Louis sighed. “Why do you have so many questions about her?”

“Uh,” Harry said slowly. “Well, we’re friends, aren’t we?”

The look in Louis’ eyes softened and he gave Harry a small smile. “Yeah, I’d like to think so.”

“Friends know things like this about each other. I didn’t even know you had a girlfriend until three days ago,” Harry said. “Anyway, answer the question.”

“We met in uni,” Louis said sliding the strawberries over to Harry. “But we didn’t start dating until graduation.”

“Why? What stopped you?” Harry asked. He tossed the berries into the food processor to puree them.

Louis watched the berries swirling around. “Just wasn’t the right time I suppose.”

Harry spooned the pureed berries into the mixer. “So then what changed?”

“We went out with a few mutual friends who’d been trying to match us up for a while and they took off halfway through dinner. And so we ended up having to pay the bill but we also made plans to have dinner again, just us two, and that was it,” Louis said shrugging.

Harry stared at Louis, not realising that he was frowning until Louis looked at him and asked, “What?”

“Sorry,” Harry said. “That's just not very romantic.” As the words left his mouth, he realised how harsh they were and immediately wanted to take them back. But it was too late.

Louis raised an eyebrow. “It’s not a scene from a romance film, Harry. It’s real life. Sometimes that’s how it happens,” Louis said flicking a strawberry leaf across the counter. “And anyway, we’ve been together for two years so I hardly think it matters.” He stood up from the barstool.

“Sorry,” Harry said, quickly. “That was stupid. I didn’t mean- I just thought there would be more.”

“Why?” Louis asked.

Because Harry hated to think it'd been that easy to snag Louis. That he'd lost out on him because Eleanor was simply in the right place at the right time. Because they were both single and attractive and graduating into adulthood at the same moment.

“Just did,” Harry said, removing the mixing bowl from the mixer and sticking a spatula into the fresh frosting.

Louis stared at him for a moment.

“You’re not upset with me, are you?” Harry asked.

Louis came around the corner of the counter, standing beside Harry. “I’m not upset,” he said. “I just want to taste the frosting.”

Harry smiled, sliding the bowl closer to Louis. They both stuck their fingers into the frosting and licked it off. Harry moved his tongue along the roof of his mouth, trying to process the taste.

“I think it’s great,” Louis said.

Harry smiled. “Me too. Don’t know if it’s as good as George makes it though.”

“It’s as good as you made it,” Louis said. He picked up the pink box of cupcakes and placed them on the counter next to the metal bowl. Harry used the spatula to move the frosting into a piping bag. Louis placed the first cupcake down in front of him.

“So what about you? Why aren’t you dating anyone?” Louis asked as Harry began frosting the cupcake.

Harry’s brow was furrowed in focus. He wasn’t eager to answer Louis’ question but mostly he didn’t want to ruin the cupcake. “Dunno,” he said. “I’m waiting for the right person.”

“Do you at least fancy anyone?” Louis wondered.

Harry finished with the cupcake and stood up straighter to examine it. He scratched at his cheek, smearing a little frosting on his face and moved the frosted cupcake to the side. “Can I have another one?” he asked.

Louis got him another one and placed it down. “Is that a no?” he asked.

Harry began frosting again. “Yeah, I like someone,” he said quietly. “But I can’t tell you who.”

“Do I know them?” Louis said.

“Yeah,” Harry said, his heart thudded loudly in his ears. He felt like they were walking on a bridge made of glass riddled with cracks. Louis simply had to step on the right one. Ask the right questions and everything would shatter. He finished the cupcake. “Another, please."

Louis put another cupcake down. “Would you tell me if I guessed?”

No, the fuck he would not. “Maybe,” Harry said, licking frosting off his knuckle.

Louis watched Harry working for a moment. Harry didn’t have to ask him to replace the frosted cupcake when he was done. Louis placed another unfrosted one in front of him.

“Are we talking about a girl or a boy?” Louis wondered.

“Not a girl,” Harry said. He felt weird referring to Louis as a boy. But responding with “a man” would have been equally weird.

“Is it Niall?” Louis said.

“Nope.”

Louis drummed his fingers on the counter. “Is it Nick?”

“Do you really know him?” Harry shot Louis a bewildered glance before focusing on the cupcake in front of him.

“That isn’t an answer,” Louis said. When Harry didn’t respond, he said, “Tell me it isn’t Nick.”

“Would that be bad?” Harry wondered.

Louis studied him momentarily, his lips pressed together. He passed Harry another unfrosted cupcake. “You aren’t answering the question.”

Harry sighed. “It’s not Nick.”

If Louis meant to hide the relief on his face, he didn’t do it very well. “Stan?” he asked.

Harry huffed a laugh. “I hardly remember what he looks like,” he said. In his head, he began carting through the possible names Louis could guess, working through the list the way Louis might have been. Niall, Nick, Stan. Who did that leave? Not very many people. In fact, only one.

Louis snorted. “I give up,” he said.

“You do?” Harry said. He was a little disappointed, though he didn’t know why. If Louis guessed himself, Harry didn’t actually know what he would say. But he felt like he’d been brought to a high only to fall so far back down.

“I think I’ve guessed everyone. Only thing I can think now is that you don’t want to tell me,” Louis said. “Which is fine. I understand you’d like to keep it secret.”

Harry watched Louis walk to the sink, grab a dishtowel and run the corner of it under the tap. Louis came back to Harry.

“You have frosting on your face,” Louis said.

Harry instinctively raised his hand to wipe his face but that only resulted in him smearing more of it.

“I’ll get it,” Louis said.

Harry nodded, watching as Louis stepped a little closer and wiped the dishrag across his cheek. When Louis was done, he tossed the rag into the sink.

“Do you want a cupcake now?” Harry asked.

“Sure,” Louis said.

Harry turned away from him to grab a frosted lemon cupcake and handed it to him. He watched him take a bite of it, waiting intently for his reaction.

“This is amazing,” Louis said, groaning. Harry catalogued that sound for later when he was having a wank. “Fuck. It’s so good.”

Harry grinned, his cheeks flushing. He watched Louis chew for a moment before dropping his gaze to the frosted cupcakes. He picked up one of his own, unwrapping the paper around it slowly. “You didn’t guess everyone,” Harry said.

“No?” Louis said, raising an eyebrow. He took another bite of his cupcake.

Harry shook his head. “Nope,” he said. “But you’ve already given up. So I can’t tell you now even if you guess right.”

Louis laughed. “That's fair,” he said, tossing the cupcake wrapper in the trash. Harry picked up another unfrosted cupcake and the piping bag and went back to work.

“Is it me?”

Harry froze, frosting oozing out of the piping bag missing the cupcake by an inch and running instead down its side.

Harry’s eyes flickered to Louis’, whose eyes had shifted to the sloppy rope of frosting falling over the cupcake. Then they met Harry’s again, understanding and realization evident in the deep blue, and it was like that moment at the piano again, only so much worse.

Harry swallowed thickly, setting the piping bag down. He dropped his gaze on the cupcake and began to scrape the mess of frosting off so he could start over. “I already told you,” he said, hoping his voice sounded steadier than it felt. “You forfeited.”

“Right, of course,” Louis said. He turned away from Harry. “You know I think those cupcakes would be good with tea.” 

 

* * *

 

Let it never be said that Nick Grimshaw threw a boring party. That was Nick’s motto. One of them at least. He had a plethora of other ones that he spouted off to Harry at random.

Nick threw parties for every reason and no reason at all. Sometimes he woke up in the morning with the need to have a party and being who he was with the connections he had, people were begging for an invite. All he had to do was send out a text to a few choice people and the rest unfolded on its own.

When Harry got Nick’s text that afternoon, he was actually excited. He needed to get drunk and maybe dance with some new people, maybe kiss some others. It definitely wasn’t the best way of coping with his feelings but he didn’t have very many options.

With Niall visiting his grandparents that weekend and Gemma spending the night with Aaron, Harry had to take a car to Nick’s by himself, which was fine. This particular coping mechanism didn’t necessarily require backup.

Two hours and five drinks later he’d say he was feeling pretty great. He had a beautiful, though incredibly drunk, girl perched in his lap with not much of a clue as to how she’d gotten there. Nick had opened the glass doors to the backyard and there was a draft flowing into the house and even with all of the people inside, Harry needed someone to keep him warm.

Inebriation worked in stages.

There was the buzz — that warm, fuzzy period where the world seemed a little bizarre and full of wonder. Everything was funny and none of the unfunny things settled in the mind too strongly or for very long. All you wanted to do was keep going. Throw back another shot in pursuit of that security and warmth.

Stage two occurred when you’d thrown back a little too much. Stage two was drunkenness and no holds were barred. Silly people got too silly. Angry people got too angry. The normal became the extreme. Harry liked to consider himself a pretty friendly person, always amiable, and with an inclination towards other friendly people. Drunk Harry might have been a little too friendly, which was how and why he found himself making out with the girl perched in his lap.

Making out with her until stage three, that is. For Harry, stage three meant that feelings he’d been keeping at bay floated towards the surface and broke free. It meant that thoughts about Louis could no longer be ignored. They came front and centre in his mind, and almost as if those thoughts were drunk themselves, refused to move and turned belligerent.

When he hit Stage Three, he removed himself from the clutches of his new friend. He hoped he hadn’t pushed her off because that would've been rude, but he couldn't remember. One minute she was in his lap and the next minute he was standing up, tugging his mobile from his pocket, ringing Louis.

He picked up within two seconds. “Hello?”

“Loooouis,” Harry sang into the phone.

“Harry?” Louis said questioningly.

“Were you expecting someone else?”

“No,” Louis said. “Are you drunk?”

“A little, I think.” He burped and then said, “Yeah.”

Louis laughed. “Okay, should I come pick you up?”

“No, listen. You wanna come? To a party?” he said.

“Sounds like you’re already there,” Louis said. “A little late to be inviting me.”

“No, no, it’s okay,” Harry said. “People are still showing up. You should come.”

“Are you alright?” Louis asked.

Harry nodded, even though Louis couldn’t see him. “’M fine. Be better if you were here.”

Louis was silent for a moment and then said, “Okay. Where are you?”

Harry smiled and then proceeded to prattle off Nick’s address. He spent the next twenty minutes waiting for Louis to show up, chatting with random people, avoiding the girl he’d been making out with. He was holding a drink in his left hand for Louis, shooting glances at the entryway.

When the door opened for the fiftieth time and a gap in a crowd of people revealed the person entering to be Louis, Harry murmured a half-hearted apology to the person he’d been talking to, hopped down off his bar stool with surprising grace, and hurried over to him.

“Hi,” he said, coming to a stop in front of Louis, smiling wide. “You look nice.”

Louis glanced down at himself. He was wearing maroon-coloured jeans, a plain white t-shirt, and black Vans. His hair had been tucked into a dark grey beanie. He probably hadn’t put much thought into the ensemble but he looked nice anyway. He always looked so nice. “Thanks,” he said, returning Harry’s smile.

“This is for you,” Harry said, extending the drink.

Louis took it, glancing into the glass.

“Don’t worry. I made sure no one put anything weird in it. And…I also didn’t put anything weird in it myself. I wouldn’t do that, I swear,” Harry blabbered, not realizing how furiously denying guilt made him look guilty.

“It’s okay,” Louis laughed. “I believe you.” He took a sip of the drink just to prove it. “I can’t drink too much though if I’m going to be taking you home.”

“I wasn’t calling you to take me home. I really did just want you to be here,” Harry said.

Louis narrowed his eyes at him a little. “Okay, well. I’m here. But I’ll still take you home when you’re ready. Unless you were planning on staying here with Nick.”

Harry frowned. “No,” he said leaning forward to speak closer to Louis’ ear as the music went up an octave or two. “I don’t want to stay here with Nick. I’m leaving with you.”

Louis had that confused, contemplative look on his face as Harry pulled away but he didn’t attempt to say whatever was on his mind.

A girl was walking by with a tray of shot glasses in her hand. Harry made eye contact with her and she held one out to him. “Here you go, babe,” she said and then turned to give Louis one as well. Louis shook his head, holding his drink up to her and she smiled in understanding before moseying off.

Harry tossed the shot back, the burn of tequila sliding down his throat. Harry wasn’t the biggest fan of tequila, at least not like this. But it gave him a warm buzz all over his body and in the corners of his mind and enough courage to lean over and say loudly to Louis, “Dance with me!”

Louis smiled at him. Harry gripped his forearm, both for balance and to tug him closer. “Come on, please,” Harry said.

Louis wrapped an arm loosely around Harry’s waist, not at all as tightly as Harry would have preferred but he’d take it. Harry draped his arms over Louis’ shoulder, leaning in and pressing his nose along the curve of Louis’ neck.

“You smell so great,” Harry murmured. He was so drunk he didn’t even feel embarrassed like he normally was when he complimented Louis, so drunk he nearly kissed Louis’ neck.

“Harry,” Louis said, a hint of a warning in his voice. Harry wasn’t so drunk that he missed that.

“Just dance with me,” he said, withdrawing from Louis’ neck. He tugged on Louis’ arm, pulling him closer to where the speakers were, along with a cluster of people swaying to the beat either by themselves or with someone else pressed close. Harry mimicked their positions, turning to face Louis once more and returning his arms over Louis’ shoulder and moving in as close to Louis as he dared. He was happy when Louis’s arms returned to his waist and Harry moved his hips to the offbeats of the song.

Harry always thought there were only three stages to inebriation. But in fact, there were four.

Horniness was the fourth and final stage. Extreme horniness. That latent teenage arousal turned to a gnawing in his gut.

Luck happened to be on his side that night as he became aware of his erection before Louis got the chance to.

Harry took a step away. “’M sorry,” he said. “I think I need fresh air.”

Louis wrapped a hand around Harry’s elbow and led him through the crowd and towards the glass doors and then out into the backyard. There were quite a few people around even out there. Louis started to guide him somewhere more private.

“Louis?”

Nick stepped forward, obstructing their path. He scrutinized Harry.

“Nice of you to show up,” Nick said.

Louis didn’t smile. “I only came to take Harry home.”

“He came to dance with me,” Harry said stupidly. He literally could not shut up.

“Did he?” Nick raised both brows. “I guess dreams do come true.”

Louis frowned, looking confused. “What?”

“Shut up, Nick,” Harry said. He looked at Louis. “Lou, I need to sit down.”

“I’m going to take you home,” Louis said.

Harry nodded. “Yeah, okay,” he said.

“Give me a ring tomorrow,” Nick said to Harry as Louis began leading him off to the side of the yard.

“I’ll think about it,” Harry said. He clung to Louis’ forearm as he walked toward the front of the house, then passed the front door and down the drive. Louis had parked his car close by. He unlocked the passenger door, keeping his hand on Harry to steady him and then helped him into the car.

Harry must have fallen asleep shortly after that. The next time he woke with any semblance of awareness, he was seated in his own backyard, a couple feet from the pool, which hadn't yet been drained and cast illuminated bluish lines across their bodies. His back was reclined against the stone wall that surrounded one side of the pool.

“Louis?” Harry mumbled, pressing his palm against his forehead.

“I’m here,” Louis said off to his side. “Sorry I went to fetch a cup of water.”

Louis sat down on the concrete beside Harry, handing him the cup. “Can you drink this?” he asked.

Harry took the cup and had a few sips.

“How are you feeling?” Louis asked.

“Awful,” Harry said, taking another sip and spilling a little on his shirt. He glanced down at the spill, shrugged and drank some more.

Louis smiled. “You know, tomorrow we might need to have a talk about self-control.”

Harry snorted. “You sound like my dad.”

“I’m not your dad. I’m your friend. We should still have that talk,” Louis said.

“Okay,” Harry said. He finished off his water and then rested his head against Louis' shoulder.

"We'll just sit out here for a bit until you feel fine to go in," Louis said.

Harry nodded, looking at Louis' hands in his lap. He wanted to lace their fingers together. He wondered if Louis would let him. That was friendly enough, wasn't it? Or was he back at stage two?

"Hey, just ignore what Grimmy said back there, okay?" he mumbled for no reason at all. "Before we left."

"So you're not going to explain that then?"

“He just says stupid things sometimes,” Harry said.

“So he didn’t mean anything by it at all?” Louis asked after a second.

Harry sighed, lifting his head. “No he did. But you already know. 'Cause you guessed right. When we were making the cupcakes, ‘member? So he saw me with you and he thought I was getting what I wanted.”

Shutting up wasn’t even in the realm of possibility at the moment.

“What did I guess right?” Louis said slowly.

Harry looked at him. “You guessed who I like. That’s what Nick was referring to. 'Cause I have a crush on you,” he rambled. “A massive crush. Really massive. It’s the worst.”

Louis stared at him for a long time and then he released a short, breathy laugh, looking down at his hands folded in his lap.

“You already knew, right?” Harry said. “I was obvious, wasn’t I?”

Louis held up his thumb and pointer finger, squinting at the tiny space between them. “Only a little."

God, he was cute. Harry wanted to kiss him. He laughed at himself. “You don’t have to lie,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter to me, Harry,” Louis said with a shrug. “Crush or not, you’re still my friend.”

Harry's whole face wrinkled in confusion. “What? No. You don’t understand. I don’t want to be your friend, Louis,” he said. “I like you more than I like my friends. I like you more than anyone really.” He rested his forehead in his palms and shut his eyes and willed his drunken mind to stop producing thoughts that inevitably made it out of his mouth.

Louis was quiet for a long time, long enough that Harry was starting to think he’d gotten up and left. He kept his head down, mostly because he was too drunk and too tired to lift it, but also because he was scared of what he would find if he looked in Louis’ direction.

Suddenly, he felt Louis shift beside him, shift even closer, the warmth of his body easily the most comforting thing Harry had experienced all night. He wanted to bundle up in Louis’ warmth, get lost in it.

Louis lowered his forehead to Harry’s shoulder. Harry stayed completely still, holding his breath.

“I have a girlfriend, Harry,” Louis said softly.

“I know that,” Harry said. “But…”

“Harry,” Louis said, looking at him. “I have a girlfriend. That’s it. There’s no buts.”

Harry frowned. “There’s always a ‘but’. Like you have a girlfriend but maybe you like me a little bit too."

“It wouldn’t matter,” Louis explained, his voice calm. “Even if I did, I still have a girlfriend.”

“Why do you keep saying that? I fucking know you have a girlfriend, Louis,” Harry said bitterly. “I know that without you saying it a million times.”

“Okay,” Louis said cautiously. “Don’t be angry, please?”

Harry shrugged him off, standing awkwardly. It took him a few seconds longer than it should have because his balance was off. He didn’t care though, eager to get the fuck inside and away from Louis.

He was acting like a child, yes, and maybe that was the most frustrating part -- that he couldn't stop. He’d been trying since they met to show Louis he was an adult. Not a kid to be coddled, but a companion. And now Louis was looking at him like he was ten seconds away from a temper tantrum. And really, none of it mattered because Harry did feel like throwing a tantrum. He was angry. Maybe not at Louis. But at the universe and the cosmos and whatever else responsible for getting him in this situation with this beautiful, impossible, incredible person he couldn't have.

He had, in fact, never been angrier.

“Harry,” Louis said, voice slow and steady. “Come on, Haz. Let’s talk about this tomorrow, yeah?”

“No,” Harry said, obstinately. “I don’t want to talk about it tomorrow. Honestly, you should probably just forget I said anything at all. And ’m gonna try to forget that I like you.” He started to stumble off toward the glass door leading into his own house. All he wanted to do at this point was sleep.

“Harry,” Louis called after him a little more loudly, though he couldn't be too loud if he didn't want to wake anyone in the house.

Harry pushed the glass door open. “Goodnight, Louis,” he said, stepping inside and tugging it closed behind him. He didn’t dare look back. He was so embarrassed — his entire face flushed red — and so, so angry at Louis, at the universe, but mostly at himself.

Chapter Text

Pushing his hair back behind his ears, Harry sucked in a deep breath and stared at himself in the mirror. He looked like he’d seen a ghost and like that ghost had single-handedly dismantled any semblance of control over his entire situation. And Harry wasn’t fooling himself. He’d had very little. Control, that is. But last night he’d turned said situation into a new kind of beast.

No matter how many times he blinked or pinched his forearm, last night was real. He’d actually done those things. Said those things. To Louis.

Louis appeared in Harry’s dreams often enough over the past two weeks. Mostly they were good dreams full of kisses and touches and vows of devotion. Harry wished this was a dream too, or a nightmare technically. 

But he'd been awake for a whole minute before he remembered. He'd checked Twitter, had got up to brush his teeth and it wasn’t until he was looking into the mirror at this ghost of a person that it all came rushing back. He ducked down, splashing another round of cold water onto his face, and then just stood there, staring at himself a bit longer.

There was a reason why Harry stayed away from hard liquor. Why he preferred a nice glass of wine every now and then but avoided drinks he knew would fuck him up. And this was that reason: he never learned to shut up. He vomited twice last night -- once, in the en-suite toilet after he’d left Louis by the pool, and before that, while he was sitting beside him. Except on the latter occasion, he'd gotten sick with words, with feelings, and things better left unsaid.

Harry turned the tap back on again, cupped his hand beneath it and swallowed a few gulps of cold water, let it soothe his raw throat, and then he stepped into the shower. He needed time to think, and luckily he had it. He had work in an hour and wouldn't see Louis until that afternoon.

Everything would be fine, Harry thought. He had time.

 

* * *

 

“If you roll that dough any further, it’ll turn to paper.”

Harry looked up at George and then back down at the dough he’d been rolling, questioningly. For a second, he almost believed it was paper, could see through it to the wood grain of the countertop beneath. He took a breath, placing the rolling pin to the side. “Sorry,” he said.

“It’s alright. Why don’t you fetch the melted butter?” George suggested, shooing him away.

Harry returned a second later with the pot of butter, standing aside once George had taken it from him.

“So what’s the matter?” George asked. He began brushing melted butter onto the dough.

Harry studied the dough, painted a soft yellow with each stroke of George’s brush. He twisted a loose bit of string on his apron idly. After a stretch of unresponsiveness, George stilled his hand and shot him a glance. “Come on, Harry,” he said. “I’d rather you talk your frustrations out than release them on my pastries.”

Harry laughed quietly at that. He slid his hands into the pockets of his apron, leaning against the counter and watched George resume his work. “There’s this person,” Harry started.

“Special person?” George wondered.

Harry nodded. “Yeah, I think so. We only met sort of recently. But we’re friends— or well, we were? Anyway, I kind of started to fancy them a bit and then I found out they have someone already.”

George’s lips twitched in a sad smile. “Well, I’d be unhappy about that too,” he said.

“Yeah…” Harry said. “But it was fine. I thought I could just deal with it, y’know? But then last night I accidentally told them how I felt. And then I got angry because…obviously he already has a girlfriend so...”

George stilled. “This is a bloke we’re talking of?”

“Um. Yeah. Forgot to add that bit,” Harry said.

George smiled. “And this person we’re talking about? Does he like blokes too?”

“I don’t actually know,” Harry admitted, blushing faintly. “He works for my mum though. So I’ve kinda been assuming he had to be at least a little gay.”

George laughed. “Probably not the best assumption to make…” he said. “Might have been a good thing to know before you told him how you felt. At least if you wanted something to come of it.”

“Yeah, no, I agree. Thing is, I was kind of drunk,” Harry paused then, casting a nervous glance at George like maybe his drinking habits weren’t something he should be sharing with his boss. In fact, they weren’t. But George simply smiled, bordering on full-out laughing so Harry continued. “Way more drunk than I’d intended to be. And I just said it without even really thinking about the consequences.”

George sighed. “Sounds like a pretty messy situation you’ve gotten yourself into.”

“Very messy,” Harry mumbled.

“But even the messiest situations can be cleaned up. The best you can do is talk to him, yeah? Patch things up as soon as possible.”

“I’d like to. I just… It’s not like I can just turn my feelings off. And I don’t really want to.”

George adjusted his glasses. “Go on…”

Harry pushed a hand through his hair and exhaled a puff of air. “Last night happened because maybe subconsciously I wanted to tell him,” he explained. “I’m not looking to ruin his relationship or anything. I just think a part of me wanted him to know. So then it wouldn’t be like this huge secret I was keeping. And I don’t want to pretend like I didn’t mean it. I don’t want to lie about it or hide it anymore.”

George studied him for a minute, a hesitant smile on his face. “Then don’t,” he said with a shrug of his shoulder. “Honesty is usually the best way to go.” He held the baking sheet out to Harry. “Here, put these in the oven.”

Harry did as told. He shut the oven door with a heavy thud and checked the baking temperature, not because George might have gotten it wrong but because he was trying to train himself to do so when he was on his own.

George leaned against the counter watching him, his fist planted on his hip. “You know, for some reason, Ivie thinks you’re still just a kid. Probably because you’re just as adorable as you were when you were nine.”

Harry laughed softly, ducking his head in embarrassment.

“But you know…” George said. “I think he’s wrong. And he’s not normally wrong about a lot of things. But I think you’re a lot more mature than he gives you credit for. That’s why, whenever you talk to your friend, I think you’ll do fine.”

Harry smiled. “Thank you,” he said brightly.

“No problem,” George said, wiping his hand on his apron. He pointed in a general area. “Now, grab the dough in the fridge. Let’s go over the prep work for the pastries one last time.”

 

* * *

 

Despite his talk with George and the certainty of what he had to do from here, the longer Harry spent without actually resolving things with Louis, the more impossible it seemed and the more nauseous he became.

Louis should’ve been home around 6. Harry had enough time after work to shower and wash the flour out his hair before he arrived. At 6:20, Harry sat down near the kitchen window with a bowl of cereal, chewing slowly while shooting glances over to the guesthouse to see if a light would come on.

At 6:40, when Anne arrived home, Harry was officially confused. Louis always returned before Anne.

His mum strolled into the kitchen, chatting on her mobile and reached out to pet his head as she passed behind him. She dropped her leather handbag on one of the barstools and her tired voice floated through the kitchen.

“It’s unfortunate, yes. But he’s assured me he’ll only be a few days,” Anne said quietly into her phone.

Harry listened to her while pretending to still be interested in his cereal. But his appetite faded as he overheard more and more. When his mum finally ended her call, Harry wasted exactly zero time questioning her.

“Where’s Louis?”

She sighed, pushing her long hair away from her forehead. “He’s gone home for a little while. To see his grandmum.”

“What’s the matter?” Harry asked, abandoning his bowl of cereal on the coffee table.

“She’s been poorly for a long time. Apparently, she’s gotten a bit worse,” Anne explained, going to the wine rack near the fridge and pulling out a fresh bottle of Bordeaux. “I’ve told him to take all the time he needs. And he says he’ll find time to conference in every day.”

Harry felt more like shit than actual sun-dried horse dung. His theatrics last night couldn’t have come at a worse time for Louis. Just when he’d probably needed comfort, Harry had come along to hound him about unrequited feelings. God, could this get any worse?

“How long will he be gone?” was Harry’s last question to his mum as he stood up.

“I don’t know, love. Hopefully not long,” Anne said pouring herself a big glass of wine. “I’ve those girls coming in from Paris in two weeks and I’ll need Louis to handle their accommodations…”

Harry didn’t hear the rest of what she was saying. He didn’t really care. He got his phone out of his pocket slipping into the study. He shut the door behind him, sank to the floor and, before he could reconsider, dialled Louis’ number.

Harry chewed on his nail as he waited, the ringing sounding loudly, almost ominously in his ear.

“Harry?” Louis said as soon as he answered. Faint noises sounded in the background, voices and metallic clattering.

“Hi, Lou,” Harry said, exhaling.

Louis was quiet for a second. Over the phone, Harry heard what sounded like a door closing, the background noise dimming, and then Louis spoke again softly but more clearly. “How are you? How are you feeling?”

“’M fine. I should be asking you. I heard about your grandmum. How’s she doing?”

“Not awful,” Louis said. “I only arrived here an hour ago so I don’t know for sure.”

“I hope she feels better soon,” Harry said.

“Thanks, Haz,” Louis replied and the smile was audible in the sound of his voice.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said quickly. “About your grandmum. And about— about last night and I’ll apologize again. When I see you. Like in person. But I had to say something now. I didn’t mean for that to happen… Not like that…”

“I know you didn’t,” Louis said warmly and full of assurance. “It’s okay. We’ll talk when I’m in London, if you’d like, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Harry said softly, wrapping an arm around his knees.

Harry expected Louis to hang up after that. But Louis kept him on the phone for fifteen minutes longer, talking about his sisters and his mum and briefly what exactly was wrong with his grandmum. She’d been sick for a long time, some form of cancer, but Louis sounded hopeful that she’d been fine, if not very tired when she got through this. Harry wanted to hug Louis, comfort him in any way he could, even though he knew it wasn’t possible nor was it his place. He was too far away and Louis had a girlfriend to do all those things for him.

Harry rested his head on his knees, listening to the soft timbre of Louis’ voice, almost lulled by it as he spoke, and missing him more than he should.

Eventually, Louis told him he had to go. They said “goodnight” and “see you soon.” When Harry was tucked in bed later that night, he found he could sleep with at least half the weight of this morning lifted from his chest.

 

* * *

 

The rest of the week went relatively smoothly. Harry started his first day of sixth form and though it had come seemingly out of nowhere (he’d been too distracted by Louis to be mindful of its proximity), by the end of the day, Harry felt the coming term wouldn’t be so bad. Having Niall at his side helped. There also just wasn’t enough space to be nervous about school when he was so nervous about Louis. In that regard, he was almost grateful.

Harry had been texting Louis every day for the past week, checking on him and his grandmum. On Friday morning, Louis finally mentioned that he would be home around six the next day and all the anxiety Harry had managed to suppress came back to terrorize him anew.

Saturday after work, he forced himself to follow through with his plan. It was a good plan, he was sure of it.

Harry glanced at his wristwatch. There was plenty of time to reconsider. But in the last twenty minutes, he hadn’t moved from his spot in front of Louis’ door and he wasn’t likely to anytime soon. Which didn’t matter since Louis was due to pull up into the drive at any second.

Harry sat there with a pink box wrapped in a white bow beside him. He had his hands propped on his knees, chin resting in his hands, while he waited, humming to himself and keeping his eyes on the drive.

The sound of the metal gate sliding open made Harry’s head pop up like a cat set on high alert. A second later, Louis’ black Range Rover pulled into the drive and Harry sat up straighter, his stomach swooping and his pulse quickening.

Through the windscreen, the confusion on Louis’ face was plainly visible when he spotted Harry sitting there on the steps of his veranda.

Louis parked his car and stepped out. “Hey,” he said, eyes lingering on Harry before he reached back into the car, got out his leather laptop bag and his big red duffle, slinging both straps over his shoulder.

“Hi,” Harry said standing up. He scooped the small pink box up too and held it in his hands.

Louis shut the car door and pressed a button on his keys to lock it. He took a few steps closer. “How are you?”

“Good. Glad you’re back,” Harry said.

Louis smiled. “It’s good to be back.”

Harry hesitated, looking at Louis and then at the box in his hands. “Um, I brought you some buscuits that we made today.”

“Rejects?” Louis asked with a small laugh.

Harry laughed too. “No, these are actually good. I kind of made them for you.”

Louis’ smile faltered a little, his brows twitching. “Thank you,” he said, sounding sincere.

“Here,” Harry held them out to him and Louis took another step forward to take them. Their fingers brushed. Harry pretended they hadn’t.

Louis held the box in the crook of his elbow. Harry didn’t understand why this was so awkward, why it was so hard to apologize in person like he’d wanted and then get back to how things were. Except he kind of did.

The feelings were back. Not like they’d ever left. But Harry had been able to ignore them the past week. He’d been taking steps to accepting that Louis was unavailable, that there was no other choice besides acceptance.

And yet Louis—in his black jeans and black close-fitting t-shirt, sporting stubble that somehow made him look rich but also maybe like he smelled of a forest after the rain—he ruined everything. He was beautiful and perfect and he ruined everything.

Harry took a deep breath. “Could we talk maybe?” he asked. “It’ll be quick. We don’t even have to go inside.”

“Yeah,” Louis said, walking slowly past him and then up the steps. “Come inside. I’ll make tea.”

Harry followed him into the house and into the kitchen. The last time he’d been here they’d talked about Eleanor and Harry had inadvertently hinted at his feelings for Louis. Now their positions were reversed in a way, Louis bustling around the kitchen in search of cups and setting the water to boil, while Harry sat on a barstool. In other ways, things were still the same. Harry had more things to say.

Louis placed two mugs down with tea bags. “So…”

Harry sighed. “I’m sorry again about the other night. I told you I wanted to say that in person so…”

“So, here you are,” Louis said with an amiable smirk.

“Here I am,” Harry said. “So, yeah-- I’m sorry about for getting angry. And for being so drunk. I don’t know what I was thinking. I wasn’t really. Thinking, I mean."

Louis shrugged. “We can forget about the whole thing, Haz. It’s fine.”

“I don’t, really, want to forget. Like not all of it,” Harry said quietly, picking at the bed of his nails. “Most of it was pretty stupid but not the part about, like, how I feel? I'm not really sorry about that.”

Confusion and apprehension flickered across Louis’ face. “Okay.”

“I meant what I said about liking you,” Harry clarified.

“Harry,” Louis mumbled, dropping his gaze to his hands on the counter.

“Please, just--” Harry hurried to say. “Can you not say ‘I have a girlfriend’ again because it’s kind of exhausting.” He was feeling exhausted already.

Louis didn’t speak again. He kept his lips pressed together in a firm line.

“I like you, Louis," Harry said. "I know I'm young and you work for my mum. And I know it's never going to happen. But I’m sorry I can’t help it."

Louis gave a small shake of his head like he didn’t want Harry to apologize. Harry still felt it was necessary.

“But,” Harry continued. “I didn’t mean what I said about not wanting to be friends. I’d really like to be if you still do. I know you have a girlfriend. I promise I won’t be weird about it, even though I haven’t proven that to you. But I’ll try harder. I’ll stop telling you that I like you. Unless you ask… I’ll tell you then. Or if I happen to be drunk again, I might say it accidentally. But I’ll try not to say it on purpose, I promise.”

Louis watched him tentatively. “Are you finished?”

“Yes- Well- Just, again, I’m really sorry for how I acted,” Harry said quickly. “I’m finished now.”

Louis ran a hand over his face and the scruffy hair on his jaw. “That all means a lot, Harry. Thank you,” he said. “Of course I’d still like to be friends.”

Harry couldn’t say he felt all that much better, that he was looking forward to being just friends, or that the sweeping feeling in his gut when Louis said it was pleasant. But there was nothing he could do to change any of that. That was the whole point. He was aiming for acceptance.

“That’s good to hear,” Harry said smiling, lying, accepting.

Louis turned away from Harry to shut off the hob even though the water hadn’t boiled. Harry looked at him questioningly.

“How about we forget the tea? And you come meet my best mate?” Louis asked.

“I thought I did,” Harry said. “Stan?”

“My other best mate,” Louis said, grabbing his keys off the countertop. “Come on.”

Harry climbed off the barstool quickly and hurried off after him.

In the car, Louis turned the music up a bit.

“So why are we going to see your best mate again?” Harry asked.

Louis smiled. “He needs some help with something. He’s got his own art studio now and he’s moving some of his paintings in and such,” Louis explained. “Shouldn’t take very long. And I’m sure he’d like to meet you.”

“Have you told him about me?” Harry wondered.

“I’ve mentioned you, yeah,” Louis said. “But he knows about you already. His boyfriend does some fashion photography, which is actually how I found out about the job with your mum. And they helped get me set up with an interview.”

“What’s the photographer’s name?” Harry said.

“Liam Payne?” Louis said.

“Nope, never heard of him. But that might be because I’m a shitty model who knows nothing about the fashion industry.”

Louis laughed. “Maybe…”

“Hey,” Harry whined.

“Sorry, sorry. You said it first,” Louis said, still laughing.

Harry chuckled too, entertained more so by Louis’ breathy laughter and the crinkle of his eyes. They spent the rest of the ride in silence that wasn’t awkward but neither was it entirely comfortable. Harry busied himself, humming along to the classic hits playing on the radio and Louis joined him every now and then, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel to the beat. Eventually, he pulled into a car park outside of a row of flats.

They got out and Louis sorted through his keys until he found the one he was looking for. He and this best mate had to be pretty close if he had keys to his flat but Harry surmised as much from the fact that Louis was here helping him move into his studio when he’d only just come back from taking care of his grandmum.

Louis held the door open for Harry and shut it behind him once they’d stepped inside. “Hellooo,” Louis sang as he pocketed his keys.

Up ahead, a dark-haired lad poked his head around the corner, a toothbrush poking out of the side of his mouth. Then he noticed Harry and quickly ducked back around the corner.

“Okay,” Louis said slowly. He turned to Harry. “So, that was Zayn, my best mate. He’s friendly, I promise.”

Harry laughed a little. “I think I surprised him.”

Zayn reappeared around the corner again, sans toothbrush, and started towards them, an easy smile gracing his lips.

Harry was already full of problematic feelings for Louis. Otherwise, he could see himself falling for Zayn as well. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise for a person like Louis to surround himself with similarly fit people. But Zayn was still surprising in the way most overly attractive people were.

His raven hair was thick and fluffy around his head, framing his honey-kissed skin. He was dressed in a maroon jumper and black jeans. He smiled, warmly, as he came closer to them, completely ignoring Louis and addressing Harry first. “Hey,” he said, “I’m Zayn.”

“Don’t mind me,” Louis murmured.

Harry laughed, giving a small wave of his hand. “I’m Harry.”

“I know who you are,” Zayn said, his smile widening. “Your mum's famous and Louis talks about you. Nothing bad though.”

“Zayn,” Louis groaned.

Harry tried to remain unaffected by that revelation. If his face was pinker now, he hoped neither of them noticed.

“It’s nice to finally meet you,” Zayn said shaking Harry’s hand.

Harry smiled at the warmth radiating from Zayn, from his firm grip and his kind eyes. It made sense that he and Louis were best mates. The same comfort he felt around Louis seemed to permeate the space around Zayn as well.

“Same to you,” Harry said. “Sorry I surprised you a minute ago.”

“Don’t worry. I blame Louis,” Zayn said and Louis grumbled again, leaning back against the wall. “Have you come to help me move my things? Aaand…are you expecting to be paid?”

“Yes and no,” Harry replied laughing. “Except maybe in friendship.”

Zayn snorted and looked at Louis. “I like him,” he said. To Harry, he added, “We’re off to a good start, mate. I need all the help I can get.”

“Did you rent that lorry out front?” Louis asked.

“Liam did, actually. He’s unhappy about not being able to help me today. I told him he could find a way to make it up to me. And that was it, a fucking lorry,” Zayn said, shaking his head. Again he turned to Harry and added, “My boyfriend overdoes it sometimes.”

“That’s nice though. It means he cares,” Harry said smiling.

Zayn smiled back at him. “Yeah, he does.” He reached into the cupboard in the hallway and pulled out a beanie, sliding it over his head. He grabbed the keys off a ledge by the door. “Well, let’s see if I can drive this thing.”

Louis looked at Harry. “I’m sorry if we die.”

“Too bad you won’t be able to apologize to my mum,” Harry said.

“Should I give her a call just in case?” Louis asked.

“Maybe just to be sure,” Harry replied.

“You two can shut up whenever you’re ready. I’m a good driver,” Zayn said grabbing the keys and heading to the door. Harry and Louis followed behind him and climbed into the solitary front seat of the rental lorry, Harry squeezed in the middle between Zayn and Louis.

“Don’t you need a license to drive one of these?” Harry wondered.

Zayn shrugged. “Probably yeah.”

Harry pulled the cross he wore around his neck from beneath his jumper and pressed a kiss to it. Beside him, Louis laughed.

They made it to the studio in one piece, though Zayn had lied about being a good driver. He was actually one of the worst drivers Harry had ever had the misfortune of being in a vehicle with. Niall being a close second because of his insurmountable road rage. Zayn not only disobeyed most traffic laws, he also turned the music up ridiculously loud and jammed out like a fucking beast while barely keeping his hands on the wheel. Harry was grateful when they pulled up to the studio and he could set his feet on stationary ground.

“Sorry,” Louis said, trying not to laugh at Harry’s face, when they had climbed out of the front seat.

“’M fine,” Harry said. “How about you?”

“Used to it,” Louis said.

Zayn walked around to the back of the lorry, popping open the boot. “So, just grab whatever and let’s get it inside.”

“You got it, boss,” Louis said.

Zayn made a face at him, grabbing a medium-sized painting covered in brown fabric. As he passed Louis, he slapped him in his crotch, forcing him to curl over defensively. Louis shot Harry a glare when he laughed. Harry grabbed a wooden easel. Louis grabbed one of the boxes and they followed Zayn.

The three of them worked for about forty-five minutes, pulling more of Zayn’s things from the lorry and carrying it into the studio, which was a simple space with concrete floors and brick walls. At some point, Zayn lit a candle because he said it smelled like Kurchev’s arse in there. Louis had laughed about that for so long without taking a breath that Harry worried he would pass out. Only after he’d started to breathe normally did he explain that Kurchev was their smelly, old history professor with an oddly massive arse and that prompted Harry to laugh too.

They were putting away all the things they’d brought in when a man showed up with two boxes of pizza and a bottle of champagne. Without being told, Louis turned to Harry and said, “Fifty pounds it was Liam.”

Zayn returned holding the pizza boxes, the champagne cradled in the crook of his elbow. “Look what Liam sent us.”

Louis cast a glance at Harry and he pressed his lips together to keep from laughing. Zayn left to call Liam while Harry and Louis took a break from unpacking boxes to have two slices each.

“Liam seems like a nice person. How long have he and Zayn been together?” Harry asked.

Louis picked a pepper off his plate and munched on it. “Since university. Four or five years I think.”

“Like you and Eleanor?” Harry asked.

Louis glanced at Harry. “No. They’ve been together longer. Eleanor and I didn’t start dating for a year or so after graduation. It was actually Zayn who kept pushing me to go on dates with people. Tired of seeing me alone, I guess.”

It was an awful thought but Harry wished Louis was still that person from university. Things would have been so much easier if Louis was alone now, looking for love. Harry would have found him and everything would have been perfect.

“Good thing, too,” Zayn said, reappearing out of nowhere, pocketing his phone as he came closer. He grabbed a slice a pizza and plopped down on the floor beside them. “Louis was such a charmer during university. Had everyone wrapped around his finger, birds, blokes, professors, you name it.”

“Feeling a bit chatty today, aren’t you, Zayn?” Louis snarked.

Zayn shrugged. “Just the truth, mate.”

Harry hesitated before saying it. “Birds and blokes?” he repeated.

Louis leaned back on his palms and spoke just as laxly. “Love is love and people are just people. Doesn’t make a difference to me what parts they have,” he said after a moment.

Harry forced himself to look away from Louis. “What about you?” he asked Zayn.

“Just lads for me. Or just Liam,” he said. “And you?”

Harry glanced at Louis again, his eyes drawn to him completely against his will. “I’m bi,” he said and then added, “love is love.”

Zayn smiled, gaze flittering between the two of them. “Cute,” he said. He pushed himself up off the floor, dusting off his hands. “Back to work, then.”

The rest of the afternoon unfolded in a cycle. Work, pizza, repeat. When they’d finally finished unpacking everything, they sat down to finish off the pizza. Zayn popped the bottle of champagne, using mugs he’d packed since Liam hadn’t sent champagne glasses too. Zayn left Louis and Harry alone, sipping on his champagne while speaking quietly to Liam on the phone for the third time since they’d been there.

Harry hadn’t even seen Liam and Zayn together yet and already he envied their relationship. Someday he wanted to be that in love. He wanted someone to be that in love with him. And it sucked that at the moment the only person he really wanted that with was seated right beside him, munching on pizza and possibly texting his girlfriend.

Louis turned out to be texting his mum instead, which Harry found out when he said to him. “My mum just sent me a picture of our dog,” he said, showing Harry the picture.

Harry smiled down at the phone. “He’s the one from your Twitter icon,” he said, and then hoped it sounded less creepy to Louis than it did to him.

“The very one,” Louis said, locking his phone and putting it off to the side.

They sat there in silence, looking around the studio for a moment. Then Louis dropped his pizza crust on his napkin and dusted his hands off and spoke again.

“How are classes so far?” Louis asked.

“Good. A lot better with Niall there,” Harry said.

“Always good to have your best friend along,” Louis said. “University’s even better. Zayn and I went crazy our first year. Second year too. And then Zayn met Liam and left me to party by myself.”

“I imagine that wasn’t too hard for you.”

“Not really, no,” Louis said smugly.

Harry laughed. He rested his cheek on his fist, looking at Louis and finding his smugness surprisingly charming. Harry could picture Louis in university perfectly, all the charm that Zayn spoke of was still there, albeit less prominent. Harry wished so badly that he’d been a part of Louis’ life back then.

“I’m sure you were a lot of fun in university,” Harry said.

Louis smiled wistfully. “Zayn and I both. You would’ve fit in well with us,” Louis said.

“Good to know,” Harry said, taking a small sip from his mug of champagne.

Louis watched him for a moment, and then dropped his gaze to his own mug, idly turning it on top of the wooden worktable where they were seated. “So, Harry, listen,” Louis said. Harry perked up, heart already thudding a bit faster from the sudden change in Louis’ tone. “I’ve got some things to apologize for too.”

“You do…?”

“I do, yeah. It isn’t right for you to be the only one feeling sorry. I’m sorry too,” Louis said. “Before you told me, I guess I knew how you were feeling. And it’s not like I tried to keep my distance.”

“It’s not like I wanted you to,” Harry mumbled, sipping from his mug again.

Louis’ expression softened. “Yeah, but I should have. I think it might have been the responsible thing to do,” he said.

Harry didn’t entirely agree. But maybe it made Louis feel better to have something to apologize for. Then Louis spoke again.

“And I can’t say I hated the idea that you might feel that way.”

Harry blinked at him. “You lost me,” he said.

“It’s a confidence boost for a person, when someone like you cares about them," Louis said, looking at him imploringly, willing him to understand. "Anyone should consider themselves lucky to be right at the centre of your attention. I mean that.”

Harry sighed, ignoring the way his insides turned to mush. “This doesn’t really help.”

“Sorry,” Louis said, folding his hands together.

Harry shook his head, smiling dimly, rejecting an unnecessary apology. He stared down into his cup like it might provide him with the words to say.

“I’m also sorry for hurting you,” Louis said. “That was the last thing I wanted to do, believe me. I think you deserve better than me, to be honest."

Harry snorted. “Don’t know if I agree, to be honest.”

Louis shrugged one shoulder. “I think you could probably have anyone you wanted,” he replied, taking a sip of his champagne.

Harry looked at him, unsmiling, unblinking.

Right. Anyone except for Louis.

In the next second, it seemed Louis realized exactly what that statement meant and essentially how untrue it was because he stopped smiling, and shifted his gaze to Harry. He rolled his eyes at himself. "Harry--"

“You know,” Harry said, hoping to dispel the tension, “Complimenting me doesn’t help either.”

Louis smiled a little. “Right. Sorry.”

“I’ll get used to it,” Harry said.

Louis’ expression turned solemn. “I don’t want you to get used to this. How is that fair to you?”

“Maybe it’s not. But I told you…” Harry said. “I’m not likely to stop feeling this way anytime soon. So, I don’t know— Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Louis said, still with that sad look in his eyes.

Zayn came back into the room then, pocketing his phone. “What are you two chatting about?”

“How obsessed you and Liam are with each other,” Louis said, not missing a beat. Amazing how he did that. Harry was still fighting the blush creeping over his face from their conversation.

Zayn narrowed his eyes at him. “Such a shit, sometimes,” he said. “Anyway, Liam’s had a great idea. I’m throwing a party here. To make up for us not having a party at ours. Since it’s technically not ours anymore.”

“Still bitter are you?” Louis asked.

Harry looked between them questioningly. “Did you two live together?” he asked.

Louis finished off his cup of champagne. “Zayn’s the friend I told you about, who I moved in with after leaving home,” Louis said. Then to Zayn he said, “I think parties are always great ideas. And since I’m not likely to throw one at mine’s, here’s as good a place as any.”

Zayn smiled. “It’s settled then. Harry, you’re of course invited too.”

Harry looked to Louis for his approval.

“And bring Niall,” Louis added. “And everyone else, really.”

Harry wondered if that invitation extended to Nick as well. He also wondered how good of an idea it was to attend parties where Louis was present, given how the last one had turned out. But he hoped he’d have more time to get his feelings under control before then, time to reevaluate his friendship with Louis, and maybe start over. Besides, Louis and Zayn were smiling at him and there was no way he’d ever say no to either of them.

“Yeah, that sounds really good,” Harry said, returning their smiles. “I’ll be there. Niall too. And everyone else.”

Louis smiled, grabbing the champagne bottle and filling up everyone’s mugs again. “Cheers,” he said lifting his mug.

Harry studied him as he raised his own mug, took in the deep crease in his cheeks as he smiled, open-mouthed and radiant. When their mugs clinked together, Harry felt resolute.

This wouldn’t be easy. But he’d sure as hell try.

Chapter Text

At seven in the morning, the last thing Harry expected was the shrill sound of his phone ringing. Aerosmith’s 'Take Me To the Other Side' wasn’t shrill per se, but that early, everything had a blaring quality to it.

He reached blindly for his phone resting somewhere near his pillow and pressed his thumb all over the screen, attempting to tap the green button and take the call. He dropped the phone on his ear and hummed.

“Harry, love. It's Caroline,” she said, like she knew Harry wouldn’t bother to look at caller I.D.

Harry cleared his throat, longing for a glass of water. “Hello, Caroline."

“You sound awful,” she confirmed.

Well, yes. Half of his brain hadn’t yet woken up.

“Nick tells me you’re having boy troubles,” she added.

Harry rubbed at the corners of his eyes. “I wouldn’t say that,” he said turning over to lie on his back. He dropped a hand on his bare chest and scanned the ceiling.

“Either way, I think it’s time for a spa day. Just us two,” Caroline said. “You aren’t too busy today, are you?”

“S'posed to be in the bakery at noon. We’ve a gala coming up soon I need to prepare for,” Harry explained.

“Breathing all that flour can’t be good for your lungs. And when’s the last time you had a cut and a wash?” she inquired.

Harry held a lock of his hair in front of his face and scrutinized the ends as best as he could in the dim light streaming through the drawn curtains. A trim would be nice and, more importantly, therapeutic. “It’s been a while,” he said.

“That settles it then. Come out with me. I’ll have you at the bakery by noon,” she told him.

“Alright then. Sounds good,” Harry replied, pulling himself upright and squeezing his heavy eyelids.

“See you in an hour,” she said and then hung up.

 

* * *

 

“Tell me about him,” Caroline said while she waited for her colour to set.

“Don’t see how that would be helpful,” Harry mumbled. His own hair was piled atop his head, laden with a deep conditioner that smelled like apples and roses—and dirt, to be honest. The woman doing his hair had covered his face with a tingly peppermint facemask. While everything set, he’d been scrolling through his twitter feed and feeling pretty good already. Until Caroline spoke up. And just like that his happy bubble popped.

“Oh, it won’t be,” she said, like it was obvious. Harry looked at her confusedly. “But I think I’m entitled to hear about this person that’s got you all out of sorts.”

“I’m not out of sorts,” Harry said defensively.

Caroline sighed. “I still don’t know a thing about him.”

Harry locked his phone and dropped it in his lap. “His name’s Louis. He’s older than me. He works for my mum. He has a girlfriend,” he said, ticking off the points with one hand, and then he shrugged. “That’s all.”

“Oh, Harry,” Caroline said sadly. “You fell for a straight man? Hasn’t Nick taught you anything?”

“He isn’t straight. And anyway, it doesn’t matter now. I’ve learned my lesson."

“Apparently I haven’t taught you anything either,” she said, studying him. “Babe, I know you hate to hear it but fact is, you’re a lady-killer.”

Harry shook his head, lifting his phone from his lap.

“And a gentleman-killer,” Caroline said. “You’ve got no trouble pulling women or men. Hell, if I was a bit younger and not engaged, I might have wanted a go myself. And God help Nick, everyone knows he’s fancied you a little since you were 16.”

“Um,” Harry said, a little stunned.

“The point, my angel, is that this man has to know how good you look. Just like everyone else,” she said. Harry gave her a small smile. “He must know how gorgeous you are.”

The sad thing was that Louis did. He’d called Harry beautiful once before. And sometimes he looked at Harry like he was thinking it then too.

But Caroline didn’t understand. None of that actually mattered now.

“Even if he does,” Harry said. “He has a girlfriend.”

“So what? Steal the bastard away,” Caroline said with a flourish of her hand.

Harry’s eyes widened. “I can’t— I wouldn’t do that. I probably couldn’t even do that. And I wouldn’t.”

“You could if you wanted to. You definitely could,” Caroline said.

“I’m 17. And he’s 24,” Harry said.

“Harry, I’m marrying a man ten years older than me."

“Yeah, but that’s different. You’re 30."

Caroline narrowed her eyes at him. “Here I am trying to help you and you throw my age in my face.”

“I mean that you’re both adults. I’m technically just a kid to him. It’s different,” he said. “And I’m not sure you’re helping me. You’re encouraging me to ruin someone’s relationship.”

“Think about it this way,” Caroline said, waving the hair stylists off when they came back to rinse their hair. “If Louis were really in love with his girlfriend, stealing him wouldn’t be possible.”

Harry shook his head. “What about bad karma? What if I did that and then in the next few years someone comes along and steals Louis from me?”

“I don’t think that’s possible.”

“But what if it is?” he said. “I don’t even want to risk it. If I ever get a chance to be with him, I don’t want it to happen like that. I don’t want to steal him. I won’t. He has to come to me all on his own.”

Caroline looked at him for a moment. “Suit yourself,” she said. The next time she spoke, her voice was softer. “I just don’t want to see you pining for someone who doesn’t get how amazing you are.”

“I’m not pining,” Harry said. Caroline shot him a disbelieving look. “Not really,” he amended.

“You are, babe. And you shouldn’t have to be. You’re Harry Styles. You could have anyone you wanted.”

Harry’s eyes fluttered shut for a moment. There was that line again. Anyone…except him. Caroline didn't catch her faux pas and made no attempt to correct herself. As far as she was concerned, Louis wasn't included in her use of “anyone.” But it didn't work that way for Harry. Louis was the only one who mattered at the moment.

“Did you hear me?” Caroline’s voice cut through his thoughts.

Harry turned to her. “Sorry, what?”

“I said— you need to meet new people. We’ll go out soon, me, you and Nick. We'll get the rest of the girls to come too. And Gem, of course, I haven’t seen her in forever.”

Harry got a text message just then.

'How late will you be working today?'

His stomach did that swoop thing at the sight of Louis’ name, though the message itself was wholly professional. Harry was turning into one of Pavlov’s dogs. Each time he saw or heard even a mention of Louis, he felt nauseous. It would go away, he was sure. But for now, he’d have to deal with it.

Caroline was still yapping about Gemma. “I’m sure she’s excited about Berlin. And you, why didn’t you tell me you were walking? How could you leave that out?”

'Be done at 4?' Harry sent to Louis.

'Good. I’ll pick you up. More measurements. :P Sorry.'

'Don’t be sorry. See you at 4.'

'See you then !! Have a good day at work!'

'You too!'

“Harry,” Caroline called.

Harry looked at her again, turning his phone into his chest. “Sorry. I missed that.”

“Clearly,” she said, shaking her head. “Why didn’t you tell me about Berlin Fashion Week? Years of silence from you on the fashion front and then suddenly, I’m hearing from Nadine, my father’s secretary, that she heard you might be in the show. Now, tell me, Harry, why on earth would I hear that from Nadine when we’re here having facials and haircuts together? How embarrassing is it that I was completely unaware when she mentioned it?”

“No one’s supposed to know,” Harry said, reaching up to push a hand through his hair only to realize it was covered in gunk.

Harry was still hoping there was a way out of the whole Berlin thing, or maybe he could walk as few times as possible, though it didn’t seem likely. From the number of outfits Louis had mentioned to him, it sounded like Harry would walk almost as many times as the more popular male models. His first show after a six-year absence and he was expected to perform as if he’d been doing this all his life.

“I don’t even want to do it,” Harry said listlessly.

Caroline squawked. “But this is your chance to get back out there, catch up with your sister. You’re at a perfect age.”

“Maybe so. But— I’m really just not interested. Gemma’s where she’s at because she wants to be there. Fashion is her thing, not mine.”

“Fashion is a Styles thing,” Caroline said, silencing him. “Sorry, love, but I don’t know how much of a choice you have in the matter. Someday, it’ll be your legacy too, whether you like it or not.”

Harry frowned when Caroline turned away to ask for a glass of lemonade and summon the hair stylists. He stared out the wall of windows, settling into deep thought.

Fashion is a Styles thing.

He didn’t like the sound of that. And yet he knew it was true.

 

* * *

 

“Coming,” Harry called when he heard the bell over the door ring out. He abandoned his salad, retied his apron and checked his teeth in the shiny surface of the faucet for leafy bits. He adjusted his hairnet, stepped through the swinging doors and froze.

“Hey,” Louis said, smiling where he stood at the door.

It took a second but Harry smiled back. “Hi,” he said. He glanced at his wristwatch. “It’s 3:15?”

“Yeah, sorry, I was in the area, just down the street putting in an order for that soup your mum likes.”

“Oh,” Harry said. He couldn’t believe he had a hairnet on. He almost wanted to pull it off so Louis could see his new haircut. But that would be too obvious, he supposed. Anyway, there was no hope for redemption now: there was egg yolk drying on his collar.

“Yeah, so I thought I’d stop by,” Louis said.

Harry smiled again, forcing himself to step away from the swinging doors. “You said you would.”

“That I did,” Louis said, rocking back on his heels. The navy blue of his fitted t-shirt worked for him, especially paired with his black trousers, and his tattoos were in full view, including the one beneath his collarbones, the one Harry wanted to trace with his fingers. Or his tongue. He wasn't choosy.

“Thank you,” Harry said and now he was right against the counter, hands pressed to the glass of the display cases. “Would you like anything?”

“What do you have?” Louis said taking a step closer so he could peer in at the rows of pastries and other goods.

“Well, I owe you a doughnut,” Harry said, pointing a finger. “They’re over here.”

He shifted to the left, tapping the glass above the doughnuts, and Louis followed him.

“They look fantastic,” he said, studying the doughnuts with strawberry or chocolate drizzle, the ones filled with crème bursting out from the sides, and chocolate shavings coating their tops. “I’m paying for it though,” Louis added.

Harry didn't argue, although he'd probably sneak in a 15% discount while ringing his order up. “An espresso, too?” he asked.

“Right. Mastered the machine, haven't you?” Louis asked.

Harry grinned as he turned away to cut the espresso machine on. “I wouldn't say that...”

“Sure you would,” Louis said as he lifted the strap of his leather satchel over his shoulder and deposited it in one of the chairs against the wall. He came back to the display cases to check out the other treats they offered. Harry worked on his espresso silently, though he got distracted briefly by the fan of Louis’ lashes over his cheekbones.

“Did you do any of this yourself?” Louis asked.

“I filled some of the doughnuts with crème,” Harry said.

Louis’ head shot up from behind the display cases. “Make sure you give me one of those.”

Harry bit his lip to suppress his smile, focusing on the espresso. “I also baked the pastries to the left. They have a raspberry lemon filling and a lemon coconut glaze.”

“One of those too,” Louis said, leaning against the glass.

This time, Harry smiled outright. He held the small espresso cup on a simple white saucer out to Louis. “Here you are.”

“Thank you,” Louis smiled.

“One second. I’ll get your doughnut.”

“And my pastry,” Louis added.

“Right,” Harry said. His face was hurting from smiling so much. He ducked down behind the display case to slide the glass doors open.

“Oh. Good afternoon, sir.”

Harry glanced back at George near the kitchen doors, a professional smile on his face. For some reason, it made Harry’s face warm more than it already had.

Harry popped up, holding the doughnut in his hand and went to grab a plate.

Louis lifted his cup to George in greeting before putting it to his lips and taking a sip.

“Everything good, Harry?” George said coming to his side while Harry devoted an unnecessary amount of focus to placing a doughnut on a plate.

“Very good, yes. Thank you,” Harry said.

“You know,” George dropped his voice to a whisper. “Even I get flustered in front of a hot guy every now and then. But you’re doing a great job.”

Harry laughed quietly, glancing over his shoulder at where Louis was standing, sipping his espresso and observing the paintings on the walls.

“Thank you. He’s not just some hot guy though. He’s the hot guy,” he said. “The friend I told you about.”

Recognition flashed over George’s face and then he smiled, patting Harry on the shoulder. “Glad you patched things up. I’ll leave you to it,” George said, drawing away from the counter with one last glance in Louis’ direction.

Harry brought two plates over to Louis, one with the doughnut and one with the pastry. “Do you need anything else?” he asked, sliding his hands into the pockets of his apron.

“No, no. Except— which should I eat first? Like is there a palate thing going on here?” Louis asked, gesturing between the two plates.

God, he was adorable. Harry snorted a laugh. “Technically, lemon clears the palate,” he said. “So you could have the pastry first?”

Louis picked up the plate with the pastry. “And you made this whole thing yourself?” he asked, lifting the pastry up to his mouth.

Harry nodded, trying not to focus on Louis’ mouth as he ate. But he did anyway. Louis bit into the pastry slowly, his eyes slipping closed in what was probably just more of his dramatics but made Harry’s dick twitch anyway. Harry’s own mouth parted as he watched Louis chew and savour the taste and lick his lips.

“Fuck,” Louis said.

Harry grinned. “You’re just being nice."

“Have you tasted these yourself?” Louis asked.

Harry shook his head. “I tasted the glaze and the filling and stuff while I was baking. But not the finished product—”

“Shut up, you have to taste this,” Louis said starting to lift the pastry to Harry’s mouth.

Harry sucked in a little breath.

Louis had to know what that would do to him, had to know how it would affect Harry, to see Louis offer to feed him. Harry was trying. Really, he was. And since their talk a week ago, he thought he'd been doing pretty well, being friendly but not too much, smiling but never too much.

But Louis made it so unbelievably hard. Especially now, when all Harry wanted to do was bypass the pastry, and sink his mouth around Louis’ fingers instead. The raspberry lemon filling would taste better that way. And then maybe Louis would be just as overwhelmed, just as needy, and he'd have no choice but to bend Harry over the display case--

“Maybe you should get your own,” Louis said suddenly, retracting his hand. He was smiling but something told Harry he understood, realized he’d messed up. “This is too good.”

Harry forced a smile onto his face. “Maybe later,” he said. “I’ll take your plate.”

Louis handed it to him. “Thanks,” he said, taking another bite of his pastry.

“I’m gonna step into the back and finish washing the dishes,” Harry said. “The loo’s in that back corner and if you need anything else, there’s a bell by the till. Just give it a tap. Okay?”

“Sure, yeah. Thanks,” Louis said, still smiling.

Louis hung around until 3:40 and then he went out to pick up Anne’s soup. Harry scrubbed the chocolate and flour from his face and neck as best as he could in the small kitchen sink. He tugged off the hairnet, stuck it in his pocket, and ran damp fingers through his new do. In the end, the stylist had convinced him to cut almost two inches off. It was still long enough, but tidier now. Harry thought it looked good. Sure, he missed the longer locks but for Berlin, he’d have to cut it anyway. Best to prepare himself now.

Harry removed his apron and then headed out to the pavement, finding Louis’ car parked directly in front of the bakery, the tinted windows down so he could be seen tapping away on his iPad.

“Hi,” Harry said as he opened the car door and climbed in.

Louis studied him for a moment. “Nice hair,” he said.

Harry turned his head away to grab his seatbelt and hide his smile. “Thank you,” he said, keeping his head down as he buckled in. He lifted his gaze to meet Louis’. “It’s not too short?”

Louis’ eyes lingered on him. “Not at all,” he said simply. “I like it.” His eyes flickered away as he started the car. He glanced to the left before he pulled away from the kerb.

“So I have an idea,” he announced.

Harry raised an eyebrow. “'kay, let’s hear it,” he said.

“Your doughnuts are amazing. I’d eat five if I thought they wouldn’t go straight to my bum.”

Harry laughed. “How about one every month?”

“I’ll have to now. Don’t know how I can live without them anymore,” he said. “You’ve ruined me, Harry.”

Well, at least now he understood how that felt.

“So is that your idea? Doughnuts in moderation?” Harry asked.

“Not quite. It involves your doughnuts though. I think it would be great if we could partner with your bakery. We as in Styles. Like have you all cater for staff meetings or an event, maybe. It’d boost revenue exponentially for you, get some carbs pumped into the fashion elite. It’s perfect.”

“Half the people at the office won’t eat a doughnut, Lou. My mum doesn’t even eat cheese,” Harry said.

“Ah but they will once they taste them! We just have to convince them to try it and they’d be sold. And if you make them, Anne’ll be forced to see how good you are at all this.”

“Maybe? But how are you planning on getting them to try it?” Harry asked.

“Haven’t thought that far ahead, yet,” Louis said.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Harry said.

Louis smiled. “My thoughts exactly,” he said. “Also, Zayn’s throwing that party we talked about this weekend. Friday at 8? But I wouldn’t show up till a little before 9. Zayn and Liam probably won’t show up till 10 cus Z has this thing about arriving late for his own parties. He thinks it’s a testament to his circle of influence if people party hard in anticipation of him.”

“You’re kidding,” Harry said.

“I wish,” Louis laughed. “Anyway, don’t forget to invite your friends. As many as you can. Zayn’ll appreciate it. I would too.”

“Sure, yeah. Do you mind if I invite Nick?” Harry asked.

Louis glanced at him. “Not at all,” he said. “I’ll text you the address so you can forward it to your friends.”

“Great. Thank you,” Harry said.

One corner of Louis’ mouth twitched in a smile. “Not a problem,” he said, just as they were pulling into the car park at Styles, Inc.

 

* * *

 

Two things Harry hadn’t come to the party expecting?

A full bar and Louis with Eleanor.

The full bar, he maybe should have seen coming. Zayn seemed like the type to go all out when it came to throwing a party and considering that Liam had sent them a bottle of champagne as they were setting up Zayn’s studio, so did he. As soon as Harry had entered with his entourage of friends, Gem, Niall, Nick, Lou and Daisy included, they’d all taken up a spot near the bar and hadn’t moved since.

Louis and Eleanor were a different story. In retrospect, that too made sense. Louis had instructed Harry to bring all of his friends. He and Zayn were going for a packed house. Of course, Louis would invite everyone in his circle too, including his girlfriend.

Didn’t mean it shocked Harry any less.

He took another sip of his drink, rotating a little to face Niall, trying to focus on the story he was telling.

But his rebel gaze kept drifting off to the right, back to Louis and Eleanor where they stood across the room, closer to the balcony.

One of Louis’ friends was gesturing animatedly and making faces. Louis threw his head back as he laughed, one Harry could hear clearly even from where he was. Eleanor watched him, giggling into her hand, and the way her cheeks flushed, Harry figured she was just as enamoured as he was.

Eleanor leaned over to speak into Louis' ear and he leaned in to hear her, propping a hand on the small of her back. Louis gave a nod of his head and left her side, starting off in the direction of the bar, as in the bar where Harry was standing with his friends.

Harry took a deep breath, turning further to face Niall, wanting to crawl into his glass and drown. He forced a laugh in response to whatever James had said, cued by the laughter of everyone around him. He didn’t watch Louis approach, didn’t hear how close he was until…

“Enjoying yourself?”

Harry looked and saw Louis within a foot or two of him. He moved his cup away from his mouth so he could speak. “Hi. I am, yeah,” he said. “This is all really nice. And it doesn’t smell like Kurchev’s arse at all.”

Louis laughed, head tilting back like a second ago, and Harry beamed, eyes sparkling in the light of the tiny bulbs Zayn had strung from the ceiling. It wasn’t even his joke, really. But he was glad he’d used it. He'd do it again if he got that reaction every time.

“I’m glad you’re having fun,” Louis said.

Harry leaned in a bit closer so he could speak quietly. “Also, I—”

“Lou.”

Harry hadn’t even noticed her approaching, too enthralled by Louis’ smile. When his eyes fell on Eleanor, slinking up behind Louis, he leaned away from him instantly as if Louis had burst into flame. His heart plunged into his stomach, floated there in the acid.

Louis’ shot Harry an apologetic smile, though Harry didn’t know if it was because their conversation had just been interrupted or because his heart was drowning in his gut or both.

“Sorry, I change my mind. I’d like a mojito instead,” she said. Then her eyes darted up to Harry’s. “Oh, sorry. Hi, Harry.” Harry blinked in a mild stupor. Eleanor smiled, extending her hand for a shake. “You don’t know me. I’m—”

“Eleanor, yeah?” Harry said, slipping into business mode, his only defence and his only hope of making it through this conversation without embarrassing himself. He shook her warm hand, grip loose and weak. “Louis’s mentioned you.”

Eleanor’s smile widened and she glanced at Louis. “He’s mentioned you too,” she said to Harry. “We’re both so grateful to your family for how you’ve taken Louis in. And I’m a huge fan of your mum’s. I'm wearing her shoes actually.” She pointed at her heels.

Harry took another sip of his drink, surprised to find it now tasted like bile. “I’ll tell her when I see her,” he said.

Eleanor continued smiling up until the moment the awkwardness settled in. At that point, she gave Louis a pat on his shoulder. “A mojito, okay? Thank you,” she said, pressing a brief kiss to his cheek.

Louis nodded. “Got it.”

“See you later, Harry. It was nice to meet you,” she said.

Harry forced one more smile. “Same to you."

Louis watched her retreat for two seconds and then his gaze slid back to Harry. “Sorry,” he said.

“What for?” Harry asked, as calmly as he could.

Louis tried to smile but it looked more like a grimace.

Harry threw back his glass of bile. He reached back to place the empty glass on the bar top. “Your girlfriend needs her mojito,” he said, flashing a smile, and started to turn away.

“Harry.”

“Hmm?” Harry hummed coolly, though his heartbeat thrummed louder than the music in his ears.

Louis’ eyes darted about his face. “We’re good, yeah?”

Harry hesitated for two seconds. He didn’t feel good. But he lifted his hand and rested it on Louis’ shoulder. “We’re good,” he said earnestly, patting.

Louis smiled, though it was smaller than it had been before Eleanor showed up.

Harry turned back toward his group of friends, smiling at Niall to ease the worry on his face. Louis went about ordering drinks and when he was headed back to Eleanor, he shot Harry one last smile before disappearing into the crowd.

“Harry,” someone called not long afterwards, and Harry turned to see Zayn, weaving through party guests and pulling an attractive man behind him by the hand.

“Hey,” Harry said, once again turning away from his circle of friends.

“Glad you could make it, mate,” Zayn said.

“Yeah and I brought friends,” Harry said nodding to Niall and the others.

“Lots of them, yeah. That’s great,” Zayn said. He pulled the man attached to his hand forward. “This is Liam, by the way,” he said. “My overachieving boyfriend.”

Liam smiled, his eyes dark and kind. “I’m not an overachiever,” he said, laughing off Zayn’s affectionate jab. To Harry, he said, “I think I’ve heard about you way too much for this to be our first time meeting.” He extended a hand to shake Harry’s.

Harry chuckled. “Sorry I’ve been so evasive. I hear you worked with my mum?”

“A year or two ago, yeah. She's great,” Liam said.

“Thank you,” Harry replied, already kind of charmed by Liam’s laughter and easy conversation until he threw a curveball.

“Is it true you’ll be in Berlin this January?”

Harry froze. “Oh, um...”

“Oh, look. There’s Lou,” Zayn said. Harry didn’t turn to look in the direction Zayn had begun waving because he already knew what he’d see. Liam sent Harry a rueful smile and Harry tried not to let it show how panicked he felt.

In the next minute, Louis and Eleanor were right beside Harry distributing hugs to Liam and Zayn. Harry stood there awkwardly, glancing back at his own friends, kind of wishing he could slip back over to them unnoticed. He would have no such luck.

“Sorry, I interrupted. You were asking Harry something, babe?” Zayn asked Liam, sliding his arm around his waist.

Liam smiled, slipping his own arm around Zayn’s shoulders. “I just heard you were going to be in Berlin? In January? Thought it was a rumour since you haven’t done any work since you were like ten?” Liam asked with a little laugh attached to the end.

Harry felt Louis’ eyes on him. And Zayn’s eyes. And Eleanor’s.

“Yeah,” he said and he went to lift his drink to his mouth only to realize he didn’t have a drink, god damn it.

“So you’re back? Returning to the fashion world?” Liam pressed further. “Will you be at London Fashion Week in February?”

Harry knew Liam meant no harm. But he wished he would focus his attention elsewhere or even on some other aspect of Harry’s life. Harry could carry a conversation about all the work Gemma had been doing in France this summer. But as for his own misadventures with fashion, he couldn’t talk enthusiastically about that because he wasn’t enthusiastic. He never wanted this and he couldn’t talk about it as if he did.

“There’s no predicting the future, Liam,” Louis cut in. “Taking it one step at a time, right, Haz?”

Harry looked at Louis. The knowing upturn of his lips was comforting. He understood. In this room full of people who didn’t understand, Louis was one of the few who did, and somehow that hurt more than anything else that night.

Harry nodded. “Yeah, exactly. Just taking it slow."

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Eleanor added. Bless her. Harry almost felt bad for lusting after her boyfriend. But then, could she really blame him?

Louis’ continued smiling at him until Harry’s face felt warm and he was forced to look away. He happened to meet eyes with Zayn instead, who'd been studying him in a way that made the skin on the back of his neck prickle. Zayn shot a glance at Louis as well and then he turned to admire his boyfriend’s face instead.

It happened again when Eleanor leaned over to whisper something in Louis’ ear and his response was a round of staccato laughter, his hand tightening reflexively around her waist when he leaned forward. As much as Harry had tried not to look at them, he happened to be a masochist or something and looked at them anyway, let the heartache overwhelm him until he had to look away again. And when he did, Zayn was looking at him again, his gaze perceptive still but this time with a note of sympathy.

That was what made Harry excuse himself and wedge between Niall and Gemma where he was safe from further scrutiny. Gemma wrapped an arm around his waist, and he sought comfort in her warm, resting his head on her shoulder. He threw himself into the conversation, laughed honestly at the jokes and offered up some of his own. He got another drink, got a round of shots for everyone, and eventually shimmied over to the dance floor to throw his hands up to the music.

Most importantly, he tried very hard to pretend everything was fine.

Harry thought back to what Caroline had said a few days ago. He hated to think of himself as some all-powerful magnet, attracting attention from whomever and wherever he pleased. He hated to pretend he could have anyone he wanted because clearly, it wasn’t true.

But the sharp sting of rejection had turned into a slow burn of loneliness. And standing there, glancing over at Louis with his girlfriend, Harry knew he'd been wrong. He couldn't go on like this. Everything wasn’t fine. Everything hurt.

Maybe he couldn’t have Louis. But he wanted someone.

Harry needed to meet new people. 

Chapter Text

This was how Harry ended up dining on a lobster and prawn cocktail with Jeff Azoff:

It started, as always, with Caroline, Harry’s friend for almost two years now — not a particularly extensive friendship but long enough that Harry thought he knew her tricks well enough. He’d given himself more credit than he deserved.

He arrived at Berner’s Tavern under the pretence of entertaining Caroline's French-born cousin Charlene. Being that Caroline spoke little French, she’d called on Harry, a fluent speaker since he was twelve. Like the good friend Harry was, he'd come through.

Jeff Azoff was not French. Neither was he a woman. All went without saying. But Harry was still surprised, long after the man had taken a seat at his table.

"I can't believe she tricked you into doing this," Jeff said shaking his head.

He was sitting back in his seat, hands folded together over his stomach, in what Harry imagined was supposed to be a cool, collected posture. But his nervousness was evident in the sheen of sweat above his lip.

"It's alright, really. Today's my day off anyway," Harry said with a smile. He furtively scanned the restaurant for their waiter, desperate for a refill on his glass of water.

"It was still a dirty trick," Jeff commented.

Harry gave a nod of his head. "That's Caroline for you," he said. Because now that he thought about it, it was so like her to do this.

Did she even have a French cousin called Charlene?

The waiter reappeared beside their table and refilled Harry's glass with ice water. Before he could ask them if they were ready to order, Jeff gave a discreet shake of his head. The man sauntered off without another word. Harry lifted his glass and took an eager gulp of water. He placed it down with a thud and met Jeff’s gaze, smiling politely while munching on a piece of ice.

This was so awkward and Harry didn’t even understand why. Caroline must have thought he could handle this. Because handling strange, good-looking people was normally a thing Harry did best.

But Louis had seriously stolen Harry's mojo or thrown off his groove, or both. Harry felt anxious and out of place, eager for the comfort of his bed and a cup of tea, and worried that another rejection might be lurking around the corner. Never mind that there weren’t any foreseeable reasons why Jeff would “reject” him. They’d only just met, after all.

They’d heard of each other, of course. Given how much their circles overlapped, it didn't really make sense that this was their first time meeting. Even their parents, Anne and Jeff's father, Irving Azoff, the music industry’s proclaimed heavyweight, had met numerous times. But Harry and Jeff just kept eluding each other, never purposefully but consistently.

Jeff returned Harry's smile. Harry cracked another piece of ice between his molars.

"I understand if you'd like to leave," Jeff said, leaning forward a bit to speak more quietly. A proud man, was he? That made sense given the nature of his family. "But. If you stay, I promise to make our conversation as…captivating as possible."

"Captivating?" Harry laughed lightly. "Couldn’t say no to that, could I?"

He didn’t have any plans to leave. Not only would it be horribly rude, he was also curious. He might have been tricked into coming here but Jeff hadn’t. Which meant…he’d wanted to see him?

"You're sure?" Jeff asked again. "Absolutely positive?"

Harry nodded. "I've got nowhere to be, mate.”

Jeff smiled, his teeth bright and perfect. Harry smiled back, taking him in, trying not to be overwhelmed by what it meant that he was here.

This was a date. He was on a date with someone who wasn’t Louis. Not that he and Louis had ever been on a date. But he’d been hopeful and now he wasn’t. And he was still just…taking it in.

"How about I order us some prawns and a bottle of wine?" Jeff said, drumming his fingers on the table.

"How about you're off to a good start?" Harry grinned, folding his hands together and leaning forward.

Captivating might have been a generous word. But Jeff turned out to be quite interesting.

In the hour that they spent at the restaurant, Harry learned enough details about the lad to craft a decent Wikipedia page. He'd fill it with facts like Jeff belonging to a rare group of people that suffered from shellfish allergies during childhood only to have them miraculously go away as they grew older—he said this as he was spearing a piece of lobster with his fork and sticking it into his mouth, which made Harry laugh more than it should have. He was also turning 21 in December but that excited him only because he could legally buy alcohol in the States.

Harry also found out about the personal things, the ones you might find in Jeff’s journal, not on his Wikipedia page. He was still getting used to his father managing his budding music career, fearful about disappointing him or taking advantage of his connections, and yet he wouldn't have it any other way. He trusted his father more than anyone.

He'd also just come out of a long-term relationship with a man he'd known since he was six.

That was a big one. And Harry didn't understand why Jeff told him, especially on a first date, aside from the fact that he was prone to brutal honesty. Harry admired that. He just wasn't looking to expand on his own romantic struggles anytime soon.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Harry said after Jeff had told him about Victor suddenly breaking things off three months ago.

"No, it's fine, seriously. All that time together teaches you things about a person, like how to tell when they’ve fallen out of love with you. I saw it coming but didn’t want to believe it. And at the time it seemed like the end of the world but not so much anymore. I'm ready to meet new people. And like you said, I think I’m off to a good start." He followed that up with a meaningful look at Harry.

Well, okay then.

That last bit prompted Jeff to ask Harry questions about himself. And that was how they spent the latter half of the hour, though Harry was careful to avoid any talk of past relationships. He focused instead on filling Jeff in on school and where he was thinking of attending university. He spoke a bit of his family, mostly of Gemma.

“She sounds like your favourite person,” Jeff said.

Harry took a sip of his wine while he thought. "I’d say she is, yeah," he said, smiling warmly.

"It's nice how close you are. It's sort of the same with my siblings and me, though working on our careers hasn't left much time for bonding. I suppose it helps for you that you're both doing the modelling thing."

Except Harry wasn’t doing the modelling thing. He’d been forced into it.

But he was also avoiding talk of the Great War waging inside of him, the never-ending mêlée between fashion and baking and whatever else. It would be the ultimate mood killer, Harry was certain.

Jeff paid for their "meal.” Harry would have done it but Jeff seemed to think he owed it to him for being an accomplice to Caroline’s deception, albeit an unintentional one.

Then he called Harry a car and paid for that too.

“You really don’t have to do that,” Harry said when Jeff had finished writing a check for the driver that Harry suspected was far greater than the price of a trip from London to Hadley Wood. He should have brought his car. But he'd allowed Niall to drive him to the restaurant thinking Caroline would fetch him and "Charlene" afterwards.

“Consider it a thank you,” Jeff said, opening the car door for Harry.

Harry’s brows furrowed. “I thought paying for lunch was a thank you?”

“That was an apology.”

“Right,” Harry said, nodding. “Well, you’re forgiven.”

“Yeah? So I did well, then?” Jeff asked.

Harry slipped his hands into his trouser pockets. "Very well, I think," he said teasingly.

"How about captivating?"

Something about that word made Harry want to giggle. "Maybe?"

Jeff narrowed his eyes a bit. "Enough that you'd do this again? Without being tricked into it?"

Harry bit into his lip, eyes cast to the side as he thought. "Maybe," he said again, this time with a wider smile. Jeff's grin mirrored his own.

"Alright…Could we maybe exchange numbers? Then you can decide if you'd like to see me again?" Jeff asked.

If Harry hesitated, it wasn’t for long enough that Jeff noticed. "Don't see why not," he replied.

Jeff pulled his phone from his pocket and swiped his thumb across the screen.

"Ready when you are," he said after a moment.

It was odd that he phrased it that way because Harry didn’t know when he’d ever be “ready.” But he wanted to be.

He thought of Louis. He allowed himself one second more of mourning something that would never happen. And then he gave Jeff his number.

 

* * *

 

"What’s on the menu today?" Louis asked. He took one of the paper grocery bags from Harry and rested it in the bend of his arm.

Harry shuffled in behind him toward the kitchen. "Mini chocolate croissants.”

Louis scoffed, dropping the bag beside the sink. "Did you absolutely have to pronounce it so French like? Makes the rest of us look bad."

Harry raised both brows at him. "Sorry, Lewis. Am I offending you with my accurate French pronunciations?”

"Fighting dirty, are we?” Louis slid the paper bag onto the worktop. "Fine. You win.”

Harry flashed him a smug smile.

“Do you actually need me to do something? Or just watch? Or maybe, put out any fires you happen to start?" Louis asked.

Harry narrowed his eyes at him. "I need you to eat. Same as last time," he said, “and provide encouragement."

"I can do that." Louis sat down and leaned forward on his forearms, eyeing the recipe written in Harry’s notebook. “Did George or Ivor copy that down for you?”

“I did,” Harry said distractedly.

Louis peered at Harry’s elegant looping scrawl more closely. “You write like the queen.”

“That’s a compliment, isn’t it?” Harry wondered.

“A comparison to her Majesty has to be a compliment,” Louis said with a smirk.

Harry pursed his lips as he considered that. “Thank you then?”

Louis simply smiled. Harry studied him quizzically for a second longer and then got back to the task at hand. He took his time preheating the oven, spreading out all the ingredients and instruments like Ivor had recommended.

Then he just looked at them.

"Feeling overwhelmed?" Louis asked after a moment of watching Harry stare speechlessly at an unopened package of flour.

Harry bit the inside of his cheek, straightening the recipe in front of him. "A bit," he said, holding it up to his face and studying the directions. "I've only ever made these with Ivor looking over my shoulder."

"Pretend he still is,” Louis suggested. “Or I can pretend to be Ivor. I’ll even frown like him and increase the pressure." He demonstrated his best Ivor-inspired grimace, surprisingly an accurate depiction considering Louis had only seen Ivor once.

“Cute,” Harry said, lips twitching. Louis opted his frown for a smile and Harry was momentarily distracted by the deep crease in his cheeks and the crinkle around his eyes. He blinked and went on, "What I mean is that Ivor makes everything easier. He’s been more help to me than anyone there. George is nice to talk to, yeah. But Ivor’s a better teacher. Even George thinks so. Ivor’s taught him half the stuff he knows."

Louis raised his eyebrows, clearly impressed. “Makes sense ‘cause he’s older, I guess.”

Harry resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He wanted to say that Ivor being older had nothing to do with it, that how old a person was didn’t determine how wise or mature or knowledgeable they were. But he stopped himself because if he was being honest his annoyance stemmed entirely from his own circumstances with Louis and how vast and insurmountable the age gap between them seemed at times.

“How long have they been together anyway?” Louis asked randomly.

Harry shrugged, as he lifted a chilled square of dough from one of the bags. “Don’t know exactly. But they were together when I was 10 and my mum first brought us into the bakery.”

“And are they the reason you like doing this?”

Harry sprinkled flour over his baker’s mat. “They’re more like the reason I figured it out. In primary school, we had this project—” Harry paused. “Do you actually want to hear this story?”

Louis smiled. “Of course.”

Harry got a little distracted again, blinking to clear the illusion of a sparkle in Louis’ eyes. He needed more sleep, for sure.

He cleared his throat. “Um. We had a vocation project thing in primary school. We were supposed to pick a profession we found interesting and make like a collage about it. I started to do modelling because, well, you know…” he said. He dropped the dough on the mat. “But then a week before the project was due, we went to the bakery…La Maison de Sucre.”

“Is that— I honestly didn’t realize it even had a name,” Louis admitted.

“They’re having the sign redesigned,” Harry explained. He spread the dough out a bit with his hands. “It means Sugar House. Sounds much better in French, though.”

That got a bubbly laugh out of Louis but Harry kept his eyes on the dough to avoid being distracted again.

“So?” Louis urged. “You went to the bakery. Then what?”

Harry’s nose crinkled as he thought. “We went to the bakery, my mum, Gemma, and me. And then…it was like— I don’t know, it was just amazing. We were happier than we’d been in a while. It only lasted as long as we were there. But what mattered was that it happened.”

Harry didn’t mention that his parents’ divorce, less than two years prior, was the cause of everyone’s sadness, his mum’s more than anyone. For Harry and Gemma, the bakery provided them momentary joy. But for Anne, it wasn’t quite so simple. She found some happiness but only because of the smiles on her children’s faces, not the one on her own.

Louis seemed to figure this out without Harry having to say anything, evidenced by the solemn nod of his head and his downcast eyes.

Harry wasn't looking for pity. So he hurried to continue.

“George and Ivor gave us a tour of the kitchen and they let us sample recipes they were still working on. I think for Gemma, it was all just a pick-me-up, something for her to remember later in life and smile about maybe. But for me, it was— I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I still haven’t,” he said.

Louis smiled. “And the profession you chose for your project was a pastry chef, right?”

Harry shot him a smile. “Yes.”

Louis kept his eyes on Harry’s hands working the rolling pin. “You were fortunate to have had that to distract you, you know? From whatever else was going on.”

Aside from the fact that Louis definitely knew about Harry’s dad, Harry picked up on something else.

“What about you? Like after your dad left, did you have something to distract you too?” he asked cautiously.

Louis shrugged. “There was football. That made me happy enough. But it’s hard to stay distracted when your mum’s struggling to provide for you and your sisters.”

Harry’s hands slowed to a stop on the rolling pin.

Louis’ voice cut off too, his smile soft and affectionate. “Don’t look so sad,” he said. “I’m not trying— I’m just saying it’s good that the baking was able to pull you out of all that shit for a little while.”

“Yeah,” Harry said, putting the rolling pin aside. “Yeah…just. I wish you had that too. When you were younger.”

Louis smiled wider. “I turned out alright though, didn’t I?”

Harry smiled back. “More than alright."

That…had sounded so much better in his head. He cast his eyes downward, feeling his face growing warm from the gravity of his words. He’d meant it in a friendly way, would have said it to anyone in the same situation. But this wasn’t anyone. It was Louis and unfortunately, that changed everything.

Louis watched him for a moment, his brows slipping into a slight furrow. They remained in silence while Harry began cutting the dough into appropriately sized triangles. The atmosphere had turned oppressive so Harry was grateful that sizing the croissants correctly required all of his attention.

Louis waited until he’d finished slicing to say, “Looks like you’re doing just fine on your own.”

Harry shrugged his shoulder. “Yeah but looks are deceiving. I could have rolled the dough too much or not enough. And it’s not too late for me to burn them. That’s always a possibility.”

“You know it’s also a possibility they could come out perfectly,” Louis countered.

Harry shook his head, scrutinizing his work. “No…I think I stressed the dough, to be honest.”

“You what?” Louis squinted his eyes at him like he wasn’t sure they were speaking the same language anymore.

Harry huffed a laugh. “It’s a baker’s thing. It means to overwork the dough. Ivor says it all the time. ‘Easy now, Harry, you wouldn’t want to stress the dough.’” Harry donned his best Ivor voice for the last bit.

“I think you’re more at risk of stressing yourself.”

“I think you’re probably right,” Harry said, reaching up to wipe his sweaty upper lip.

“Harry,” Louis said, shaking his head disapprovingly, “no matter how stressed you are, drugs are never the answer.”

“What?” Harry’s brows creased.

Louis tapped a finger beneath his nose. “Coke is a hell of a drug.”

Harry was still frowning in confusion when he turned away to look at himself in the reflection of the sink faucet. Powdery white flour formed a trail across his nostrils and when he looked down, he realized his hand was covered in the stuff. 

And then he was laughing, surprised and loud, covering his mouth to quiet himself. He couldn’t stop even after he wiped his forearm under his nose. Louis was chuckling too, propelled more by Harry’s boisterous, dimple-faced snorting.

The snickering continued as Harry dropped chocolate squares onto the dough and rolled each triangle into itself. He didn’t even think they were still laughing about the same thing anymore, just that everything suddenly seemed to be funny.

When Harry laughed, he triggered more of Louis’ laughter. If Louis laughed, he got Harry going again. While they bounced laughter off of each other, the grave mood they’d summoned moments ago dispersed without Harry even noticing.

Louis also turned out to be right. The croissants came out perfectly and they ate every last one with tea.

 

* * *

 

Harry had just left Gemma and Aaron at lunch, eager to be away from them because they'd been at the brink of another row. They fought all the time, and Harry often wondered what his sister saw in him. He still had an hour before he was due at work, so he stopped at a Starbucks nearby and talked himself into getting a Strawberries and Crème frap. He needed the pick-me-up. He thanked the barista and dropped the cash he had in his pocket into the tip jar just before turning to leave.

“Harry.”

He paused, quickly scanning the people seated around him for a familiar face, and Zayn was there by the window with a sketchbook in his lap.

Harry backed away from the door and headed over to him. “Hey,” he said smiling. He took in Zayn’s sketchbook and tea. “You look like a quintessential artist right now.”

“The look was modelled on me,” Zayn said with a smirk.

“I had no idea,” Harry said, lips twitching. “Are you alone?”

Zayn gave him a serious look. “We’re never alone, Harry. Our friends are always just a text away,” he said sagely.

Harry’s brow creased. “Now you’re just being facetious.”

Zayn laughed. “I’m here by myself, yeah. You in a hurry?”

Harry glanced at his wristwatch. “Not really, no. I have work in about 30 minutes?”

“Take a seat,” Zayn said, pointing with his pencil at the empty chair across from him. He watched Harry sit down. “How’ve you been, mate?”

Harry took a second to answer, sipping his frap while Zayn seemed to make a study of him. It was only once he’d sat down that he realized the mistake he’d just made.

He was certain that Zayn knew things about him that he’d prefer he didn’t. He was at once grateful that Louis must not have divulged their conversation to his friends, yet unsettled by Zayn somehow figuring it out all on his own, apparently just by looking at him.

“Been good. Same as always,” Harry answered. “You?”

Zayn placed his sketchbook on the table and leaned back in his chair, folding his hands in his lap.

“Same, same.”

Harry stirred his Frappuccino with his straw for no other reason than to have something to do with his hands. “How’s the studio?”

“Good, good,” Zayn said, smiling.

Harry suddenly felt caught in a chess game, which was unfortunate because he’d never been a stellar player. Their match had only just begun and already Zayn appeared to be a man of cunning countermoves. This was how he played. He gave nothing away and yet he intended to take as much as he could. His long dark lashes fluttered over discerning eyes and Harry knew he would lose.

“Seen Lou today?”

Harry blinked at him. “Not yet. Should probably see him this afternoon though.”

“Did you enjoy the party?”

“It was amazing, yeah. You and Liam were great hosts,” Harry said, popping a dimple. Maybe if he was as friendly as possible, Zayn might take mercy on him.

“Thanks. Although I think Louis and Eleanor might have been more responsible for getting things going,” Zayn said, gaze intent.

Harry’s stomach did the swoop as always. He focused on keeping his facial expressions neutral but it was evident from the sympathetic smile that suddenly donned Zayn’s face that he’d given something away. Game over.

“You like him, don’t you?” Zayn said lifting his cup off the table and bringing it to his lips. He kept his eyes on Harry.

Harry didn’t respond. He flicked a crumb off the table and his gaze flickered up to meet Zayn’s.

“I thought so,” Zayn said, shaking his head and reaching out to place his cup down. “Ya know, this might come as a surprise but we’ve all had a crush on Louis at some point. Me, Stan, and even Liam too. Before we started dating, obviously. And for Liam, it only lasted a week or two. Then he met me and that was the end of that.”

Harry frowned. “And what about you?”

Zayn sighed tiredly. “I think I felt something for Louis from Year 10 right up until I met Liam. It fluctuated, you know? I’d convince myself I was over it and then he’d do something to throw me off again. Fucked me up for years.”

Harry was filled with sudden dread, like this was a sign of what was to come for him. He didn’t want to spend years aching over Louis. The last month had been shitty enough.

Then again, Zayn had Liam now. Maybe for Harry, there was someone waiting for him at the end of this as well.

“Louis just has this thing about him. He makes people like him without meaning to and then he feels sorry about it after,” Zayn said. “He’s a massive flirt. He’s generous with his affection until it becomes too much. And before you know it, you think you’re in love with him.”

Harry’s frap didn’t seem as appetizing anymore. He didn’t know why that kept happening. First, his pineapple margarita turned to bile. And now his Strawberries and Crème looked like pureed brain matter.

“Were you in love with him?” Harry asked.

Zayn lifted his sketchbook from the table and flipped to a clean page. He studied Harry’s face for a moment and then dropped his gaze to the page, pencil alternating between swift strokes and slower ones. As he worked, he spoke. “Don’t think so. More like I was lonely. If I was in love with Lou, I wouldn’t have fallen for Liam so quickly. Li came along and that was it. It all just stopped.”

Harry thought about Jeff, who was genuinely a nice person and a pleasure to meet. But nothing had stopped for Harry. As much as he ignored his feelings for Louis, they just kept going.

“Did you ever tell him how you felt?” Harry asked.

“Nope,” Zayn said, gaze dancing over Harry’s face again. “I thought about it. Might’ve accidentally said something when we were drunk or high. But never on purpose, not when I knew what I was doing.”

“Why not?”

Zayn shrugged his shoulder. “I knew he didn’t feel the same way. Didn’t make sense to even try.” He dropped one pencil on the table and picked up another. “It might have been a pride thing. I didn’t want to get my feelings hurt, you know? Also seemed like a silly thing to ruin our friendship over. And I’d been dealing with it for years. I kept telling myself ‘you can deal with it a bit longer.’ Before I knew it four years had passed.”

“Fuck,” Harry breathed. “I don’t— I thought I had it bad. But like—” Never mind that he’d just admitted to liking Louis. Zayn had dealt with this shit for four years while knowing that Louis didn’t feel the same way. He’d watched him with other people. He’d even set him up with his current girlfriend, which didn't actually make sense...

“Wait. Why would you set him up with Eleanor if you liked him?”

Zayn made a face. “I had Liam long before Louis started dating El. They didn’t meet until a few months after graduation and then they didn’t start dating seriously until months after that,” Zayn explained.

Harry stabbed at his Frappuccino with his straw. “You know,” he began cautiously. “I told him. How I felt.”

Zayn stopped sketching and eyed him carefully. “Before or after you knew about Eleanor?”

“After,” Harry said quietly. “But I was drunk. And I feel awful about it now. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.”

“Hm,” Zayn hummed, sounding impressed. He took another sip of his tea. “That was bold.”

“I was drunk,” Harry said again.

“What did he say?” Zayn resumed his drawing.

“That he had a girlfriend. And then I offered, in sort of a roundabout way, to look past that.”

Zayn snorted. “Did you really?”

“I was really drunk.” Harry took a sip of his melting frap. “I got mad at him and left him by my pool. Then the next day he went to visit his poor grandmum. I was awful to him and all my shit was probably the last thing he needed. I couldn’t even apologize in person until he came back. Then I basically told him I wasn’t going to pretend like I’d lied or something.” Harry paused. “When it’s all put together like this, I sound so…pathetic.”

Zayn laughed airily. “I wouldn’t say that. It isn’t your fault you feel the way you feel. Just like it’s not Lou’s fault he’s seeing someone.”

Zayn looked over his drawing and added a few random strokes about the page. “I’ll say this though,” he began, “you two being friends isn’t all that smart.”

Harry blinked at him. “Sorry, what?”

Zayn’s pencil stilled and he sighed like he was thinking of all the millions of ways his time would be better spent. “I like you, Harry. You’re a cool lad,” Zayn said. Harry smiled tentatively, wary of an oncoming “but.”

“I can tell Louis likes you too…as a person. And it’d be nice if you could hang with all of us,” Zayn said. “But not if you like him.”

“And what about if I get over him?” Harry wondered.

Zayn smirked. “You feel like that’s something you’ll do?”

Harry wasn’t sure he had a choice.

Zayn ripped the current page of his sketchbook free and placed it on the table, rotating it to face Harry. “Take my advice? That way leads heartache,” he said, smiling sadly.

Harry looked down at the drawing. As he’d suspected, it was one of himself. And it was an accurate portrayal. Even with the rough, hurried lines, the contemplative expression on his face was clear. 2-D Harry was a thing of deep thought.

But mostly, he was sad.

Zayn pushed his chair back and stood up, his sketchbook deposited in his leather bag. “I have to go meet Liam,” he said. “Don’t take me too seriously, mate. Much as I hate to admit it, I’m not always right. But believe me when I say I’m just looking out for you.”

Harry nodded. “Thank you for the drawing,” he said. “It’s good.”

“No problem,” Zayn said. Then he collected his cup, shooting Harry one last smile before he strolled away.

Zayn’s words were like flies, buzzing close by Harry’s ears while he was at work. He couldn’t concentrate on anything George or Ivor said and must have been so inattentive that they demoted him to cleaning the machinery and mopping the floors.

After work, when he was walking back to his car parked near the café, Caroline’s name flashed across the screen of his phone. Harry had to force himself to take the call. Much as he didn’t want to, this was a conversation he probably needed to have.

Five minutes into the call, Harry didn’t think they were getting anywhere.

“It wasn’t awful, but I still don’t get why you couldn’t just tell me he was interested.” He spoke loudly into his mobile over the sound of traffic close beside him.

He faintly heard Caroline sigh. “I’ve been telling you. You just haven’t been listening. You say you want to meet new people and then I try to set you up on dates and you refuse every one. What were you expecting me to do?”

“I haven’t been refusing without good reasons. I really am busy with school, and preparing for Berlin, and the gala,” Harry said. “There’s a lot going on.”

“But, you weren’t too busy to see my French cousin Charlene,” Caroline said.

“That’s different. I was trying to do you a favour. And on my day off, too.”

“And you have, love. You actually graced one of London’s most eligible bachelors with your presence. You’ve done me a huge favor.”

Harry sighed heavily, side-stepping a woman’s poodle.

Caroline continued. “You liked him, didn’t you? He told me you gave him your number.”

Harry beeped the button on his key as he approached his car. “He’s nice,” he said. Oddly, that made him think of Louis. He’d call him “nice” while meaning a hundred other things. He didn’t know what he meant this time when he spoke of Jeff. For now, he really was just nice. “I did give him my number.”

“Very good,” Caroline said.

Harry climbed into the seat of his car, dropping his brown leather workbag beside him. “I have one question.”

“I’m listening,” Caroline said, sounding preoccupied.

“Do you even have a French-cousin called Charlene?”

Caroline laughed. “Yes…” she said with an obvious pause. “But she was only born last week.”

Harry dropped his forehead to the steering wheel. “You’re awful,” he said with a breathy laugh.

“Oh, Harry, I have to go. John and I are starting our ballroom dancing lessons today. I’ll talk to you soon. Let me know when you’ve got a second date with Jeff,” she said in a hurry.

“Caroline, I don’t know if—”

“Ta!” she said and hung up, leaving Harry to wonder why and how he’d maintained a friendship with her for so long.

He didn’t realize how the events of the day had drained him until he made it home. He didn’t stop for a cup of tea. He didn’t bother to wash the flour from his skin. He ignored the list of designers Louis had given him to review in preparation for Berlin and the collection of assignments due in class on Monday went unnoticed as well.

He went up to his room, kicked off his shoes, and crawled into bed.

Tomorrow might be better. But he was done with today.

Chapter Text

NOVEMBER

They didn’t go for their runs in the mornings anymore. Lately, Louis hardly had time to do anything except work, pick Harry up, drop him off, and run Anne’s next set of errands. It was probably for the best though. Every day, Zayn’s words loomed in Harry's head, and maybe time forced apart from Louis would actually help.

Although after nearly two weeks, Harry remained unconvinced, and Louis finally called on his company.

'ordering Thai. you in?'

This was where Harry was meant to say 'no'. Maybe not so abrasively. But he was meant to turn down the offer, fix himself a nice cup of soup, and stay away from situations where he was alone with Louis for extended periods of time.

'On my way.'

He was hungry, was the thing, and Thai was his favourite.

He ended up at Louis' minutes later and sometime after that, their food arrived. He was sat on the couch, twirling his chopsticks through his pineapple coconut noodles, while a bare-chested Denzel Washington chased a man on the television screen.

“He’s pretty attractive, you know,” Harry mumbled. “In that older man kind of way.”

Louis had just finished eating and sat with his head against his fist. “Older man kind of way?” he asked, lifting his eyebrows.

Harry had walked right into that one. “Never mind,” he said.

Louis laughed, resting his head against his fist again. “Speaking of old men…”

Harry groaned. All this over some innocent praise for Denzel.

“Tomorrow night,” Louis began, throwing him off.

“Don’t remind me,” Harry said. “I’m nervous enough already.”

Louis looked confusion. “You didn’t even hear what I was going to say.”

“The gala? Tomorrow night?” Harry said slowly when the perplexed crease remained between Louis’ brows. “You know, the one I’ve been practising all this time for?”

“Is that not next week?” Louis said, already reaching for his phone.

“Nope, first week of November,” Harry said.

Louis squinted at his phone, like he needed further confirmation. Harry might've found that more annoying if his stomach weren’t so full. Louis’ eyes darted quickly over his screen. He breathed out, almost inaudibly, “fuck.”

“What is it?” Harry said, before popping a piece of pineapple into his mouth. “Also, what does all this have to do with old men?”

“There’s a commemorative dinner for Jean Paul Gaultier tomorrow to celebrate his birthday and thank him for his partnership with British fashion, blah blah. He really wants to meet you, H. Like, he’s asked about you,” Louis rested his head back against the couch, squeezing his eyelids. “When your mum spoke to him, she promised you’d be there.”

“What’s so important about meeting me?” Harry said.

“He likes your work,” Louis said.

Harry raised both brows. “You mean my brief stint with modelling a decade ago.”

“Not a decade. Six years. You love to exaggerate, don’t you?”

“I learned from you,” Harry shot back, munching on his pineapple. “You could tell him there’s been a change of plans?”

“You don’t change plans with Gaultier,” Louis said.

“Tell him I’ve fallen ill,” Harry suggested.

“Your mum’s not going to go for that and you know it,” Louis said. “She’d want you to come whether you were sick or not.”

She’d done it before actually. When Harry was twelve and the debut of her newest line had her thinking it’d be a nice idea for Harry and Gemma to walk with her at the end of the show. She thought it'd be a moment to remind everyone that yes, Anne Styles had a family, yes she was superwoman, climbing to success while raising her children. 

She hadn't taken it very well when Gemma suggested having their nanny, Mary, walk with them too. 

Nor had she been happy about Harry catching the flu the week of the show. Even after he'd gone to his mum with a runny nose and a fever other mum's might panic over, Anne had gotten Mary to administer whatever antibiotics and decongestants necessary to have Harry on his feet again. And it worked. Harry walked at the end of the show, just as Anne had wanted.

But he wouldn’t forget how desperate she'd been, how having him stay in and rest longer hadn’t been an option. He knew she cared but at the end of the day, there was always the question of if she cared about her work more.

Harry wasn’t sick now but he didn’t think it would matter if he were.

"I’ll talk to her," Louis said. "We'll work it out.”

Harry wasn't so sure.

But he wasn't sacrificing the gala either. Part of the whole growing up thing was refusing to bend to his mum’s will. There had to be a way out of this and if Harry couldn’t come up with something, Louis would. He always did.

 

* * *

 

“I have a plan," Louis announced Friday morning. He’d come in from the backyard, dressed not in running gear, but in a reddish jumper and black trousers. With the soft brown of his hair, he honestly looked like a raspberry truffle, drizzled in caramel. Harry hated him so much. “Personally, I think it’s genius,” Louis said.

Harry started back in on his cereal. “Well, you would."

Louis ignored the jab, propping his hands on his hips. “Your gala doesn’t start till 8, yeah? The commemorative dinner is a bit earlier. More like a late lunch, to be honest. You’ll have just enough time to meet JP, get changed and get to the gala. I’ll drive you myself to save time on parking. Also, I’m a better driver,” he clapped his hands together, “Problem solved.”

“Right,” Harry said, lifting another bite of cereal to his mouth. “Bit risky, isn’t it?”

The two venues for each of the events were about fifteen to twenty minutes apart and that wasn’t including traffic. Anything could happen and George needed Harry to be there, ready to go, at least fifteen minutes before 8. No excuses.

“Sure it is. But we don’t have much of an option,” Louis said. “You’ll just have to trust me.”

“What will we say to Jean Paul about me leaving?” Harry asked.

Louis shrugged. “Hopefully, he’ll be too busy meeting other people to notice. Or maybe then we’ll try telling him you’ve fallen ill. I think it’ll bother him less if he’s already had a chance to meet you. Just—I know it’s hard—but try not to be too charming.”

Harry raised his brows. “Oh, you find me charming?”

Louis glanced at his watch. “Look at the time,” he said turning on his heels. “Expect a call from me at noon. We’ll finalize the details then.”

Harry watched him leave. He probably shouldn’t have been smiling so much as he got ready. Nothing to be happy about when the man who’d just paid him a compliment was still very unavailable. But well, a little glee didn’t hurt anyone.

By noon, they had concocted a pretty solid plan. By solid, Harry realized it had a 50% chance of falling to shit. Anne would probably not want Harry to leave the commemorative dinner but Louis was counting on her being too preoccupied with other aspects of the night, and he would have Harry out of there before she could put up a fuss. 

Louis had Harry pack a bag with his uniform for the gala, which he’d have to throw on during the drive. It was all risky business, especially trying to keep it a secret from his mum. But he had to trust Louis, he wanted to.

*

Jean Paul Gaultier was a kind man, more so than Harry would have expected with the way Louis spoke of him. They talked about photography for a bit, spurred on by a discussion about university and course options. Anne still thought Harry was set for Oxford, his parent’s alma mater and the one place he’d get the best education on business management.

She didn’t know that Harry had zero intentions of taking over Styles Inc., or that he’d been working on his application for Cordon Bleu, one of the top culinary schools in Europe. But Harry would break that news to her when the time was right.

For now, he let Gaultier think that fashion was his sole inspiration for breathing, and Gaultier bought every word and loved it.

At 7:15, Louis stepped up to Harry’s side interrupting a conversation he’d been having with one of Gaultier’s assistants. “Sorry, are you ready?” Louis asked. “We have thirty minutes, starting now.”

Harry smiled at the woman he’d been speaking to. “C'était agréable de parler avec vous. Bon vol de retour à Paris.”

Louis raised his brows and nodded in agreement, though it was clear his own French was lacking.

Harry and Gaultier’s assistant kissed each other’s cheeks in goodbye and then Louis was leading him away. He pressed his hand into the small of Harry’s back as he was guiding him toward the exit. Harry hated how much he liked that. He hated how desperate he was to have Louis’ hands on him, in whatever way he chose to do it, even if he was simply ushering him around. He leaned into him even.

They had just grabbed their coats and were pulling them on, approaching the doors when Anne stepped out of the nearby ladies’ room with Gemma in tow.

Gemma gave a disappointed shake of her head. She’d been an accomplice to their arrangement, assigned with the task of keeping Anne distracted should something like this occur. And she’d just failed. But Harry wouldn’t hold it against her.

“Where are you going?” Anne asked, taking in their coats and their proximity to the exit.

Good thing they had a backup plan…sort of.

“Harry has somewhere he needs to be for work. I told you about it a few days ago,” Louis lied.

“For work?” Anne said, her perfectly plucked eyebrows arching high up on her forehead. Harry just knew. This wouldn’t go well, not at all.

“There’s a gala,” he said, “I have to help George with the catering.”

“You can’t leave here to go work.” Anne's gaze swung to Louis. “Absolutely not.”

“Mum,” Gemma said. “Let him go. We’re finishing up here soon.”

“No, it’s unprofessional. What would Jean Paul say? What would we tell him?” Anne shook her head. “This is out of the question, Harry.”

Louis must've felt Harry tense up. He patted him gently on the small of his back. “They’ve agreed to cater for our next event, the bakery Harry works for. And they’re doing it for half the price. If Harry were to skip out on his responsibilities, the deal would fall apart. They’re one of the best bakeries in London. It’d be bad for business for us to disappoint them,” Louis said. “Gaultier’s spoken to Harry already, even invited him to stop by if he’s ever in France. Gemma, he’s actually waiting to speak with you now.”

Anne’s mouth was screwed in a stubborn little line but she was listening. She hardly ever listened to Harry. He thought sometimes that she’d developed a filter specifically optimized for his voice. But she always listened to Louis. Not because he was her assistant. But because he possessed business acumen that she was forced to respect, and when he opened his mouth, he always had something valuable to say.

“Let me take Harry to the event. If he’s late, if he doesn’t show, it’ll reflect badly on all of us,” Louis said calmly.

Anne looked at Harry, shaking her head. With a sigh, she said, “I’m very disappointed that you’d rather leave and bake than stay here with your family. But we’ve wasted enough time trying to stop you,” she said. “Come, Gemma.”

Harry didn’t look at her as she walked by. His neck and ears felt hot and his eyes burned a little. When he’d been younger, he always cried when his mum spoke to him that way.

“Hey,” Louis said soothingly. “You alright?”

Harry nodded. “I’m fine,” he said, his voice higher pitched than usual. He wasn’t little anymore and he had somewhere to be. He cleared his throat, and said more firmly, “I’m fine.”

“Then let’s go,” Louis said.

Harry didn’t hate himself so much when he sought comfort in Louis’ hand on his back now. They both knew he needed it.

Louis tossed him the bag he’d packed once he was seated in the back of the Benz. “You said the place was fifteen minutes away, yeah?” he said, starting the car. “I’ll get you there in ten.”

“Planning on obeying traffic laws?” Harry asked as he shrugged off his blazer.

Louis pulled out of the parking space so fast Harry’s heart skipped a beat or two. “Not really, no,” Louis said.

Harry would laugh but he was maybe a little terrified.

He emptied the contents of his bag onto the seat and got to work changing.

“Try not to wrinkle the blouse,” he remembered Lou instructing earlier. “Try very hard.”

Harry started to remove the £200 silk blouse as carefully as he could. But then Louis was changing gears and pressing hard on the gas. Harry went sprawling over the seats, colliding with the car door.

Ow. Fuck, Louis,” he said, peeling himself off the window. He massaged his shoulder, face twisted in pain.

“Sorry, love,” Louis said, sounding only vaguely apologetic. “Said you wouldn’t be late. And I meant it.”

“You’re making me wrinkle the blouse,” Harry said.

“Bugger the blouse,” Louis said, making a sharp left. Harry slapped his hand against the window to brace himself. He said a quick prayer, crossed himself. He hoped that the experience of catering an event was worth narrowly avoiding death. He was almost positive Louis had just run two red lights.

 “You know, on second thought, it’s okay if I get there late. So long as I’m alive,” Harry said, trying to pull on the smock. Louis glanced up into the visor and they made eye contact. Harry felt exposed without a shirt on but he couldn’t say he minded.

“You’ll be fine. We’ve gained three minutes already,” Louis said smugly. He did stop at the next light on account of it being a busier street. He was a daredevil, sure, but he wasn’t suicidal.

They gained another two minutes by the time the GPS on Louis’ phone told them they were three minutes away. Harry wouldn’t say so out loud, didn’t want to condone Louis’ unsafe driving, but he was impressed.

They pulled up in front of the venue at 7:44. Harry literally didn’t have a minute to spare. But when he climbed out of the back seat he still stopped and turned back to Louis.

“Thank you so much, Lou,” Harry said. “Really.”

Louis smiled. “Any time, darling,” he said. “Have fun. Do your best.”

“I will,” Harry smiled back, lingering there for a second. He waved, “Bye then.” Louis waved back.

Harry turned then and hurried toward the doors of the building. Just as he was pulling them open, he heard Louis shout.

“Don’t stress the dough!”

Harry made a face he didn’t think Louis could see from this distance. He shouted back, “Don’t crash the car!"

He couldn’t hear Louis laugh over the sound of the music drifting out from the door he held open. But he saw him do it. He watched him wave one last time and then he was pulling off.

*

“You did so well,” Roberta said from the driver’s seat.

George turned to smile at him. “Ivor will be proud.”

“Hope so,” Harry said, smiling sleepily. He rested his head against the window, letting his eyes slip closed. His phone chimed in his hand and he held it up to his face, unlocking it to read the message he’d gotten from Gemma.

'Look who I just ran into! Should have come out tonight, you bore. :P He says hi.'

There was a picture attached of her and the ever-elusive Ed Sheeran. Harry blinked, sitting up a little. He dragged his thumb and forefinger apart on the screen, blowing Ed’s face up to better proportions. Just adorable, he was, and Gemma hadn’t wasted any time rubbing it in Harry’s face.

For Ed, Harry might have considered ditching the gala. He’d met him only twice in the past but each time, he’d ended up with a low-key crush, charmed by the red hair, the smile, the general quirkiness, and Ed’s ability to achieve success without sacrificing who he was. Harry adored him. And they’d be good friends if the lad weren’t so busy being famous.

Gemma’s second text was kinder, in the vague, sarcastic way Gemma liked to be kind.

'I suppose the baking thing is fun too. Hope it went well.'

Harry smiled, locking his phone and dropping it back in his lap. The van slowed to a stop in front of his house and Harry climbed out, calling goodnight to George and Roberta. “Thanks again for the food,” he said, gesturing with the two food containers in his hands stuffed with leftovers.

“Thanks for the help,” George countered. “Sleep well, Harry.”

“Same to you,” Harry said. “See you on Wednesday.”

“Bonne nuit,” Roberta said, blowing kisses.

Harry smiled, sliding the van door shut, and started towards the front gate. He waved one last time as they drove off and punched the code in for the gate.

He couldn’t wait to shower and climb into bed. He could still feel flour caked under his fingernails and oil sticking to his skin. He still smelled of chocolate, which sounded great, sure, but not after inhaling the stuff for the last three hours.

Harry was just approaching the door when it swung open and Louis stepped out.

“Hi,” Harry said. The smile that broke out on his face was instantaneous and reflected on Louis’ face just as quickly.

Louis stepped forward. “Look at you,” he said, reaching out to brush off Harry’s shoulder. “Covered in, what is this? Cocoa powder?”

“I don’t know anymore to be honest,” Harry said.

Louis laughed quietly. His hand fell away from Harry’s shoulder.

“How did it go?” he asked, just as the door opened again.

Harry was about to say something about not stressing the dough and about the leftover lemon cream puffs he’d brought back to share with Louis. But it was Eleanor stepping out behind him, and Harry had to stop and take her in, the short black dress, the teal strappy shoes adorning smooth legs. Her hair was practically glowing under the exterior lights, and her lipstick looked fresh, though Harry couldn’t understand why if they were just going next door. Or maybe they weren’t. It was Friday night. Perhaps they were headed elsewhere.

“Harry,” Eleanor said happily. “Don’t you look like a proper chef!”

He looked like shit, he was sure. In his chef’s smock and his sensible shoes. His hair was flat, and dark circles probably coloured the spaces beneath his eyes. And he knew he shouldn’t compare himself to her for a number of reasons but he did anyway. She was beautiful and right now, he was not.

Harry blinked at her, working a smile onto his face. “Hi,” he said, while Eleanor took another step closer and slipped her hand into Louis’. It didn’t seem necessary for her to do that. But then if Louis was his, Harry would probably want to hold his hand all the time too.

Harry looked down at his clothing. “And thank you,” he said, a delayed reaction to what he thought was a compliment. “I’d hope I didn’t look like an imposter chef.”

“Absolutely not,” Eleanor said, smiling.

Really, she was a nice girl. In another universe, Harry might even want to be friends with her.

Louis was quiet, just standing there, watching Harry watch Eleanor watch them both.

“How did the gala go?” Eleanor asked, which Harry remembered was the question he’d never answered for Louis. He kept his answer simple now.

“Good. Busy but good,” he said. He looked at Louis. “How was the rest of the dinner?”

“Boring, I heard,” Eleanor answered for Louis. “He told me he started to doze off near the end.”

Louis huffed a laugh, the only sound he’d made in a whole two minutes.

“I won’t keep you then. Sure you need sleep,” Harry said.

Eleanor sighed. “I wish we could sleep," she said. "But it’s my cousin’s birthday actually. We're going to meet her at a bar in the city. Just for a bit.”

Louis wasn’t even looking at either of them anymore. He’d actually extracted his phone from his pocket with his free hand to check the time or his messages or whatever.

Harry smiled. “Have fun, then,” he said, sidestepping them. He still had the box of lemon cream puffs but he’d go inside, take that shower, pour himself a glass of wine, and eat them all on his own. “And a good night,” he added.

“You too,” Eleanor said.

Harry thought he heard Louis say goodnight but either he’d tuned it out or it’d been drowned out by the tapping of Eleanor’s heals on the pavement. He didn’t turn around to acknowledge him. Not because he was upset. He wasn’t. He didn’t have a right to be.

Thing was, Louis hadn’t even been able to make eye contact with him. And that wasn’t right. He didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him, especially not Louis. He wasn’t a heartbroken little boy unable to tolerate being in the same space as Louis and his girlfriend.

It shouldn’t be like that. Even if it was, even if it hurt. Harry didn’t want it to be that way anymore.

 

* * *

 

Lou sprayed another round of hairspray over the side of Harry’s hair, pushing her fingers through his curls. Harry shut his eyes against the cloud of fumes, wrinkled his nose too.

“Lip balm,” Lou said.

Harry took the little tube she held out, sliding some on over his lips.

“Breath,” she said, leaning forward a little.

He breathed out a puff of air, trying not to laugh.

“Minty,” she confirmed. She took a step back to observe him, her hand propped against her apron-clad hips. “Look stunning, as always.”

“Thanks to you,” Harry said, turning his head to sniff himself. “I smell ridiculous though. Who picked this cologne out?”

“Your mum. It’s the new one. Pretend you like it,” she said.

Harry slipped his phone into his back pocket. “I like the boots. Who picked those out?”

Lou thought about it while she turned and collected more hair gel on her fingertips. “Pretty sure Louis did,” she said, smoothing the gel along one rebel curl.

Harry blinked down at his gold boots, a smile on his lips now that he hid from Lou. They seemed even nicer, sacred even, now that he knew who’d chosen them for him.

The boots looked like they'd been dipped in a vat of molten gold, their colour was that rich. They were shiny, but not overwhelmingly so, just enough that Harry's feet seemed to be adorned in crowns. With his mostly black outfit, the shoes stood out that much more, easily the most beautiful part of his attire.

It was only fitting that they’d been picked out by the most beautiful person…

“Okay. Off with you now,” Lou said, kissing his cheek. “Don’t trip.”

“You know I don’t make promises I can’t keep,” Harry said, hugging her for a moment, hooking his chin over her shoulder.

"Alright, go," Lou said, patting his bum when he turned away.

Harry headed down the lift and then hurried toward the limo because he wasn’t wearing a coat and a gust of frigid air got him right as he stepped outside.

When he stopped squinting his eyes against the wind, he saw Louis standing by the limo, leaning up against the door. His hands were tucked into his pockets and he hunched his shoulders so the collar of his black wool coat covered more of his ears. He heard the automatic glass doors slide open and looked up.

Harry smiled. “Hi."

Louis’ eyes swept over his body. He smirked, “Nice shoes."

“You would think so. Heard you picked them out,” Harry said, rocking back on his heels, showing his boots off. “They might be my new favourites.”

“They should be,” Louis said, watching Harry's impromptu fashion show with a smile. "You’re probably the only one who could pull them off."

Harry shot him a smug grin, ignoring the fuzziness in his stomach. Probably for the best. It wasn’t going away anytime soon. “Have my parents come down yet?” he asked.

“No. Gemma has, though. Go ahead and get in. Don’t want you to freeze,” Louis said, extracting his phone and tapping in a number while he spoke. “Your nipples might get a bit pinched. Doesn’t make for a good photograph, you know?”

Harry blinked at him, biting his lips to suppress a smile.

Louis’ brows furrowed and he shook his head, something like flustered laughter drifting from his lips. “I don’t know why I just said that,” he said. “Sorry.”

“No worries,” Harry smiled, stepping up to the door. He’d wait till later to have a laugh about it.

Louis tapped the call button and raised the phone to his ear, at the same time opening the limo door for Harry to slide in. Gemma was also on the phone but spared a second to smile at him.

Louis remained outside. He waited until Anne and Robin showed up a few minutes later and opened the door again for them to slip in beside Harry. Once Louis climbed in next to Gemma, the driver pulled off.

With Louis directly across from him, it was hard not to admire how good he looked. He was wearing all black, similar to Harry’s outfit, though the dress shirt had a shimmery quality too it, almost seemed to glow sapphire. His hair was coiffed and polished, his skin smooth. His eyes were cast down at his phone but Harry knew if he looked up, he’d be floored by how the sharp blue of his eyes brought the rest of his attire into focus.

Best if he didn’t look up, then.

Harry peeled his eyes away, glancing at his mum. “You look nice,” he said to her. Her dress was a burgundy colour cloaked in a cream-coloured coat. She wore gold heels. Maybe Louis had picked those out too…

Anne smiled, touching his cheek. “So do you,” she said. Harry returned her smile. He was still a little bruised about the other night, about the things she’d said, even after the vaguely sincere apology she’d given him the morning after. In the future, she had told him, she’d prefer if he didn’t leave “industry events for other endeavours” but at least she realized how she’d been out of line.

“You too, Gem,” Anne said. “Lovely dress.”

No surprise that she thought so. It was from the Styles Fall collection. A light salmon-coloured gown with a low sweeping neckline that worked well with Gemma’s skin, brought out a flush in her cheeks even in the dim lighting.

Gemma was still on the phone but she wrinkled her nose, a little smile on her face.

Harry turned to look out the window, watching London fly by, and hoping the night would too.

*

“A few questions, Harry?” the interviewer beckoned. He hadn’t been out of the limo for over a minute before there were microphones angled toward him and a sea of people repeating his name enough times their voices blurred and converged into one unanimous summon.

He didn’t know who to answer first, or if he wanted to answer anyone.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been interviewed, and honestly felt out of practice. But he’d been advised by the PR team to stop and talk at least once, especially with the British Fashion Council. And he vaguely recognized the woman standing there from a show or two previously.

So he stepped closer, pasting a genial smile on his face.

“Harry Styles, such a pleasure to see you here at the British Fashion Awards,” she said excitedly, her lips bright red and curved into a sharp smile.

“Thank you,” Harry replied.

“Lovely shoes by Yves Saint Laurent,” she added. The cameraman behind her titled the camera down to catch Harry’s gold boots. “Just a splendid look tonight.”

Harry grinned, knew his dimples were out and proud tonight. “Same to you.”

When she blushed and laughed, Harry counted it as a win. Apparently, he still had some boyish charm left.

She laughed out a few flustered thank yous and promptly got back to business. “Harry, you’re here tonight obviously to support your family with both your mother and your sister up for awards, designer and model of the year. But we hear there’s cause for even more celebration,” she said.

Harry licked his lips as he listened, already knowing what she was about to say. And he’d known this would happen. Louis had prepped him for it. But with the cameras and the microphone, the words he’d prepared to say didn’t seem quite right.

“Just this week, we received confirmation of your return to the fashion world with an appearance at Berlin Fashion Week in January and possibly London Fashion Week in February. How does it feel after six years of being away to be back in the spotlight now?”

If he kept smiling, maybe no one would realize how false his next words were.

“It feels good,” he said. “Um, of course as you said, I’m very happy to be here supporting my mum and Gemma. This is all very important for our family...and it’s just nice to do what I can for them and for the industry as well.”

“And what are your plans now that you’re back? Perhaps some partnerships with other labels?”

“Uh, no plans right now, no. Just taking everything slow, one thing at a time.”

As he was saying it, he knew it was stupid. But it’d been too late to stop once he got started. There was no “one thing at a time” in fashion. You struck while the iron was hot, or before you knew it, you were wrinkly and unemployed. Not everyone could be a Campbell or a Moss.

Gemma often took on five projects at once. Other friends he’d met over the years were the same way. Harry with his “one at a time” seemed silly and inexperienced in comparison. But if the interviewer picked up on any of that, she thankfully said nothing.

“How about any collaborations with your sister? The photographs with Nick Knight were some of your best. Is there anything else we can expect from you two?”

Harry rubbed at his chin. “I’d love to do more work with Gemma. I really enjoyed the shoot, and Gemma is amazing at what she does. And so is Nick."

The interviewer glanced behind her at the cameraman and he signalled for her to wrap it up.

"Well, Harry. Thank you so much for stopping to talk with us. As I said, you look great and so happy to be here. We're all very excited to see what else you've got up your sleeve."

"Nothing yet. But I’ll keep you posted," he said, earning another laugh. Whether it was real or forced, Harry wasn’t sure. But a laugh was a laugh.

Louis was back at his side in the next second. He pressed a hand to the small of Harry’s back, guiding him towards the next checkpoint for more photographs. The rest of his family was up ahead.

“I think that interview was kind of shit,” Harry murmured to him, partly because it was a concern, partly to distract himself from the warmth of Louis’ hand.

“You did fine,” Louis said. “And if not, you’re way too pretty for them to hold it against you.”

Harry felt his face warm. He looked away from Louis, positioning himself in front of the step and repeat. Louis fell back again, safely out of the camera’s range. Hopefully the flush Harry felt on his face didn’t show up in the photographs.

He took more pictures with Gemma and Anne and Robin on either side of him, feeling stupid about the interview but quite good in his shiny gold boots. He looked off towards the cameras, slipping his hands into his pockets, and narrowed his eyes like he was afraid something might fly into them. It was the pose he always struck for all his photographs and even if he felt silly doing it, the pictures would show up online hours later with nothing but positive comments.

He stood there for about thirty seconds before Louis returned, ushering him forward. Another two minutes of photographs later, he was past the blue carpet.

“I need to go check on seating. You’ll be all right on your own, right? Socialize maybe?” Louis said.

“I do know how to talk to people, yes,” Harry said matter-of-factly. “It’s a skill I acquired around infancy, I think.”

Louis made a face. “Such a smart ass. I’ll be right back,” he said with a little smile and slipped back through the crowd, flashing his badge at a man standing near the entrance.

Harry spotted Cara Delevingne and Alexa Chung a few feet away to his right, and to his left, Emma Watson, David and Victoria Beckham, and a slew of other faces he was vaguely familiar with. Up ahead were Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney, and Simone Rocha.

He also spotted the outdoor bar and wondered how much he’d have to flirt with the bartender to convince him to give him a drink. He hardly ever got carded at events like these so, at the very least Harry could grin enough to score a mojito.

“Harry,” someone said cheerfully just at his side.

Harry turned, and was not at all surprised to see Jeff Azoff had scoped him out among all these people. “Hi,” Harry said, and then noticed another man with him, much older and with a similar likeness.

“Hi,” Jeff said warmly. “Uh, this is my father, Irving.”

Harry shook Irving’s hand. “Very nice to finally meet you,” he said. “My mum’s said great things.”

“Same to you. Your mum’s a lovely woman,” Irving replied, his aged eyes wrinkling deeply when he smiled. “Only the best things to say of her. Your dad’s a different story. Went to school with him, you know? At Oxford.”

“Didn’t know that,” Harry said. Jeff turned away for a second when a woman stopped by to greet him.

“I take it he was a pain in your arse?” Harry added.

“That’s putting it kindly,” Irving laughed. “We were good friends, actually. Fallen out of touch now but back then, we got into all sorts of trouble.”

Harry smiled. “Sounds like my dad.”

Jeff stepped up to Irving’s side, having ended his conversation with the woman beside him. He clapped him on the shoulder. “Alright, now. Don’t talk him to death, dad,” Jeff chided.

“He still looks full of life to me,” Irving said.

“Still full of life,” Harry confirmed. Irving shot him one last smile, patting him on his shoulder, before he was walking off leaving just Harry and Jeff standing amidst a collection of other guests.

Jeff smiled. “I like your boots.”

Harry held his gold-booted feet out. “I do too,” he said nodding. “Lots of character. Clearly gets people talking too.”

"Is that the goal then? To draw strangers into conversations with you?” Jeff asked.

“Will you judge me if I say yes?” Harry replied.

“No, no. I’d say it’s clever,” Jeff laughed. He scratched at his neatly bearded chin. “So. I was wondering if you would possibly be free on Thursday night?”

Harry raised his brows. He wasn’t surprised this was happening. Just maybe a little caught off guard with it happening right now.

He’d also never been good at keeping track of his schedule, probably why his mum had always relied on assistants to do it for him. As far as he remembered, nothing was on Thursday night. “I should be,” he said.

“You mentioned you liked Kodaline last time, right? They’re coming this week to the Roundhouse. If you want, we could go see them?”  Jeff said rather quickly, like he’d be able to breathe only after the words were out.

“I love them,” Harry clarified. He pushed his hair away from his eyes and glanced behind him to see if Louis was on his way back. Jeff was waiting patiently for an answer. Harry couldn’t think of a reason to say no. “Um, I think that would be nice, yeah, to go see them.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, Thursday is good,” Harry said.

Jeff smiled. “Good. Great. Also, I hope you don’t feel like I put you on the spot, just now, with my dad.”

“Not at all,” Harry said. “I like him.”

"Good...I imagine he likes you too. I mean, there aren't very many reasons not to like you," Jeff said. "Or any reasons at all."

Harry bit his lips so he wouldn't laugh in Jeff's face. He seemed perpetually nervous and Harry found that both endearing and refreshing.

As for Louis…Harry wasn’t even sure Louis was capable of being nervous, at least not because of him. He felt guilty for thinking it but it was nice to encounter someone who was.

“Good to know,” Harry said, laughing.

“Hey,” he heard Louis’ voice beside him and his laughter cut off. Louis glanced at Jeff, smiled politely even if he didn’t know who he was. “Sorry, you ready to take a seat?”

“Sure,” Harry said quickly. He looked back to Jeff. “I’ll see you later.”

“I’ll text you,” Jeff said. “We’ll make a solid plan.”

From the corner of his eye, Harry saw Louis glance at Jeff again, his brow furrowed.

“Definitely,” Harry smiled and waved. He let Louis lead him away, and ignored the inquisitive look on his face as they were stepping through the double doors and walking to their seats.

 

* * *

 

Thursday came before Harry was ready for it. Before he could talk the nerves down. Before he figured out what to wear and what to say. He thought he was accustomed to these situations but as it was on their first surprise date, his mojo was off. Turned out that the lack of surprise didn’t help.

And so, it was with five minutes to spare that Harry finally got some semblance of his shit together. And what seemed like seconds later, Jeff was texting him to let him know he was outside.

Harry found it in himself to keep the conversation going on the ride over to the Roundhouse. He sorted through the CDs Jeff kept on the ground beneath the passenger seat, intrigued by his vivid music taste and his reluctance to convert entirely to digital music. He had a whole argument in defence of that with a conclusion he presented right as they were pulling up to the venue.

“I was going to tell you this afterwards but I’m bad at properly surprising people,” Jeff said and Harry laughed as he was handing his coat over for coat check. “I worked it out so we can meet them. Or you can. I’ve met Steve a few times before and he said he’d love to see us.”

Harry’s eyes widened. “The lead singer, Steve?”

“Yes,” Jeff laughed. “And the rest of the band too. They’re great.”

“Is this you trying to impress me with your connections? ‘Cause it’s working,” Harry nodded. “Good on you.”

Jeff laughed it off but he looked guilty as charged.

So yes, Harry was going to experience amazing music and shake hands with amazing people tonight, and the nerves he’d been fighting off waved their white flag and dissipated.

He was on a fantastic date with a very adorable bloke and he was going to fucking enjoy it.

The first challenge to his determination came at the chorus of High Hopes, the song most people knew if they’d ever heard of Kodaline, the song Harry thought everyone should know because they were better people by the end of it.

It’d been his favourite song for a while, set on repeat every day after school while he lay on his bed and dreamed about having someone the words might apply to. And in a way, he did now but never in the way he had wanted.

Steve Garrigan had a beautiful voice, and never had it affected Harry as much as it did now when he sang this:

I've got high hopes, it takes me back to when we started

High hopes, when you let it go, go out and start again

High hopes, when it all comes to an end

But the world keeps spinning around

Because Harry could only think about Louis. All the hopes he’d built up in the short amount of time he’d known him, the mountain of hopes that even now wouldn’t stop growing no matter how hard he tried.

In all honesty, most of the songs made Harry think of Louis. But nothing cut him more deeply than High Hopes, and when it was over, for the first time, Harry didn’t want to hear it repeated, for the first time he sighed in relief.

The second challenge was Steve Garrigan himself.

Jeff was cute, yes, and Harry was happy to be here with him.

But Steve….he was positively swoon-worthy.

As if the angelic voice and the passionate songs weren’t damaging enough, he looked like Adonis, carved from marble, polished to perfection, with this bashful smile, a chiselled chin, and just… Harry would feel sorry about openly flirting with him but Jeff had to understand. Surely, he had to be similarly impaired by the sheer beauty standing before them.

Halfway through resisting the urge to drop to his knee and propose, Harry remembered Steve was currently dating the TV personality, Diana Bunici, and as for men with girlfriends, Harry had learned a lesson he would never forget. See: Louis Tomlinson.

Steve, Vinny, Jason, and Mark took a Polaroid with Harry and Jeff—because yes, Steve owned an authentic Polaroid camera (obviously for the purposes of arousing Harry)—and then they autographed the back of it. They congratulated Jeff on touring with Taylor Swift next year—something Harry felt awful for not knowing until right then—and told him to stop by if he happened to be in Dublin sometime.

“And bring Harry,” Steve said, shooting him a smile that sliced a chunk out of Harry’s heart that he could keep forever if he wanted.

Harry felt Jeff slip a hand over his lower back, just as Louis had done nights before. It was different though. There was intent there. “Will do,” Jeff said, smiling.

There were vases full of roses and other flowers all over the dressing room from fans and from the extended family they had in London. Harry made a comment about how they had their very own rose garden, and now they could never leave because they’d have to tend to it.

“You can look after it for us,” Vinny said laughing. He then plucked two roses from one of the vases and handed them to Harry and Jeff.

“We’ll bring the rest when we visit,” Harry promised.

And then they shook hands and hugged, and Harry pretended Steve winked at him or something when he was leaving.

*

“You were totally flirting with him, Jesus” Jeff laughed, zipping his coat up.

"Nope,” Harry said, shaking his curly head, “No, he was flirting with me. I’m innocent.”

“You? Innocent? That’s a revelation,” Jeff said, trailing behind Harry. He’d had three beers earlier and it seemed to loosen him, make him a little less nervous and more playful. Harry liked that, swore to get him drunk the next time and see how funny he was then.

Next time? Well, maybe.

“You’re just jealous,” Harry teased. When he turned to smile, he found that Jeff wasn’t.

Jeff studied him, the crease between his brows and the uncertain twitch of his mouth made Harry wary about what he’d say next. “Sure I am,” Jeff said. “But of Steve. Like, what will it take to have you drool over me like that?”

“You like people drooling on you?” Harry cringed. “Any other fetishes you want to share?” he joked, trying to keep the mood light. He could have been reading wrong but he thought Jeff seemed anxious, insecure, maybe, and Harry wasn’t used to that, didn’t know how to fix it aside from making jokes.

"Jeff?"

They both stopped walking prompted by the sound of Jeff's name in a child's voice.

A little girl and her mother stood there, along with two other older girls, currently eyeing Harry.

"Hi," Jeff smiled.

The little girl beamed. "Um," she mumbled, holding out her Kodaline poster. "Do you mind signing this?"

"Not at all," he said. He looked to Harry, "sorry, would you happen to have a pen?"

"Uh," Harry patted his pockets, knowing before he did that there wouldn't be a pen there but hoping to find one anyway. He frowned.

"I have one," one of the young girls said and she stepped forward, grinning from ear to ear when Jeff took her pen, nearly going into shock when he smiled and thanked her.

Harry watched the exchange, awestruck and impressed. He snapped pictures, first for the mom and her daughter, next for the two girls, and waved goodbye to them even if they hadn’t really been paying attention to him in the first place.

“Sorry about that,” Jeff said, when his fans had cleared out. Fans, Harry thought. Not like the girls who followed him on Twitter, obsessed with fashion and by association, obsessed with him. Jeff had people who saw him, knew his face, and sought autographs with him. Harry still couldn’t believe.

“Why? I don’t mind,” he said. “That was great.”

Jeff smiled, tossing and catching his keys in his hand. “About the fetishes, I’ll let you know if I think of any,” he said, with an almost sincere laugh.

They passed a street vendor selling hot dogs and more cheap nourishment to drunken university students.

“Steve’s dating Diana now, isn’t he? They’re cute together,” Harry said. He felt sorry now for flirting with Steve the way he had. Sometimes it slipped his mind how unashamedly he did so.

“They are,” Jeff agreed. “Just hope it lasts. He deserves that. Singing about love so often but he doesn’t have anyone to love."

Harry took a sniff of his rose while he listened.

“I met the girl he was seeing before Diana. She was lovely. Don’t know what happened. They ended things about two months ago,” Jeff said, beeping the car to unlock the doors.

“Two months?” Harry said, pulling his door open. “Seems a bit rushed then, doesn’t it?”

“Rushed how?” Jeff asked after he’d shut his door and turned to face Harry.

Harry looked at him like he thought the answer should be obvious. “Just…I don’t know, makes Diana seem like a rebound?”

Jeff stared at him for a moment in this way Harry didn’t understand and hadn’t yet seen. “You know,” Jeff said, “I’ve never been able to understand that.”

Harry waited for him to explain. The glow of a street lamp right outside the car flowed in through the windscreen and cast Jeff’s face in an ethereal sort of glow.

“There’s this stigma about being a rebound,” Jeff said, “About taking the place of someone we’ve lost. People think it means that you aren’t good enough or something, or you don’t really matter. Like you’re just filling a hole.”

He stuck his key in the ignition but didn’t start the car. “Sometimes that’s the way people heal, by moving on to someone else. Like, how can we expect to love again when we’re ridden with holes left by former lovers?”

Harry blinked at him. “Are we still talking about Steve and Diana?”

Jeff shrugged. “I think it applies to everyone.”

Harry twirled the rose in his hand. “I don’t know. It just doesn’t seem fair to the other person. To be in a relationship with them while your mind’s set on someone else.”

“But…if your mind was so set on someone else, you wouldn’t even be open to dating other people in the first place. I mean, maybe you’ll be thinking of that one person that you can’t forget but at least you’re trying. To move on, to forget them, to heal. At least you’re trying.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Harry said. The conversation was verging too close to feelings he didn’t want to expose. Though he wanted it redirected, he couldn’t find a way to do so without giving himself away. Instead he laughed, lightly, “Points for trying and all that.”

“But you’ve never considered it?” Jeff asked.

Harry's brows creased. "Why would I?"

Jeff gave him a look. He tried to smile but the upturn of his lips was a sad one, full of pity that Harry kind of hated and wanted to run away from. “I think… someone broke your heart,” Jeff said quietly.

Harry tried to smirk. “Didn’t you call me a heartbreaker before? Now it’s the other way around?”

“Come on. As if I haven’t seen that look reflected in the mirror for three months now. But you don’t have to admit it. I probably shouldn't have said anything,” Jeff said and then he started the car.

Words failed Harry on the entire ride back to his house. Which wasn’t long but awkward enough that it seemed to last for hours.

Harry owed it to Jeff to be honest because Jeff had done that for him. And if there was any chance of this going anywhere, honesty was one of the few things that mattered.

But Harry hadn't even been in a relationship like Jeff had. He'd gotten his heart broken because he’d fallen for someone he never should’ve. 

Things were completely different for them. Maybe Jeff understood Harry’s heartache. But Harry wouldn't be able to understand his. Not truly. And he felt like a fraud for even comparing the two situations, for being so devastated because he’d had a crush that hadn’t turned out the way he wanted.

He felt like a kid, which all along had been the thing he hated most.

And now, even though he knew he owed it to him, he couldn’t even muster the will to tell him the truth.

Instead, he waited until Jeff pulled up in front of the iron gates separating the large stone estate from the world, and with a sigh, Harry said this, “you don't need a rebound, Jeff. You need someone who's going to treat you well, who's going to be more than that.”

"I feel the same about you," Jeff said.

"Good. But I don't think I can be that person for you," Harry said.

"Doesn't hurt to try?" Jeff shrugged. "I’m not opposed to being a rebound, Harry. I won't hold it against you if you make me one."

"Because that's what I'd be for you," Harry clarified. “Just a rebound.”

"It’s not ‘just’ anything. That’s what I’m saying. There’s nothing wrong with it. And it doesn't change that I like you, a lot."

Harry exhaled, running his thumb gently over the rose petal. "I like you too."

"Enough to let me kiss you?" Jeff asked.

Shocked wasn’t even the word. Harry had actually seen that coming. That just didn’t mean he knew how to deal with it. Harry pushed his hair away from his forehead again, biting on his bottom lip. "Sorry to tell you, I'm not a very good kisser.”

"Liar," Jeff said. “There’s no way.”

Harry snorted a half-nervous laugh. He didn't lean away when Jeff leaned closer. He wanted to, thought that maybe he should. His heart wasn’t here yet. It was still in the guesthouse, where Louis was certain to be on a Thursday night. But he stayed where he was. He let Jeff get close.

"Just don't say I didn't warn you," he said.

In truth, Harry was a pretty stellar kisser. Kind of had to be with his lips. And Jeff was also determined to find out for himself. He touched Harry's cheek so lightly Harry wouldn’t know he had if he couldn’t see, and then Jeff leaned in, forced his gaze back up.

It was short and sweet, his kiss. But it got the point, that Jeff liked him, across clearly. That was more than Harry could say about Louis.

Maybe this wasn't the way to do it. Maybe you couldn't just push one person away using someone else. Harry didn't think the heart worked like that. 

But it was worth a try.

He absolutely had to let Louis go. He had to do whatever he could to just let it all go.

So...he let his eyes slip closed and he kissed Jeff back.

The final test to his determination didn't come until later, when Harry was sitting at his desk forcing himself to study calculus, and Jeff sent him a text.

'I hope you don’t feel like I’m pressuring you. I’d never want that. But if you’re willing, take a chance on me?'

Harry drummed his fingers on his desk, watching the screen until it went dark. He turned his head, his gaze going to the roof of the guesthouse, of Louis’ house, where somewhere beneath Louis might have been getting ready for bed, removing the glasses Harry had seen in his car but had never seen him wear.

Things could go back to normal. If he tried a little harder, he could get back to a time when he didn’t go wistful whenever he so much as glanced in Louis’ direction. He had to try harder.

He looked away and lifted his phone from the desk, typing out a message before he could reconsider.

'I think I will. x'

Chapter Text

DECEMBER

Sunlight filtering in from the windows overhead flushed the yoga studio with bright white light, reflected off the polished bamboo floors, and nearly blinded Harry.

But he’d already been having a hard time concentrating.

He was doing his best to focus on the collection of children sitting cross-legged in front of him but Louis made that difficult.

“Arms as high as you can reach,” Harry said to his little yoginis. “Try to touch the sun.”

The children made exaggerated noises as they reached up and up, groaning and whining with fingers wiggling at the ceiling.

Harry’s gaze flickered back over to the left of the studio where Louis was leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest. He hadn’t stopped smiling in the last twenty minutes, not since he’d walked in on Harry’s class. He alternated between admiring the kids to just admiring Harry. Meanwhile, Harry couldn’t tell if it was the sun blinding him, or just Louis himself.

“Okay,” Harry said to the kids. “Now stretch forward, palms on the floor.”

Louis shot him two thumbs-ups, looking overly astonished when the kids heeded his instruction. Harry stuck his tongue out before he realized how that violated the whole ignoring him thing.

“And up again, towards the sun,” Harry said.

The children lifted their arms up, their eyes set on the ceiling like they might actually be able to grab the great star if only they tried hard enough. Never mind that it would burn them. That was the magic of childhood, really—the insistence on having whatever you wanted without being thwarted by reality and common sense.

Harry wished the magic lasted into adulthood, that it didn’t become a sacrifice because he wanted to be treated differently.

“And bring your hands together beside your hearts as a sign of thanks. Think about some of the things you’re grateful for today. The sun is out. You get to go home to family and friends,” Harry said with his hands pressed together against his sternum. “Deep breaths in… And a nice exhale. One big om, altogether.”

Their “om” was overstressed, overabundant and loud but Harry loved the sound of it. Children charged everything with a goofiness it was hard to dislike. Quite a few of the little ones giggled, or let their tongues loll from their mouths, so that “om” sounded more like “ah.”

Harry laughed too. “And bow,” he said, tilting his head forward. He shot another glance at Louis, found him to be dipping his head in a little bow too. Louis lifted his head with that ridiculously attractive smirk on his pink lips.

Harry bit the inside of his cheek when he smiled. He missed the children’s final bows entirely. When he looked back, they were popping up all around him.

“Thanks for coming, loves,” he said. “Hope to see all of you next time.”

The kids chattered and laughed excitedly and hastily rolled their mats up. “Thank you, Harry,” some of them said. “Bye, Harry,” others called. Harry waved while parents began herding their children towards the exits.

Louis waited until the place cleared out, and then strolled further inside, looking cool as a cucumber and hotter than a habanero pepper.

“I missed the first half of the class there. Was wondering if you could fill me in,” he said. He wore grey joggers that fit loosely on his thighs but a bit tighter on the rest of his legs. A white t-shirt beneath a black cardigan printed the lines of his abs, the slight curve of his tummy too.

Harry watched him approach, unable to focus on any one part of his body for too long. “You’re not serious,” he said.

“I couldn’t be more serious. In fact, I was promised a private lesson some months ago. And I haven’t gotten one yet, so.” Louis plopped down on the floor. “Teach me.”

Harry looked at him. “I still have to shower. I can’t show up to a staff lunch smelling all sweaty.”

“Neither can I. We’ll keep it light. Show me your signature move or something,” Louis said.

“Don’t have a signature move. And we can’t be late,” Harry said.

“Have I not proven that I’ll get you where you need to be on time?” Louis countered. Which, yeah, that ticket he’d gotten in the mail a few weeks ago was proof of that.

Harry sighed when Louis actually started pouting. “Okay, just—Use this,” he said, sliding his mat over to Louis. “Gentler on your knees.”

“Lots of reasons this might be useful,” Louis said, shuffling onto the mat.

Right, that was exactly what Harry needed to not think about. He smiled anyway. “Start with your legs crossed,” he said.

Louis crossed his legs, resting his forearms on his knees. “Go easy on me, okay?”

“Don’t worry,” Harry said. “This’ll just be an extension of my kiddy class. You should be fine.”

“Was that meant to be insulting?” Louis said.

“Shh,” Harry said. “Focus on breathing. In through your nose, out through your mouth.”

Louis’s chest lifted and fell evenly.

“We’re going to start with a simple downward facing dog.” At this, Harry lowered himself to the ground.

“Hey. What about your knees?” Louis asked him.

Harry shook his head, contemplated his next words for all of two seconds, and decided he didn’t give a fuck. “I’m used to it,” he said.

Louis looked at him, his eyes slightly narrowed. “Oh, really?” he said, his voice laden with amusement.

Harry’s answering smile was mischievous. “Come on. Start on all fours. Press your palms into the mat,” he said. Louis shifted and did as told.

“Good,” Harry said. “Feel the mat ground you.”

“It’s happening, Harry. I feel it grounding me,” Louis said in mock amazement.

“Shut up,” Harry laughed. “Now breathe in. Reach your tailbone up towards the sky.” Harry pushed his bum into the air to demonstrate, extending his arms, stretching his back. “Like you’re trying to grab the stars with your arse.”

If anyone’s arse could do it, it’d be Louis’.

Louis snorted. “Ever the poet, aren’t you, love?”

“In through your nose,” Harry ignored him. The blood swarming his face was due to the strain of the position, not Louis’ word choice. Though…whenever Louis said “love” a few blood vessels exploded somewhere in Harry’s head. The Doncaster twang didn’t help at all.

He heard Louis inhale slowly.

“Out through your mouth,” Harry said, glancing at him.

Louis breathed out, lifting his head, and his eyes for a second lingered on Harry’s legs and his bum and flittered away just as quickly.

Harry looked back down at the bamboo floors. “This is urdhva mukha svanasana, upward facing dog. And next, we’ll flow through to adho mukha shvanasana, downward facing dog.”

“Don’t you sound pretty,” Louis murmured. Harry stood to his feet, circling around Louis, and maybe he walked a bit slower, more deliberate. If Louis wanted to admire him, he wouldn’t be the one to stop him.

Shh. Jesus. Keep this part of your neck relaxed,” Harry said, touching Louis’ neck lightly. “Otherwise you’ll strain the muscles.”

He couldn’t even remember what he was doing. He’d once taught yoga to three models who’d flown in from Argentina, two men and a woman, all with golden skin and perfectly toned bodies, and not even then had he been as distracted as he was now.

“Um, plank. You have to start in a plank position,” his mind stuttered to provide.

Louis raised his brows. “Alright,” he said, walking his feet backwards as best as he could, and he sank down into a plank, which only accentuated the muscles in his biceps, and fuck…Harry had not been thinking when he agreed to this.

“Your feet should be hips distance apart, and you reach again up towards the sky with your tailbone. Keep your legs straight,” he murmured. “These are two of the simplest poses but they’re good for stretching. This pose especially is good for working the muscles.” And now Harry pressed his finger lightly into the juncture between Louis shoulder blades. “Like the ones here.” He felt them move beneath his fingertips. “Keep breathing. You might feel a bit of a burn in your lower back…around here.” Daringly, he moved his fingers along Louis’ spine. His skin was warm, smooth, just the way Harry imagined; the muscles of his back were firm. Harry licked his lips. “In through your nose. Out through your mouth.”

Louis breathed as instructed. On his exhale, his eyes flickered up to meet Harry’s, and he pulled his fingers away, curling his hand into a fist.

“Simple,” Harry said. “You should practice it like this when you can. The important thing is not to strain your body. Take it slow and all that.”

“Sounds easy enough,” Louis said, his eyes never leaving Harry when he bent over to pick up his water bottle.

“I’ll go through the steps more slowly sometime,” Harry said, his voice trailing off.

He wondered if Louis knew what he was doing, if he was even aware of how he was looking at him, like Harry was bread and water, and Louis had been famished for days. Or maybe Harry was making that up. He couldn’t be sure. He was sweaty and tired and desperately in need of space and a moment to breathe.

“Um,” he said again, feeling his neck and ears growing hot under Louis’ gaze. “Gonna take that shower now, so. I’ll just meet you in the car.”

“Yeah, I’ll be there,” Louis said, pushing himself upright. Harry watched the muscles in his back move when he did.

“Do you want me to fold up your mat or…?” Louis asked.

“Sure,” Harry called as he marched to the locker room. He splashed cold water on his face first thing, so frigid it stung when it hit his skin. He needed it to get the good sense flowing back through his skull.

He showered with the water too hot for the same reasons, like it might force all those dirty thoughts to burn off, away, and into the drain below.

It didn’t help that he was hornier than ever these past few days. He wanted to be touched. He hadn’t felt someone’s hands on him in so long he was forgetting what it felt like, aside from just feeling good. A nice hand job would have been appreciated, or a good cuddle even.

He and Jeff had made out a few times, in the car and once at a club they’d gone to with Caroline. That had been fun, had actually gotten Harry relatively hot. And he would’ve given Jeff a blowie later on if he’d seemed down for it. But that was just the problem, he hadn’t. He never did.

Harry knew, Jeff was being polite, a gentleman, and that was probably what he needed.

He wasn’t even sure he was ready to experience sex with another man beyond blowjobs and hand jobs. He was still holding out for that person who made it seem right, natural. He thought of it often, sometimes even thought of it with Jeff, but found those thoughts were always intercepted by ones of Louis.

The day he was ready would come the way all things did. With patience and time. Until then, he’d survive the wait a whole lot better if he avoided Louis and yoga positions that made the lean muscles of his body dance just right…

 

* * *

 

Eleanor wore red.

Eye-popping, mouth-dropping, cherry red that stood out even in the darkly lit room, and she wore it well. Her hair was done up, curly and shiny like always, and pinned intricately in a knot at the back of her head. She looked good, even better with Louis at her side.

Harry should have worn his gold boots.

“You alright?” Jeff asked as they were approaching the table.

Whoever had organized the seating arrangements had seriously fucked Harry over. In what universe was it even remotely kind to put him at a table with Louis and Eleanor? Why not with Gemma and Aaron? Hell, even his mum’s table would have been better. Two hours of sitting with the elderly fashion snobs from foreign offices didn’t seem so bad compared to Eleanor igniting the space around Louis with her fire red dress.

In fact, it probably wasn’t too late to get the place cards switched around.

“Harry?” Jeff said again.

“Yeah?” Harry looked at him. “Sorry, what?”

“You’re all tense,” Jeff said.

“Oh, no, I’m fine,” Harry smiled reassuringly. “Just hate award ceremonies.”

Jeff settled a hand on Harry’s waist. “You and everyone in this room,” he said with a breathy laugh. “It’ll be over before you know.”

“Promise?” Harry said with a smirk.

Jeff might have responded but they stepped up to the table then. Louis was turned away, focused absorbedly on his phone, tapping out a flurry of messages. He was probably checking in with the junior assistants and interns to make sure they were all here, in place, and ready for show time.

It was Anne who spotted Harry and Jeff first. She sauntered over in her sable dress with her similarly coloured hair flowing over her shoulders.

“Hi, love,” she said, stepping up and kissing Harry on his cheek. “Jeff,” she kissed him as well. “Glad you could come.”

Harry watched Louis put his phone to his ear, but his conversation lasted only about ten seconds. He watched him turn and signal something to Amanda, the American intern, and she scurried off without needing further instruction.

“Of course,” Jeff said smiling.

“Have you had a chance to meet Louis?” Harry heard Anne ask. “My assistant?”

Louis had just started speaking to Eleanor, who was stood beside him sipping a glass of white wine.

“Louis,” Anne said.

“Yes,” Louis said quickly. Finally, he noticed Harry and smiled.

Harry would’ve smiled back except he was suddenly regretting the near month he’d gone without telling Louis about Jeff. Now his mum would do it for him.

Anne beckoned Louis closer. Eleanor came with. “This is Harry’s boyfriend, Jeff. I don’t think you two have met.”

Louis’s brow slipped into a confused furrow. He looked at Anne like he was unsure he’d heard her correctly. Like maybe she’d said someone else’s boyfriend, or just, Harry’s friend Jeff.

And then his gaze swung to Harry, and slid to Jeff, took in Jeff’s hand on Harry’s waist.

Harry could almost see the light bulb click on behind his eyes when his eyebrows arched up.

Somewhere along the way, Louis had mastered the art of professionalism. He exhibited it impeccably regardless of where or when they were, even as immature as he sometimes tended to be. This was no different, though he did allow himself a second to be surprised, to study Jeff as discreetly as possible.

Then he smiled and reached out to shake Jeff’s hand. “Nice to meet you,” he said.

“Same to you,” Jeff replied, returning his smile.

“I’m Eleanor,” she said when Louis took too long to introduce her. She stepped out from behind Louis to shake hands with Jeff.

Harry’s eyes met Louis’ for a fraction of a second. “Pleasure to meet you,” Jeff was saying to Eleanor.

“You’re all set to present tonight, yes?” Anne said privately to Harry, reaching up to tuck one of his curls behind his ear.

Harry nodded, tilting his head away from her fingers.

Presenting an award—for Best Junior Designer, if Harry remembered correctly—wasn’t a task of particular difficulty, but Anne was meticulously committed to ensuring every second of the night went smoothly, just as she was committed to getting Harry’s curl to sit just right.

When she seemed satisfied, she smiled and went off to greet another table.

Eleanor and Louis were already sitting. Harry and Jeff took their own seats and took a gander at the fancy embossed menus in front of them.

“The pan-seared halibut sounds nice,” Jeff said.

Harry made eye contact with Louis again. Didn’t make sense that it kept happening when he was trying so hard to avoid it. He tried to focus on his menu, then the décor, anything.

There was a tall bouquet in the centre of the table with a skinny vase. From the top exploded a collection of roses, peonies, and another flower with vines cascading down toward the table. Aside from the green flowery tendrils, there was nothing to obstruct his view of Louis, who was now buttering a dinner roll while Eleanor leaned in to whisper quietly to him.

Two gold-coloured candlesticks cast light on their faces when Louis took a bite of his roll and pointed to another side of the room. Harry discreetly glanced in the direction of his fingertip and spotted the bar.

Well, Eleanor was onto something. Harry would get through the night a whole lot better with a martini. He turned to Jeff, ready to ask if he wanted anything, when Jeff halted him with, “Need a drink?”

Harry smirked. “You read my mind,” he said. “I’ll have what you’re having.”

“Sure,” Jeff said, starting to stand. He lingered for two seconds like he was contemplating a quick kiss. Harry could see Louis from the corner of his eye but he wouldn’t move away if Jeff tried. He had no reason to.

Jeff smiled, his gaze flickering away from Harry’s mouth. “Be right back,” he said, standing.

“I’ll be right back,” Harry heard Eleanor echo, just as Jeff started towards the bar, and she rounded the table and joined Jeff on the way, striking up a conversation with ease. Nice girl, she was. Jeff would probably say so later.

Harry reached for his glass of water, taking a slow sip. He glanced around the room, at all the guests in attendance. He was surprised to find children in the vicinity too, as there were usually none at events like these. Anne was probably too worried about them potentially setting the whole venue on fire He spotted Gemma with Aaron, and he waited for a minute to see if she would look over so he could pull a funny face. She never did and eventually, Harry gave up.

When he looked away, his eyes met Louis’.

Harry threw his hand up in a dorky wave. “Hi,” he said.

Louis smiled back, and then he stood, dropping his black dinner napkin on the table. He came around to Harry’s side of the table and slid into Jeff’s deserted seat. “Hi.”

Harry glanced over at the bar but Jeff and Eleanor hadn’t even made it there yet. They were halted in the middle of the ballroom actually, looking down at the floor.

“I think they might have lost something,” Harry said.

Louis glanced past him, “I’m sure they’ll find it.”

Harry forgot what he was talking about when Louis’ knee grazed his thigh. They were too close, and Harry shouldn’t like it as much as he did.

“You look nice,” Louis said, interrupting his thoughts. “The jacket’s from the Spring collection, isn’t it?”

Harry grimaced. “How disappointed would you be if I said I didn’t know?”

“Only a little,” Louis said, his eyes crinkling when Harry laughed.

Harry could probably just sit there and stare at Louis’s crinkly eyes, glowing in the candlelight all night. But he’d come here with Jeff, was technically exclusive with him, and the last time he checked exclusivity didn’t allow for getting lost in another man’s eyes, no matter how beautiful they were.

He dropped his gaze to his silverware, pretending to straighten them.

“Why didn’t you tell me about Jeff?” Louis asked.

Harry raised his brows. “Wasn’t much to tell?”

“You having a boyfriend isn’t much to tell?” Louis asked incredulously.

“Didn’t want to make a big deal of it. The whole thing is new. Felt like bad luck.”

“Maybe that’s it. Or,” Louis said slowly. “You thought for some reason you couldn’t tell me?”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Everything’s not about you.” He took another sip of his water. His throat felt like grass months into a drought.

“I never said it was,” Louis said, his voice calm and collected. Harry accidentally looked at his mouth, and then forced his eyes back up. Louis kept talking. Harry thought he could get drunk on the sound as he did. “I’d just hope that you felt you could tell me things. That there was nothing weird between us that made you feel like you couldn’t.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Harry said, annoyance wrinkling his attempt at composure.

Louis smiled and leaned forward so he could say quietly, “You really do look lovely. Especially in those clothes. They’re from the Spring collection. I know…'cause I picked them out.” And then he actually fucking winked, in this way that made Harry want to dissolve in a puddle beneath the table and maybe stab Louis in the hand with his fork. They stared at each other for a moment. Harry never got a chance to do anything, because then Louis was scooting away, back to his seat, and Eleanor and Jeff had returned to the table.

Jeff placed a drink in front of Harry, glancing at Louis as he took a seat.

“Lost my earring on the way to the bar,” Harry heard Eleanor say to Louis.

“You alright?” Jeff asked him.

Harry sipped his drink. “Good, yeah. This is nice,” he said, taking another, longer sip.

And then he leaned forward because Jeff was giving him that look again and Harry kind of wanted to be kissed. When their lips touched, when he pulled away, he tried very hard to forget about Louis across the table.

“Thank you,” he said to Jeff.

Jeff smiled, his brow slightly furrowed. “You’re welcome.”

Hours later, dessert was running late. Only by five minutes but to Anne that was just as bad as five hours. Being late was never an option for her. Designs were perfected on time. Shows started promptly. Models arrived right when they were supposed to. Harry feared she’d explode at the seams otherwise.

And so, Maison de Sucre was in a comprising position. The dinner plates had long been cleared but dessert was nowhere to be seen.

For the first time in a long time, Harry let himself look at Louis. Their eyes met, the worry apparently mutual. Harry glanced around the ballroom, trying to discern the best way to make it into the kitchen. If he could just get in there, he’d find a good explanation. He knew there had to be one. Ivor hated tardiness almost as much as Anne did.

Harry wouldn’t be able to use the doors across the room, not where everyone could see. But maybe there was another way in if he went into the hallway.

“I’ll just be a minute,” Harry said to Jeff, pushing his chair back as gracefully as he could. Jeff smiled up at him as he stepped away from the table.

Harry made his way calmly towards the exit and into the hall. He rounded two corners before he found a set of swinging back doors into the kitchen and made sure he wasn’t being watched before he slinked inside.

Roberta was the first one he saw. Two other assistants lingered nearby, one texting unreservedly on her iPhone, the other beating a round of dough like it had offended him. Poor Roberta looked overwhelmed and rightfully so with George and Ivor clearly M.I.A.

Harry stepped further into the kitchen, clearing his throat. “How’s dessert coming along?”

Roberta looked up at him, her eyes rounding behind her red-framed glasses. “Harry, my dear! What on earth are you doing back here?”

“Came to see if you needed a hand,” Harry said smiling.

Roberta’s eyes widened further. “A hand— Harry, are you mad? That wouldn’t be professional.”

“Says who?”

“Says me. And your mum, I’m sure. George and Ivie would agree as well. And your Louis,” Roberta said. “Absolutely not.”

Your Louis. Okay.

“George and Ivor aren’t here, clearly. Neither is my mum or Louis,” Harry said. “But they’ll both probably be heading back here soon if we don’t get dessert out there. Come on.”

Roberta worried her lip, glancing around the kitchen and glaring at the two useless assistants standing by.

“I could fill the truffles,” Harry said, removing his blazer. “You’re still serving them, aren’t you? It’ll only take me a minute. No one will even know I was here.”

“We would,” the iPhone girl said. Harry didn’t even realize she’d been paying attention.

“It’ll be our secret then,” Harry smiled at her, dimples and all. The girl looked away bashfully but stared at him again when she thought he wouldn’t notice.

“Let me help,” Harry said to Roberta, already rolling his sleeves up to his elbows and reaching for an extra apron. “Tell me what to do.”

Roberta sighed. “Fill the truffles. We’ll get those out first.”

“Where are George and Ivor anyway?” Harry asked, tying his apron quickly.

“They were driving their own car over and blew a tire out on the way. I might’ve been with them but I had to pick up these two fools,” Roberta hissed quietly to Harry. She then looked to the boy. “Would you stop with that dough, for heaven’s sake? We’re making truffles now. No need for dough when you make truffle.”

The boy’s hands froze. He stepped away from the dough and slid his hands into the pockets of his apron instead.

Harry looked at the two assistants. The girl was currently fixing her hair for a selfie. “Do you two maybe know how to slice strawberries?”

“We can do that,” the boy said, eagerly.

“Not too thick,” Harry said, shuffling around in search of a piping bag. “Slice them evenly. And use the firmest strawberries we have.”

The girl went to the industrial fridge to find strawberries, just when the door swung open again and Louis stood there, taking in Harry’s apron and the wary look on Roberta’s face.

“So…I take it there’s a problem?” he said.

“George and Ivor blew a tire out. Kind of need them to get this stuff finished,” Harry said.

“And the dinner crew couldn’t give you a hand?” Louis asked Roberta.

Roberta shrugged. “They cleared out before we could even ask. And we don’t know how much they’d charge to stick around.”

“Alright,” Louis said, nodding. He stepped into the kitchen, letting the door swing closed. “Can I do anything?”

Roberta dropped her forehead in her hands. “This is so embarrassing,” she said.

“Not at all,” Louis said. “Things happen, yeah? You’re doing the best you can.”

Harry smiled at him, grateful and maybe, just maybe, a little lovesick. “Um, you can fill this bag with chocolate crème.”

Louis removed his blazer, forgoing the apron and only bothering to push his sleeves up. He took the bag from Harry and the bowl of chocolate crème. “Can’t say I ever did this before.”

“That’s okay,” Harry said. He pulled the hair tie from around his wrist and tied a little bun near the top of his head.

Louis smirked. “Cute,” he said.

Harry wrinkled his nose, his way of accepting the compliment. “How much was my mum freaking out when you left?”

“Hopefully, only a little. I told them to jump to presenting the first award. There’s a little video clip, should buy us some time. We should be able to get something out by then. What’s on the menu anyway, Roberta?”

“The chocolate hazelnut truffles. And then a berry custard with mini crepes. But Ivor’s the only one who can make that,” Roberta said. “Everything was supposed to go out at once. Some people wanted the chocolate, some people wanted the custard.”

“How about this?” Louis said. “Everyone gets chocolate. Everyone gets custard. We do a two-part dessert. It’ll be a nice surprise. We send the truffles out. Hopefully by then Ivor will be here to finish the custard.”

Louis snapped his fingers at one of the assistants. “You,” he said. They both looked up immediately. “Be a dear, go into the ballroom, find out how far along they are in that video.”

He dished out instructions while spooning chocolate crème into the piping bag, and God, it shouldn’t have been as sexy as it was. Harry had a boyfriend for Christ’s sake, and yet, he was close to drooling over the truffles.

“And you, Chef Styles…” Louis smiled at Harry, holding up the piping bag, “Tell me what to do with this thing.”

Looking back, Harry would say it was a miracle that things didn’t fall apart.

Eventually, his mum found out why and how dessert was at peril. She always did. She could sniff out dysfunction like other mums could sniff gas leaking from unchecked stoves. But by then, George and Ivor had shown up and were whipping up the quickest custard they ever had.

A few people had looked perplexedly at the truffles that arrived on their plates when they remembered very clearly ordering crepes. But with awards being presented, no one had a moment to put up a fuss. In the end, it seemed they were mostly quite pleased to have enjoyed two desserts that night.

One thing did slip Anne’s notice.

She never found out Harry had a part in the whole ordeal. She didn’t know he’d given Roberta a hand with the truffles, and that was probably best for everyone.

The way it worked out, Harry was stepping up onto the stage by the time the crepes and custard were hitting the tables. And with a cunning smile he exchanged with Louis, he popped open the little envelope, and read.

“And for Best Junior Designer, the award goes to…”

It didn’t matter. Right then, Harry sort of wanted all the awards to go to Louis.

 

* * *

 

Harry woke up one December morning, a Saturday to be exact, with a massive hangover and a new tattoo. And this was why.

It started with Ed Sheeran. Or maybe more accurately, it started with this tweet:

Ed Sheeran (@edsheeran): In London for a bit before Glasgow!

And because Harry couldn’t ever ignore news like that, he’d tweeted.

Harry Styles (@Harry_Styles): @edsheeran come see me please?

Ed Sheeran (@edsheeran): @Harry_Styles you thought I came here to do anything else?

Gemma Anne Styles (@GemmaAnneStyles): @edsheeran @Harry_Styles you both disgust me.

Ed Sheeran (@edsheeran): @GemmaAnneStyles @Harry_Styles aw then it’s settled. excited to see you both! x

Immediately, text messages were exchanged and not long after that, Harry and Gemma were heading into the city where Ed was playing a private show for his cousin’s birthday. Hours later, they were pub-hopping, skipping around the streets of London, and howling at the bright full moon like the young wild things they were.

The tattoo parlour stood out at the end of Park Parade with neon lights that drew Harry close like beacons at the top of a lighthouse. And without really thinking further, he was yelling, half-drunk and stupid, “I want a tattoo!”

Somewhere close by, Ed laughed, “Now?”

“Yes, yes,” Harry chanted. He still had his arm around Gemma’s shoulders and pulled her along with him as he crossed the street. “Edward! Come!”

Harry could hear Ed and his cousin chuckling behind him, which he hoped meant they were keeping up as he and Gemma marched toward the parlour.

“You know, I don’t think they’ll tattoo you if you’re drunk,” Gemma said.

“I’m not drunk…” Harry laughed, snorted, then burped. Only a little drunk. “But we’ll see, won’t we?” he said, pushing the doors open.

Normally, Harry hated using money to get his way. Under different circumstances, he would never condone bribery but he was drunk, was the thing, and dead fucking set on being inked, and even more so, on Ed being the one to do it.

“I’ve done like three tattoos in my life, mate, and I’ve had a beer,” Ed said.

“One beer? Slow down now,” Harry said. “Come on.”

Harry wouldn’t remember in the morning how much he’d paid the parlour owner to let Ed tattoo him, even after signing a bunch of paperwork to ensure no one would be held liable should Ed tattoo a hairy ball sack on Harry’s skin instead of what he’d asked for.

In spite of all of Ed’s whining, he’d done his job perfectly. Or at least, Harry thought so but everything seemed pretty right then.

With the words freshly marking his wrist, Harry headed out with his squad back to Ed’s flat for more booze, a bit of pot, a game or two of billiards and a round of obnoxiously singing Party In the USA off the balcony at midnight.

It was a testament to Harry’s delirium that he didn’t know when Niall had shown up, only that he was now dancing beside him on the balcony, strumming wild nonsensical chords on a ukulele while their breath formed clouds in the now frigid winter air.

Around two in the morning, Harry passed out at the foot of Ed’s bed, curled up with a pillow that was rank with weed.

When he woke hours later it was to the sight of the new black ink around his wrist that brought a sleepy smile to his face.

I can’t change.

The headache kicked in then. Harry shoved the pillow away from his face, and promptly, went back to sleep.

 

* * *

 

Harry caught sight of Louise’s platinum hair first, catching sunlight streaming through the windows.

“Hey, Lou,” he said, smiling, stepping further into Louis’ office and finding Louis by the opposite side of the room, fixing himself a cuppa. Louise waved, and resumed her game of Candy Crush on her iPad.

“Hey,” Harry said to Louis’ back. “You wanted to speak with me?”

“I did,” was all Louis said, not bothering to turn around. He finished stirring his tea and picked up a folded newspaper on the table beside him with his free hand.

Harry took a seat on the couch.

“Oh, do you need me to leave?” Louise asked.

“No, this will only take a moment,” Louis said cryptically. He stepped closer and held the newspaper out to Harry. “Have you seen this?”

Harry took the paper from him—The Sun, he noted—and unfolded it to the page Louis had it open to. And there right in the centre was a picture taken three days ago of him and Jeff, leaving the club, looking more than a little drunk.

Harry turned the paper so Louise could see. “Look, Lou, I’m in the paper.”

“I’ve seen,” she said, giving him an ambiguous smirk.

Harry turned back to Louis and found his eyes somehow widened and narrowed at the same time. “You’re happy about it?” Louis asked.

Harry shrugged, folding the paper and handing it back to Louis. “I'm indifferent, really. Haven’t been in the paper in a while.”

“Well now you are. Thanks to your friend. Should we call him and say thanks?” Louis asked.

Harry blinked at him, for the first time registering the hostility and the tension in the room. He’d seen Louis get snippy with people on the phone, models running late, deliveries turning up wrong. But he hadn’t ever seen Louis angry.

It was mouth-wateringly hot, the firm set of Louis’ jaw, the sharp focus of his crisp blue eyes, and the press of his pink lips. Harry just wasn’t prepared to take it all on, especially when he didn’t know what he’d done to have any of it directed his way.

“Is this supposed to be a problem?” Harry asked.

“Is it—” Louis’ voice was low. “Yes, in fact, it is. You can’t just waltz into the public eye with your new boyfriend without considering what kind of media attention you’re going to get. You don’t crawl out of clubs at two a.m. when you aren’t even legally allowed to be there in the first place. Look at this,” Louis said, holding the picture out, “You were drunk off your arse.”

“That happens sometimes, yeah,” Harry said.

“And now the world knows how you look when it does,” Louis said.

Harry’s annoyance flared. “The world, really? That’s a bit of an exaggeration,” he said. “Who cares what I look like when I’m drunk?”

“You! You should care,” Louis said. “And if your boyfriend doesn’t care about your image, that’s something you should think about too.”

Harry looked at Louis like he’d grown three extra heads. "You act like I was caught murdering someone. We’re both young, we had too much to drink. Big surprise. Is this actually about the pictures…or do you just not like Jeff?”

Louis actually snorted and took a sip of his tea. "Please. What I don’t like is how completely useless he's going to be when it comes to keeping you out of the papers."

"I don't mind being in the papers, Louis."

Lou looked back and forth between them, her brow pinched.

"But you should,” Louis said. “They could say all sorts of things about you, about your relationship. He could be using you for publicity."

Harry rolled his eyes. "That doesn’t even make sense. People know of him all around the world.”

“Congratulate him for me,” Louis snipped.

“Jesus, could I make my point?” Harry asked. Yes, angry Louis was kind of hot. But also, annoying as fuck. “If anybody might be used for publicity, it’s him."

Louis scoffed but clearly, he didn't have a proper response for that. He walked to his desk, dropping the Sun on top of a stack of papers, and placed his tea down beside them. He plopped down in his chair.

"May I just…" Louise began while Harry continued glaring at Louis. "I think what Louis is trying to say is that it might be a good idea to consult with our publicist and see how this media attention might best benefit you."

Well, she’d said it much kinder. Harry had to appreciate that.

"I don't need consultation or a publicist,” he said calmly. “Honestly, I'm fine. I don't care how the media attention benefits me or affects me or whatever."

That wasn’t entirely true. He could do without the publicity, and he had to consider potential problems negative attention could stir up in the future. But he was annoyed and currently unwilling to participate.

"You should," Louis repeated, almost groaned. He let his head loll back for a moment and squeezed the bridge of his nose.

Harry ignored him. Lou stood up with a sigh.

"Know what? This actually isn't my area of expertise. So…I think I'll just go clean my brushes or something," she said, waving her hands as if to ward off all the negative energy in the room. Her boots ricocheted loudly on the floor as she made her way to the door. Harry watched her go before setting his attention back on Louis, finding that he was already looking at him.

"You're being a massive dickhead, just so you know," Harry said.

"Sorry, mate." Louis shrugged, sounding completely unapologetic. He opened his MacBook. “Just doing my job.”

Harry left the room with a huff a breath.

 

* * *

 

'I was a massive dickhead and I’m sorry…'

The shower helped clear Harry’s mind but Louis’ message clouded it anew. He’d been planning on staying angry about the whole thing, dragging it out a bit, even though he wasn’t one to hold grudges. But confused as he was about the whole ordeal, he couldn't help a smile after reading the message, and forgetting all about his anger, he sent back one of his own.

'It’s okay. I’ll be more careful next time.'

He was running a towel through his damp hair when the phone started ringing. Louis, of course.

“Hi. Sorry, are you busy?” Louis said right away.

“No, just drying my hair,” Harry said. He waited nervously for Louis to explain why he’d called. These days he never knew what to expect.

“I wanted to see if you were free tomorrow. I know you said that you were earlier this week but your plans might’ve changed, so-- Are you free?”

“Before 7, yeah,” Harry said.

“And after 7?”

Harry hesitated, then wished he hadn’t. “Dinner with Jeff."

“Okay,” Louis replied. “Uh…well, Zayn’s taking me and Liam to some art show. And I don’t know, I thought I’d see if you wanted to come too. It’s earlier in the day around 10, and afterwards, we’d all get lunch.”

“Just you, Zayn, and Liam?” Harry asked.

“Yup,” Louis said. Harry could hear the kettle boil in the background, which took him briefly by surprise. It was a Friday night, and though he hadn’t given any thought to where Louis was before, he wouldn’t have guessed he was at home. Now Harry walked to the window and glanced out, saw that the lights of the guesthouse were on.

“Yeah, I’d love to go,” Harry said, and then, “What about tonight?”

“It’s tomorrow,” Louis said, confusedly.

“No, I know. I meant, what are you doing tonight?” Harry asked.

Louis took a second to answer. “Right now…I’m heating up some leftover lasagna.”

“You made lasagna?” Harry asked.

“Yeah, used my mum’s recipe. It’s not bad,” he said.

“And tea?” Harry asked.

“Always tea,” Louis laughed. It was a soft, sweet rumble.

Harry smiled. “Sounds nice."

“Yeah,” Louis was quiet for a pregnant moment. “Do you want some? I don’t mind sharing. And there’s a lot left. Was just planning to sit here, put a film or something.”

Harry drummed his fingers on the windowsill. “I actually have this film to watch for class… It’s like a film noir, romance thing."

“You could watch it here? I’ll be quiet, I promise,” Louis said. “Lasagna and tea? Kind of hard to resist.”

And Louis. That was the most important part. Harry could resist everything else if not for Louis.

He glanced at himself in the mirror, beginning to fix his hair. “Yeah, okay. Just let me get dressed and I’ll be right over.”

“Good,” Louis said. He was smiling, Harry could tell. “I’ll stick some lasagna in the microwave for you then.”

After lasagna, they had ice cream. Harry balanced a ceramic soup bowl filled with chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream on his knees while Scarlet Street, the film noir he'd been subjected to watch for class, was about ninety minutes in. Louis had a bowl of his own in his lap, one arm slung over the back of the couch.

A notebook lay beside Harry’s thigh, open to a blank page he was supposed to be filling with notes. But he kept forgetting, focused too intently on the screen while he lifted spoonfuls of ice cream blindly to his mouth. The film was pretty interesting, he had to admit.

On screen, Chris Cross narrowed in on his femme fatale with an ice pick. Without further warning, he went in for the kill. Harry's face crumpled into a frown. "Lou—" he whined with a mouthful of ice cream, turning to him, and then forgot the complaint altogether.

There was something about Louis' gaze that said he’d missed the whole scene. Something that said he hadn't been looking at the screen at all. He was smiling softly, looking at Harry, and despite all the ice cream he’d just ingested, Harry felt his skin prickle with heat, all along the back of his neck.

"What?" he managed to ask.

Louis’ gaze darted to the TV. "Shit, did he just kill her?" He groaned. “With an ice pick…Jesus.”

Harry looked again at the TV, hoping it was too dark for Louis to notice his blush. "How'd you even— Can't believe you missed that. Most important part."

"Sorry, sorry,” Louis said. “Just got distracted.”

 

* * *

 

It wasn't that Harry wasn't having fun. He didn't think that was even possible around Louis.

Being out with him and Zayn and Liam was actually too much fun.

But right from the jump, the whole thing had felt like a double date, and he should've expected as much. The four of them walked the gallery in pairs. Louis and Harry perused the artwork together while two steps ahead, Zayn and Liam did the same.

Louis wasn’t into the whole modern art thing. He told Harry so while they were stood looking at a portrait of a man with a bruised apple for a head.

“Zayn used to drag me to these things all the time in university,” Louis said. “Didn’t understand it then. Don’t understand it now.”

“Not even this one?” Harry asked.

Louis raised his brows. “You’re saying you do?”

Harry shrugged, tilting his head at the painting. “I mean, apples stand for knowledge, right? And this apple is bruised… So maybe the artist was trying to signify something about the lack of intelligence? Like, look-” Harry pulled Louis over to the left by grabbing onto the sleeve of his cardigan. “The name of this series is ‘His School is Dead,’ so it’s actually kind of obvious.”

“Right, of course. Or maybe it takes an artist to understand,” Louis said.

Harry gave him a look. “And you’re not an artist? I’ve seen your sketches, Lou,” he said with a roll of his eyes.

Louis smirked. “I just do that for fun.”

“Yeah, right. It’s more than that. You’ve got skill,” Harry said. “You should be designing your own clothing.”

“Don’t think your mum would appreciate you saying that,” Louis laughed.

“Guess not. But I mean it anyway. You’re always telling me to go after what I want. You should too,” Harry said.

Louis watched him for a second, his expression unreadable save for a tiny smile, and then he shifted his eyes to the line of paintings. “Thank you,” he said quietly. He nodded to the painting of a skeleton dressed in armour, wielding a pencil as a sword and a textbook as a shield.

“How about this one?”

Harry made a face as he thought. “Fighting using education is futile?” he guessed. “Can’t say I agree. But that’s what I’m getting here.”

Louis crossed behind him, his hand brushing over Harry’s waist for no clear reason, and moved to the next painting. “And this one?”

They carried on like that through the rest of the gallery. More than once Harry caught Zayn’s eyes on them from across the room. Zayn would simply smile and look away, but Harry could practically see the thoughts buzzing around his pretty head.

And he couldn’t blame him.

Harry was fucking up, so easily and it’d only been a few hours. Just in that short span of time, already he could picture himself living this life, doing these things with Louis. He could see them on lazy Friday nights eating ice cream and watching black and white films, then waking up for art shows that Louis didn’t understand but went to anyway.

It didn’t matter that he already had a boyfriend. Harry could picture it all clearly with Louis. And he wanted it.

The whole double date atmosphere they had going continued into lunch.

Zayn and Liam sat on one side of the table, Liam's arm slung around the back of Zayn's chair, and when Harry looked, he and Louis were in a similar position. It was weird and nice, but too weird.

And maybe that was what prompted Harry to turn to Louis and ask, "Where's Eleanor?" He’d said it a bit too loudly and abruptly, accidentally cutting off the open debate Zayn and Liam were having.

Louis’ brows dipped together. His mouth froze around his straw before he could take a sip of his Coke. "At work, I'd imagine," he said after a second.

"Oh. Just curious," Harry said, aiming for nonchalant. He didn’t think it worked. Zayn and Liam watched him cautiously. "Sorry, Liam, what were you saying?" Harry asked.

Liam hesitated. "Uh, what was I saying again?” he asked Zayn.

“About the underpaid photographers,” Zayn said.

Harry tuned them out again. He felt his face heating up and took a gulp of his water. He chanced a glance at Louis and sure enough, found Louis’ eyes curious and confused. Louis withdrew his arm from around the back of Harry’s chair and dug around in his pocket.

"Probably should get back soon," he said. “Wouldn’t want you to be late for your date.”

Zayn and Liam had stopped talking again. They were doing that thing, mirroring each other in their facial expressions and postures. Harry wouldn’t be surprised if they were thinking the same thing too, like about how weird Harry was, how jittery and how obviously hung up he still was on Louis.

Yeah, Harry would bet they were both thinking so.

Louis took him home after a mildly awkward goodbye to Zayn and Liam. They were quiet during the ride, except for once when someone in the car behind them honked their horn and Louis had peered up into his visor saying, “Is she honking at me?”

“Think so,” Harry had said, although he wasn’t actually sure at all. He’d just wanted to be heard.

They were parked before the front gate.

“Have fun tonight,” Louis said with a smile that didn’t come anywhere close to reaching his eyes.

Harry nodded. “Thanks. You too, whatever you end up doing.”

“I’ll think of something,” Louis assured him. “There’s always beer and FIFA.”

Harry huffed a laugh. “Doesn’t get any better than that,” he said. He reached for the door handle.

“Hey,” Louis said. Harry froze. He didn’t know why his heart kicked up in his chest, like he’d been expecting something, anything.

“Is that a new tattoo?” Louis asked.

Harry glanced at his wrist. “Yeah,” he said smiling. “Ed did it.”

He pushed his sleeve up a bit further and held his arm out for Louis to inspect the tattoo more closely.

"I like it,” Louis said, taking a gentle hold of his wrist.

"Thank you," Harry said, his eyes lingering on Louis’ mouth, the space in the car growing as quiet and seductive as Louis’ little smile.

Louis held onto his wrist. He brushed his thumb over Harry’s skin like he was committing the feeling to memory.

"So," Harry said quietly, “I should probably—”

When Louis’ eyes flickered up to his, he seemed to be resurfacing water. He blinked and dropped his fingers away from Harry’s wrist. “Sorry," he said. "Tell Ed I said he did good."

Harry reached for the door handle again, and popped the door open quickly. "Will do. I'll see you tomorrow, yeah?"

Louis shifted the car into drive. "Yeah, you should," he said. “Good night.”

Harry started toward the drive. Louis pulled off before he could even unlock the gate.

 

* * *

 

The weekend leading up to Christmas, Harry devoted time to tanning on the shores of Barbados with Gemma and his dad, Des.

Natalia, his supermodel step-mum was around somewhere too but no one could keep track of her. The saving grace of his dad’s new family was probably Alex, Harry’s three-year-old half-brother, who found joy in every little thing, most of all Harry’s hair. His new obsession with the long curly locks had prompted him to refuse a haircut every time his poor mum insisted. If Natalia hadn’t been wary of Harry before, she probably was now.

In light of recent events—like the company hosted brunch on Tuesday, which Louis spent with a scowl hidden behind the rim of his martini glass whenever Jeff so much as spoke—Harry needed an indefinite break. But he was tremendously grateful for the few days of peace he had now.

Jeff had sent him a message much earlier in the morning around 2 a.m. He hadn’t yet wrapped his mind around the time zone thing.

'Hope you're having fun! Call when you have a chance?'

Harry had fallen back to sleep and forgotten to even reply. He made a mental note to call Jeff when he wasn’t currently enjoying a beer with his dad.

Further down the beach, Gemma was collecting seashells with Alex, a regressive effort since every time the tide came in, he dropped his handful of shells and ran off screaming. Toddlers…

Des clipped the end of his cigar. “How’s it going with Jeff Azoff? You’re still seeing him, right?” he asked Harry.

A frothy wave advanced onto the shore, just enough to graze the soles of Harry’s feet. “Yeah, things are good. I like him,” Harry smiled. He watched Des attempt to light his cigar, puffing on the end to get the flame to catch. Harry didn’t know why his dad wasted time with the things. All that work just to smoke something that smelled of a dying woodland creature.

“He isn’t boring, is he?” Des asked.

“I went sailing with his family a week ago,” Harry said. “It was fun.”

Des nodded, his thin brows shooting up for a second. “How’s Irving?” he said, voice muffled by the cigar in his mouth.

“He’s great. Why didn’t you tell me you two went to school together?” Harry asked.

“Didn’t know you’d end up dating his son,” Des laughed. He finally figured out the cigar situation, took a big inhale. “How’s your sister and Aaron?” he asked, breathing out a cloud of pungent smoke.

“On and off, I don’t know,” Harry said.

“And that application for Oxford, how’d that go?” Des asked. “Got it in on time, yeah?”

“I did…” Harry said. He pushed his fingers into the soft white sand, grabbed a good handful, and then let it spill from his palm. “I applied to some other places too.”

“For what? You’ll get into Oxford, guaranteed,” Des said.

“I know,” Harry said. He watched a wave crash and disappear. “I don’t want to go to Oxford.”

He turned to look at his dad. The end of his cigar burned bright red like an open wound.

“Cambridge, then? I have fewer contacts there, H. Might not be as easy,” Des said.

“No, not Cambridge. Cordon Bleu,” Harry said. “The one in France. My boss, Ivor, has some colleagues there that could work with me.”

“The culinary school?” Des said, his voice higher pitched now.

“The best one in the world,” Harry said, hoping that would help.

Des blinked at him. “I thought you were just doing this chef thing for fun? What about the company? You're going to need some education in business if you want to run the company.”

“I don’t want to run the company,” Harry said.

“Your mum know that?” Des asked. He’d removed his cigar now, was just letting it burn out, while he looked at Harry in bewilderment.

“She wouldn’t listen to me, even if I told her,” Harry said, “So, no.”

Des sighed. “Jesus, Harry,” he said. “Should have said something a bit sooner. Made all those calls, got a lot of people expecting you at Oxford.”

“I know…I’m sorry about that, really I am.”

Des was shaking his head, looking out at the quickly setting sun. Alex was screaming again, this time because Gemma chased him with a bit of seaweed she’d found. The boy was easily entertained.

“What are your chances of getting into this Crouton Blue?”

Harry snorted, dropping his head in his hands. “Dad…”

Des laughed. “Whatever you call it, how are your chances looking?”

“I’d say they’re good,” Harry said, still chuckling. “I don’t know. I have good recommendations and a mostly impressive CV. Plus, I’ve started training with Ivor and George and they think I could do it.”

“Well, you’re my son, so of course you can,” Des said, taking another drag on his cigar. He reclined in his folding beach chair. “You should tell your mum. Just give her time to accept it.”

Overall this was going much better than Harry would have predicted. But he should have known. His dad had always been the saner of his parents. Anne was more fun, at least when they were younger. She was more spontaneous, loved adventure. But Des had always been the voice of reason. He responded to anything with “we’ll figure it out” and they always did.

“I just don’t want to disappoint her,” Harry said. “You know how she is.”

“Of course I do. And I know better than anyone what it feels like to disappoint her,” Des said.

Harry glanced at him, suddenly feeling sadness creep over him like he was still nine years old, watching his dad pack his old records into boxes for the moving lorry to carry away.

His dad had disappointed them all. Now that Harry was older, he understood why it had been necessary, that it was healthier for Des and Anne to no longer be together, even if Anne couldn’t yet see that. No one had been more disappointed than she was, perhaps even now.

Harry didn’t want to be next to make her feel that way.

“Thing is though, son,” Des said. He spoke his next words as if Harry’s thoughts had been said aloud. “Disappointing other people is guaranteed in life. You can’t make everyone happy. It’s impossible. And you can’t even try without making yourself miserable.”

He extended his cigar to Harry. Harry wrinkled his nose at it for a second, before taking it between his fingers.

“Mum would kill you if she knew you were letting me try this,” Harry said.

“Ah, come on. Won’t kill you,” Des said.

Harry took a drag on the cigar and coughed when it burned his throat. He handed it back. “That's disgusting."

“You’ll acquire a taste for it,” Des grinned. “Now, listen to me, H.”

Harry cleared his throat a few more times before he could.

“Don’t settle for being even marginally unhappy,” Des said, “Whether it be the school you go to. Or the people you love. Don’t settle. Go after what you want, hurt as few people as you can but understand that you’ll always end up hurting someone. That’s just life.”

Harry looked out at the sunset again. Gemma was coming back now with Alex on her back.

“Whatever you do, son, just be happy,” Des said, putting out his cigar. He stood up and ruffled Harry’s curls, making them fall over his headband and into his eyes.

“Gem, how about a swim before it gets dark? H? Come on,” Des said. Harry pushed his hair away from his forehead and pushed himself to his feet.

They swam until the sky grew dark, and then Harry was carrying a very sleepy Alex back into the house, and tucking him into bed.

Meanwhile, he wondered if he’d settled without realizing it. Maybe not when it came to Cordon Bleu. Maybe not when it came to Jeff either. But then, why couldn’t he stop thinking of Louis?

 

* * *

 

Harry could bat his eyelashes and flex his dimples every which way and this bartender still wouldn’t slide him even a shot. And he admired the woman’s work ethic, really. It was a testament to the functionality and professionalism of the Kensington Hotel.

But, fuck, this strawberry daiquiri wasn’t cutting it.

"Harry?"

His straw popped out of his mouth when he turned to see who’d called him. Liam waved when he was sure it was Harry, strolling closer.

“I knew it had to be you because of your hair,” Liam said.

Harry grinned, flipping his hair for show. “That’s why I keep it like this, of course.” He climbed off the bar stool so he could hug him. "Good to see you."

"You too. How are you?" Liam asked. “What are you doing here by yourself?”

"I’m supposed to be having lunch with my dad soon. He’s upstairs somewhere in a meeting," Harry said. “You?”

“Friend of mine has a wedding here in about an hour. Shooting a couple pictures for them,” Liam said. He nodded to Harry’s drink. "What are you having?"

Harry smiled bashfully. "It's a strawberry daiquiri."

"Wow, old school," Liam laughed. "I guess I'll have one of those."

He signalled to the bartender and ordered a strawberry daiquiri for himself.

"How's Zayn?" Harry asked.

"Busy. Don’t see him as often as I’d like with us being in two different places," Liam said. "Would be nice to move in with him soon."

"He could come live in London with you," Harry suggested.

"No, he wouldn't give up his flat. He's got it all decorated and painted and stuff. It's like a massive art project. Plus, I like it too. Much cosier than my place."

Harry smiled. "You should move in with him then."

"Zayn's mum is kind of superstitious, though. She thinks moving in before marriage is bad luck. And I mean, Zayn doesn't seem to care, but we've both been living separately for so long it doesn't bother us, especially since we normally end up at each other's places anyway?"

"But it's a problem now?"

"He’s busier now. Hardly has time to come over. And he wants to start travelling a bit more, to more shows and such," Liam shrugged. "A little nerve-wracking to be honest. But I’m sure we'll figure it out. We always do."

Harry hoped so. If Zayn and Liam couldn’t work things out, there wasn't any hope left for him. "Hey,” he said. “Sorry if I was weird last time. When we all went out for the art show. I was just wonky, I guess."

"Nah, it's fine. We all get wonky sometimes. Honestly, Zayn thought it had something to do with Louis,” Liam laughed. “Like, I don't know, you have feelings for him or something?”

All along Harry had just assumed Liam knew. He was surprised Zayn hadn't just told him outright that Harry did, in fact, have feelings for Louis. But he was grateful too, more than anything.

"Wouldn't be surprising though. We’ve all been there,” Liam said. “I had a very brief, very alcohol-induced crush on Louis back in university. Very brief. We don't talk about it."

Harry knew that already but he didn’t mind Liam telling his side of the story too. And anyway, he was curious. "Did you tell him?" he asked.

"Sort of? I kissed him actually. And then Zayn was so jealous. I thought it was because he liked Louis. Then he called me a knobhead and laid this big kiss on me and yeah...” Liam took a sip of his daiquiri, a smug smile on his face. “We haven't been apart since.”

Harry raised both brows. "Which means, Louis technically got you two together..."

"I guess? But I wouldn’t say that to him or it’d go to his head. And anyway, me and Zayn turned around and got him and El together, so I’d say we’re even.”

“I’d say so too,” Harry said.

“Although…” Liam began slowly. “Me and Zayn are still together. And Louis and Eleanor…I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea back then, getting them together. Louis was crazy and alone, needed someone to hold him down. So we like pushed El into the picture. Us and like all of our friends. And they worked together. She balanced him out, I guess."

"That's good," Harry said. "I'm sure he needs that."

"Maybe not anymore, though… He's grown up too fast. He's only 24 and I don't know. I feel like he doesn't have fun anymore. Not like he used to. And that's not to say El isn't fun. She's great. Just...maybe not for him."

Harry slurped on his daiquiri, the blood pumping a little too loudly around his ears.

"Anyway, regardless of what I think, there's been tension between the two of them lately. And she isn't around much anymore. Or at all really. So like I said, we might not be even after all."

Harry hated the thrum of excitement that got his veins feeling like they might burst. He hated to draw pleasure from someone else's misery. A relationship ending was no reason to be happy, and yet how else could he describe the way he felt right then?

"I'm sorry to hear that," he said, not even sure he meant it. He wanted to mean it, wanted to be sorry for Eleanor and for Louis too.

He had Jeff. None of this mattered anyway. None of this was supposed to matter.

"Me too. But you know," Liam said. "Things change. Maybe his heart is elsewhere."

Harry drummed his hands on the polished black marble of the bar. "I think I need something a bit stronger." He pushed his empty daiquiri glass away. "How about you, Liam?"

Liam smirked. "I'd have to agree," he said and then he leaned forward and ordered two Martinis. The bartender was more inclined to make the drinks for Liam, which didn’t make sense at all, but Harry wasn’t complaining. With thoughts wild and chaotic enough to rival a hurricane, Harry needed that drink more than ever.

Chapter Text

“Welcome back, Louis. Did you have a good flight?”

Harry plucked his earphone from his ear and leaned forward to see through the glass doors of his mum’s office. It wasn’t like he’d been sitting there waiting for Louis to return from Paris. But he’d kind of been sitting there, hoping to see Louis when he returned from Paris.

Louis was just coming down the hall, trailed closely by Jeanine with a clipboard and a pen in her hand. “Good, thanks,” he smiled.

“I have some papers here I need you to sign when you have a moment,” Jeanine said.

Louis pulled his scarf from around his neck, his face ruddy from the cold, his hair windblown. He took the clipboard from her. “Did you get in touch with Albert?” he asked.

“Spoke to him this morning. Said he’s all set for his flight,” she answered.

“Great.” Louis happened to look up then, maybe by habit because he was passing Anne’s office, maybe because he sensed someone watching him. Harry was reclined in one of the leather lounge chairs, spilling halfway out of the seat and probably pulling several muscles just to catch a glimpse of Louis in all his sexy businessman glory.

Harry’s first question, the very first thing he would ask God should he ever get the chance would be why? He would hold out a picture of Louis, of the high cheekbones, the perfectly cut jaw, the eyes, and his muscular tan little body, and he would demand to know why.

When their eyes connected, Harry nearly fell out of his seat.

Louis smiled, distractedly handing the clipboard back in Jeanine’s general direction. “Give me a second,” he said before stepping into Anne’s office. He surveyed the empty space.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

Harry sat up, pushing his hair back behind his ears. “I’m waiting for my mum. We’re headed home once she’s done with a fitting or something…” he trailed off, eyes sweeping over Louis from head to toe. He looked so great, suited up like he was.

“I didn’t think you were coming in today after your flight,” Harry added.

“Have some things to finish up before the holiday,” Louis said, drumming his fingers on the doorframe. "Nice tan."

Harry smiled. He'd done a pretty good job while in Barbados. “Thanks. How was Paris?” he asked.

“Beautiful. But quite lonely visiting the city of love on your own,” Louis said.

Harry could imagine. The many times he’d visited, he’d always ended up by himself or shopping with Gemma, both activities that reminded him how very single he was, especially amidst a multitude of newlyweds and budding romances.

Harry could picture Paris with Louis. He knew he shouldn’t but he did anyway.

“Sorry you had to endure that,” he said.

Louis smiled. “Always a pleasure to have your sympathy.”

Harry hid the smile that tugged at the corners of his lips, turning his head to check for messages on his phone that he knew weren’t there.

“Homework?” he heard Louis ask. Louis nodded toward the folder in his lap.

“Studying for A-levels in January, actually,” Harry corrected. “Or trying to.”

“I could help with that. If you ever need a study buddy…” Louis said. “Offer’s open.”

“Thank you,” Harry said. “I’ll probably take you up on that soon. After the holiday, maybe."

“Whenever,” Louis said. And it sounded like he meant it. He tapped his fingers on the doorframe again. “See you later, yeah?”

“Hope so,” Harry said. God, he sounded thirsty. He couldn’t have been more obvious if he tried. Also, he was probably the worst boyfriend ever.

Louis was still smiling when he stepped into the hall.

“Oh!” He came right back. “I forgot to tell you,” he said quickly, “the whole catering thing at the gala worked like a charm. Your mum’s asked me to put in an order at your bakery for the next meeting. She’s partial to the cream puffs.”

“Really?” Harry beamed. “That’s fantastic.”

Louis nodded. “Yeah, so—”

“Louis,” Jeanine called from the hall. “Line 4 is for you. It’s Mark from New York.”

“Be right there,” he said. He looked again at Harry. “So, I figure George and Ivor will have to promote you or something now.”

Harry laughed. “You'll be the first to know if they do.”

For a second, they just smiled at each other. Harry licked his lips nervously.

“Well...bye, again,” Louis said.

Harry wiggled his fingers and watched Louis retreat down the hall. With a puff of air, he collapsed back into his seat, his arms at his sides like limp noodles.

Louis hadn’t been gone for long, just a day. But Harry had the weekend in Barbados and Louis’ short stay in Paris to think while they were apart. And now that they were together again, he felt certain.

Something had changed.

He didn't know what, just that Louis was different. They were both different. He'd say since the beginning of December but things hadn’t clicked for him until a few days ago.

He'd been trying to convince himself otherwise, to pretend like it wasn't as big a deal as he made it seem. But Harry prided himself on being able to pick up signals. He misunderstood them sometimes, sure. But he didn't think that was the case here.

Things had changed.

 

* * *

 

Jeff’s birthday warranted a small, very intimate gathering of friends and family, people whom Harry had never met and whom he would be introduced to as Jeff’s boyfriend. None of that was particularly daunting, but hours before Jeff was due to pick Harry up, his nerves were twisted and bundled like electrical cords.

They’d only been dating for a little over a month now. Their “anniversary,” which fell right before Harry had left for Barbados, Jeff had commemorated with 100 long-stem red roses and a lovely dinner.

Harry had gotten him a harmonica because Jeff said he wanted to learn by the start of the tour.

Anyhow, during that dinner, there was also this:

Jeff asked, “Any word yet from Cordon Bleu?”

“No. I won’t hear anything until early next year. Around February,” Harry said.

“It’ll be a nice gift for your birthday then, when you get in,” Jeff said.

Harry smiled and took a sip of his wine. “If I get in.”

“You definitely will,” Jeff said. “I’ve been meaning to mention… My parents actually have a place in Paris.”

Harry blinked up from his soup, his spoon stilling. “Do they?”

Jeff nodded. His smile grew. “Yeah. So…if you go to school there, I could come visit you anytime. Or. You could even—I don’t know—you could move in there if you wanted? They wouldn’t care.”

Harry had responded by draining his entire glass of wine, pouring himself another, and draining that too.

It wasn’t like Harry had problems with commitment.

But maybe, possibly, there was a minor problem with him committing to Jeff. Or quite massive actually.

The whole “it’s not you, it’s me” spiel was utter bullshit. Sure, to some degree, it was true in this case. Jeff had done nothing to deserve Harry’s fickleness. But it still had everything to do with him. It wasn’t just Harry. It was Jeff too.

It was who Jeff was. And it was who he wasn’t.

But thinking about that certain unnamable someone while he was getting ready to see Jeff wasn’t right. Comparing the two of them, even worse.

All his thoughts had him working up a sweat in his fancy denim shirt before he’d even hit the dance floor. Not that there would be a dance floor in Jeff’s home. But Harry was hoping for a bar. At the very least, he needed an open, well-stocked bar given how this night was bound to go down. Hard decisions sometimes called for hard liquor.

He sprayed himself with some cologne he found within arm’s reach and flapped his arms to get some cool air to his pits.

“Hey,” Gemma said, poking her head into Harry’s room. Her brows arched. “Well, don’t you look nice?”

“Not too much?” Harry asked, holding his arms out. Along with his patterned denim shirt, he wore skinny black jeans and brown boots.

“Not at all,” Gemma said. “You want everyone to be jealous Jeff’s got such a babe for a boyfriend.”

“Right…” Harry mumbled, his brow furrowing.

“I came to ask if you wanted tea before you left? I’m putting on the kettle for mum and Louis.”

“Louis’ here?” Harry asked as nonchalant as possible.

“Downstairs in the kitchen, yeah,” Gemma said. “So, tea?”

“Why?”

“Why what?” Gemma said.

“Why is Louis here?” Harry asked.

Gemma narrowed her eyes. “Berlin business before he leaves.”

Now, Harry turned around. “Louis’ leaving?” he asked. “When? To where?”

“H, it’s like four days before Christmas,” she said. “He has a family to go home to, I’m sure. Now, are you in for tea or not?”

“Yeah, yes, please. Should have enough time before Jeff gets here,” Harry said.

Gemma gave him one last suspicious look and then left him to finish getting ready. Harry shook out his hair and repositioned it one final time. He exhaled a big puff of air and grabbed his phone, tucked it into his pocket, and left his room.

Louis was sat right at the end of the island when Harry stepped into the kitchen.

And he wore glasses. The ones Harry had yet to see him wear, and now he understood why. Louis with glasses was not a thing Harry was meant to witness and survive. As with all things concerning Louis, his sleek black frames were instruments of torture, designed as a final means to ending Harry’s existence.

Harry was being dramatic, yes, but he had damn good reason.

Louis pushed his glasses higher up his nose and smiled. Harry wondered how long swooning usually lasted, if there was a point in time where he’d stop feeling so weak whenever Louis simply looked at him.

Besides Louis, Anne looked up too, the frames of her own glasses reflecting the recessed lights above the island. “You look lovely,” she said.

“Thank you,” Harry said, wiping his sweaty palms on his jeans. He slid onto the stool a few seats away from Louis and set his phone on the marble.

“That hair’s growing out again. You know you’ll need a cut before Berlin,” Anne said.

Harry resisted making a face. He shot her a sweet smile. “Of course, Mummy.”

Louis’ lips twitched with the threat of a laugh.

Anne didn’t catch Harry’s sarcasm. “Let’s go over those numbers one last time, Louis,” she said.

Louis pulled his gaze away from Harry and focused on his iPad again. “Sure,” he said. “So, we have round-trip flights for you, me, Harry and Gemma coming in at 2147 pounds. And hotel accommodations look to be about 1866 pounds.”

“How about for the girls? Amanda and Jeanine?” Anne said.

“Is Amanda coming?” Louis said.

“Of course,” Anne said distractedly, tapping something into her phone. “We’ll need someone to attend to Harry. You’ll be with me. Jeanine with Gemma. Amanda will take care of Harry.”

At the sound of Amanda, Harry focused in on their conversation. He didn’t care much for talk about Berlin but with his name and Amanda’s name being tossed around in the same sentence, he figured it was best that he paid attention.

He didn’t dislike Amanda but she’d never been shy about her massive crush on him, and if an option to avoid her drooling over him for a week existed, Harry would like to vote in its favour.

Gemma placed a cup of tea in front of Harry. He smiled and took a sip, burning his upper lip as usual.

“Thanks,” Louis said when Gemma placed a cup in front of him as well. “Albert is already flying in from the New York branch. He could work with Harry instead. We’d save money on having to provide for Amanda too.”

Harry rested his chin in his palm and focused on his mum and Louis as they talked. That turned into him admiring Louis’ forearms, and his neck, and just…Louis, in general. He looked away and made eye contact with Gemma. “What?” he mouthed.

Gemma shook her head, a devious smile on her face.

“Also, Albert has plenty of experience with this,” Louis said.

Anne glanced at him. “And you have no personal qualms with Amanda, right?”

Both Harry and Gemma focused in on the conversation again.

“Not at all,” Louis said. “But I worry she’ll get distracted, you know…by her very obvious… infatuation with Harry…” He punctuated this with a dainty sip of his tea.

“Her what?” Anne raised both brows at Harry.

Gemma snorted. “Jesus, who isn’t infatuated with Harry?”

“Why didn’t you tell me about this? Does she make you uncomfortable?” Anne asked.

Harry shot a glare at Louis. Louis shrugged, took another sip of his tea like the righteous bastard he was. “It isn’t a big deal,” Harry said to his mum, contrary to his earlier train of thought. He wasn’t looking to get Amanda fired. “You can’t fault people for how they feel.”

And then he looked purposefully at Louis, though he probably shouldn’t have, and Louis looked at him.

“Good point,” Louis said.

Cue the eye sex. Harry felt his skin heat. He looked back down at his teacup.

Anne sighed. “This is silly. We’ll take Albert with us. But Amanda will have to be there for London. If there are any discrepancies with her then, we’ll deal with them.”

Harry tensed, replaying her words in his head right away.

Anne had been selective and skillful about hinting at any further work in the industry on Harry’s part, perhaps wary about scaring him off. And even with London Fashion Week right on the heels of Berlin, she’d said nothing.

Until right then.

Terrified was an exaggeration. Worried wasn’t quite the word either. Anxious, maybe. Harry couldn’t quite pinpoint the feeling. All he knew was that at the mention of London Fashion Week, he shifted his eyes away from Louis and focused on his cup of tea and decided he’d had enough of a part in this conversation.

He was already in a state about Jeff. He didn’t need more reasons to panic tonight.

He couldn’t even count it as a save when his phone buzzed with a message from Jeff saying he was here, since that got another wave of nausea rolling through his body.

He stood and rinsed his cup in the sink.

“I’m heading out now.” He kissed Gemma’s cheek. Then did the same for his mum.

“Where to?” Harry was surprised to hear Louis ask on account of him being in the middle of a meeting with his mum.

Harry didn’t make eye contact when he answered. “Jeff’s birthday party.”

Harry thought he saw Louis nod, aside from that he offered no response.

“Will you be back tonight?” Anne asked.

“I should be,” Harry said.

“Be safe,” Gemma said. “In every sense of the word.”

“Gem,” Anne said reproachfully.

“What? It’s his birthday. We all know what goes on after those,” Gemma said, picking up her mug and starting to leave the room. “Safe sex is the best sex.”

Louis had been staring wordlessly at the same screen on his iPad ever since Anne asked Harry if he’d be back tonight. He didn’t seem to be moving…or breathing.

“For goodness sake,” Anne said. She turned to Harry. “Just have fun, dear.”

Harry didn’t need any further cues to leave.

*

Harry had a glass of wine with Irving Azoff and thought for a moment that if he were in pursuit of a career in music, this right here would be one of the best moments in his life. And even though he wasn’t pursuing a music career, he thought that if he had to rate all his life moments, this one would still be high on the list. Because, for the most part, Harry was enjoying himself quite a lot.

But whenever Shelli Azoff wasn’t laughing her infectious laughter, Harry found himself feeling ill with the thought of what he needed to do.

They all stood in the heated sunroom, Jeff, Irving, Shelli and one of Jeff’s sister’s whose name Harry had forgotten seconds after she’d said it. They stood with glasses in their hands and smiles on their faces and Harry felt ill.

Right around then, he excused himself to “make a call.” He sought out the loo instead.

There were more people throughout the Azoffs’ colossal house, family members and close friends. Harry had already been introduced to a few of them. He smiled as he moved past them.

He found himself stepping into another massive alcove in the house with another long corridor leading to more massive rooms and perhaps, more corridors. He’d seen his share of mansions, in the UK and abroad, and he’d have to say the Azoffs belonged in the upper echelons of domestic fortitude.

He didn’t know if he should continue on or turn back. He thought maybe he’d need a map quite soon. But for now, he would hide away here, just to catch his breath.

“Look at this.”

Harry looked to his left and saw a well-dressed, attractive older man standing there with one hand holding a drink and another hand tucked into his pocket.

“Oh, sorry, mate. I didn’t know anyone was in here.”

The man glanced at him. “It’s okay. Come look at this,” he waved Harry over and pointed at the photograph on the wall. Harry stepped closer.

“It’s beautiful,” Harry agreed, admiring the picture of a verdant landscape with trees and deer to the left.

“You know where this was taken?” the man asked.

Harry shook his head. “I have no idea.”

“Right in the backyard,” the man said, pointing in what was supposed to be the direction of the backyard. Harry didn’t know if he was wrong or not. He didn’t even know where the front door was anymore.

“Wow,” was all Harry could say. He felt stupid afterwards for delivering a response so lame. But then again, he was only 17, and this man looked like an art curator who smoked fancy Italian cigarettes and owned a Bugatti. Harry wondered what he was doing here.

“Thanks,” the man said. “Took it myself.”

Harry looked at him and blinked. The man snorted. “I’m taking the piss,” he said. And just like that, his rigid art collector act fell apart. “Believe me, I can be a dick. But not to that extent.”

Harry laughed. “Good conversation starter, though.”

“Good then. Because I’ve been meaning to talk to you,” the man replied. Harry’s brows creased. “I’m Victor.”

Harry thought the name should ring a bell.

“Jeff’s ex,” Victor added, twirling his glass in his hand.

Ding, ding, ding. Harry turned to look at him properly.

“Hi, I’m Harry,” he said, sticking out his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Same to you,” Victor said, shaking his hand. “You’re even cuter in person. You should sue Google. They haven’t done you justice.”

Harry felt oddly flattered. “You’ve Googled me?”

“Had to. It’s the role of the ex-boyfriend, right? To creep on the next one?” Victor said.

Well, Harry couldn’t argue with that. He’d found out recently that Eleanor had once done some modelling while attending uni, and then Harry had gone to Google in search of her portfolio. When all he found was further confirmation that she was drop dead gorgeous, he instantly regretted it.

Not that it was the same thing. Since Louis wasn’t his ex-boyfriend.

“I suppose,” Harry said. At least Victor was honest about it. “I didn’t know you’d be here. Have you gotten a chance to see Jeff?”

“No, not yet. But I’m sure I’ll run into him,” Victor said. “How old are you? If you don’t mind me asking?”

“17,” Harry said.

Victor looked surprised for a second. “You know, Google said that, but I didn’t believe them.”

Harry shrugged. “I’d say it’s safe to trust Google, but I’m not sure that’s true.”

That scored Harry a laugh. And he didn’t know why but he felt like he’d done something right.

“You work with Jeff, don’t you?” Harry asked.

“Yeah. I'm acting as his tour manager. But not for long,” Victor said quietly.

“Why not?”

Victor gave him a look. “I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to spend too much time with a former love. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

“It doesn’t have to be,” Harry replied.

“It would be though, believe me,” Victor said. “All it takes is just one…encounter, one hour or one night, and it all just comes flooding back.” He gestured with his hand, motioning insurmountable waves, his eyes unfocused.

Maybe Victor had had a bit too much to drink. But also, maybe he was drowning.

Harry looked away from him, back at the picture.

“Sorry,” Victor said. “I must be feeling chatty tonight. Something in this drink, I imagine. Jeff’s aunt has been eyeing me since I got here actually. Could have slipped me something.”

Harry laughed. “It’s alright. Nothing wrong with feeling chatty.”

Victor smiled gratefully. “You have nothing to worry about with Jeff. He’s loyal,” he assured him. “I have just one last question if you don’t mind.”

Harry didn’t mind. He waited expectantly.

“You're happy together, yeah?” Victor asked.

Harry opened his mouth with a response. And then his phone buzzed in his pocket. A text from Jeff.

'Did you get lost?'

“One second,” Harry said to Victor.

'Possibly. I’m in a room with paintings. And some taxidermy.'

Victor focused on the painting again. Harry tucked his phone away. He hadn’t forgotten the question but he couldn’t think of a response in time. Not before Jeff stepped into the room.

His eyes landed on Victor and stayed there.

“Hey, Vic.”

Victor smiled. “Hey. Happy Birthday.”

“Thanks. When did you—?” Jeff’s eyes flickered to Harry. “How long have you been here?”

“Not too long. Was trying to track you down but you’re a bit too popular these days. And anyway, me and Harry were admiring Diane’s photography here,” Victor said.

Jeff finally smiled at Harry. His struggle to look away from Victor for long didn’t bother Harry like it should. “Victor was here when she shot that picture actually. Remember, Vic? We all went out the night before and got really drunk and then fell asleep in the backyard?”

Victor laughed. “Right, right, we did. And then we woke up, and someone had the bright idea to bring out the weed.”

“I think…” Jeff started to laugh. “I’m pretty sure it was your idea.”

“Me? No,” Victor dismissed the idea with a playful smirk.

“Remember the deer?” Jeff said.

“Of course I do. There are some in this picture here,” Victor said.

Jeff stepped closer, his eyes still on Victor. He looked at the painting. Harry took a step back and watched them both.

Jeff said, partly to Harry, mostly to Victor, “There were some red deer passing by in the field through the clearing. And you—Victor brought the weed out and we all got high and went down to run across the field with them…” He snorted when he laughed.

“Fuck, where are those pictures anyway? They should be on this wall,” Victor was laughing and snorting too.

“My poor nan would have a fit,” Jeff said.

Harry laughed, but he had no idea why this was all so funny. He thought it was one of those things you had to be there for. And also, these two men were in love (still in love, Harry could see), and probably this memory reminded them of that too.

Victor looked at Harry and smiled apologetically. “Harry must think we’re fools, laughing about deer.”

“Not at all,” Harry said. He also thought that if he and Louis had gotten high and pranced through the woods, he’d find it pretty funny too.

Victor said, “I think I’ve taken up too much of your time.”

“You haven’t,” Jeff said, his smile dimming.

Victor’s lips twitched. “It was good to see you. Happy Birthday, again. Good night to you both.”

Harry raised his glass to him. Jeff watched Victor walk away, back into the corridor. Harry hoped he didn’t get lost trying to find the front door.

Jeff tucked his hands in his pockets and glanced at Harry.

“He’s lovely,” Harry said, smiling.

Jeff nodded, suddenly looking self-conscious. “Yeah, he’s cool.”

“I feel like we haven’t talked enough about him,” Harry pressed. He felt desperate to cling to whatever this was, like his eyes had been opened. This was the way out. It wasn’t just him. “You’ve known each other since you were six, right?”

Jeff looked at him warily. “Yeah.”

“When did you two start dating?” Harry asked.

“Uh, I was 15. Vic was 17,” Jeff said. “And he had a girlfriend.”

Harry’s eyes rounded. “And how’d you work your way around that?”

Jeff laughed. “I kissed him. Got high with him after this fundraiser ball thing at my school, and I just went for it. And he stopped talking to me for like a week.”

“And then…?”

“Then, he dumped his girlfriend. And we dated up until this past summer.”

Harry turned his glass in his hands, studying Jeff’s expression when he said it. “And then what happened?”

“We broke up?”

“Yes, but why?” Harry questioned.

Jeff shrugged. “I don’t know. We didn’t want the same things. We just…you grow apart sometimes.”

Harry would probably hate himself for this later, for lumping Jeff’s situation with Victor in with his own predicament with Louis. It wasn’t fair but Harry had finally acknowledged what he’d known from the start, back in the car after seeing Kodaline. This wasn’t how you solved heartache. Maybe it worked for some people but it wouldn’t work for him. And it didn’t seem to be working for Jeff either.

There was no way, absolutely no way, that Jeff and Victor were a thing of the past. The truth couldn’t be more apparent if it was reified and screaming in Harry’s face.

“I think maybe you aren’t telling me the whole story. But that’s only fair,” Harry said. “Come on. I’ve tortured you enough. And Caroline’s supposed to show up soon.”

*

Caroline did show up like she promised. And they all chatted and danced for a bit. There was no dance floor, as suspected, but plenty of room to swing around in the sunroom, where there were windows in the ceiling and moonbeams spilling in like spotlights.

Jeff’s little gathering quieted down around two a.m. Caroline left. Shelli went to sleep. Irving went to have a cigar with Jeff’s uncles.

And that was when Harry said to him, “Let’s go see the fancy backyard.”

They went through the doors from the sunroom, and over the sloping backyard, which wasn’t nearly as green as it had been in the photographs, being that it was winter.

“I bet sledding on this hill would be amazing,” Harry said.

“Too bad it hardly ever snows,” Jeff said.

Maybe he’d come back whenever it did. He hoped they stayed friends so that it might be possible. He hoped they stayed friends, period.

Harry walked down the hill with Jeff trailing behind him, until the landscape flattened out and a stream cut across the path, surrounded by barren trees, fallen leaves, and dried mossy earth.

“So, you were right,” Jeff said abruptly. “About there being more to the story.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” Harry said, but he really wished Jeff would tell him. It would make this all much easier. He leaned against one of the broad oak trees.

“I do though. Back in June, Victor proposed to me,” Jeff said.

Harry’s eyes went wide. Not what he’d been expecting. Not at all.

“And I said no. Because…my career was just taking off, you know? And I don’t know, I panicked,” Jeff sighed. “It was stupid. To end something you’ve had for so long, for years. But that’s what Victor did. He said he was ready to move forward and if I couldn’t do that, it was best we ‘followed different paths.’” Jeff made air quotes. “So we did. And it’s—I don’t know. It’s weird. I hadn’t seen him in a while. So it was weird. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Harry said. Honestly, in a minute, he’d be the one apologizing.

“The last time I saw him, I sort of slept with him.”

“Sort of?” Harry said.

“Well, not sort of. But it was a mistake,” Jeff said. “And I regretted it. Because I wanted to move on. And now I have. With you.”

“You’re sure about that?” Harry asked.

“Isn’t that what I’ve been doing? Moving on?” Jeff asked.

“I think you’ve been trying,” Harry said. “But—”

“Harry,” Jeff cut him off. “This is why I didn’t want to say any of this. I didn’t want to cause problems for us. What we have is good.”

“Not as good as you and Victor,” Harry said. Or as good as what he could have with Louis, he imagined.

Jeff sighed. He didn’t have an answer for that.

Harry pushed away from the tree. "I can't do this anymore," he said.

Jeff's brows creased instantly like he was confused. "Because of Victor? You just met him this once…"

“No, no,” Harry said, quickly. "I'm in love with someone else.”

Jeff blinked. "In love?"

In love?

Harry didn’t know where that came from. He didn’t know. He just-- those were the words in his head. When he thought of love, he thought of Louis. And he didn’t know what that meant. If it meant he was in love. If it meant he was on his way there. If he simply just wanted to be.

He didn’t know right then, but he said it anyway.

"I think so. I don’t know. I want to figure it out,” Harry said.

Jeff was at a loss for words again. His mouth opened and closed.

“It’s not just you, is what I’m trying to say,” Harry said. “You were right, a while ago, when you thought there was someone who broke my heart. I should have been honest with you, I'm sorry, truly sorry."

Jeff exhaled a heavy breath. “Is it your mum’s assistant? Louis was his name?"

Harry took too long to answer, which was an answer in itself.

Jeff’s lips twitched with a sad smile. “Fucking knew it. You know, you talk about him a lot, without realizing you’re doing it,” he said. “Like the other day when I was at the bakery, you let me try the cinnamon crème doughnuts, and you said ‘these are Louis’ favorites’ out of the blue. And when the Rovers played a few weeks ago? You insisted we watch the game. You were all sad when they lost and said ‘I bet Louis is devastated’ and you started texting him?”

Harry felt his face begin to burn with embarrassment. He looked down at his shoes, which were getting a bit dirty now because of the damp soil around them.

“You look at him like he’s a little brighter than everyone else,” Jeff concluded.

Jesus,” Harry muttered. “I’m sorry,” he said again, pushing his hair away from his forehead, twisting his fingers in the curly locks at the back of his head. “I’m so sorry, really. I feel awful. I am awful.”

“No, you’re not. Not even close. Come on,” Jeff scoffed, waving Harry over to the little bench they’d set up by the frozen stream. “It’s not like I have room to judge.”

Harry didn’t know what to say. So he went with: “I’m sorry.”

“Please stop apologizing,” Jeff said immediately. “Honestly.”

Harry sort of wanted to cry. He always cried during a breakup. Even when he felt relieved. Maybe when he got home, he would. In the shower.

"I don't think this is how you're supposed to heal. By forcing yourself to forget,” Harry said. “I don’t think it works like that."

Jeff shrugged. “Who knows how it works anymore,” he said. He glanced at Harry. “What happened with Louis anyway?”

“He turned me down a while ago. Which, I guess I had coming. I was drunk and he has a girlfriend and we’d honestly only known each other for a few weeks,” Harry said. “But I don’t know what it is about him, why I can’t just let it go— It’s impossible. And now I might love him.”

Jeff seemed sympathetic. “Suppose you should take some time to figure that out.”

“I will. I’m…going to try again,” Harry said. “Like going after him.”

Jeff looked at him, his brows creased. “But he’s still with his girlfriend, isn’t he?”

“You just told me you kissed Victor while he had a girlfriend. Now you two are in love,” Harry said.

Jeff might’ve blushed. “That’s different. We were only kids. Vic wasn’t in love with his girlfriend or anything. It was just a school kid crush.”

“Well, who says Louis’ in love with his girlfriend?”

“Who says he isn’t?”

Harry dragged his hand down his weary face. “I don’t know. His friend—well, sort of my friend too—Liam, he told me things weren’t that good between Louis and his girlfriend anymore.”

“Louis’ friend told you that? Is he trying to help you out or something?”

“No, it’s nothing like that. He doesn’t even know how I feel. But he said it and I think if ever there was a time to try again, it’d be now,” Harry said. “I just—I need to. Just one more time.”

Jeff still seemed sceptical. But he reached out and patted Harry’s knee. “Tell me how it goes?”

Harry smiled. “Same to you.”

Jeff’s brows furrowed in confusion.

Harry was suddenly just as perplexed. “Aren’t you going to work things out with Victor?”

“No,” Jeff said. “Why would I do that?”

Harry looked at him, his lips parted. "Because you’re still in love with him? And I'm pretty sure he’s still in love with you too.”

Now the pinkish glow to Jeff’s cheeks was hard to miss. He looked down at his shoes. “This isn’t about me…” he said.

“It could be, though. You could try again too, if you wanted. Even if you’re not ready for marriage yet, I think it’s worth it to just be honest about what you do want.”

Jeff looked out past the clearing. Harry did too. They sat together, bathed in moonlight and deep thought.

"You think he'd be willing?" Jeff asked quietly.

Harry grinned at him, his curls swaying gently away from his face when he tilted his head. "I'd bet money on it.”

Jeff looked at him and frowned. “You’re honestly so pretty. I should’ve let you give me that blowjob when you offered.”

Harry laughed loud and reached out to pat Jeff on the shoulder. “Very sorry, mate.”

“Sure, you are,” Jeff said, sounding bitter. But then he laughed too, a deep vibrating sound that said they’d both be alright.

*

Harry sort of wanted a cup of tea before bed. Or perhaps ice cream. Or…maybe some of that spotted dick, if there was any left. A slice of pizza, even. His cravings were in disarray. Probably something to do with him being single again.

It was three in the morning when he stepped into the house but he made his way to the kitchen anyway. The light, he noticed as he grew closer, was surprisingly still on. And then he realized why.

“Still here?” Harry said when he stepped into the kitchen and saw Louis. He toed off his shoes by the counter and went around to the fridge for ice cream.

Louis rubbed at his tired eyes. “I was just leaving actually. Didn’t know you were coming back tonight,” Louis said, standing up.

“Were you waiting for me?” Harry raised his brows.

“No,” Louis said right away. “No, your mum and I finished just recently. And then Gemma fixed me another cup of tea before she left. So I just sat here.”

“You didn’t have to explain. I was joking,” Harry said with a smile. He pulled the lid off the ice cream and went back around the counter to sit on one of the barstools.

Louis busied himself with packing his iPad away in his leather bag. Harry watched him while he ate the last bit of pistachio ice cream.

“Ice cream at three a.m.?” Louis asked, clearly not looking for an answer.

“You want some? Last bite?” Harry offered.

Louis thought about it for a second, and then he was coming closer. Harry lifted the spoon from the tub of ice cream and held it out for Louis to take. Louis didn’t bother to take the spoon. He just wrapped his pretty pink lips right around the spoon.

Harry bit his bottom lip to keep from making some embarrassing noise.

Louis nodded, stepping away, licking his lips. “That’s good ice cream.”

“It’s from a local creamery. And it’s organic too,” Harry mentioned. Louis looked impressed. Harry would probably buy him a tub the next time he had a chance now.

“Could I ask you a question?” Harry said when Louis went back to retrieve his teacup and rinse it in the sink. “It’s a bit invasive so you could just tell me to mind my business and I will.”

Louis chuckled, clearly amused. He took the chair beside Harry. “Alright. What’s up?”

“Are you in love with Eleanor?”

Louis’ smile faltered, his brows shot up. “You weren’t kidding.”

“You don't have to answer,” Harry said quickly. He’d had too much wine probably, though he didn’t even feel tipsy.

Louis studied him, leaning on the marble counter with his forearms. Finally, he said, “I love her, yeah.”

Harry made a face. “Are you in love with her?” he specified.

“What’s the difference?” Louis asked.

Harry shrugged. “If anyone would know, it should be you. You've had the longest relationship. And you’re, like, the adult, aren’t you?”

Louis laughed. “I think I’m only the adult when you want me to be.”

“My mum says something exactly like that. Except about me. ‘I’m only an adult when I want to be’, whatever,” Harry said, and then he physically waved the thought away with his hand. “Anyway. You didn't answer the question.”

“I’ve never thought about it as being different from just loving a person,” Louis said.

“Never?” Harry questioned disbelievingly. “Well, if that’s true, then you shouldn’t even have to think about it, right? You’re in love with her is what you’re saying.”

“Are you asking me this because of something to do with you and Jeff?” Louis asked.

Harry’s eyes darted away from Louis’ intent gaze. It was odd how he both hated and loved to be looked at that way. "No, Jeff and I-- We're not together anymore."

Louis looked stunned. He licked his lips. "Harry--"

“I'm fine. He's good. I'm good. We're just not good together," Harry said. "We’re friends, aren’t we? Me and you?”

Louis took a second, still processing everything, and then he nodded. “Absolutely.”

Harry smiled a bit. “Then you can be honest with me. You know, keep it real and all that.” He threw in a clumsy gang sign because it seemed necessary.

Louis’ laugh was light, airy. Made Harry think it was summer all over again. “Fair enough. Although I don't think any of my friends would ask me the same thing.”

“Because they probably already know. Come on, Lou. Just answer the question.”

“I don’t know, Harry. How about I give it some thought and get back to you?”

“Sure,” Harry said but he didn’t need to hear much more. Louis shouldn’t have to give it more thought. It said enough that he thought he did.

Louis was still looking at Harry like he was trying to figure him out.

"Sorry," Harry said, when he'd begun to blush. He stood and tossed the empty ice cream tub. “Tonight’s been weird. I think I’ll be less of a twat in the morning.”

"You're fine," Louis said, standing as well. "I'm sorry about Jeff."

"Really, it's alright," Harry said. Somehow they were closer now that they were standing. And Harry thought about how late it was, about how everyone was asleep, and felt sort of secluded with Louis. Safe with him, like always. “It is what it is.”

“It is what it is,” Louis repeated, lips twitching. “You been staring at my chest lately?”

“As if you wear those shirts so people will do anything else,” Harry shot back. Louis was currently wearing one of his low cut t-shirts now.

“Damn, I’ve been found out.” Louis groaned.

Harry lifted a hand to his mouth when he laughed.

“There we are.” Louis was smiling now.

Harry’s brows creased. “What?”

“Was wondering when the dimples would show up,” Louis said, his voice soft. “Sad day for everyone when you aren’t smiling.”

Harry’s smile grew for Louis, dimples and pinkish cheeks included, and his heart stirred in his chest.

He thought about his next move for three seconds before he was taking a step forward and leaning in quick. He pressed his mouth to Louis’ cheek, felt stubble tickle his top lip. And with an inhale, he pulled away.

For a second, they just looked at each other. Louis ducked his head, hiding a grin, the corners of his eyes and the bridge of his nose wrinkled. “What was that for?” he asked.

Harry shrugged one shoulder coyly. “Making me smile?”

“I think I should do it more often then.”

“I think you should,” Harry said, biting into his cheek, stepping away. He reached down and picked up his shoes.

Louis returned to his seat near the door to collect his bag and his keys. “Hey, Harry.”

Harry paused, his brows rising in reply. Louis said nothing.

“What is it?” Harry said slowly. He stood with his shoes dangling from his fingers and his heart dangling from his ribcage.

Louis hesitated. “Sleep well.”

Harry narrowed his eyes. “You too."

"Have a Happy Christmas,” Louis added. "If I don't see you."

“You too. And a Happy Birthday,” Harry said with a smile. “Good night.”

“Good night, Harry.”

Harry turned and started toward the stairs. He heard the back door open and knew Louis had stepped out. He still glanced back anyway and when he found the kitchen empty, he cut the lights out and headed to bed.

 

* * *

 

Harry spent the day before Christmas Eve shopping for gifts with Gemma and Niall.

“What are you giving Jeff?” Niall asked.

Gemma winced. “You forgot to tell him…”

“Tell me what?” Niall said.

“We broke up two nights ago,” Harry said taking a sip of his smoothie.

Niall’s mouth dropped open. “Jesus, are we even best mates anymore?”

Harry looped his arm around Niall’s neck and pulled him in for a kiss on the top of his head. “The very best.”

Gemma smiled. “What he's also not telling you is that he broke up with Jeff because he’s obsessed with Louis.”

Harry froze. “What?”

Gemma rolled her eyes. “You thought I didn’t know? I swear Harry if you stare at him any harder, your eyes will morph into lasers and you’ll burn a hole right through his pretty head.”

Harry’s face went rosy. He released Niall and busied himself with studying Anthropologie’s fancy display of handmade dinnerware. “Could have told me,” he grumbled.

“Yes. But this was more fun,” Gemma said with a bubble of a laugh. She strolled away to survey the clothing instead.

“So is Louis still with his girlfriend?” Niall asked.

“Maybe. Maybe not,” Harry said. He sighed heavily. “Liam mentioned that things had gotten tense between them. And with me, Louis's been so different. Like maybe it’s mutual.”

“But you could be wrong?”

“I could be.”

“And if you are? If he’s still with his girlfriend?”

Harry had thought about that and drawn blanks each time. “I don’t know,” he said honestly.

“Then could you promise me something?”

Harry looked at Niall, brows arched in reply.

“If he’s still with his girlfriend, and all this time he’s just been fucking around, giving you false hope or whatever, promise me you’ll let this go?” Niall said. “It fucking sucks to see you hurt, mate.”

Harry smiled dimly. “If he’s still with her, I promise I’ll try,” he said.

“Are you giving him anything for Christmas?” Niall asked.

“You think it’d be silly to bake him a cake?” Harry said. “I’ve been working on this recipe. Not specifically for him but I might’ve had him in mind when I was thinking about it.”

“That’s not silly at all,” Niall said. He hesitated. “Just be careful, H, okay?”

Harry looped his arm around Niall’s shoulders again. “I’ll be extra careful. Don’t worry, Dad.”

“Oh, shut up,” Niall said pushing him away. When Harry almost collided with a display of pottery, their eyes went wide like they’d looked into the face of death. Then they erupted in giggles and hustled to clear the scene.

 

* * *

 

There came a time when his parents stopped agreeing on anything. When the pressure of building an empire together hindered their ability to raise a family too.

They say you aren't supposed to mix business with pleasure or business with family. And they say that for good reason.

Still his parents always, always agreed on taking chances. If Styles Inc. had a motto, Harry thought that would have to be it.

And because he was Harry Styles, just one more time, he would take this chance.

Lemon sponge cake filled with berry compote drizzled with a raspberry chocolate glaze.

That was Harry's plan of attack. Or not even an attack per se. More like a countermove.

He would make this romantic pinnacle of a cake for Louis’ birthday. And when they ate it together, when Louis took that first bite and had stars in his eyes because it was so bloody delicious, only then would Harry tell him once and for all that he loved him, that he wanted to be with him—probably always would—and he hadn't given up.

And it would be perfect.

Harry woke up at five a.m. to get to the store for fresh ingredients. Traffic was a headache. He didn’t drive often and it was Christmas Eve, which meant late shoppers were out and on the prowl. He was worn out enough by the end that he felt justified in buying a venti coffee Frappuccino.

When he returned home, he looped his hair into a bun and scrubbed the kitchen down until his hands were pruned and squeaked when he rubbed them together. As Ivor would say, the first step in any successful culinary venture was an immaculate space.

Harry started up his “I’m a Chef” playlist, spread ingredients and utensils out across the counter like points on a map, and got to work.

It took him two hours, during which time every member of his family came around to see what the ruckus was about, including his uncle and aunt who’d arrived last night for the holiday. Harry answered them all with grunts and nods but otherwise had little attention to spare.

And after two hours, he was sat on the kitchen floor in silence and wonder, munching on leftover blueberries and staring up at his beautiful cake with a proud smile.

He ate the last blueberry and pulled himself up for a shower.

“Where are you going?” Anne asked from near the fireplace when Harry was on his way out a little later. He removed the cake from the back of the fridge where he’d hidden it from greedy hands.

Anne watched him, a glass in her hand filled with mulled wine.

“Just to say Happy Birthday to Louis,” Harry said, paused in front of the glass door, cake in hand.

“Oh, dear, I already sent him a card and a bonus,” Anne said, waving the idea off. “Come say ‘hi’ to your cousins.”

Harry hesitated. It was tempting. His cousins were young and all quite adorable. But he was running out of time and he didn’t know how much longer the lights of the guesthouse would be on.

“I’ll be back,” he said, and slipped out before his mum could object again.

He contemplated going around the front and ringing the doorbell, making a big show of the whole thing. But he thought that’d just seem silly. He knocked on the glass door, adjusted his curls, and rocked back on his heels while he waited.

He saw Louis through the blinds when he poked his fuzzy head around the corner like he wasn’t sure if someone had knocked. And then he must have spotted Harry or seen that the motion-detecting exterior light was on because he hurried to the door and yanked it open.

He happened to not be wearing a shirt, just a hoodie with plenty of skin exposed where it was unzipped. He was also wearing the glasses again. Harry licked his lips. He suddenly felt thirsty.

“Hi,” Louis said. He shivered. “Jesus, it’s cold.”

Harry forced his eyes away from Louis’ abs and his chest hair and his tattoo until he reached his eyes and made a concerted effort to keep his gaze there. “Hi. It is a bit cold, yeah… Um. Happy Birthday,” he said.

“Thanks,” Louis said warmly.

“Are you heading home soon?” Harry asked.

“In the morning.” Louis studied him for a second, like he was trying to figure out why Harry was there. He glanced down at the box.

“Oh. I baked you a cake,” Harry supplied.

Louis’ brows shot up. “You did?”

“Yeah, I actually wanted—”

Harry heard a door shut further back in the house and his voice trailed off.

“After my jeans are dry, I’m going to head off,” Eleanor said stepping into the kitchen. Their eyes met. “Oh,” she said.

Harry gripped the cake box a little tighter in his hands afraid it would slip and fall like his heart did in that second.

She wasn't wearing trousers, was the thing. Just a button down shirt.

“Hi, Harry,” Eleanor said with a small smile. She didn't seem shy at all about not having trousers on. Maybe because of the modelling she’d done during uni. Or maybe she just knew she had great legs and couldn't think of a good reason to hide them.

"Hello..." Harry said, his voice catching at the end.

Eleanor looked at Louis, something transpiring between their gazes. “I’ll be upstairs.”

Harry watched Eleanor turn and retreat, the hem of her shirt just grazing the middle of her thighs. She had the model walk locked down.

Harry looked away when he felt Louis’ eyes on him.

“I’m sorry. I should have called,” he said.

"No,” Louis said immediately. “We weren't doing anything. It's fine."

Harry shot him a pointed look.

“She was getting ready to leave and she spilled tea on her jeans,” Louis added.

“Okay,” Harry said, and tacked on a breathy laugh. “Is that why she’s waiting upstairs?”

“The dryer’s upstairs,” Louis said.

Harry put the cake down on the counter. “Okay.”

“She spilled tea on her jeans, Harry,” Louis repeated.

"I said okay. It’s none of my business. I’m sorry I said anything," Harry said.

Louis looked agitated. Harry couldn’t even begin to work through why. All he wanted now was to leave. If he could just keep his composure long enough to make it back home, he’d be fine.

But then Louis was wrapping a hand around his wrist. He pulled him outside and slid the door closed behind them.

“What are you doing?” Harry said. Louis zipped up his hoodie but he still wasn't wearing shoes and Harry knew the ground had to feel like ice. “You should put on shoes.”

Louis sighed. "You’re upset."

“Why would I be?” Harry said. Yes, he would play dumb. It was a lot less embarrassing for everyone, particularly him.

“Come on, Haz,” Louis said.

Harry wanted to leave. Nicknames didn’t make it any better.

"Will you just stay?" Louis said. "Stay 'til she leaves and we'll talk."

"No. Because there's nothing you need to say,” Harry said. "I don't have a right to be upset that you're fucking your girlfriend. And you shouldn’t be trying to cover up that you did. That's ridiculous."

Louis dragged a hand down his face. Harry felt awful, for stressing Louis out on his birthday, on Christmas Eve. All because he couldn’t stop pushing.

"It wasn't what it looked like," Louis said.

"But you don't have to explain that to me," Harry said. "You shouldn't have to do that. I should have called. Or maybe just not baked a fucking cake."

"I like your cakes," Louis said.

Harry rolled his eyes. “Then you can both enjoy it,” he said. “I have to go.”

“Harry, wait—”

“I can’t. My cousins are here and my mum wants me home.”

“We should talk,” Louis said.

“Or not,” Harry said, stepping away from the door.

“Jesus, Harry. Just wait a second,” Louis said a bit more firmly.

Harry glared at him. “Listen to me, okay?” he finally snapped. “I know I’m much younger than you, Louis, but I’m not stupid. You made me think—”

Harry stopped talking. He took a deep breath, raked his hair away from his eyes. “Forget it. I don’t know what I was thinking. But I was clearly wrong. So, no- I’d really rather not sit down and talk about it like last time. Because we both know that’s a waste of time. And not what you should spend your birthday doing.”

He tried to smile. He felt his eyes sting when he did.

“So, please? Could we just not?”

It took Louis a second to respond. But finally he did with a nod and a softly spoken, “If that’s what you want.”

All the telltale signs of an oncoming breakdown were flaring up. The stinging eyes and the sore throat. Time for Harry to retreat.

“I’ll see you next year, yeah?” he said quickly. “Have a Happy Christmas.”

“Same to you,” Louis said, and left it at that. Maybe because he knew Harry was right. Maybe because there was nothing he could say to make this better.

 

* * *

 

On New Year's Eve, people flocked to the Styles Estate like New Yorkers had flocked to West Egg and through the gates of Gatsby. Harry and his family brought the New Year in the way only they could. And everyone was invited to help.

“Look at you,” Nick said to Harry. Then to Caroline, “Look at him.” He wrapped his arm around Harry’s shoulders. “You get lovelier every time I see you.”

Harry smiled, exchanging kisses on the cheek with him.

“Nice boots, by the way," Nick added.

“Louis picked them out,” Caroline said.

Nick raised his brows. “He did, did he? Where is your boy anyway?”

“He’s not my boy. And nobody knows where he is,” Harry muttered. Nobody cares. He turned to Caroline. “How much longer now?”

“Just under twenty minutes,” Caroline said checking her watch.

Harry bounced on his toes. He could feel it already. This next year would be a good one. “I want more champagne.”

“Same,” Caroline said. “Nick, be a dear and fetch us more champagne.”

“Am I the help now?” Nick grumbled.

“Well, yes. Only reason you were invited,” Caroline said.

Nick glared at her, but inevitably took their glasses and manoeuvred to the kitchen. Harry leaned against the stone pillars separating the patio from the lawn. He didn’t mean to look toward the guesthouse but he did anyway.

The windows were dark, as expected. He didn’t know how Louis would be spending his New Years. But he wasn’t here, and that was all that mattered.

“I’m sorry to hear about you and Jeff,” Caroline said. “I really thought that would work out.”

Harry smiled, shaking his head. “It’s better this way.”

“Any news with Louis?”

“Nope. I’m quite finished with him too,” Harry said with a light laugh.

Caroline laughed too. “Onto the next one then?”

Harry shook his head emphatically. “I don’t want to date anyone else for a while. Or maybe a nice girl, yeah. I wouldn’t mind spending time with a girl. They actually seem to be less complicated.”

“Oh, darling, we’re not. You’re being fooled,” Caroline said.

Harry laughed. He didn’t know how much he meant that anyway. He couldn’t remember the last girl he’d been even slightly attracted to.

“Then no one at all. I’ll be a single pringle from now on,” Harry announced, just as Nick came back with their glasses.

“As long as you’re happy,” Caroline smiled and patted his cheek. “And I know you will be.”

They stood out there for a little while, sipping champagne. Then Gemma came out to join them, followed close behind by Niall and more people eager to watch the fireworks light up the sky from the city.

Harry glanced around. He couldn’t help but be a little hopeful. Louis had posted a pic to twitter two days ago of him with Zayn, which meant he was back in London. And if he was back in London, there was a chance he could have made it here.

Harry caught Niall’s eye, saw the little frown on his face, and forced a smile onto his own. He’d made a promise and Harry wasn’t one to break those.

“Ten!” Everyone suddenly yelled.

Niall threw an arm around his shoulders. “Nine,” he yelled right beside him.

Harry whipped out his phone. There was nothing on Harry’s screen. He didn’t know why he’d thought there would be.

“…Eight! …Seven!”

Harry glanced down at his phone again.

“…Four! …Three!”

Next year would be better. He knew it. But right now, with merely two seconds left of 2012, he wished so much that Louis was here.

“Happy New Year!”

Everyone was shouting. Harry was shouting too, especially when a barrage of coloured fire hit the night sky, He threw his arms around Niall’s body, accepted a kiss from Caroline square on the mouth. Gemma pressed a kiss to his cheek, and Nick too, though far sloppier.

They hung around for a bit to spread love and cheer to family and friends. But then Gemma was calling to them, “Driver’s here!” and marching away in her baby doll dress.

They all teetered and tripped into an Addison Lee, Harry, Gemma, Niall, Caroline, Nick, James, and whoever else, anyone else. It didn’t matter. Harry would party the New Year in, regardless of who was there to see it, and regardless of who wasn’t.

 

* * *

 

JANUARY

Harry woke up to a jumble of texts and tweets, but only one voicemail. He made the mistake of listening to it when he was hung over, and unhappy about being awake. He made the mistake of starting off his very first morning of the New Year to the voice of Louis Tomlinson.

“I know this is shitty of me to just leave a voicemail. But I’m here with Zayn and Liam and I can’t talk long. So. I just wanted to say Happy New Year…Harry. I wish I was there, and I’m sorry I’m not. I'm sorry for a lot of things really.”

Louis paused.

“But anyway, Happy New Year. I hope…I know this’ll be your best one yet.”

“Who is that?” Harry heard Zayn say.

“I said give me a second. Stop. It’s my mum.”

“Did you call Harry? Jesus, Louis.” Zayn laughed louder than Harry might have imagined possible. “You poor fucker.”

“Okay. I’ve got to go,” Louis said. “Everyone’s drunk. I’m a little drunk. I don’t know where you are but I hope you’re having fun. Jesus, no, fuck off. Sorry, I’m sorry, Liam is—”

“Harrrrrry Styles.” Liam sang. “This is your friend, Liam, here. Happy New Year. Best wishes, mate.”

“I’m sorry,” Louis said again. Another long pause. “I hope you’re having fun. And Happy New Year…Bye.”

 

* * *

 

They didn’t talk about the voicemail. Maybe Louis didn’t remember leaving it. But it didn’t matter. They didn’t talk about anything really. Not anymore.

That was mostly Harry’s doing.

He wasn’t avoiding Louis. He wasn’t. But he needed space and if he didn’t carve it out for himself, he would never have it.

It meant avoiding unnecessary amounts of time shared together. It meant not flirting with Louis and playing oblivious if or when Louis flirted with him.

It meant moving the fuck on. For real this time.

It took Louis a day or two to catch on. And when he did, he stopped trying to crack jokes like usual, stopped digging for responses from Harry. Clearly he didn’t know how to handle the silence because for so long now Harry was never silent around Louis. They were always talking about something.

Initially, it was hard. Harry had to clamp down on the part of him desperate to share things with Louis, to seek him out, to yearn for him. It seemed that was the part of him most unwilling to go away, in spite of all his determination.

But two weeks into January, things had started to look up. Harry hoped that starting the year off this way, in this take-charge attitude of his, meant the rest would pan out successfully too.

And then, Harry supposed, Louis had enough.

Niall spent the night on Tuesday because they had exams coming up at the end of the week and dedicated most of their free time studying. They were up early in the morning on what their school called a “Working Day,” or days that were intended for study and catching up with the demands of college. Whatever. They’d study for a bit and then fuck off to play golf.

Anyway, it was Wednesday morning. They were sat in the kitchen with their books sprawled out on the countertop, along with bowls of cereal and a fruit salad Harry had made yesterday for no particular reason. He just felt like eating a lot of fruit.

And then Louis pushed the glass door open and stepped in, looking as delectable as ever in his tight fitting trousers and a knit dark green jumper.

“Hey, good morning,” he said to Harry and Niall.

“Sup, Lou,” Niall said.

Louis smiled. “What are you two up to?”

“Studying. Big exam on Friday,” Niall said, his mouth full of cereal. When he spoke a piece of Cocoa Puff flew past his lips. He probably wasn’t the best one to be answering questions but Harry was having a hard time looking at Louis without swooning. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, which was probably one of Harry’s favourite things, always had him wondering what it might feel like to have beard burn up and down his thighs.

“Harry,” Louis said.

“Hm?” Harry felt his face warming. The whole avoidant thing was working, yeah, but it did nothing to tame dirty thoughts. Those would require more effort.

Louis looked briefly concerned. “Uh. You said yesterday that you had something for Zayn? I’m seeing him in a few hours…”

“Oh, right,” Harry said, digging around under his textbooks and notebooks until he found the envelope he’d tucked between the pages. He held it out to Louis. “For his birthday.”

Louis turned the envelope over in his hands. “What is it? If you don’t mind me asking?”

Harry did mind him asking actually. But he answered anyway. “It’s a gift card. For that creamery I mentioned to you…. Him and Liam could like do an ice cream date or something. Is that—” Harry paused and directed his question to Niall instead. “Is that stupid?”

“I love ice cream,” Niall said. Not exactly an answer but Harry would take it.

Harry smiled. He looked again at Louis. “So, uh, if you could give it to him, I’d appreciate it.”

Louis smiled, his gaze bouncing over Harry’s face for a second. “Sure, definitely. It was nice of you to get something for him.”

Harry shrugged. “Well, he’s a friend, so…”

Well, not really. Harry liked Zayn but he wasn’t sure they could be considered friends, especially not when Zayn had given Harry advice weeks ago that he promptly ignored. But he’d been to the ice cream place again to buy another tub and the clerk mentioned they’d just gotten their gift cards in. And so Harry bought one, and figured out who to give it to as he was leaving. That was all. An impulse, really. Certainly not something to garner Louis’ appreciation.

It seemed like he got it anyway. “I’m sure he’ll appreciate it,” Louis said. “I’ll make sure he gets it.”

Harry’s smile was polite, measured. He picked his spoon back up. “Thanks.”

“See you both later,” Louis said.

"Bye," Harry said.

Louis smiled back, though it didn't come close to reaching his eyes. He lingered there for two seconds. Then he turned and reached for the glass door.

Then he stopped and swung back.

"Actually. I need to talk to you.”

Niall raised both brows. “Me?”

Louis gave Niall a look. “No, Harry. If neither of you mind.”

Harry looked at him nervously. “What about?”

Now, Louis gave Harry the same look. The look that said the answer was obvious and there was no point wasting breath to disclose it.

Niall glanced between the two of them. "I'll just go…use the loo or something," he said, taking his bowl of cereal with him.

Harry watched Niall leave. There was just silence for a moment, while Louis came a little closer to press his hands into the edge of the countertop.

"Is everything alright?" Harry asked carefully.

Louis shook his head. "I can't say it is, no.”

“Okay.” Harry released his spoon and wiped his sweaty palms along his thighs. “Well, what’s the problem?"

Louis exhaled. And then he laid it out for him. "Us. Or me, I guess. Just me," Louis said. "Harry…I feel like I've lost my best mate. In fact, I have. That's what you are to me. Such a short time and yet you've found your way into everything. And none of it feels right now when you aren't there."

Harry blinked at him, his lips parted.

"I know this is selfish," Louis said. "And I'm sorry. But this thing you're doing? Avoiding me? It's actually killing me."

"Not actually," Harry said.

"I mean it. I think I might need to see a doctor or something. I really do think it's possible to die from this."

"You're not funny," Harry grumbled, though his lips twitched.

"You’re right. I'm not funny. I'm dying. From sadness and loneliness."

Harry shook his head. A traitorous dimple appeared in his left cheek. "You shouldn't be lonely. You have Zayn and Liam. Your family. And your girlfriend."

Louis hesitated. "Well… that’s not enough."

Harry looked at him, his expression soft. He'd never been good at the whole resisting thing. Especially not with Louis.

"I'm sorry," Louis said.

"What are you even apologizing for?”

“I hurt you. Again. I keep doing that. But I never mean to,” Louis said.

“It’s not your fault,” Harry said. “I was the one who was wrong about…like, things.”

“You weren’t though,” Louis said, halting Harry’s direction of thought. Harry blinked at him. Louis shook his head at himself and bit his lip and took a second to think his next words through. “All I’m saying is, I don’t want us to be like this. I get what you’re doing and I get why, because I’m—I get it. But I promise we can work this out. If you need space or something, I can give you space. But don’t just shut me out.”

“Don’t you think it would be better for both of us if we just weren’t so close?" Harry said. “Maybe that’s the problem.”

“Being close to you…can’t be a problem. That doesn’t make sense.”

Harry just didn’t understand any of this. “You confuse me,” he said honestly.

“I know. I’m sorry. But…I need you not to give up on me,” Louis said. He sighed. “On us being friends, I mean. Or…just whatever.”

“I need to think about it. If that’s okay?” Harry said. He hadn’t meant for it to sound like he was seeking permission. But his brain was addled by Louis’ words, which meant too many things at once.

Louis smiled, more genuinely now. “Of course you can. Take all the time you need.”

Harry was probably in love with him.

“Do you want some fruit?” Harry asked.

Louis raised his brows. “Is that your form of a peace offering?”

“Don’t push it. I’m just making sure you’re getting your vitamins and stuff.”

“So you do care,” Louis said.

Harry huffed an annoyed breath. “Do you want fruit or not?”

Louis looked relieved when he took a seat near Harry, exhaling like he hadn’t been able to in a while. “Why not…” he said.

Harry got him a bowl and filled it with his fancy fruit salad. They ate in silence for a whole minute before Louis reached for Harry index cards and slid them closer to himself.

“Alright, time for a quiz,” he announced.

Harry's brow creased. “I thought you wanted peace between us."

Louis laughed. “First question. Ready?”

Harry sat up a little straighter, exhaled a breath. “Ready.”

And it didn’t make sense. But that was how their brief estrangement ended.

 

* * *

 

Berlin Fashion Week was a smaller event than those in New York or Paris. For one, it was much younger, hadn’t been established long ago like its counterparts, and featured younger designers too like Elmar and Wilma Menckin of the house Sonnenblume.

Harry was lucky to be cast in only two shows, which wasn’t unusual, but the most popular models were always cast in at least four. At the end of the week, Harry would appear in Sonnenblume’s show and then his mum’s show immediately after for her collaborative line with Dutch designer, Adrianne van Noorden.

And that, Harry swore, would be the conclusion of his tortuous relationship with the fashion world. Seriously. He swore it.

H: Just saw Barb Palvin. ;)

Niall started to respond right away, evidenced by the three dots that appeared in their message. But there was a concierge just near Harry struggling with a large suitcase, so he tucked his phone away to help him lift it onto the luggage cart.

“Danke,” the man said.

Harry blanked for a second on ‘you’re welcome’ in German.

“Gern geschehen,” Louis murmured quietly to him.

Harry glanced at him and then at the man. “Gern Geschehen,” he said with a smile before stepping into the lift behind Louis and Gemma.

“And thank you,” he said to Louis.

Louis smiled, leaning back against the lift. “No problem,” he said.

Harry’s phone buzzed in his hand.

'Did she ask about me??'

Harry exhaled a laugh.

'Not yet. x'

“Are you texting that boy from the garden?” Gemma asked, looking at him over the rim of her sunglasses.

Louis glanced up from his phone. “Who?” he asked vaguely.

“Yesterday morning, there was a lovely German boy having tea out in the garden. He asked for Harry’s number,” Gemma said.

“He’s a model. He was, like, networking. That’s all,” Harry said.

The lift came to a stop and Gemma stepped off. She was headed to visit a friend staying in the same hotel and performing in the shows today.

“All these beautiful people around. You should have fun. Both of you,” Gemma called back to them until she was out of sight and the doors closed once again.

Louis looked at him. “So,” he said. “German garden boy, huh?”

“Gemma doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

“She’s right though. You should have fun while you’re here,” Louis said. “Especially since you didn’t want to be here in the first place.”

“Thanks for the advice.”

Louis smirked. The doors opened again and they both stepped out. “Dinner’s at 7. But it’s optional, so if you want to get out, see the city or something, feel free.”

They stood there outside the lift, studying each other, light spilled in from windows at the end of the hall. “And what about you?” Harry asked.

Louis glanced at his watch. “Honestly I’ll probably nap for a bit. Not jetlagged but very tired.”

“Such an old man,” Harry said.

Louis narrowed his eyes. “What would you rather have me do?”

Harry thought about it. He was still apprehensive about spending too much time with Louis. He knew that was all it’d take. And he had promised Niall to at least try moving on, for real this time.

But he was in Berlin. And he was alone. And he didn’t have to be when Louis was open to invitations.

“See the city with me? Nap later.”

Anyway, Harry didn’t think it’d work on account of Louis being so stubborn. He absolutely expected him to deny Harry’s offer. But then Louis tucked his keycard back into his pocket.

“Fine, Little One. Let’s go see the city,” Louis said.

Harry smirked. He didn’t mind being teased if it meant he was getting his way.

“Really?” he asked eagerly.

Louis laughed, and he jabbed the lift button. “Yes, really. Where would you like to go first?”

Harry bounced on his toes and he thought. “I don’t even know. There’s the Berlin Wall Memorial and the Television Tower and the Cathedral.”

“Let’s see them all,” Louis said, beginning to look just as excited as Harry.

Harry could hug him. He wouldn’t, but he wanted to. “Yes,” he said emphatically.

That settled it then. They would see it all.

 

* * *

 

There were three people working on his hair and makeup. One person smoothed BB cream over his face while another stuck clips in his hair, most sticking out in wild directions. He thought maybe someone had started putting eyeliner on him but he didn’t bother to check in the mirror straight ahead. He had his earphones tucked into his ears, tapping his foot to the beat of Misterwives.

The man from TRESemmé started working mousse into his hair and tossing his hair all over his head with a blow dryer and a brush.

Harry wasn’t quite sure what was happening now. He wasn’t really paying attention. His eyes kept flickering around every time he saw Louis whizz by. He couldn’t get a good view of him with all the people collected around his head but he tried.

When they finished his makeup, Harry was left to pull on his trousers on his own. He turned to study himself in one of the big mirrors.

He was starting off shirtless, like all the other boys preparing to walk. He wore trousers made of an airy linen texture but with a geometric pattern worked into the stitching. There was a thin coating of glitter on his chest and abs. And with his gold eyeliner and wild hair and vibrant eyes, he thought he sort of looked ethereal and not at all like himself.

Maybe that was what finally brought Louis to a halt. Louis. Harry saw him in the mirror, standing just behind him, frozen in place. He turned to face him.

Louis clutched his clipboard tight in his hand and his eyes traced the length of Harry’s torso like a caress. His tongue darted out to wet his bottom lip, and his next breath came was shallow.

Harry had always known Louis found him attractive. But maybe never the extent of that attraction, not until now, not until Louis looked at him like he was lost and drowning, and whispered, “Beautiful.”

Harry didn’t enjoy modelling like the people around him, but he would put on a private show for Louis every single day if he’d always look at him the way he did now.

“Time to go,” Louis said abruptly, blinking himself out of his daze. His smile was tense, focused. “You’ll do great.”

Harry smiled too. He didn’t feel so nervous anymore.

Whatever spell had overcome Louis dissipated quickly. He lifted his hand to his other ear to hear from his headset more clearly and stepped away, shooting one last smile to Harry before he was off to check on the other models. Harry stepped into line with the other boys and shook out his shoulders. He tried to remember how easy this had been six years ago. Granted he’d been a child then and fearless as fuck. But he forced himself to feel that now. He was Harry Styles and here that meant something. Here he had some semblance of power. He searched for it, held on tight, and then he was stepping out onto the runway.

The thing about walking runways is that you go in blind and stay blind. Lights surround your path, lights so bright, so hot and intense, you swear a bit of the sun has been implanted in each one.

And you have no choice but to deal with it. Harry had no choice but to just walk, the way he remembered, the only way he knew how. Don’t wince at the glare of the lights. Pause at the end. Don’t smile. Maybe a little smirk if you know how to do it just right.

The runway belongs to no one. But you can make it yours. You have to. And once you have, you’ll leave everyone yearning for your return.

Harry didn’t intend to return. Not after this week. But no matter. He’d leave Berlin yearning, regardless.

 

* * *

 

He should have known how quickly the week would pass. Fashion was a fast-paced business. The runway moved like trends did, birthed and extinguished before you could blink ten times. But it surprised Harry still when he woke up and it was the very last day of Berlin Fashion Week and Louis was ushering him out of his hotel room, shoving a bagel and a cup of tea into his hand, and into the car.

He walked again for his mum and he felt sorry seeing how she nearly combusted when she saw him in her clothes. He felt sorry when she smiled and kissed his cheeks and told him he looked gorgeous.

At the end of her show, he walked out with her and Gemma for one final bow. And admittedly, it was nice, that part at least, to hold hands with his mum and have her be so proud of him. He didn’t know how he’d been starving for her approval until he got it.

But then it was over. He was done. And that called for a celebration.

Berlin’s nightlife was a jumping, uncontrollable beast. Probably one of the wildest places to party, the city was full of people whose solitary purpose was to get down as hard and dirty and fast as they could. And Harry was so into that.

To commemorate the end of Berlin’s biggest fashion event, Harry, Gemma, and Louis sought out Berlin’s biggest party.

Though it had taken some convincing to get Louis to go. He had an early flight to Paris in the morning and Harry would normally be sympathetic about that. But if he was being honest, he wouldn’t have as much fun if Louis wasn’t there. And that was actually how he got Louis to go.

“It won’t be as fun if you aren’t there,” Harry said with the subtlest of pouts.

Louis narrowed his eyes. “Fuck it,” he’d muttered. “Let me fix my hair.”

Louis' hair had actually looked fantastic but Harry didn't say so. He thought that'd be pushing it. It took Louis a few minutes to scrutinize himself in the mirror before he seemed satisfied.

They walked to Berghain, perhaps Berlin’s most famous club and the hardest to get into. But they were models, which changed the rules a bit. They met up with Cara and Barbara on the way, and together with Gemma, it was impossible for the bouncers to say no.

Harry wore a mesh shirt and the black eyeliner from earlier.  He was almost worried the stuff was permanent. For now, it worked. He looked good, and with Louis currently holding his hand, he felt good too. Obviously, it was just so they didn’t get separated in the massive crowd once they stepped inside but Harry pretended for one second that it meant more.

He started to take his phone out so he could snap a few pictures, maybe get a selfie with Barbara to send to Niall, but Cara looked at him and said, “If you take your phone out, you’ll never see it again.”

So, alright, Harry kept it tucked into his pocket.

They didn’t buy a single drink. There were young designers and fashion students and editors who were always eager to get their party a round. Harry knew he had Cara, Gemma and Barbara to thank for that. He was no supermodel after all, and clearly he didn’t have to be.

He had the most delightful buzz going. It made the colours in the room seem brighter, made the music seem louder, made him so much more aware of Louis beside him.

He got a few looks of his own from men and women alike, but he wasn’t interested in any of them.

"I want to dance," Harry shouted to be heard over the music, reaching for Louis’ arm. "Come on, Lou. We have to dance."

Louis’ beautiful mouth hovered over the rim of his glass. He arched a brow. "Is it required by law?"

"Yes," Harry hissed, tugging on Louis' forearm, pulling him along. He heard Louis’ laughter rumble behind him.

There was some funky house music thumping through the club, and the vast space was dark, save for neon glow sticks waving in the air or the glowing necklaces and bracelets adorning drunken bodies.

Harry pulled Louis near the centre of the floor and turned to face him. He smiled and stepped close and draped his arms over Louis’ shoulders. “Hi,” he said, though it was too loud, and he seemed to mouth the word.

Louis heard him anyway. He smiled and his hands settled on Harry's waist, keeping him close. They swayed together and shimmied to the erratic beat, aware they weren’t the best dancers in the world, but they were confident about what they could do. They fooled around and laughed aloud simply because they could, because the world around them was alive and perfect and they were right where they wanted to be.

They got separated somehow at the start of a new song by two drunk girls eager to crash their party, and though Harry was reluctant to let Louis go, he felt electrified by the way Louis kept his eyes on him and no one else.

On the next song, Harry started dancing with someone else, a man this time, who distracted him with bizarre moves and German words he didn’t understand. So distracted he was briefly alarmed by two hands sliding over his hips and tugging him close.

“Look at you,” Louis said into his ear.

Harry laughed, relaxing into the warmth of his chest.

“I think you’re making my friend jealous,” Harry turned his head to say to him. The German man looked offended having his dance partner stolen. Harry winked at him for good measure but he let Louis pull him away, preferred his touch and his laugh to anyone else’s.

“Let’s make them all jealous,” Louis said just as the music dissolved into low, thrumming beats and grew steadily louder, pulsing in time with the blood in Harry’s veins.

Louis’ fingers pressed into his sides and without thinking twice, Harry pushed back into Louis’ groin, grinding on him in a way his mum would faint to see. Louis slid his arms more securely around Harry’s middle to keep him close, exactly where Harry wanted to be. He reclined his head on Louis’ shoulder and rolled his hips into him and got lost in the heat of Louis’ body and the tickle of his breath on the fevered skin of his neck.

“Everyone’s watching you, love,” Louis murmured to him, his mouth close to Harry’s ear to be heard. “Prettiest one here and they all know it. I know it.”

Harry moaned softly in response, so softly Louis might not have heard. Everything felt hot and heady, and he was too overwhelmed to do or say much else. He and Louis— they weren’t even moving to the beat anymore, just deleting space between their bodies until there was none left, until Harry could feel what he was certain was the ridge of Louis’ cock against his bum, and he pushed into him further until he heard Louis inhale sharply and swear.

Harry wanted to turn in Louis’ arms and find relief for the way he was aching in his trousers. He wanted to drag Louis up to his room and start their grind over, except devoid of this fancy clothing. He wanted so much, was so ready to take it all, as if there was no one to stop him, no one to tell him no, and no consequences.

But there were definitely consequences.

And even through the haze of his drunkenness, Harry could see them all lined up clearly, suspended over his head with an array of pulsating lights.

This was wrong. And he should stop.

He needed to stop.

He would stop.

Harry pushed himself away from Louis’ body and swivelled back to face him.

“Sorry, I’m—” Harry tried to speak loud enough to be heard over the music. “Um,” he paused again, pushing a hand through his hair. He met Louis’ gaze, hoping he didn’t look as panicked as he felt. What was he trying to say again?

Louis watched him, sliding his hands into his pockets calmly, which he must not have realized only drew attention to his crotch. But it was too dark to see whether or not he was as affected as Harry, though the heated look in his eyes and the rapid rise and fall of his chest said he might have been.

"Ready to go?" Louis asked, saving Harry from having to produce words.

"Yes. Should probably do that. I'm knackered," Harry said. "So, yeah."

Louis smiled kindly, his eyes flickering over Harry’s body again. "Come on then," he said, setting a careful hand on Harry’s hip to guide him back towards the bar to let Gemma know they were leaving.

They made their way back to the hotel and up to Harry’s room and Louis helped him inside, still holding his hip. It was a different touch now, but Harry cherished it just the same.

Harry threw himself onto his bed. Louis got him a glass of water with a straw, settling onto the bed beside him.

“How are you feeling?” Louis asked.

"Happy,” Harry decided, leaning back into the tufted headboard and studying the swirling black and white pattern on the ceiling. "That it’s all over."

"For you it is, yeah. We've still got London coming up in three weeks," Louis said bitterly.

"I wish you the best of luck," Harry replied haughtily, letting his straw loll out of his mouth.

Louis glanced at his lips and flicked him lightly in his dimple, making Harry grin. "You aren't safe yet. You still haven't talked to your mum.”

Harry sighed. "I will when we get back. That's the plan. Just have to summon up the courage."

Louis' fingers ghosted over his temple, and then they were gliding through the hair at his forehead. Harry’s eyes slipped closed and he leaned into the touch. "You're plenty courageous. You'll do fine.” Louis’ warm voice made him feel sleepy. He’d very much like to fall asleep. Just like this.

Harry opened his eyes and smiled over at him. "Thank you. You’re nice,” he said stupidly. He tilted his glass back against his lips and Louis' hand fell away from his hair. He put the now empty glass on the nightstand and then settled further into the bed, nuzzling into a pillow. "Really nice."

Harry heard the thud of Louis' own glass of water on the other nightstand and then he was bunkering down beside Harry, folding his hands over his chest. "Glad you think so," he said smiling.

Harry’s eyes slipped shut again when he smiled in return. He couldn’t really help it at this point. He was sleepy and drunk and so comfortable.

“I should go. Let you get your rest,” Louis said.

Harry hummed. “You could stay if you wanted.” Someone should shut him up. He doubted anything he said would make sense now.

“Do you want me to stay?” Louis asked.

“If you want,” Harry repeated, blinking at him.

“That’s not important. If you want me to say, I’ll stay. Whatever you want,” Louis said.

A slow smile spread across Harry’s face. "You know, Lou, if you didn't have a girlfriend, I'd think you were trying to woo me.”

“Really,” Louis said. “Why would you think that?”

Harry exhaled. “Lots of reasons. You’re being all attentive. And then there was dancing. Which…was my fault, but still really good—”

“Just good?” Louis questioned, raising his brow.

Harry smirked. “It was pretty amazing.”

“Sounds more like it.” Louis was smiling too. “You were saying?”

“I was saying…that now you’re willing to stay here in my room with me. Keep watch over me all night. I don’t know. I think it seems like you’re trying to charm me or something. That’s what I think.”

Louis huffed a laugh. "And are you charmed?" he asked.

"By you?” Harry said. “Always.”

Louis smiled. They studied each other in the stillness of the hotel room, Harry with bleary eyes and a fuzzy head, Louis with a gaze that was intent and focused first on Harry’s eyes and then down on his mouth. He reached a hand out to brush Harry’s cheek, let his thumb trouble Harry’s bottom lip.

"You look like you're about to kiss me," Harry blurted.

Louis’ eyes flickered back up to his. "What would you do if I did?" he asked, not missing a beat.

What would he— He’d kiss him back, of course. No question about it. But they weren’t even going to get to that point. Harry wouldn’t let that happen.

"You have a girlfriend. You won’t do that," Harry whispered.

"What if I didn't have a girlfriend?"

“Huh?” Harry lifted his head up off the pillow. He couldn’t see Louis’ expression clearly in the dim lighting. "What—"

"Do you remember months ago—you said that if I ever asked, you’d tell me again? How you felt?” Louis murmured, tracing Harry’s lip with his thumb. Harry sort of wanted to suck Louis’ thumb into his mouth.

Louis didn’t wait for him to answer. “I want you to tell me now. If you still feel the same way. I’m asking you to.”

Harry was so confused and way too drunk to be doing this, too drunk to be in bed with Louis in the first place. But Louis’ gaze was relentless and Harry didn’t have the sobriety to deny him.

“It’s—” Harry started, his eyes darting over Louis’ face. “So much more...than back then. I feel…” He took an unsteady breath. “You’re just, you’re still the only one who matters, Louis.”

Harry watched the moon reflecting on Louis’ eyelids when he focused on Harry’s mouth again, when he moved in closer. “Haz…” he said quietly. So close. Harry wanted to shut his eyes and let this happen, whatever this was. He wanted it more than anything.

“But you can’t kiss me."

“No?” Louis asked quietly, his mouth still so close, Harry could already feel him.

Harry’s pulse was so forceful in his veins, he swore they were near to bursting. He opened his mouth, felt Louis’ breath curl on his tongue.

“You have a girlfriend,” Harry said, pulling away. “Louis.”

“Harry—”

“I’m drunk, Louis. I'm really drunk. And tired,” Harry mumbled. “We should like, probably, definitely, think about this when we’re both sober and rested and hydrated. Otherwise, we’ll do something stupid and regret it and I don’t want that. I don’t want to regret anything. Not with you.”

Louis didn’t reply for a while. And then his hand slipped away from Harry’s cheek. “You’re right,” he said. “I’m sorry— You’re absolutely right.”

Harry felt sadness burn in his gut like cheap booze.

“I’m sorry,” Louis said a second time, starting to sit up.

Harry shook his head. ”No, it’s okay…” he said, reaching for Louis’ sleeve. He thought twice about it and curled his fingers into a fist. “Don’t leave.”

Louis halted with his leg hanging off the bed and his body turned away.

“Stay,” Harry said. “Please?” He knew he wasn't making sense. But he wanted Louis here with him. If he had to sacrifice a kiss, he at least deserved that.

Louis hesitated for a second longer, glancing between Harry and the door. Wordlessly, he settled back into the mattress.

Harry smiled, a grateful smile but a sad one too, and he shifted his body to make room for Louis so they weren’t so close.

“Sleep well,” Louis said quietly turning onto his back.

Harry watched him for as long as his sleepy eyes would let him. He thought maybe he said the words back. But in the morning, when he woke and found Louis gone, he couldn’t remember.

Instead his memory was flooded with Louis’ thumb pressing into his cheek and his lips drawing close, so pink and beautiful.

Harry groaned, burying his face in the pillow on the right side of the bed, the one that smelled of Louis’ cologne. He reached blindly for his phone on the bedside table and squinted at the screen, Louis’ name glaring back at him.

'Flying to Paris. Didn’t want to wake you. x'

Chapter Text

In the grand scheme of adulthood, Harry’s 18th year counted for very little. But for the next few days, it meant everything.

He told his friends he was content to celebrate in the comfort of his room with a glass of wine, a slice of red velvet cake, and maybe a marathon of Friends. But Niall, Nick, and Caroline wouldn’t hear him. They were throwing him the biggest party he’d ever seen. Their words, not his. And Harry only feigned disinterest.

Actually, he was ready to party hard.

First, he had to make it through the last day of January without having a meltdown, which proved difficult knowing Louis was back from Paris. Especially given the way Louis chose to announce his return.

Harry was running late for school, taking the steps three at a time down to the kitchen where Gemma was seated on the counter, swinging her legs side to side while buttering a muffin. Harry muttered a quick “morning,” and got the orange juice from the fridge and poured a glass for himself so clumsily, it sloshed over the sides.

“In a hurry?” Gemma said. Harry didn’t bother to answer, just shot her a look because it was obvious.

Gemma laughed, taking a bite of her muffin. “Louis stopped by,” she murmured.

The glass of orange juice froze on its way to his lips. “He’s back?” Harry asked.

“Just got in about an hour ago,” she said munching slowly, smiling even slower.

Immediately, Harry thought again about  Berlin. Because since it happened, he hardly thought of anything else. Because with Louis in London, Harry would inevitably confront him. And he wasn’t ready for that, not when he still couldn’t wrap his mind around what had happened in the first place.

Harry drank the rest of his juice. “That’s good,” he said coolly.

Gemma smirked. She was doing a lot of that. “He left something for you,” she said, pointing her butter knife at the sleek black box on the marble counter, tied with a pristine white bow, positioned in the stream of morning sunlight. Now that he saw it, he didn’t know how he’d missed it there before.

“Yves Saint Laurent,” Gemma supplied.

Harry forgot about the muffin he was about to grab to go. He forgot about breakfast altogether. The orange juice would have to do. He went for the box, sliding it toward himself. There was a small notecard tucked beneath the bow. He plucked it free and opened it.

I’m positive these were made for you.

Happy Birthday, H.

-Louis xx

He read it five times, the handwritten words never dwindling in elegance or potency. And then Harry tucked the notecard into his back pocket and lifted the box from the counter.

“You’re not going to open it here?” Gemma said. She’d hopped down from the counter and was standing over his shoulder, looking eager.

“Nope,” Harry said. He kissed her cheek. “Have a good day.”

Gemma grumbled a complaint as Harry hurried out the front door. He climbed into his car, turning it on to get the heat flowing. He threw his bag into the passenger seat and tucked the box between himself and the steering wheel.

Then he carefully untied the bow.

It slinked away from the sides of the box, falling free like a broken spell. Harry pulled it away completely, folded it, and tucked it into his pocket with the notecard. Later, he’d store both between the pages of his journal.

He lifted the lid, placed it to the side as well, and pushed the crisp black tissue paper out of the way.

A pair of boots was cradled inside.

Exactly like the gold ones Louis had picked out for him.

But pink.

Harry practically whimpered.

He stared at them, his lips parted as he pulled one into the air. Sunlight caught on the polished rose surface while he traced the stitching with his fingers, inhaling the sharp musk of fresh leather.

They were beautiful and so perfect, just like the gold ones, maybe even more so. Harry couldn’t decide right then. All he wanted was to put them on but he couldn’t debut these bad boys at school. That just wasn’t fitting.

He also wanted to ring Louis and tell him…how perfect he was too. He had so many things he wanted to tell Louis and questions he wanted to ask. Like why did he get him the prettiest pair of boots to ever exist?

Or why had he tried to kiss him?

Or what about Eleanor?

Too many questions, but Harry was a smart kid. He thought he could figure out the answers to most of them on his own. Maybe, in the moment, Louis had simply wanted to kiss him, in the same way he’d simply wanted to get the boots. It didn’t have to mean anything more than that. And Harry was trying to tell himself it didn’t.

He’d tried twice now, hadn’t he? If Louis wanted anything more, it would have happened already.

He was grateful for his early birthday present nonetheless, and when he saw Louis in person, he’d tell him so.

For now, he sent pictures to Niall and Caroline.

Niall remained unimpressed. He reminded Harry that fancy “bubble gum” shoes didn’t change a thing. While she agreed, Caroline, at least, had an appreciation for high fashion, and an odd way of showing it.

'Am I the only one turned on right now?' she’d sent him.

Harry laughed it off. But no, she wasn’t.

 

* * *

 

FEBRUARY

Harry blinked his eyes open, half of his face mushed in the soft cotton of his pillow, and reached for his phone to shut off the alarm. But then he realized it was ringing. And Louis’ name was across the screen.

He cleared his throat. “Hello?”

“Good morning,” Louis said a little too cheerfully for the arse-crack of dawn. It was still nice just to hear his voice. “You up for a birthday run?”

Harry blinked again, pushing himself upright. He laughed softly. “Seriously?”

“Yeah, come on. It’ll be good for you.”

Harry was already kicking the duvet away from his body and standing. “Not quite the way I was planning to celebrate my birthday.”

“You’ll make up for it tonight, I’m sure.” Louis was already outside from the crooning of songbirds in the background.

“Oh, I plan to,” Harry said. Louis laughed at that, a sound Harry knew too well and loved too much. He remembered starting off the first day of the calendar year to Louis’ voice. And now he was starting the first day of his eighteenth year the same way.

Louis always found ways to write himself into moments of Harry’s life. And where Harry should have pulled away, he only drew closer.

Like right now, he was jogging down the steps, grateful his family wasn’t up to yell “Happy Birthday” at him, slipping out the door and hurrying down the drive where he knew Louis was waiting.

“Ladies and gentleman, may I present to you the newest member of the adult race,” Louis was saying, as Harry drew closer.

Harry rolled his eyes. “Nice intro.”

“Thanks. I’ve been working on it all night.”

Harry smiled. “So, once around the ‘hood?” he said.

“As always,” Louis replied with a laugh. And they were off, jogging their normal route through the neighbourhood. The wind was bitter at first, but quickly became a relief for Harry’s heated skin.

“So, I got the loveliest boots yesterday,” Harry said.

Louis’ lips twitched but he kept his eyes ahead, focused on running. Harry should probably do that too, really. It was a miracle he hadn’t run into a tree yet. “Did you?” Louis’ brow arched when he spoke.

“Yes,” Harry said. “And they’re perfect. Thank you.”

Louis was grinning now. He glanced at Harry. “You’re welcome. I’m glad you like them.”

Like? No,” Harry said. “I think there’s never been a more accurate time to use the word ‘love.’”

There were birds chirping all around them, and the sound of their trainers hitting the pavement in tandem. And when Louis laughed, Harry knew there probably wasn’t a better way to start his birthday.

When they were back in front of their respective front gates, they’d slowed to a stop and breathed in deep through their noses and out through their mouths, their breath pluming in the winter air.

“You’ll be there tonight, right?” Harry asked.

Louis gave him a look. “As if I’d be anywhere else.”

Harry’s gaze flickered over Louis’ smiling face. He couldn’t believe he’d spent nearly two weeks of January pretending to be unaffected by that smile. How had that even been possible? “Good,” he said.

And in the second of quiet that followed, there was this look in Louis’ eyes, one Harry might have been waiting for. Right there, hidden beneath the blue, was an undercurrent of want, maybe crippled by uncertainty. It was infinitesimal, yes, but confirmed so much.

What happened in Berlin didn’t have to mean anything, but it did.

“So I’ll see you later?” Louis said.

Harry smiled, starting back up the drive. “That’s the plan.”

 

* * *

 

Harry would probably tell people that having the party at a castle was Niall or Caroline’s idea but he'd been the first to bring it up, months ago when the whole thing was still meant to be a surprise. They’d been a little tipsy, Niall had asked him about celebrating his birthday, and Harry had given him the only response that made sense at the time.

“I want a party for a princess,” he'd said, laughing. “Find me a handsome prince and a castle.”

He hadn’t been serious. Not really. But there they were in a castle anyway. Yorkshire Castle, to be exact. Maybe it was all just a joke but Harry’s 18th birthday was absolutely one fit for a princess and Gemma was currently tucking a tiara on top of his head. She brushed a few curls away from his eyes. “Now all you need is your prince,” she said with a wink of her eye.

Harry needed him to show up first.

Currently, everyone was here but Louis.

Only an hour had passed but the festivities were well under way. The great hall of the castle had been left with most of its 18th-century charm intact. The space was lit primarily by the sconces on the wall, the dim chandelier suspended from the vaulted ceiling, and the coloured lights flashing on the ice sculpture.

Niall had been adamant about an ice sculpture.

There was also the soft flow of moonlight from the massive windows lining the walls spilling over the polished marble floors, and in the corner, the DJ’s booth, which emanated a neon glow of its own. Harry found it all magical.

“Did a good job, yeah?” Niall threw his arm around Harry’s shoulders.

“Uh. Fuck yes?” Harry said, laughing, wrapping his arm around Niall’s waist.

“Party of the century right here,” Gemma said. “Oh, look who finally made it.”

Harry turned his head quickly, eagerness written on his face, etched into his smile, and saw Nick. He tried not to look as disappointed as he felt.

“Do you know how to be on time to anything?” Gemma was asking Nick.

“Is there a way to be fashionably on time? No there isn’t,” Nick said. He gave Harry a big hug. “Sorry I’m late.”

“You’re surprisingly not the last to arrive,” Gemma said.

“Oh? Are we expecting more than this?” Nick looked around at the ballroom. It was pretty much packed with people. Considering the magnitude of the parties Nick threw, Harry was proud to have amazed him.

“Just one more,” Gemma said.

Nick’s brows arched up when he looked at Harry. “Right, of course.” He looked down at Harry’s shoes. “I see he’s managed to be here in some small part, though. Nice boots.”

Harry smiled, wiggling his one foot. Yes, he’d worn his new boots. How could he not? They looked good with his outfit too. He wore all black, per Lou’s suggestion. She’d brought him a few pieces to choose from, throwing in her expert opinion here and there, and together they’d settled on this.

“You shouldn’t have said anything,” Niall grumbled. “Now he won’t shut up about them.”

Harry made an indignant noise. “Well, excuse me, Niall. I happen to like them a lot.”

“We know,” Niall said.

Harry was about to respond with more huffing and puffing but Caroline came over then.

“Jeff’s here,” she said.

Harry raised his brows. “I didn’t see him,” he said. Gemma, Niall, and Nick dispersed to hit up the bar.

Caroline looped her arm with Harry’s and began weaving him through the throng of guests swaying to the music. She spoke loudly over the music, “Jeff’s friend is here too. Victor, I think he’s called? Can’t believe he would bring him.”

“I told him to when I sent him the invitation,” Harry said.

Caroline looked horrified. “But you two broke up just a month ago.”

“Because we weren’t right for each other. He and Victor are,” Harry said. He smiled reassuringly. “It’s fine, I promise.”

Caroline didn’t have a chance to respond because they were close enough now that Victor spotted them and tapped Jeff on his shoulder. Jeff looked and saw Harry and smiled wide. He put his cup down on the table they were standing near.

“Harry,” he said, excitedly. “Happy Birthday!”

Harry smiled, stepping forward to hug him tightly. He glanced at Victor and sent him a smile too. “Thanks for coming,” he said to them both.

“We couldn’t miss it. Seems like no one else could either,” Victor said, waving around at the full house.

“Guess not,” Harry agreed.

“Cool shoes, by the way,” Victor said.

“Oh, God, don’t mention them to him or he’ll never stop talking about them,” Caroline said.

Harry gave her a look. “I think everyone is exaggerating just a little.”

Jeff was watching him, smiling with a knowing twinkle in his eye. “Bet I could guess who got them for you.”

“Probably could,” Harry shrugged, a smile spreading on his face too.

“Where is he anyway?” Jeff asked.

Harry looked again around the ballroom but there was no way he’d spot Louis like this. “On his way, I’m sure.”

He knew he was coming. Louis had told him so this morning. And thirty minutes ago, he’d texted him to let him know traffic was a bitch but he would be there soon.

Harry really, truly wished he could just focus on his party without feeling so anxious. But it was a testament to everything he felt for Louis that he affected him so thoroughly while being nowhere in sight.

Jeff was still smiling. “So am I. Don’t think he would miss this for the world.”

And yeah, Harry thought so too.

As much as she had seemed put off by Victor’s attendance, Caroline was talking his ear off now about latest footwear trends. Harry felt inclined to rescue him, but first…

“How are things with you?” Harry asked Jeff, speaking as quietly as he could.

“I’m good,” Jeff said. “Better than I’d hoped.”

Harry smiled. “And you and Victor?”

Jeff had picked his cup up again for a sip. He hid a smile behind the rim. “Much better than I’d hoped.”

If for some reason Louis didn’t show up, this would have to be the happiest moment of Harry’s night thus far. He’d been so worried about Jeff in the past month, worried he wouldn’t find the courage to talk to Victor, or that he’d spend his time before touring sad and alone. If anyone deserved better than that, it was Jeff.

“I’m really happy to hear that,” Harry said.

“Alright, alright,” Nick appeared out of nowhere. “You’ve been talking forever, and your lovely DJ is feeling underappreciated. Join us.”

Harry laughed. “It’s time to dance apparently,” he said to Jeff and Victor.

Victor put his cup down on the table. “Well, let’s go,” he said to Jeff, nodding toward the centre of the room.

Harry let Nick pull him and Caroline towards the centre of the floor in an impromptu mamba line. There were shots waiting for him, his first ones of the night. He wasn’t looking to get too drunk just yet. Not until Louis showed up at least.

But he took his shot and started to sway to the beat with his closest friends. The DJ was doing some interesting mash-up of rock n’ roll tunes and disco beats, and Harry thought he’d be offended to hear Queen violated by dubstep but he was tipsy enough that it worked.

He was still dancing and nursing a martini when his phone buzzed in his pocket, and he dug it out distractedly.

'made it.'

Harry pushed his hair away from his eyes again, and looked toward the entryway to the ballroom. There were people collected there but no one he was looking for.

Niall raised his brows at him in question.

“Think Louis’ here,” Harry said into his ear to be heard. “I’ll be back.”

And without saying much to anyone else, he slinked away, weaving back through the crowd, trying to balance his martini glass in his hand. He had to stop every second to take a selfie with someone, and most of the people who stopped him had a buzz of their own, which made them chatty and eager and normally Harry wouldn’t mind. But Louis.

He finally got out of the crowd and looked around again. He turned back towards the rest of the party, his eyes sweeping over the array of dancing figures. He looked down at his phone and tapped out a message.

'I can’t find you!'

He was starting to pout, which wasn’t a good look. He really he had nothing to be miserable about. Except, maybe for his next birthday, he wouldn’t invite so many people. Not if it would be this difficult to find just one.

He took a sip of his martini, waiting for Louis to text him back, or descend from the ceiling, or—

"Hey.”

Harry spun on the heels of his pink boots and his face broke into a shameless grin. "Hi," he said, lowering his glass.

“Hi,” Louis said again. He licked his lips and smiled. “You know, I thought me and Zayn threw a massive party.” He looked around. “But this. Do you actually know all these people?"

"Not really sure but I hope they all at least know me," Harry said, laughing if only because Louis laughed.

“I’m sorry I’m so late,” Louis said. “I’d explain but it’s not entertaining enough to be a party story.”

“Maybe later then,” Harry said. He rocked back on his heels, not to draw attention to his boots, but that was the result he got anyway.

"You look great," Louis said, while Harry had been thinking the same of him.

Harry's cheeks dimpled. "So do you," he said. He was going for cool and collected, but it proved difficult under Louis’ intent gaze, the contemplative set of his mouth, and the way he hovered closer.

“Love the shoes,” Louis added.

Harry grinned down at his feet. “Thanks. A very nice man got them for me.”

Louis was forced to step a little closer when a server passed behind him carrying a gold platter. Harry wanted to lean in to smell his cologne, knew the scent would be all over his collarbones which were visible with the low neckline of the black shirt he wore.

Louis smiled. "Um. Actually I—or he has another gift for you. If that’s okay.”

“Really?” Both of Harry’s brows arched high.

Louis nodded, looking quite pleased with himself already.

Harry didn’t think it was possible to smile any harder than he was now. His cheeks were already so sore. "Where at?" he asked.

"Follow me?" Louis tilted his head toward the corridor that led to the auxiliary dining and drawing rooms.

Harry discarded his glass on a nearby table without question. He reached out, securing his hand around Louis' elbow. When Louis glanced back at him, Harry smiled and nodded for him to lead the way.

Louis walked them out of the ballroom and into the corridor, the flashing lights from the dance floor fading until they were shrouded only in the dim glow of wall sconces with classic green shades. Soon enough, the music faded too.

Harry laughed. "Did you hide it?"

"No. It’s in my pocket,” Louis said. “I’m just looking for someplace quiet."

The way he said it made Harry's veins thrum faster. He made no further attempts at humour, treading softly behind Louis until finally, they stopped. Louis led him into an ornately furnished drawing room.

The fireplace here was blazing, as it seemed all in the castle were, thanks to the attendants. Harry took a seat on one of the fluffy gold couches, bouncing a little on the cushion when Louis sat down stiffly beside him.

“You look so serious,” Harry commented.

Louis frowned. “Gift-giving is serious business. I asked Santa. Me and him are good friends, you know.” 

“How’d you manage that friendship?”

“Well, we practically share a birthday. Just a day apart and all,” Louis explained.

Harry’s brows creased, his lips turned down as he thought. “I don’t think Santa’s birthday is on Christmas.”

“Of course it is,” Louis said.

“No, pretty sure that’s Jesus.”

Louis rolled his eyes. “Being a smart ass might cost you your gift, Harry.”

Harry laughed and pressed his lips together in an attempt to stop. “Sorry. I’m ready, Saint Louis.”

Louis kept up his serious look for two seconds more and then let a smile slip through.

"Give me your hand. And close your eyes," he instructed.

Harry laughed again, nervously this time. He shut his eyes and held his hand out and felt Louis cradle his hand in his own. A second later, something small and cold and smooth met his palm.

Louis’ hand dropped away. “Okay,” he said.

Harry opened his eyes and looked down. His next inhale got stuck in his throat.

"It's a locket," Louis announced right away as if Harry couldn’t see for himself. Really, he could.

Harry’s fingers fumbled to lift the small oval pendant from the centre of his palm, a long silver chain dangling and catching light as it swung in the air.

"I got it from this antique shop in Paris. Zayn helped me polish it," Louis said. Harry popped the locket open, running his thumb over the hollowed interior. "There aren't any pictures inside. Would've liked to put one of Gemma or your whole family. Or Bacon, even. But I figured it was best to leave it to you. Or maybe you could tell me what you’d like and I’ll do it. I’m sure Zayn would help with that too."

Harry blinked at the pendant, turning it over between his fingers, stunned silent by the glow of firelight on its surface and the lull of Louis’ voice in his ear.

"There’s an inscription on the back in French,” Louis was saying. Harry turned the pendant over and looked close.

Toujours dans mon coeur, it read.

Harry stopped breathing.

“It means," Louis began. Harry already knew. “Always in my heart.”

Harry turned and met Louis’ gaze, effectively silencing him. He exhaled unsteadily. "Louis. This is— I can't believe—" Harry huffed an overwhelmed breath. "Thank you. Really, thank you so much. For this and for the boots too. And for just being here. This is all amazing."

Louis' lips twitched. "You're welcome. For all of it."

“I want it on. Here,” Harry said, handing the necklace back to him. “Put it on.”

Harry turned his back to him and heard Louis laugh.

Louis reached around his shoulders, drawing the chain around his neck, and fastened it, his fingers warm where they lingered on Harry’s skin.

“All set,” Louis said, dropping his hands to his lap.

Harry faced him again, lifting and holding the small pendant away from his chest to peer down at it. "It's so beautiful," he said. “I’ll have to sort the picture thing out soon.”

“Or just tell me what you’d like. I’ll take care of it,” Louis said.

Harry smiled at him and then looked back down, not sure whether he wanted to admire the pendant more or Louis. “It’s just,” he said, “really just so, so beautiful.”

“Then it's a perfect match for you.”

Harry’s gaze darted up to meet his, thrown off by the sudden intimate hush of Louis’ voice.

He clutched the locket a little more tightly in his palm as if it could anchor him, could stop him from being swept away by the ocean in Louis’ eyes, but he'd never stood a chance.

Harry was looking at Louis. Louis was looking at him, and then Louis was leaning in.

Everything stopped for Harry. The breath in his lungs, the rushing of blood in his veins, and all the thoughts in his head. It all slowed and stopped, aside from this sudden mental mantra of it's happening, it's happening, it's happening. He didn’t look away from Louis’ mouth growing so close to his own. He felt paralyzed, frozen still, but he wasn’t looking to go anywhere.

The first press of Louis’ mouth was a whisper. Harry documented in his head like the last word uttered by the last human on the last day of Earth. The second was firmer, more desperate but still careful like Louis was afraid he might hurt him. Harry wasn't afraid to be hurt. He leaned into him, pushing his mouth firmly against Louis’. A quiet moan slipped free from one of them or both, he wasn’t sure. All he knew was that he wanted more, was suddenly so desperate for it, nothing else mattered.

Louis’ tongue met his, velvety and warm and urgent, which was the final push Harry needed.

He moved in closer, couldn't stop to let himself think as he climbed into Louis' lap, slinging a leg over Louis' thighs with confidence. He didn't have to think. The man he wanted wanted him back. It was evident in the happy noise Louis made, in the way he cradled Harry's hips and then his bum, the way he squeezed. Nothing else fucking mattered.

He was beyond worked up, starting to mutter unintelligible words between kisses, trying to find a coherent way to beg. "Louis," was all he managed.

“Haz!”

At the sound of Niall’s voice, Louis broke away. He hovered there for a second, breathing Harry in, resting their foreheads together.

“Happy Birthday, love,” he said quietly.

Harry swallowed. “Louis…” His voice was annoyingly weak to his own ears. He heard the thud of Niall’s feet getting closer and drew a trembling breath, slipping out of Louis' lap, pushing his fist against his crotch.

“Harry,” Niall called.

Louis scooted a bit further away, just as Niall jogged past the door, and a half-second later, jogged back.

He froze, seeing Louis sitting there. “Oh, sorry… Didn’t interrupt, did I?”

Harry tried to respond, but he still hadn't caught his breath. He shook his head.

“No, you’re alright,” Louis said amiably, but he sounded out of breath too. “I'm sure people are wondering where Harry’s run off to.”

“Uh, yeah, Sam wants to sing a song…” Niall said, gaze darting back and forth between them. 

“Wouldn’t want to miss that,” Louis said, moving past Niall. “See you there.”

“Sure,” Niall said.

Harry watched Louis’ back as he walked out of the room.

“What happened?” Niall asked immediately, not even waiting for Louis to get far enough down the corridor. “What’s wrong?”

Harry shook his head, pressing his fingers against his mouth where he could still feel Louis' touch.

 

* * *

 

He was awake too early the next morning, considering the way his head began to throb right away. He couldn’t sleep, though.

He was turning his locket between his thumb and forefinger, the small weight enough to remind him that he hadn’t dreamed the last twenty-four hours.

The rest of the party had gone without another hitch. There was more dancing, some singing, a lot of laughing, and dessert.

It only made sense that Maison de Sucre were the ones in charge of that. Ivor pulled out all the works for Harry including his special mango mint sorbet, truffles enough to feed a small army, and a massive sheet cake layered with chocolate hazelnut cake and strawberries, and decorated with a picture of Harry’s smiling face.

He spent a lot of time watching Louis watch him, resisting the urge to drag him up to one of the many rooms of Yorkshire Castle and finish what they started.

Louis seemed to enjoy himself for the extra hour that he stayed, and then he left with Lou, claiming he had to be up early.

Perhaps that was the truth. Harry had been too drunk by then to tell.

Now, in the sobering light of morning, he was feeling like a very jaded princess. Given his prince for just one second, only to lose him in the next.

Bacon somehow found his way into his room and up onto his bed, dropping a fart along the way that made Harry groan.

“Seriously?” he mumbled.

Bacon licked his chin, legitimately smiling like he’d done nothing wrong when Harry’s room smelled like shit and he’d probably been licking his butt only two seconds ago.

Harry pushed himself upright, his head still throbbing, but he definitely couldn’t go back to sleep now.

“Come on,” he said to Bacon, lifting him up in his one arm. “Let’s go for a walk.”

 

* * *

 

Harry spotted Zayn and Liam at one of the outdoor tables and hurried towards them. Zayn was buttering some toast. Liam was sipping a mimosa. He spotted Harry first and smiled, raising his glass. “Birthday boy’s here!” he announced.

“Sorry, I’m late,” Harry said. He plopped down into the seat across from Zayn and dropped his bag in the empty one next to him.

“That’s alright,” Liam said. “We’re sorry again that we couldn’t make it to the party.”

“You’ve apologized like six times already. I promise it’s okay,” Harry said. “And you’re making it up to me with lunch.”

“Right,” Liam said with a smile.

“How’d it go?” Zayn asked. “The party.”

“Uh,” Harry sighed. He nodded. “Good. Lots of people.”

“Lou told me it was fun,” Zayn said.

Harry looked over his menu. “I’m glad he had fun then. Did you two order already?”

Zayn was still watching him. Harry really hated how he did that. He wished there was some kind of Zayn-defense-shield he could bring for these occasions.

Liam didn’t detect anything wrong. “We didn’t order yet. But I’m having the Greek omelette.”

“That sounds yummy,” Harry said, and then he asked Zayn, “What about you?”

“Haven’t decided yet. Probably going with the Belgian waffles. They make them here in a stack with the berries and crème in the middle. It’s good shit.”

“We should just order everything,” Liam said.

Harry didn’t disagree with that. He wanted what Zayn and Liam were having with a side of bacon and hash and maybe extra bacon too and extra hash. In the end, he settled on an omelette sandwich with a side of fruit. And legally ordered his first mojito, which Zayn and Liam celebrated with a small round of applause.

“So, we have news,” Zayn said after they stopped talking about the open bar at Harry’s party.

Harry’s brow creased. He looked between them, taking in the sudden glow to both their faces.

“It was part of the reason we couldn’t make it to your party actually,” Zayn said. Harry noticed he was making sort of grand gestures now with his hand. He didn’t know what that meant. He studied their faces again.

“If you’re pregnant, can I be the godmum?” he asked.

Liam choked on his mimosa. Zayn laughed. “Yes but no. We kind of want to be married before we start thinking about children…” He looked at Liam then, a little smirk on his face.

Harry’s eyes widened. “Wait,” he said, looking at their hands more closely.

Zayn nodded. “Liam is now my overachieving fiancé.”

“Hey,” Liam whined.

“Let me see,” Harry said, wiping his hands on his napkin.

Liam pulled Zayn’s hand onto the table and wiggled his own ring finger. They wore identical silver bands.

“Holy fuck,” Harry exclaimed, leaning forward to inspect the rings. He got a dirty look from the two old women beside them and smiled apologetically. He looked again at the rings. “This is great. I’m so happy for you.”

Harry hadn’t ever seen them look so happy. He’d only known them for a short while, and they tended to be happy people in general, especially around each other. But never like this.

“Wedding’s going to be in October,” Zayn said. “We’re contemplating a Halloween theme.”

“That’d be sick,” Harry said, clearly impressed.

“I’m surprised Louis was onboard with that idea, honestly,” Liam said to Zayn.

“Why?” Zayn said. “Louis loves Halloween. Plus, I told him he could dress however he wanted.”

“True,” Liam said.

Harry had sort of tapped out of the conversation when Liam mentioned Louis. He ate some of his fruit, took a sip of his mojito.

“Alright, I have to ask,” Zayn said to Harry. “What happened with you and Louis?”

Liam looked confused. “Something happened with you and Louis?”

Harry shook his head. “No.”

“Now you’re just lying,” Zayn said. “Louis was weird too when I told him we were taking you out to lunch. I invited him and he said he had ‘things to do.’” Zayn made air quotes. “Even after I told him it was on us. And Louis never turns down free food.”

Liam still looked confused. “You’re right. That’s weird.”

Harry was even more annoyed now than he’d been yesterday. He’d thought that the day after his party, he and Louis would sit and talk everything out. He’d expected explanations and maybe confessions, anything really would have done. But it hadn’t come.

He didn’t think Louis was avoiding him, although with what Zayn said, maybe he was. He just thought the day prior had been busy for Louis. He’d been giving him the benefit of the doubt. But maybe he’d been wrong

A day and a half later, it was safe to say he’d run out of what little patience he had left.

Harry drank the rest of his mojito and put the glass down on the table with a thud. "He kissed me," he said. "We kissed."

Zayn looked only a little surprised. He sat back in his seat, his hands folded over his stomach. Liam, on the other hand…

“Why the bloody hell would he do that?” he asked the general populace.

Zayn sighed. “Why do you think?”

“Since when was there a thing between Harry and Louis,” Liam said. “I thought you were joking.”

"Nope. Although I didn't think he'd go for it," Zayn said, more to himself than anything.

Harry didn’t quite get that response. "Um. Neither did I. Considering he has a girlfriend?"

Liam’s expression changed in that second. He looked again at Zayn but Zayn was looking at Harry. Harry was so confused about how this entire conversation was turning out.

“What?” he said.

Liam opened his mouth to speak. Zayn made a weird noise, glanced at Liam and shook his head as discreetly as possible. Harry saw it anyway. Because, you know, he happened to be sitting right in front of them.

"What?" Harry said again.

Liam rubbed his scruffy chin and opened his mouth to respond again.

"Leave it alone," Zayn said to him.

Liam pouted. "Just seems wrong."

"Did you two know I have ears that function normally?" Harry said. "Come on. What is it?" he said. And then it hit him. Or he thought it did. “Is he— Are they not together anymore?”

Liam started to reply again.

"Liam," Zayn said.

"Zayn?" Harry countered.

"They broke up like a month ago," Liam blurted.

Zayn sighed, lifting his tea for a sip.

Harry’s mouth dropped open. Then his brows creased. He shook his head, looking between Liam and Zayn. “Wait, what?” Harry said. He looked around like someone might be waiting with an explanation. “What? Why wouldn't he tell me that?"

Zayn shook his head. "Don't know. But I think he probably had a good reason. And I think he would have told you on his own time," he said the last part pointedly to Liam.

"Don't you think he should have told me before he kissed me?"

"Probably, yeah," Zayn said.

"He lied to me.”

"Well, not exactly, H. He just didn't tell you the truth," Liam said

Zayn looked at Liam, his eyes squinted like he didn't know if his fiancé had been abducted and replaced by an alien. "That's called a white lie, Liam. And if you ever pull that shit on me, I'll divorce you."

"Before we're even married?" Liam asked, his brows creased.

"Yes," Zayn said, turning away before Liam could think to kiss him, which Liam seemed ready to do. Zayn looked at Harry. "He did lie to you. But like I said, I think he did it for a reason. You should talk to him. Call him out. He can be a knobhead sometimes, you know?”

That was very true. Although Harry didn’t think he should even have to resort to any of this.

“I promise you’ll feel better once you tell him how you feel,” Zayn said.

“I agree,” Liam said.

Zayn shot him a look. “Obviously.”

Liam made a puppy dog pout. “Hey, be nice to me. We’re engaged.”

Then Zayn smirked. “We are, aren’t we?” he said, touching Liam’s cheek. “That sounds nice.”

Liam smiled. “It does, doesn’t it?”

Zayn leaned in a little closer. “It does,” he actually cooed.

“Gross,” Harry mumbled when they kissed. “You know, on second thought, I would rather you two were having a baby.”

Liam and Zayn spared a second to laugh.

Harry didn’t actually mind them being chummy. He’d be worried if they weren’t behaving this way after just getting engaged.

And anyway, for the moment, it was better that they focused on each other, because Harry’s mind was worlds away. Or really, it was with Louis, as usual.

Just when he’d thought he had enough to dwell on, Louis kept throwing more into the fire, until it was blazing too strong and out of control, and Harry didn’t know how much longer he could try containing it.

 

* * *

 

Harry found Louis in the kitchen, feeding Bacon, petting his head, cooing at him and showing him more attention and affection than he’d shown Harry in the past two days. Harry walked in, purposefully banging the cupboard door open and shut. He didn’t slam the mug down on the counter like he wanted to for fear that he’d break it. But he didn’t have to.

Louis shot him a small smile. “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” Harry said, leaning against the counter, looking at him expectantly.

Louis looked back down at the paper he’d started scribbling on and proceeded with more scribbling. Harry just couldn’t do it anymore. He really just—

"I have a question,” he said.

“Sure,” Louis said, still scribbling.

“Were you the one who came to my party or was it, like, your twin brother?"

Louis’ brows creased. "Don't have any brothers," he said, distractedly. “You know that.”

"See, I thought I did. But someone looking exactly like you was there on Saturday,” Harry said. Louis’ pen stilled and his eyes narrowed like finally he’d begun to catch on.

“They gave me this locket that I haven't taken off since,” Harry clasped it in his fingers as proof. “And then they kissed me.” Louis put his pen down. Harry went on. “And it was the best kiss, Louis. But if it were you, I think at the very least you would have explained yourself by now, right? At the very least."

Louis dragged his hand down his face. "I’ve been meaning to. I just…”

“Why did you kiss me?” Harry interrupted him.

“Straight to the point then?” Louis said, starting to loosen his tie.

“Louis,” Harry said. He wanted to shove that fucking tie down the garbage disposal.

“I’m sure you have an idea why. At this point, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” Louis said.

“That's bollocks. Tell me why.”

“It’s complicated.”

"What's complicated about it? Explain it to me."

"You're probably not going to understand—” Louis began.

Harry’s eyes nearly rolled out of his head. "Jesus, Louis. Just explain."

“You confuse the fuck out me, Harry."

Um, okay? Harry blinked.

Louis took a breath and continued. “I’ve been telling myself this was nothing, that I cared about you the way I care about everyone else, and if I get lost in your eyes for a bit, that’s cause it’s normal, happens to everyone. But then I saw you with Jeff Asshoff, or whatever the fuck his name is, and I didn’t even know what to do with myself.”

“Azoff,” Harry said.

Louis pinned him with a look. “Thank you.” He was pacing a bit now, his ears and neck turning pink, mouth twisted in this unhappy line.

“I wanted it to be nothing. I work for your mum, Harry, and you were only 17,” Louis said.

“I’m not anymore,” Harry informed him.

Louis leaned against the wall near the fridge, his head tilted back. “I know that,” he said, sounding defeated.

Harry wasn’t entirely following. He drummed his fingers on his arm, gnawing on his bottom lip. “Why didn’t you tell me about Eleanor?” he asked.

Louis lifted his head to look at him.

“Zayn and Liam, they told me you aren’t with Eleanor,” Harry explained. “You haven’t been for a month? You should have told me.”

“And what do you think would’ve happened if I did? That’d be it. Nothing to stop…this,” Louis gestured between them, “Or me, whatever. And like I said, you were 17…”

“I’m not 17 anymore, Louis."

“What’s your point, Harry?”

Harry clenched his jaw, a vein threatening to pop in his temple. “What’s yours? You tried to kiss me in Berlin. I was still 17 then.”

“Slip of judgment,” Louis explained.

Harry wanted to shake him, just until something clicked in his head and they ended up on the same page. They were so close, just a turn away, and they’d be there.

“Okay, sure. Slip of judgment. I’m 18 now, as I keep saying. And my point is that you kissed me when I was 18. Me being 17 doesn’t matter anymore. Clearly, none of that matters anymore. Whatever this is for you, nothing's stopping it now.”

“Your mum would kill me,” Louis said.

“I don’t care.”

“You don’t care if I’m dead?”

Harry exhaled a loud breath. When he spoke next, he spoke deliberately slow, or slower than usual. “I’m saying I don’t care what my mum thinks.”

“You should,” Louis said massaging his temples. He reached down to tug again at his tie, loosening it completely, and unbuttoned the first button. Harry just wanted to get his mouth right there, right on that spot of exposed skin.

“That’s not what you said about me modelling,” Harry said, forcing himself to focus. “You said I should do what I think is best.”

“That’s completely different,” Louis said. “This isn’t even the same thing and you know it.”

“This is stupid, that’s what it is,” Harry said. “Why would you kiss me in the first place if you didn’t really want this?”

“See, that's what I mean. I said you wouldn’t understand and you don’t,” Louis cut him off. “You think I don’t want you when that’s been the whole problem. I do. I kissed you because I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I wanted to, because you have the prettiest fucking mouth, and it was actually driving me fucking insane that I hadn’t just— you don’t have any idea, Harry. All this, right now, this is happening because I want it too much.”

Harry opened his mouth but he didn’t have an adequate response. He nibbled on his lip, his skin burning like he would just burst into flame any second now.

“Then why are you standing so far away?” he asked.

Louis’ lips twitched with a sad smile. “We can’t.”

“We can,” Harry said, walking closer, uncrossing his arms, digging his nails into his palms instead of his blazer. He just had to go for it. He was confident that if he could just get into Louis’ space, Louis would let him stay there because Louis would want him there just as much as Harry wanted to be there.

Louis watched him approach, eyelids lowered. He licked his lips, his chest rising and falling with a deep breath. Harry took that as incentive to keep going.

He lifted his hand, sliding it up Louis’ firm chest until his fingers brushed the stubble over his jaw. “We can,” he repeated, leaning in.

“Harry,” Louis said.

“I’m going to kiss you now. Please don’t push me away,” Harry mumbled, brushing his mouth over the corner of Louis’. “Not when you’re right where I want you.”

Louis’ hand fisted in Harry’s blazer like he wanted to push him away anyway, but he didn’t. And then Harry kissed him, and Louis curved his arm around Harry’s waist.

Louis kept breaking the kiss, every other second like he was trying to stop himself. And it was infuriating. He kept teasing him, leaning in, brushing their mouths together, only to break away. It felt like so much and yet it was never enough.

When Harry trailed his tongue along Louis’ bottom lip, Louis pulled away completely, pushing him arms length away.

“Fuck. We can’t do this,” he said.

Harry’s exhaustion forced a heavy sigh from his lips. “I have to get to school.”

“Harry,” Louis said. He had the audacity to take Harry’s hand, his touch painfully gentle. It was the feather landing on an unsteady pile, insignificant but enough to make the whole thing come crashing down.

Harry pulled away. “Do me this one favour, Louis?" he said. “Just stop fucking around with me.”

Whatever Louis had wanted to say fell to the ground and died. Harry walked away before he could revive it. 

 

* * *

 

Louis left him a voicemail because Harry was being a bit of a child and refused to answer his calls or texts.

“So. I realize you don’t want to talk to me right now. I get that. I wouldn’t want to talk to me either. But—I took some time to figure things out and I think I have now and I’d like to talk to you, the way I should’ve in the first place if you give me a chance? I want to work this out, yeah? I hate having you mad at me. I hate upsetting you. I’m sorry I did. Let’s just talk, love… Call me back.”

Harry was planning to just go to sleep. But he almost felt like crying when the sound of Louis’ voice cut off, even more so after he played the recording again, and so he called him back.

“Harry,” Louis sighed right away, sort of in relief.

Harry hated him so much. He buried half his face in his pillow. “Got your message.”

“Good,” Louis said. He was quiet for a moment. “Then you’re willing to talk?”

Obviously. “That’s why I called,” Harry said.

“Right. But not on the phone. I want to talk to you in person. I owe you that.”

“So you can tell me that we can’t again? Because I got that.”

Louis sighed again. This time he just sounded exhausted. “I need you to do something for me, H. Before we talk, I need you to just think again about all this. About what it is you want. If it’s me, or if it’s just an older man, or just someone to mess around with. Because I’ve been thinking about it all too. Because whether you want to hear it or not, there’s a lot at risk here for us both,” Louis was quiet again. Maybe waiting for Harry to say something. Deep down past his frustration, Harry knew Louis was right, at least about the risks involved. But right then, he had nothing to say. “Just, think about it for me, okay? And we’ll talk tomorrow.”

 Harry sniffed. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow then.”

“Are you still upset with me?”

Again, obviously. Harry shrugged, though Louis couldn’t see. “Disappointed more like. This isn’t how I thought this would turn out.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

Harry turned over on his bed, his eyes stinging again. “See you tomorrow,” he said, voice rough. Hopefully, Louis would think it was just from exhaustion.

Louis hesitated. “Alright. Good night then. Sleep well.”

“You too.”

Harry placed his phone beside his bedside lamp and then shut the lamp off, surrendering himself to the dark.

He stayed awake long after that, staring at his ceiling and thinking over Louis’ question. At first he’d thought the answer would be obvious. Of course, it was Louis that he wanted.

But the question turned out to be a trick one the more Harry thought about it.

He’d always been attracted to older men. And he was young, energetic, and indefinitely horny as fuck.

The thing was though, not just any older man would do, in the same way that a quick fuck wouldn’t cut it either. Harry could hit up a gay bar and secure all that within minutes.

While those things were great bonuses, it was just Louis he wanted. It’d always been just Louis.

That was his answer. And with it in mind, sleep came relatively easy.

 

* * *

 

It was hard to stay even remotely mad at Louis when he looked as good as he did.

Harry was sitting there in his mum’s office, minding his business when Louis walked in wearing a tight-fitting button-up shirt and even tighter trousers and generally just causing Harry all sorts of conflicting emotions.

Louis hadn’t seen Harry at first, since he was sorting through the stack of black folders in his hand.

It wasn’t until Harry sat up straight that Louis’ eyes snapped up, and then he’d smiled. It was impossible to be upset with Louis when he smiled.

“Hi,” he said.

Harry couldn’t stop himself from smiling back, though it was measured. “Hi.”

Louis leaned over Anne’s desk to put the folders down. Harry glanced at his bum when he did. Louis turned back to face him. Harry’s eyes floated back up to his face.

“How are you?”

Harry nodded, folding his hands in his lap. “Same as usual,” he said. “Ready for our talk.”

“I figured you would be,” Louis said. He glanced at his watch. “Not now though. I have a meeting in a few minutes, looking over next seasons’ sketches with the team.”

“I'll be here when you're ready,” Harry said.

“You could come take a look too?” Louis asked.

Harry’s brows creased.

Louis went on, “...Instead of sitting here by yourself?”

Harry glanced at the textbooks that he was supposed to be looking through. He wasn’t having any luck with them anyway. “Yeah, that sounds good,” he said, standing.

Louis led him out of the office, towards the studio where they drew up designs and constructed mockups.

“Did you do the sketches yourself?” Harry asked following Louis to the large desk in the center of the room. He tried so hard not to look at his bum but his trousers were just so snug this evening.

“Some of them, yeah,” Louis said. He dropped his keys on the small coffee table behind them and cut on the overhead desk lights. He unfolded a large black portfolio and spread the various sketches out over the polished surface.

“So, a bunch of this stuff might not make it to post,” Louis said. “But some of them are a go.”

Harry stood beside him, close enough that he could smell his cologne. Louis glanced at him with a look in his eyes that might have slipped Harry’s notice before but not now, not anymore.

Louis cleared his throat and looked away. “So, this is one of the confirmed designs,” he said. Harry looked down too.

“And this is how the completed ensemble will look,” Louis added, pointing to one of the sketches. Harry straightened the paper in front of him. “Your mum sketched this one.”

“Looks good,” Harry said, studying the design. “Really good.”

“It does, yeah, and then there’s this one,” Louis said extending his hand past Harry’s and sliding another sketch over top of the one he’d been looking at. “This is actually the waistcoat that goes with that one. See this colour here? It looks simple on paper but in person, it’ll be like copper. It’s gonna look great on the floor.”

Harry looked at him, smiling.

Louis pointed out a few more things about the waistcoat, the stitching and the fit and each time he did, his forearm brushed the top of Harry’s hand. He was so close, his chest almost pressed against Harry’s shoulder. Harry glanced at the side of Louis’ face again, his gaze flittering over his warm, creamy skin and his rosy lips, lips Harry had felt before and wanted to feel again. He was so desperate to feel them again.

“And there’s also this other sketch. The trim was actually my idea. But some of the other team members don’t like it. What do you think?” Louis finally looked up, meeting Harry’s eyes. His smile faltered at the look on Harry’s face and the realization that Harry hadn’t been looking at the sketch. He looked back down and exhaled. “I’m not so sure about it either now, to be honest.”

Louis drew his hand away from the sketch and rested it just beside Harry’s for a moment.

“I think it’s nice,” Harry said glancing at the sketch.

“Yeah?”

He nodded. “Yeah—” his voice fell to silence.

Louis lifted his hand and gently touched the top of Harry’s. Harry inhaled as quietly as he could manage, not wanting to break whatever bubble had fallen over them with even the tiniest noise. Louis’ fingers ghosted over his skin, like he was afraid to touch him but wanted to all the same.

Louis looked up, his eyes immediately landing on Harry’s lips. “You know sometimes when I’m with you, I feel like you’ve cast a spell on me.”

Harry smiled. “I promise you I haven’t.”

“Did you think about my question?”

“I did,” Harry said. He shrugged. “I want you. The rest of those things are nice too. But I just want you.”

Louis smiled wryly. An entourage of people suddenly flittered into the room, followed closely by Anne. Louis dropped his hand away from Harry’s and took a small step to the right.

“Louis, I take it you’re ready?” Anne asked. Harry wasn’t sure if she noticed him there or if she just didn’t have time to acknowledge him.

“Hi, Harry!” Amanda said, waving excitedly.

Harry waved, pasting a smile on his face.

“I’ll be right there,” Louis said to Anne. His gaze slid back to Harry. “I have to—”

“I know. But I mean it, Louis,” Harry said quietly. “Just you.”

Louis licked his lips, his eyes darting to Anne and the group of assistants again. When he spoke, he dropped his voice to a whisper. “I’ll take you home, okay? Just wait for me to finish up here.”

Harry nodded. He watched Louis walk away and then cleared out before Amanda could have a chance to come talk to him.

 

* * *

 

“Are you hungry?” Louis asked when they were seated in his car three hours later. Harry hadn’t expected it to take him so long to finish up. He thought he’d even have time to get dinner at the café up the road before it closed but it was much too late now.

“A little, yeah,” Harry replied.

Louis started his car. “What are you feeling like eating?”

“Could we talk first?” Harry asked. If he didn’t get this over with, he wouldn’t be able to eat a thing. His stomach was already full of knots.

Louis seemed to understand. He looked back to the road. “Yeah, good idea. Though, I think I’ll stop for a coffee if that’s alright.”

“But you hate coffee,” Harry said.

“Yes, but it’s been a long day and I’d rather not fall asleep while talking to you,” Louis said.

Well, that was considerate.

They made small talk, which was weird for them, but necessary in the tense space of the car. Louis drove thirty minutes out to a petrol station on the side of the motorway where it was scarcely populated. But they’d also driven right into a storm with loud, heavy rain and wind.

Louis left for coffee and climbed back into the car minutes later, shivering and wet. He shut the door, cutting off the sound of the storm outside. He handed Harry a cup silently. “Bought you a tea,” he said, pushing his hair back from his forehead.

“Thank you,” Harry said, wrapping his hands around the cup for warmth.

Louis peeled his damp coat off and tossed it into the back seat. He leaned into the seat with a heavy sigh, shutting his eyes for just a second.

They were watching the rain cascade down the windshield, and all around them, boisterous and yet so calm. They sipped their coffee and tea, not saying anything to each other, not knowing what to say or where to start. Eventually, Louis figured it out.

“I need to be sensible about all this, Harry,” he said suddenly. “I don’t think I have been with you and I’m sorry about that. But I want to be sensible now.”

Harry had expected to hear something like that. He just sipped his tea and watched the rain, determined to stay calm in the midst of having his heart broken for the millionth time. It’d be okay, no matter what happened. Harry would bounce back.

“I think,” Louis began softly, “You and me…we’re inevitable, we are.”

Harry’s reaction was slow, like the trickle of rainwater down the windshield, like a soft exhale. He blinked, and then turned to study Louis. “What?”

Louis licked his lips. “No matter what I say, we’re both going to just keep wanting this, wanting each other. And to pretend like we aren’t, I think that’s not sensible.”

“So…what are you—?” Harry took a breath. “I don’t understand.”

“Honestly, I don’t either. I don’t think this is supposed to make sense. I think maybe we’re meant to just go for it.”

Harry felt like his heart would just burst and his eyes burned once again with the threat of tears. “I want to,” he said, sounding too eager. He wouldn’t even try to calm himself now. “I want to go for it with you, Louis, whatever you want.

Louis smirked. “Let’s just go with what you want,” he said. “Let’s just—You said you were hungry, yeah? Let’s go get a burger or something.”

“I’d rather kiss you, to be honest,” Harry said.

Louis laughed, then groaned, resting his head on the steering wheel. “You’re going to kill me,” he mumbled.

“I am not,” Harry said, shifting in his seat. Louis lifted his head to look at him. “But there are a lot of other things I’d like to do to you. And with you. And even more things I’d like for you to do to me.”

“Is that so?”

Harry nodded. He’d never fooled around in a car before. He didn’t know exactly how it worked really. There was a gearshift and the wheel in his way, and the space, in general, was small. Harry still moved in as close as he could.

Louis let him hover there for a second, his eyes trailing over Harry’s face. He wrapped his hand around the back of Harry’s neck and leaned in just enough for their noses to meet, their mouths mere centimetres apart.

And then he pulled Harry in, deleting what little space remained between them, his lips molding to Harry’s fuller ones. Harry’s sigh of relief quickly turned to a moan. He set his hand overtop Louis’, like he needed to anchor himself.

“I’ve been waiting forever,” he said.

Louis pulled back to quirk an eyebrow at him. “You mean like five months?”

“Forever,” Harry repeated, and he kissed him again to shut him up.

For a second everything moved so slowly, their lips just running together, getting better acquainted. And then Louis opened his mouth, and Harry opened his, and it was as if the universe had said go.

He didn’t know what exactly prompted him to climb into Louis’ lap but in the next second he found himself doing so. He scrambled over the center console, ducking his head so he wouldn’t thump it on the roof of the car, and straddled him. He fumbled to pull off his jacket next, hated how much clothing separated them. Louis helped slide it off his shoulders and dropped it in the passenger seat, and then his hands returned to Harry’s hips, pushed up under his loose t-shirt.

They kissed like they were starving, like they’d gone mad from a lack of each other and every breath exhaled between their open mouths, each time their hands grabbed at skin, it was never enough.

They leaned into each other, into the car seat, then into the steering wheel, back and forth, pushing and pulling. It was during the latter that Harry accidentally caught the car horn with his elbow and they flinched and came to a halt when it blared.

Their eyes met, dazed and bleary. Harry forced himself to breathe, to take it all in, to slow down. But then he was surging forward again.

He ran his hands over the front of Louis’ button up, over the buttons until he got to the first one and worked it open. After that, the next few happened quickly. He pushed Louis’ shirt open and sat back, letting the faint glow from the moon wash over his chest. Harry could probably just sit there and stare at Louis all night, trace the cursive letters below his collarbones with his thumbs.

“Like what you see?” Louis said, lips quivering with a suppressed laugh.

“Oh, shut up,” Harry said, leaning in again.

Louis’ fingers pressed into his thighs, the pressure so close to Harry’s groin that it forced his attention to the bulge in his trousers. Harry rocked his hips down, wriggling in Louis’ lap for relief. He ran his hands down over Louis’ smooth, warm chest until he reached the button of his jeans and popped that open too.

Louis tore his mouth away from Harry’s, panting. He took both of Harry’s hands, pinning them behind his back, holding tight to his wrists. “We should stop,” he said, his voice raspy. “We don’t have to do this. Not ‘til you're ready.”

Harry brushed his nose over Louis’ cheek. “I'm ready now,” he mumbled, kissing Louis’ jaw like he’d always wanted to, running his mouth across his stubble. “But we can stop if you want to.”

Louis said nothing while Harry continued spreading soft kisses over his chin, rotating his hips in Louis’ lap with his hands still trapped at the small of his back.

“Do you want to stop?” Harry murmured into his ear.

Louis shook his head. “Not sure I could if I wanted to,” he said. Harry pressed a kiss to the corner of his mouth. Louis’ hips came up off the seat to meet Harry's the next time he rocked down. It was just enough to nudge their erections together, just enough to make Harry’s mouth drop open and get a needy moan rushing past his lips.

“Let me touch you,” he begged. “Please, Lou. Let me just— I want to make you feel good.”

Louis kissed him and replied, “Babe, you already do."

Harry would be lying if he said having his hands held behind his back like this wasn’t sexy as fuck but he still wanted to see Louis’ dick. He was about to ask again when Louis released him and slid his own hands around Harry’s waist to grasp his bum and draw him closer.

When they kissed again, Harry pushed his fingers past the waistband of Louis’ pants, his forefinger finding and brushing over the tip of his cock. Harry felt drunk on the sound Louis made when he did and on the moisture already collecting where he touched him. He sank his hand further in Louis' pants and just felt him, cupped him, not even believing this was happening but having solid, warm, throbbing proof against his palm.

In his daze, he felt Louis’ hands slide back over his waist to the front of his jeans and tug them open. His heart thudded more rapidly in his ears.

Harry pulled Louis’ cock out of his pants, just as Louis got a hand around him and stroked him, slowly, his grip teasing. He buried his face in Louis’ neck, breathing in the scent of cologne and sweat. He was biting his bottom lip so hard it was a wonder he felt no pain. He didn’t think he could feel anything accept Louis’ hand on him.

“You know after I first saw you, I couldn’t stop thinking about you,” Louis said, his breath warm on Harry’s neck. “I’ve never been able to just stop-- . I used to think maybe it was because I simply appreciated beautiful things. But that isn’t true. I wanted you the moment I saw you, Harry. I’ve always wanted you.”

Harry lifted his face away from Louis’ neck, resting their foreheads together. “You can have me,” he said. Or at least, he hoped that’s what he said. He wasn’t sure anymore.

Louis’ thumb passed over the tip of his cock, rubbing gently at the slit. “You know what I want right now?”

Harry’s eyes slipped closed. He shook his head.

“Want you to come,” Louis said, giving Harry a squeeze. “Can you do that for me?”

Harry nodded. “You too.” His voice came rough, already so ruined it didn’t even sound like his. “Want you to come too.”

“I will, babe,” Louis said, kissing Harry’s throat. “Whatever you want.”

Harry wrapped his hand more firmly around Louis’s cock—so much harder now than it’d been seconds ago—and began to pump his fist around him. He felt Louis tangle his free hand in his hair, tug him away from his neck so he could slide their tongues together again. Louis kissed him so relentlessly Harry had to pull away just to fucking breathe, only for Louis to chase his mouth like they couldn’t be separated for long.

Harry was so overwhelmed he found it hard to keep up the steady movement of his own hand on Louis. Louis touched him just right, made him forget what he was doing altogether.

“You’re so fucking perfect, Harry,” Louis was murmuring in his ear. “So fucking beautiful.”

Harry fisted his free hand in Louis’ hair. “You are too. Want you so much, Lou.”

“I want you too. Always,” Louis said. “I always have.”

Harry was doing a really piss-poor job of getting Louis off. He just couldn’t focus, and when Louis stroked him fast, and kissed his neck, and whispered all these words to him, he couldn’t stay composed enough to do anything. He tucked his face into Louis’ neck again, breathing hot against his skin, a tremor working over his body.

“Lou,” he groaned out. He was pulling Louis’ hair too hard but maybe that made Louis go faster. “Fuck, Louis. I’m gonna—”

“I want you to. Do it for me. Come, Harry. All over my hand,” Louis spoke into his ear. It sounded so dirty, and Louis’ voice was much lower now than Harry had ever heard it, and maybe that was what finally did him in.

Louis worked him through his orgasm, his hand slowing down, his lips still pressed below his ear.

Harry pulled away from Louis’ neck. He licked his lips, met Louis’ curious blue eyes.

“I want to make you come now,” he said.

Louis looked sort of amused. “Go ahead.”

“But not like this,” Harry said. Louis’ brows creased, watching Harry slip back into the passenger seat. Harry leaned over, pressing a kiss to Louis’ mouth, and then he lifted Louis’ heavy cock back into his hand and ducked down to kiss that too. He looked at Louis’, his lips hovering over his cock. “Like this.”

The smile slipped off Louis’ face, his lips parting to draw in an unsteady breath.

“Can I?” Harry asked. He felt silly for asking permission after the fact. And he’d apologize except Louis didn’t look upset at all.

He touched Harry’s curls gently. “If you want to, yeah.”

Harry licked his lips again and then he wrapped them around just the head of Louis’ cock and swirled his tongue around a bit, taking time to just taste the precome there. It was salty and sweet and Harry sort of loved it, and he sucked a bit harder to get every drop.

Louis threw his head back against the headrest, a hiss sounding through his teeth. Harry peeked up at him. He took that as a good sign.

He refocused then, sliding his mouth down, and marvelling at the weight of Louis on his tongue. He’d started to think back to the few times he’d done this before, trying to remember what he’d done that people seemed to like. He took as much of Louis in his mouth as he could but Louis was bigger than Harry had anticipated and it had been a while. He used his hand to make up for what he couldn’t, and he got to building a nice rhythm, relaxing his throat and jaw, and enjoying this more than perhaps anything.

He was getting spit all over his hand and he didn’t even know if he was doing a good job or not. But then he felt Louis’ hand twist in his hair and tug. Harry’s eyes popped open. He didn’t even know when he’d closed them. The moan that sounded in the space of the car could have belonged to either him or Louis.

“Fuck, Harry,” Louis practically whimpered. “You’re doing so fucking good—”

Harry sunk his mouth down further than he had before, desperate for more praise. Tears began welling up in his eyes but he kept going, moaning around Louis, maybe louder than Louis himself.

Louis pulled at his hair again. “Babe, I’m—”

Harry pulled off of him, pumping his hand over Louis. He’d try swallowing but he wanted to see the look on Louis’ face when he shot all over his hand and when Harry licked the mess from between his fingers. He wanted all of it.

“Oh, fucking hell…” Louis groaned, his accent stronger than ever. Harry would write that detail down in his journal later.

He felt Louis spill over his hand, hot and messy and beautiful. Harry got his free hand around Louis to finish him off. His other hand he brought to his mouth to lick clean. Louis’ eyes were bleary but focused on every flick of his tongue between his fingers. He used the grip he had on Harry’s hair to pull him in and kiss him so hard Harry swore his lips would bruise.

Harry’s hand fell away from Louis’ boneless dick. Louis’ kisses slowed down to gentle pecks. And then Harry dropped his head against Louis’ chest, breathing deeply through his nose.

After a minute, he felt Louis move carefully, trying not to jostle him. He heard him pull open the glove box.

“Let me clean you up,” Louis said quietly. He was holding a few restaurant napkins.

Harry still felt airy like he was floating out of his body and up past the roof of the car and into space. He tried to catalogue every sensation in that moment for later when he couldn’t believe any of this had happened.

Louis wiped Harry’s hands though Harry hadn’t missed anything. He cleaned off Harry’s dick enough to tuck him back into his pants. Harry zipped up his own jeans while Louis wiped himself down too.

“All done,” Louis smirked, dropping the napkins somewhere on the floor by his feet.

Harry smiled back. He pushed his slightly sweaty hair away from his forehead. “Time’s it?”

“Late,” Louis said unhelpfully. “Should probably take you home. School tomorrow, right?”

“Unfortunately,” Harry frowned. “Should we…I don’t know…do you think we should talk more about this?”

Louis started the car, not even bothering to button his shirt, which was kind of hot. Everything about Louis was hot. Harry still couldn’t believe any of that had just happened. That he'd touched him. All of him. “Tomorrow. After school. I’ll pick you up and we’ll just— we'll talk it out.”

“Okay. And maybe we could do what we just did again too?”

Louis huffed a laugh. “Can’t say I’d be opposed to that,” he said, glancing at Harry with a look that said he already wanted more. At least they agreed on that.

The rain was still going as they drove home, though it was much softer. In a way, it reminded Harry of him and Louis, heavy and wild moments ago, soft and quiet now.

When they pulled up in front of the house, every instinct told Harry to lean over and kiss Louis goodnight. But he wanted to end on a good note. He wanted to take this new victory and run with it. And maybe the fear was irrational but he worried that Louis might be apprehensive about that, now that the heat of the moment was gone. Harry didn’t know and he was too afraid to find out.

Harry opened the car door. “Good night, Louis,” he said smiling.

“Good night,” Louis returned his smile. “Sleep well.”

“You too,” Harry said, taking a step back. He gave a small wave and then he forced himself to climb out of the car and go inside.

Chapter Text

Harry dragged his fork through his Thai chicken salad, occasionally spearing an edamame bean, but he ate nothing. He kept doing that, back and forth with his fork, opting to chew on his thumbnail and stare at his plate like the answers to the questions and puzzles in his head were lying there in the combination of greens.

“Harry.”

His thoughts halted for a moment and his eyes drifted to Niall just as he was sliding back into his seat, the glass in his hand refilled with Coke.

“Hm?” Harry hummed.

Niall narrowed his eyes, wrapping his lips around his straw to take a long sip. “Why are you staring at your food like that? What’s up with you?”

Harry shook his head. “Nothing. I’m good,” he said with a smile.

“Yeah, okay,” Niall murmured. “That’s a nice mark you’ve got on your throat there.”

Harry’s hand flew to his neck. He knew exactly where it was because he’d spent twenty minutes staring at it in the mirror this morning and every other minute of the day since touching it the way he was now. He swore he could still feel Louis’ mouth there.

“I wasn’t gonna say anything,” Niall said. “But you’ve spent most of lunch just staring at your salad, so. Who’d you hook up with last night?”

Harry’s skin started to warm. He rubbed at his tired eyes, and reached for his cup of water, bypassing the straw to down the rest of water in his glass.

“You know I wouldn’t judge you or anything. I’m honestly just happy you’re not moping about Louis still,” Niall mumbled.

Harry choked on a laugh. “Right, well. It was Louis, actually. I made out with him in his car,” he said. Niall’s straw lolled out of his frozen mouth. Harry went on, “And then…I kind of…” Mindful of the people at the tables nearby, Harry discreetly gestured with his hand, poking his tongue against his cheek.

Niall’s eyes went wide. “You sucked—”

Yes,” Harry hissed to shut him up.

“What the fuck,” Niall said, flattening his palm on the table, leaning forward to speak quietly. “Mate, what happened to you being pissed with him about kissing you and then fucking off? What happened to you confronting him and getting angry? Punching him in the face, remember?”

Okay, Harry hadn’t meant that last part at all. He said it, yeah. When they were on the phone and Niall allowed him a full hour to rant about the kiss and the locket and Louis being Louis. He’d said something about wanting to punch him. But he would have to be out of his mind to ever actually put a scratch on Louis’ beautiful mug.

“I mean, I did. Not the punching thing. But I got angry. And then…I kissed him. And then…he was all…” he donned his best impression of Louis’ voice. “’No, Harreh, we can’t!’ And of course, I got angry again. And then we talked in his car…and he kissed me. And now…I’m not angry anymore.”

“That was riveting. Best story I’ve heard in a while.”

“Shut up,” Harry grumbled.

Niall was shaking his head in dismay. “Alright, so what now?”

Harry shrugged, his thoughts wandering again to Louis’ hands inching up beneath his shirt, searing along his back, and his mouth covering the spot on his neck where his blood thrummed especially fast. “We didn’t do much talking…”

“Don’t suspect you can with a cock in your mouth.”

Harry balled up a napkin and launched it at Niall’s forehead. Niall managed to duck and swat it away. It landed on the floor. Harry huffed indignantly, reaching down to snatch it up. He didn’t support littering, no matter the cause.

“What did you talk about?”

Harry placed the napkin at the edge of the table, pushing the wrapper from his straw over with it into a neat little waste pile. As he thought, his smile went dopey, his gaze filling with stars only he could see. “Part of it was how much we both wanted each other.”

Niall’s lips twitched with a smile. He managed to still sound unimpressed when he said, “Romantic.”

Harry poked at the ice in his cup with his straw. “It was, yeah,” he mumbled. Inevitable. That was the word Louis used.

We’re inevitable, we are.

Harry wanted to have that tattooed across his chest. He wanted to have Louis record himself saying it and he wanted to fall asleep listening to it on repeat. He dropped his face into his palm.

“I need to detox,” he mumbled. He was honestly so full of warm fuzzy feelings there wasn’t room for sensible thought. Or anything else really. He couldn’t eat. He hadn’t even gotten much sleep last night. This wasn’t healthy. He knew it wasn’t healthy. There was no reason one human being should have the power to do this to another human being, to make them feel more than they could possibly contain or handle.

Niall laughed. “You’re being a bit dramatic.”

Harry shook his head. “No, really. I’m all out of sorts. He’s coming to pick me up. And I don’t even know what I’m supposed to say or do.”

“Maybe you’ll figure that out together,” Niall offered simply. “Just…be careful. I like him, you know. He’s cool.”

“But,” Harry prompted.

Niall continued, “You’ve already hurt enough for him. You don’t need to anymore.”

Harry knew that. Even now he was worried about being hurt. That probably wasn’t healthy either. He needed to regain his sense of self-preservation going into this, whatever this was. Louis was being sensible about it all. So Harry would do the same.

“Come on. We have to get to class,” Niall said, starting to stand.

Harry nodded, his thoughts beginning to buzz again. And they didn’t stop for the rest of the day.

 

* * *

 

He cupped his hands beneath the faucet, collecting cold water in his palm. He shut his eyes, dipped his face into the small pool in his hands, the water soothing his tired eyelids. He collected more water, took a few gulps for his parched throat, and then shut off the pipe. He slapped his cool, damp hands against his cheeks, trying to work himself out of the haze.

He hadn’t been able to focus in any of his classes after lunch. He spent the last hour at school in the library, nestled in a window seat, watching the rain, and thinking as always of Louis. Of Louis speaking words into Harry’s ear and Louis’ arms wrapping securely around his waist. He thought of the kisses, the bites, and Louis’ eyes that seemed almost translucent in the moonlight.

He slapped again at his cheeks, giving his head a small shake.

“Jesus,” he whispered, glaring at himself in the mirror.

His right hand slipped down his pink cheek, fingers brushing the blotchy red mark at the base of his throat. His gaze flickered back up to his face in the mirror, found he was biting his bottom lip. He looked hungry. He was. Just clearly not for salads or anything, really—other than Louis’ mouth.

'I’m here.'

His eyes snapped down to his phone buzzing on the marble countertop. Another student bustled into the loo and into the stall behind him. Harry dropped his hands away from his face and lifted his phone and started to type a response.

'Be right there.'

He slipped his phone into his back pocket, turned the faucet on, and rinsed his hands a second time, and shook them out. He ran his damp fingers through his fringe, tucking his hair behinds his ears. He removed his tie and pulled his locket from under his shirt so it rested out in the open.

With a deep breath, he lifted the strap of his leather bag and slung it over his shoulder and headed back into the hallway.

It was just Louis. Harry knew Louis. Louis knew him. They were best friends now before they were anything else.

Harry stepped out of the glass doors, brisk winter wind wrapping around him, ruffling the fur trim on the hood of his coat. Louis’ car was parked just out front. Harry gripped the strap of his bag a little tighter and started toward it.

The tinted passenger window lowered before he got too close.

“Harry!”

His face fell for a second before he could coax out a smile. “Amanda,” Harry said as he stepped up to the car. “Hi.”

“Hey!” she called back.

Harry pulled the back door open and climbed into the car, his eyes meeting Louis’ for a half-second before Louis looked away and started the engine back up, shifting into drive.

“Buckle up!” Amanda twisted around in her seat to tell Harry. As if he’d spent the last 18 years of his life doing the exact opposite. As if he didn’t have a car and a license himself. As if the reason he wasn’t driving home on his own today was something other than being promised a conversation and maybe kisses and possibly orgasms with Louis.

Harry didn’t bother responding to Amanda, lest she detects the wrath prickling on the edges of his tongue. If he didn’t feel so wired, he could probably manage to be a bit kinder. As it was, he kept his mouth shut.

“Some things came up at the office. Have to swing back there for a bit,” Louis explained to Harry, without looking at him. He was driving, of course, but something felt off.

Harry hummed in understanding, shifting his gaze out the window.

“How was school?” Amanda asked Harry, still turned in her seat. Harry wished she would face forward. It was probably a safety hazard or something to sit that way the whole ride.

“Good,” he said as kindly as possible. “I was really just ready to get home.”

Louis’ eyes flittered up to his in the visor, fast enough that Harry would have missed it if he hadn’t been looking at him already. Louis returned his gaze to the road. And Harry glared out the window, unable to keep the pessimism from starting up in his head. How was it that he’d recently turned eighteen and still, in that moment, felt like he was eight?

Amanda continued asking Harry questions or relaying anecdotes from the office all through the ride. Harry watched the light rain trickle down his window and responded with half-hearted, barely attentive answers. He didn’t ignore her purposefully. He just couldn’t focus on a thing she said and she never noticed how little he focused.

By the time they pulled into the car park, Harry was one second away from losing his mind. He needed to take a big, big calming breath before he followed Louis and Amanda into the lobby. He waved to Paul and another security team member, greeted Joan, and shook hands with one of the board members who was on his way home. As they were approaching the lift, Harry asked, “Should I wait down here or…?”

“No, come up with me,” Louis said. Still not looking at him.

Harry released a quiet sigh, not loud enough for Amanda to pick up on. The last thing he needed was for her to ask if he was okay. Because he was half worried he would answer with the God’s honest uncensored truth.

Louis turned to Amanda suddenly and said, “Sorry. Do you mind asking Joan about those parcels from New York? Think they were supposed to come in today.”

The lift doors opened. Harry pressed his hand against them to keep them open.

“Oh! Sure,” Amanda said. “I’ll meet you both up there.”

Louis shot her a grateful smile as Amanda turned back and headed toward the receptionist’s desk. Then he stepped into the lift in silence. And Harry did too.

In Harry’s head, a million thoughts raced for his attention. But there was no way he could focus on any one of them with Louis finally alone and near enough that Harry could smell his cologne. He leaned against the opposite side of the lift, watching as the doors began to close.

What if Louis didn’t want him anymore? That was the thought that finally took over the others. Because it was the only explanation he could think of in the moment for how blatantly chilly Louis was being. Somehow between last night and this moment right here, the spark had died and Harry’s brief bout of good luck had run out. Maybe Niall had seen this coming.

Harry had hurt enough for Louis. And he couldn't do it again. He took a deep breath, readying himself to say something when the doors closed. He had to say something.

The doors closed with a thud and Harry turned, finding Louis stepping right into his space, sliding his hand over Harry’s hip, pushing him back into the corner of the lift.

“Lou—“ Harry began, his voice immediately smothered by Louis’ mouth on his own.

He was pressed backwards until there was nowhere else to go. He let his mouth fall open, let Louis push their tongues together, and he focused on kissing back and trying not to fall apart. The last time they’d kissed had been less than 24 hours ago and yet the pressure of Louis’ lips felt like something Harry had been without for years. It’d been too long. If possible, Harry wanted to spend every moment of every day from here on out kissing this man.

But he only had him for ten seconds before the lift slowed and chimed as it came to a stop on another floor. Louis tore his lips away from Harry’s mouth, putting an ample amount of distance between them by the time the doors opened. Harry licked his bruising lips, mumbling a “good afternoon” as two people entered. They shot him wary glances, probably thinking he was ill. As he looked at his face in the reflection on the shiny metal walls of the lift, he saw how flushed and blotchy it was.

Harry cast a glance towards Louis, finding him focused intently on the lights illuminating above the doors. At least he looked similarly flustered. His ears and neck were red, his bottom lip tucked between his teeth. Harry settled into his corner of the lift, hoping their company exited soon.

They did eventually but by then more people had boarded in their place and as it turned out, he and Louis didn’t get a chance to finish what they started. At least, not in the lift.

“Louis, there you are,” his mum said as soon as they stepped onto the floor.

She shot a smile Harry’s way. “Hi, love.”

“Hello, mum,” Harry said smiling. She shifted her gaze back to Louis.

“Before you leave today make sure you find those headshots for Alice that we talked about. And send me Gemma’s reviews as well. Harry’s too.”

Huh. Harry looked to Louis for an explanation but should have known he wouldn’t get one now.

“Will do,” Louis assured her. Amanda stepped off the lift behind them and Harry groaned inwardly. He just wanted to get Louis alone again.

“Joan says the parcels aren’t coming in ‘til Monday,” Amanda said apologetically.

“Not the ones from George,” Anne cut in.

Louis grimaced. “Not to worry. I’ll have him fax me over electronic copies to use until then.”

“Please do,” Anne said, sighing like late parcels were the most stressful thing to ever happen to a human being ever. Maybe it was for her. Harry had no idea what any of them were talking about.

His mum started to head into her office. Amanda stepped in after her. Harry started to follow them both, thinking Louis would too. But Louis got a hold of his elbow and tugged him past his mum’s glass doors.

“Come with me,” he said, dropping his hold. Of course Harry did, strolling past the employees milling around between their cubicles. He waved at a few of them, refused an offer for tea, and slipped into Louis’ office behind him.

As soon as he was inside, Louis pushed him as gently as possible against the wall beside the door, one of his hands curling around Harry's hip, the other reaching out to turn the lock.

Harry swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing, his eyes focused on Louis’ fingers twisting the lock, and then he turned his head and their eyes met.

He expected a repeat of the hot and heavy, slippery-mouthed snogging he got in the lift. But Louis just looked at him and finally he smiled, crinkly-eyed and genuine. So beautiful, it hurt.

“Hi,” he said quietly.

Harry’s whole body felt warm, the way it did when he sank into a bath, or after that first sip of tea. He returned Louis’ smile, his cheeks dimpling. “Hi.”

“I’m sorry I attacked you in the lift,” Louis said.

Harry shook his head, starting to laugh. “I liked it a lot actually. Feel free to do it again.”

“Well, if you insist… I’m sorry about Amanda. We had a marketing thing to take care of. Not like I could leave her in Kensington without a way to get home,” Louis said pitifully, and then he shook his head as if to ward off the rest of the story. “It’s not important.” His fingers brushed slowly over Harry’s hip, sliding under the hem of his button down. “I’m also sorry if I was weird earlier, in the car. I don’t— I’m just not sure how to act around you or look at you or talk to you. I think people can read it on my face or something.”

Harry watched Louis’ fingers trail over his hip bone, unconsciously leaning against his touch, chasing the warmth of his fingers. “Read what?”

“How gone I am. Lost might be a better word. Like a kid by himself in an amusement park,” Louis said. “That’s me with you.”

Harry ducked his head when he smiled, his face heating, and laughed. “Shut up,” he mumbled. He drummed his fingers against Louis’ chest. “Is this what you say when you’re actually trying to woo someone?”

Louis shrugged. “Dunno. Is it working?”

Like he even had to ask. “Already has,” Harry said serenely, all of the panic from earlier seeping away from his body. “I was worried though. Didn’t know if things would be different today. I started to think—”

“What?” Louis stepped a little closer, his shiny shoe sliding between Harry’s, their chests pressed together.

“Like maybe you didn’t want this anymore?”

Louis smirked. “I think I would have to be crazy to not want you after last night.”

“Think you made that clear in the lift,” Harry said smugly.

“Right. Not my smoothest display of affection. But it’ll do,” Louis said, chuckling.

On the contrary, Harry would ride the lift all day, up and down the 30 floors of Styles’ Inc., if it meant having Louis kiss him the way he had then. But if he said so, it would all just go to Louis’ head.

Anyway, Louis was close enough now that Harry could reach out, press his hand against his chest, and feel the vibration of Louis’ laughter there. He pushed his hand under Louis’ blazer, running his palm against the smooth material of his dress shirt and the firm pectoral muscles underneath. Louis’ laughter slowed and dimmed into silence.

“I think we should kiss now,” Harry suggested.

Both of Louis’ arms encircled his waist. “Hm, really? I was going to suggest a game of chess…”

Harry grabbed at the collar of Louis’ blazer and pulled him in. Louis laughed into the kiss. It happened slowly at first, but no matter how Louis kissed him, it was always good. Urgently or patiently, it took Harry apart just the same. Louis’ soft lips coaxed his mouth open, his fingers spread on Harry’s hips.

“We should talk,” Louis said when they pulled away for breath.

Harry nodded, fitting his mouth over Louis’ earlobe. “Let’s talk then,” he murmured before sucking gently.

Louis groaned and sighed contentedly, giving Harry’s hip a squeeze.

“When can you take me home?” Harry asked him.

“Now,” Louis answered. “Just let me finish—”

“Louis.”

They froze, Harry tearing his mouth away from the spot below Louis’ ear. The sound of Anne’s voice cut through the room like a bitter wind. Harry pressed his hand against his own mouth to keep from making a sound.

Louis cleared his throat, directing his voice to the phone on his desk. “Yes?”

“Good, you’re still here. Is Harry still with you?”

Harry saw him swallow. “He is.”

“Great. Could you both stop by my office before you leave?”

“Yes, of course. We’ll be right there,” Louis said, his voice remarkably steady. They heard the phone click off.

Louis looked at him. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” he said quietly.

“Do I look worried?” Harry asked.

“A little, yes,” Louis said honestly. And okay, Harry was a “little” worried. But only because he didn’t want anything to change Louis’ mind about them. At every turn, it seemed like anything could come along and ruin this budding thing, their growing romance that Harry wanted so badly to protect.

Louis leaned forward and dropped a quick kiss on Harry’s mouth. “We’re alright. Come on.”

Harry took a deep breath and then he followed Louis out of his office, grateful at least that his mum’s voice had obliterated any signs of…arousal for them both.

They stepped into his mum’s office shortly after and Louis stepped back to allow Harry to enter first. Harry slipped his hands into his pockets in case they were shaking and met his mum’s gaze over the rim of her glasses. There was another woman in the room. Carly, Harry thought her name was.

Harry nodded to her. Louis stepped into the room behind him and pulled the door shut.

“Have a seat, love,” Anne said.

Harry didn’t like this at all. Normally when he had bad vibes, they weren’t wrong. He glanced at Louis fleetingly before he proceeded to the white leather armchair. Louis smiled reassuringly.

His mum leaned forward, hands folded in her lap, smile gentle and so much like when he was a little boy. But not the same one. Never the same one.

His mum handed him her iPad. “These are reviews on your appearance in Berlin. All positive.”

Harry dragged his thumb down the screen briefly. He shot another discreet glance at Louis, standing over by his mum’s desk, desperate for some sign as to where this was going. He got nothing.

“Everyone was marveled by your return,” Anne said, smiling proudly.

Harry pasted a smile on his face. He nodded. “That’s good. Yeah, I’m happy to hear that.”

“Of course so am I. Now…As you know, London Fashion Week is in two weeks.”

Harry’s heart sunk. He clenched his jaw. “I’m aware.”

“There’s not enough time to work you into the show. And Carly, Louis, and I all decided it was best to hold off until after Berlin to see how you performed.”

Harry glanced again at Louis and found him frowning. He looked apologetic too. And maybe that worried Harry most of all.

“And since you performed so well,” Anne continued. “Carly thinks it might be possible to work you into the show. You’d only walk once as of right now and just for Styles. But it’ll be great for PR. And it shouldn’t require much rehearsal since you aren’t included in the opening act.”

Harry was looking down at his hands by the time she stopped speaking, twisting his ring around his finger. His ears and neck felt hot, which was embarrassing. He hated to think he was blushing.

He couldn’t even find words to say. And clearly, he took too long to respond because his mother eventually prompted him. “Harry,” she said, her voice kind but urgent, confused, like his current reaction might be a surprise to her, like he hadn’t made it clear enough how he felt about fashion and runways and burning candles on both ends over sketches and sewing machines.

Harry craved a different kind of art. The kind you forged with just the right twist of a whisk and the right pressure to fresh dough. The kind that came after you’d dusted a clean surface with crisp white flour and sprinkled sugar over pastries so they might caramelize. His eyes lit up the way hers did after he mastered another of Ivor’s recipes or tweaked it and made it his own.

How was it possible that she still didn’t understand? Maybe—and before the thought was even complete, Harry knew he was right—maybe she just didn’t want to.

“Maybe we should give him time to think about it.”

That was Louis. His voice was warm and sudden in the room and dragged Harry out of the sludge in his head. His gaze snapped to him just as he was stepping closer.

“It’s a stressful time for him right now. With exams and university acceptance letters on the way. There’s a lot for him to think about. Right, Harry?” He didn’t wait for Harry to respond. “Perhaps you can take some time, make sure your school schedule allows for this kind of commitment. However small, we do want you to be responsible about studying.”

Anne was looking at Louis, her chin resting gently on her fist. And then her gaze shifted to Harry, contemplative and unsure.

All Harry knew was that he’d been given a way out. When he looked at Louis again, he saw his lips twitch with a small smile.

“Yeah,” Harry said. He cleared his throat and exchanged glances with his mum and Carly. “I’ll take some time to look over my schedule if that’s alright. And I’ll have an answer for you as soon as possible.”

His mum didn’t seem pleased with this answer. She wasn’t used to being denied like this, let alone by her own children, and in the company of others at that.

But she would concede for now. She must have realized she didn’t have a choice.

“Very well, dear,” she said with a smile.

Harry placed the iPad on the table and stood. “Have a good evening then. I’ll see you later.”

She nodded, still smiling, still clearly displeased. Harry turned and left the room, hoping Louis was right on his heels, hoping Louis would get him the hell out of here.

 

* * *

 

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Harry shook his head, circling his thumbs around themselves idly. “Not really.”

Louis cut the engine off and they sat for a minute in the drive in silence. He reached over and took Harry’s hand in his and pressed a kiss to his palm. Harry’s whole body suddenly felt warm, his eyes drifting to his right.

He knew that someday if he and Louis lasted as long as he wanted them to, it wouldn’t be so easy for Louis to pull him out of a sour mood. Eventually, he would get used to Louis touching him like this and a simple kiss wouldn’t make all the worry and anxiety of everyday life disappear.

But right now, he was young and in love and the lightest of Louis’ touches could change everything.

“We’ve got to get you to cheer up then,” Louis told him.

Harry lifted his brows. “How?”

“Well, we’re together,” Louis shrugged. “That’s a good place to start.”

Harry’s smile grew. “Good point.”

“Let’s go see what we can do for dinner,” Louis squeezed his hand gently. “Come on, Sunshine.”

Louis turned the lights on as they progressed through the house. Harry kicked off his shoes before following him toward the kitchen.

“So what were you in the mood for?” Louis asked.

Harry sat down on Louis’ couch, one leg folded beneath the other. He pushed his hair away from his eyes. “What were you planning on having?” he asked, watching Louis pull off his blazer and drop it over the back of a chair.

Louis rubbed at the muscles near the back of his neck. He looked around his kitchen like the answer was lingering there somewhere.

“I make really good spaghetti,” he said at last.

Harry smiled, leaning against the back of the sofa. “Do you?”

Louis stood with his hands braced on his hips. “You sound unconvinced,” he said, narrowing his eyes. Harry just wanted to skip dinner and have Louis instead.

“No, I’m a believer, I promise. Your lasagna was really good,” Harry said. “Can I help?”

“You, the chef? Can you help me make dinner?” Louis said, his brows raised. He shook his head in disbelief. Harry’s lips curved in amusement. “Yes, Harry. Just let me go get changed.”

“I think I’ll run over and do the same. Have to let Bacon out too,” Harry said. “Meet back here in ten?”

“Hmm. No, I think I’ll make it back here in eight because I’m faster than you. And you’ll make it back in ten.”

It always took Harry by surprise sometimes when Louis slipped into his little kid mode. He could go from business professional to rampant teenager in the space of a second.

“That’s not even fair. You have an advantage ‘cause you live here.”

“Call it what you want, Harry. But we’re officially racing as of right…now,” Louis said. And then he was gone, literally bolting toward the stairs. Harry squawked and dashed out through the back door, not even bothering with his coat or his shoes.

He passed Gemma sitting at the kitchen counter, shooting off a “Hey, Gem,” as he raced up the stairs already peeling off his uniform shirt. The thing was he didn’t just want to throw on anything because you know, he was still trying to tempt the man. But like, there was no time for picking out anything carefully. He had to tug on sweats and a white t-shirt and hope he was pulling off that natural boyish allure.

“DidyoutakeBaconout?” Harry gasped to his sister on his way back through the kitchen.

“You are not speaking English,” Gemma said in disbelief.

“Bacon,” Harry repeated, out of breath and out of time. “Did you take him out?”

“Yeah, like thirty minutes ago. Where are you going? Thought we were going out tonight?”

“Right, I can’t. I’m…hanging out with a friend,” he said.

Gemma shook her head. “Do I look daft to you, H? You don’t even have shoes.”

Harry exhaled. “Don’t tell mum.”

“Now you’re just being offensive. Bye,” she said with a wave of her hand, lifting her teacup. “Tell Louis I said hello.”

Harry shot her a smile and then he pushed open the glass door and dashed back across the yard.

Louis was chopping tomatoes when he arrived. Harry braced his hands on his knees, panting for breath.

“Regardless of whether I live here or not, I not only changed faster than you, I’ve also managed to start dinner,” Louis said haughtily, chopping away.

Harry stepped up to the counter. “Your shirt is on inside out.”

The knife in Louis’ hand stilled. “Is not.”

Harry raised his brows. Louis pulled at the back of his shirt, saw the tag sticking out where it was supposed to be hidden, and swore. “I still win,” he said, his voice muffled as he whipped off his shirt.

Harry’s laughter died in his throat, his eyes trailing over Louis’ bare torso. Louis pulled his head and arms through his shirt and his eyes met Harry’s. And it wasn’t like Harry had been trying to hide all the want in his gaze. Louis saw it and reflected it back. Harry turned away to look through Louis’ fridge for an onion and a few herbs and the final, fading shred of his sanity.

Making spaghetti turned out to be more fun than any pasta dish had a right to be. Harry played Louis his “I’m a Chef” playlist, which Louis laughed about for a few minutes before admitting that Harry’s song choices were actually motivating. Of course, they were.

They sliced Italian sausage and made dick jokes because at the end of the day they were both less mature than they let on. Harry added a splash of wine to the tomato sauce and a dash of cardamom because it had a sweet flavour that went well with the sausage. When he explained himself to Louis, he simply held his hands up, surrendering his kitchen to Harry’s devices.

“You’re the boss here,” he told him. Harry liked the sound of that.

When “Play The Game” by Queen came on, Harry used his wooden spoon as a mic, cleared his throat, and started his serenade, throwing left over leaves of thyme into the air like confetti.

“I’d bet a million pounds Ivor’s said something to you about wasting ingredients,” Louis said over the music, watching Harry spin around him.

“Shut up and dance with me,” Harry said, grabbing Louis’ hand and forcing him to twirl him.

“I think you’ve had enough wine,” Louis said.

“I think you aren’t dancing,” Harry countered, sliding his arm over Louis’ shoulder.

“You’re ridiculous,” Louis said, his hand falling to Harry’s waist, and he swayed with him in spite of his words.

“And you like it,” Harry murmured. “’Cause you like me.”

Louis smiled and he didn’t confirm it but the twinkle in his eye made it so he didn’t have to. He twirled Harry willingly this time like the kitchen had become their own little ballroom. For a second, Harry got a little lost in Louis, their mouths hovering close. It wasn’t until the sauce started to bubble and pop on the hob that their attention returned to dinner.

They made just enough for the two of them and ate it all with more wine and the final tunes from Harry’s playlist. They were spread out on the couch listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers when Louis murmured, “All we need now is dessert.”

Harry hummed in agreement. And then gasped, suddenly lifting his head off the armrest. “I have an idea,” he said scrambling up.

“Oh, no,” Louis grumbled and swatted at the pillow Harry threw his way. He was still laughing when he joined him once again in the kitchen.

“What’s the plan?” he asked, watching Harry pull flour and sugar onto the countertop.

“Cake,” Harry said, reaching into the cupboard near the stove for two ceramic mugs. He smiled, “In a mug.”

“Don’t usually fill my mugs with anything except tea,” Louis said. “But sure. I trust you.”

He would have to. He watched Harry mix the ingredients in both of the mugs. He stirred in a scoop of Nutella in each and sprinkled a few chocolate chips on top. “This will be so good you’re going to cry,” Harry said, dusting his hands off.

“Dessert shouldn’t make you cry,” Louis commented.

“Well, it’s going to happen anyway,” Harry said popping the mugs into the microwave. He punched in the time and grabbed two spoons. “Wait,” he said. “Do you have ice cream?”

“I always have ice cream,” Louis said.

“Fuck yes. I take back what I said. You’re going to sob. Weep,” Harry added. “Lament.”

“Wail? Scream bloody murder?”

“No to the last one. But the one before that, yes,” Harry said.

The microwave beeped and Harry removed the mugs and set them on the counter while Louis got the ice cream. He scooped out two big dollops, one for each mug, and Harry popped a spoon into the centre. “Have your tissues ready,” he said.

Louis rolled his eyes, lifting up one of the mugs, and Harry followed him back to the couch.

He didn’t weep or sob or whatever. But he kept moaning which was actually so much worse and he probably knew exactly what he was doing. Harry watched him, trying to feel self-righteous but really just wanting to cry himself the more he thought about every other way he could get Louis moaning like that.

“So good,” Louis said when he was finished, dropping his spoon into his mug.

Harry scraped his spoon along the bottom of his mug. “Well, I made it. So.”

“God, you’re so smug,” Louis said. “Come here.”

Louis hooked an arm around his waist, pulling him into his space. Harry lost interest in the last bit of chocolate in his mug. His laughter trickled off, his eyes falling to Louis’ mouth. Louis took the mug out of his hand and set it on the coffee table beside his own. And then he leaned in.

Harry once made out with a model at one of his mum’s shows in Paris. He was a lad Harry had seen at a party or two named Rafael. Harry allowed himself to get wrapped up in the poetics of his French words and the smell of his Chanel cologne. He couldn’t remember ever having an actual decent conversation with him and it was a wonder he even remembered his name. But none of that had mattered in the moment because he was the best kisser in all of Harry’s teenage years.

At least, before Louis.

Every kiss he shared with Louis was a million times better than all of the ones he’d shared with Rafael, with anyone. Louis knew just how to kiss him. The movement of his lips was personalized for Harry. The way he breathed against his mouth and alternated between slow and urgent, it was all perfect for him. His tongue was warm and gentle, just enough to have Harry squirming by the time Louis pulled away.

Harry locked his legs around Louis’ waist. “Don’t stop. Please.”

Louis leaned away from him anyway. “I love how much you want me, Harry. You have no idea how good that feels.”

And Louis had no idea how much Harry wanted him. Harry stared up at him blearily. “Then why are we stopping?”

“Patience is a virtue, babe,” Louis said. Harry rolled his eyes. This coming from one of the most impatient people Harry had ever met.

“I love how honest you are,” Louis continued, running his hand up and down Harry’s thigh. “I haven't been very honest with you and I’m sorry. I’ve always wanted you, though. I mean that. But should I tell you when I knew for sure?”

Harry nodded. “Please.”

“After Asshoff came into the picture.”

“Azoff. Be nice.”

“Sure, whatever,” Louis said with a teasing smile. He seemed to be thinking his next words over carefully, his eyes trailing over Harry’s mouth. “You know…you have lips that should be kissed every day. All the time, as much as you want.” Harry’s eyes flittered away for a second. Kind of hard to maintain eye contact when Louis spoke like that. Louis continued on, “I’ve always wanted to kiss you, even when I felt like I couldn’t, even when you were with someone else.”

“And you…” Harry mumbled.

“Yes…me too,” Louis confessed. “Remember that staff lunch, the one before you went to Barbados? Jeff was sitting there with you, sharing your lemon meringue pie. And for no reason at all, he leaned in and kissed you. Do you remember?”

Vaguely… Though Louis was wrong about there being no reason for the kiss. Jeff kept going on about how lemon meringue pie was honestly the worst thing he’d ever tasted. And Harry was so offended he was two seconds away from shoving a forkful down Jeff’s throat and ordering him to reconsider.

Somehow he convinced him to just try it himself, which led to Jeff admitting that he must have had a bad first experience. And then, as an apology for challenging Harry’s culinary expertise, he’d given him a kiss.

It was quick and simple and not particularly memorable. Harry didn’t go into detail about it because he didn’t think that was the point of Louis bringing it up.

It wasn’t the first time they’d kissed in front of Louis either. There had been the awards ceremony and once when Jeff stopped by the office and Louis was standing in the hallway, looking annoyed and fidgety.

Admittedly, Harry had always been a little thrilled at the thought that Louis might be jealous. But whenever he kissed Jeff, it was because Jeff wanted to kiss him and not because Harry was fishing for reactions from Louis. He wasn’t so cruel.

Anyway, it seemed like the lemon meringue pie kiss bothered Louis in particular.

“You were all smiles the whole time and you looked at me maybe twice. And I just kept thinking about it. Drove me crazy thinking about it. And then it all just clicked.”

Harry smiled warmly, running his hand idly over Louis’ tatted forearm.

“I want to be honest with you from now on. The way you’ve been with me. I want you to know that I care about you. So much more than you know. And you make me feel things I don’t understand just yet.”

This was amazing, hearing Louis say this to him. Harry swore he was going to wake up any minute.

Louis’ hand slipped away from where he was holding Harry’s thigh and instantly Harry’s smile turned to a frown. Because that wasn’t the goal at all. Louis was meant to keep touching him.

“I think you need to tell your mum no.”

Harry blinked, totally, completely caught off-guard. Talk about a mood killer. “I don’t want—”

“I know you don’t want to talk about it. And I don’t want to force you to. So we won’t talk about it. I’ll talk and you can listen,” Louis said. Harry clenched his jaw, looking very much like a petulant child. Louis slipped out from between Harry’s legs and sat back on the couch.

“You should tell your mum how you feel, Harry. You should be honest about your feelings and I know you can be because you did it with me. And it worked.”

“You tricked me. I thought you were being sweet.”

“You don’t think I’m sweet?” Louis questioned, his eyes practically twinkling with an edge of mischief. Harry didn’t answer. Being stubborn was working for him. “I want you to be happy. You deserve that. You deserve to have everything you want in life.”

“I have you now. Maybe that’s good enough.”

Louis smiled sadly. “Babe--”

Harry huffed in frustration. “You don't understand, Louis. Sometimes it seems like this is all she has. Like this is the only thing that makes her truly happy. And I don’t want to ruin this too,” Harry exhaled, his eyes stinging. He wouldn’t cry. He was merely frustrated. “I just keep hoping that she’ll just get it. That maybe eventually she’ll just see how unhappy it makes me?”

He held his breath and clenched his fist to suppress tears the way he did when he was a boy. It always worked.

“You can cry. It’s alright,” Louis said, holding his hand again.

Harry shook his head. He breathed out. “I don’t want to cry. I’m fine.”

Louis stayed focused on him, just in case Harry changed his mind and burst into tears. Harry shuffled closer and rested his head against Louis’ shoulder, partly to have the comfort of his warmth, partly to hide from the look in his eyes. Louis wrapped his arm around him and after a moment, he spoke again, “I think you’re one of the bravest people I’ve ever met. I love that you take matters into your own hands. I love that you go after what you want.”

Harry inhaled the scent of Louis’ cologne when he drew a shuddery breath.

“Sometimes people can’t see what’s right in front of them. Just like I couldn’t…Not until you showed me. Maybe your mum is the same way? But I know you can make her see. You just have to try.”

Harry remained quiet as he thought it all through. It wouldn’t be as easy as Louis made it seem now. But then again getting Louis to see how perfect they were together hadn’t been easy either. If Harry could handle that, perhaps he could handle his mum too. He nodded. “Okay,” he said softly.

Louis dropped a kiss on the top of his head. “I believe in you.”

Harry was so in love with him. “I know,” he said. He stayed there, pensive and silent for a bit longer. And then he lifted his head away from Louis’ shoulder and their eyes met.

He pressed a simple kiss to his mouth. “Thank you.”

Louis smiled. “You’re welcome.”

Harry smiled back, his whole body warm and tingly. He kissed him again, a little firmer this time, prompting Louis’ mouth to open. Louis groaned softly when their tongues met. His hand came to rest on Harry’s waist.

“I don’t want to go back home,” Harry said breaking away.

“Then don’t,” Louis answered, kissing him again. “Stay with me.”

“I want—” Harry pulled him back overtop his body, his legs falling open. “I want you to touch me. And I want to touch you. And I don’t want us to stop.”

“Then let’s not stop,” Louis mumbled, his mouth on Harry’s neck, licking over the spot where he’d left his last mark. “Where do you want me to touch you?”

“Everywhere. Anywhere. It doesn’t matter. God, I’ve been waiting so long,” Harry babbled.

Louis moved between his legs, pushing his hips down on Harry’s, rutting up against him. Harry curled his legs around Louis’ waist, increasing the friction by pressing Louis closer. He could come like this. He could come no matter what Louis was doing maybe. But this was especially good.

Louis just kept grinding against him and every thrust of his hips felt amazing. It felt dirty and rough and frantic. Harry reached for the hem of Louis’ t-shirt and pulled it up and off, dragged his nails down Louis’ back. Their mouths found each other again. Harry panted eagerly against Louis’ tongue.

The way they were positioned, the way Louis was moving against him, it was so much like being fucked. And Harry wanted that so badly.

It was why he could never see himself doing it with Jeff, why he couldn’t imagine them building to that. He was always waiting for Louis.

And he had him now. In this way at least. And someday, maybe he would have more. Maybe he’d have Louis pushing into him and taking him, just the way he’d always wanted. Even the thought was too much.

Harry couldn’t hold out for much longer. Louis hadn’t even touched his cock, but he was close. He’d been storing up all this tension for hours, all this need, and there was no room left for more.

“Shit, yes,” Harry breathed. “Louis…” he started to warn.

Louis pulled away, leaving Harry confused. “Not like this,” he said, his voice rough. “I want you naked and on my bed.”

Well, fuck. Harry was probably just going to come anyway. He squeezed his eyes shut. “Fuck, okay. Yeah, I want that too.”

“Come on,” Louis said, tugging Harry off the couch with him. Harry pulled off his shirt along the way, so grateful he was wearing sweats because Louis could remove them easily. He was so hard it almost hurt.

In the next minute, he was sprawled on Louis’ bed, stripped of his sweats and his pants, and Louis was crawling back over his body, kissing and biting along the column of his neck, down over his chest. He latched his mouth around Harry’s nipple and Harry keened, swearing out loud. He ran his hands through Louis’ soft feathery hair as Louis moved to his other nipple, biting down gently.

He knew there were still questions to ask Louis, things to sort out. He knew there were a million and one things that could go wrong between them, that no matter how right this all felt, it could still fall apart. But right now, he was reeling from Louis’ mouth and hands all over him, from his newly bestowed access to Louis’ body whenever and perhaps wherever he wanted.

Right now, there was no one to disturb them or force them apart. This moment was theirs to do with as they pleased. And it pleased Harry very much to have their mouths and their bodies together.

"You're shaking," he heard Louis say, removing his shiny mouth from Harry’s skin. His face was flushed, his eyes darker than Harry had ever seen them. He looked at Harry like he wanted to devour him. And Harry wanted that too.

"Am I?" he breathed, way too keyed up to be embarrassed.

"You are. Do you want me to stop?" Louis asked.

"Fuck no," Harry said. “I think it’s a good sign. It happens when I’m excited usually. Like…when I’m waiting for a new recipe to finish in the oven.”

Louis stared at him. He dropped his head against Harry’s chest and his shoulders shook as he laughed. “Wow…”

“And when you touch me,” Harry added. “It happens then too.”

Louis smiled. He pressed a kiss to Harry’s tummy and continued moving downward. “What about when you’re about to come?”

Just then a tremor worked its way over Harry’s body. “Um—that too, yeah.”

“How about when I do this?” Louis sucked gently on Harry’s inner thigh, cupping the back of his knee to hold his legs apart.

“Yes,” Harry said emphatically. “Especially that. Please.”

Louis was moving closer to his neglected and very jaded cock, which in Harry’s opinion was the only thing that mattered. He trailed warm kisses down Harry’s thigh until he reached his groin and paused.

“Please,” Harry said again. He didn’t even know what he was asking for. But Louis was right there. All he had to do was—

Louis wrapped his mouth around the tip of his cock. Harry’s hips came up off the bed. Louis threw his forearm across them and pinned him back down.

“Fuck, I’m sorry…” Harry groaned, covering his face with his hands. He peeked out through his fingers. “Sorry.”

Louis didn’t respond. There was a twitch to his mouth and a gleam in his eyes right before he started in on him again. He ran his hand up and down Harry’s thigh and worked his mouth over him, urgent but gentle and so unbelievably good.

Harry was bound to come as quickly as he did. He only had Louis’ mouth for perhaps a whole minute before he was coming, down his throat the way Louis instructed him to.

“Have you ever fucked a man before?” Harry asked, long after they'd cleaned themselves up.

Louis’ brows creased. And yeah, Harry understood how he’d caught him off guard. Right before that, they’d been talking about mug cakes.

“A few times, yeah,” Louis eventually answered. “In university mostly. After I started hanging around gay bars with Zayn.”

Harry ran his fingers along the stubble on Louis' chin as he spoke. Louis turned and pressed a surprise kiss to the tips of his fingers. Harry smiled. “Has anyone ever done it to you?”

“Sure. A few times,” Louis repeated.

“Oh,” Harry’s voice trailed off. Louis was just watching him, waiting for him to get to the point. He lifted Harry’s locket gently, sliding his thumb over the surface. He was so beautiful like this. Harry thought Louis was beautiful all the time. But there was something so nice about seeing him in bed, at peace and leisure.

“I haven’t,” Harry finally murmured. “Like been fucked or done the fucking.”

Louis looked up from the pendant. "Why not?"

Harry shrugged. "Waiting for the right time, I guess," he said. “And— I don’t know— I guess it’s silly but the right man too.”

Louis’ eyes lingered on his mouth for a moment. “That’s not silly at all,” he assured him.

Harry smiled gratefully. "Was it nice? With those men?"

"Most of the time.”

Harry leaned in for a random kiss. Because he could do that now. "Do you think—" he mumbled ghosting his lips over Louis'. “Do you think it'd be nice with me?"

Before Harry could kiss him, Louis drew back. A million different emotions collided in his eyes before he could settle on just one. He pulled Harry in and fit their lips together. "You'd be perfect," he murmured. "You are perfect. Harry, you—”

"What is it?" Harry prompted him, a little overwhelmed by Louis’ sudden passion.

Louis shook his head, pressing more kisses to his mouth.

"Anyone would be lucky to have you,” he said.

Harry let that settle in his head. He ran his hand up Louis’ back and over his bicep and his forearm. "What if I want you to have me?"

Louis let his forehead fall on Harry's shoulder with something like a groan. “Jesus,” he rolled away, onto his back. Harry pushed himself up onto his elbow and peered down at him. His stomach felt a little queasy. He couldn’t tell if he was being rejected. And he didn’t know how he was meant to act if so.

“Should I not have asked?” he asked quietly, dropping his gaze.

Louis massaged his forehead like he was getting a migraine. “That’s not it. You should feel free to ask or say whatever you want,” he said. He took a breath. “I still feel like I’m doing something wrong. Not all the time. But when you ask me things like that, when you’re so innocent about it, it feels like I’m taking advantage of you or something.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Louis…I appreciate you being honest with me like you said you would. But I’m not a kid. And I’m not innocent.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Louis countered.

“The only way you could take advantage of me is if I’m at a disadvantage, which I’m not. I know what I’m getting myself into. And I know what I want. And you technically work for my family so if anything, I’m taking advantage of you.”

Louis snorted a laugh. Harry flicked his nipple.

“I’m being serious,” he said.

Louis just looked at him, his expression sort of resigned.

Harry rested his head on his chest and the angle was uncomfortable but their gazes held. “I want you to fuck me.”

Louis shut his eyes and exhaled quietly.

“Do you not want to?” Harry asked.

“You’re taking the fucking piss,” Louis groaned. “Of course I do. Have you seen yourself?”

Harry laughed. He turned his head to press a kiss to Louis’ chest. “Then it’s settled, yeah? It doesn’t have to be now. When the time is right…”

Louis ran his hand through his hair. “You’re going to ruin me, Styles.”

Harry grinned and pushed himself upright again, climbing into Louis' lap. “Let’s ruin each other.”

 

* * *

 

Harry drove his car to school Monday morning, refusing a ride from Niall and Robin. It was another half day which meant he’d get out around noon. His plan was to stop over at the bakery for his two-hour shift and then drive to the office to bring Louis a muffin, preferably followed by a lot of kissing in his office.

He was trying to keep this man, you know? It meant he had to put in some work.

George let him off thirty minutes early after Harry disclosed his plan. He was so supportive he even gave Harry two of the blueberry muffins that’d just come out of the oven.

Harry was now sat in his car, eating his yoghurt from lunch, and waiting for Louis to respond to his ‘Are you busy?’ message.

He also might have been avoiding his mother. It was 1:46 PM. He knew she was heading to a luncheon with a colleague around two, according to Amanda. He felt sorry for using Amanda that way, for calling and asking to speak specifically to her when he knew how much that might mean to her. But he couldn’t very well ask Louis and ruin his surprise.

Speaking of which...

'Not busy. Why? Coming to see me? :)'

Harry dropped his head back against the headrest and groaned. He was so cute.

'Nope. Just wanted to say hi.'

'Boring… but hi. x'

Harry sent an eye-roll emoji. 'So you’re alone in your office then?'

'You sure you aren’t coming to see me?'

'I might be sending you a picture. ;) Need to know you’re alone. Answer the question.'

'I’m alone.'

Harry locked his phone. It was 1:52. Good enough. He grabbed his pink paper bag of muffins and stepped out of his car. And headed into the building.

He had to channel a bit of stealth to make it to the 30th floor and past Amanda’s cubicle. He took the elevator to the 29th floor, got off, walked down the hall, and took the stairwell one flight up. It was a more direct route to Louis’ office anyway.

He pulled the stairwell door open and was tugged unceremoniously to the left.

Louis merely looked at him. “Was kind of looking forward to that picture, Harold.”

Harry pouted immediately. “How did you figure me out?”

“I like to believe I’m always one step ahead of everyone else. I also like to believe I know you a little better than you think,” Louis explained. “We can’t go to my office. There are scaffolders.”

“What?”

“There are men outside of my window, cleaning the windows, on a scaffold,” Louis said.

“It’s not like they’ll tell. And anyway I simply wanted to share these delicious muffins with you. Just a totally innocent muffin date.”

“Hm. And here I was, looking forward to kissing you.”

Harry’s insides went mushy. “You’re impossible.”

“I know.” Louis tugged him a little further down the hall and stopped in front of one of the black doors. He swiped a key card hanging off his pocket. The door beeped softly and he pulled it open, nodded for Harry to go in.

Harry stepped into the dimly lit space, taking in the rows of shelves and the stacks of boxes, extra chairs, large fabric spools and mannequins in the space. The only light came from a small overhead skylight window.

Harry turned back to face Louis as he heard the door close softly.

“What a romantic little haunt you’ve chosen for our first date,” Harry commented.

“Shut up,” Louis said, right before he pressed their mouths together. Harry dropped the muffins on a box beside them and cupped Louis’ face in his hands. Kissing him seemed amazingly like the millionth time and the very first.

“Feel like I haven’t seen you in forever,” Louis murmured, pressing kisses to Harry’s neck.

Harry actually giggled. Being wanted by the only person who mattered—it did silly things to him.

Louis was suddenly on his knees. “I can make this quick,” he said.

“But the muffins…” Harry’s voice cut off when Louis pushed his mouth over his cock. He groaned, his back meeting the black wooden shelves behind him.

“Louis. Those muffins are fresh baked. And warm,” Harry whined.

Louis pulled his mouth off. “Sorry, would you like to stop and have them instead?”

Harry gazed down at him. “No…but…afterwards, we have to have them with tea while they’re still a little warm.”

“Alright. Might I continue now?” Louis asked, snippingly sweet.

“Yeah. Yes, please,” Harry said breathlessly.

This had to be the hottest thing Harry had ever done. He felt ridiculously naughty, stripping down in a supply cupboard in his mum’s place of business with an incredibly sexy man between his legs. He groaned, way too loud this time and slapped his hand over his mouth.

Louis reached past him to one of the shelves and held up a random scarf.

“Here,” he said. “It’ll help you keep your voice down.”

Like a gag. God, Harry felt so alive. He eyed the scarf with bleary eyes. “But, this is Burberry.”

“I don’t care, Harry.” Louis promptly sucked him back down.

Harry’s next moans were directed into the silk. But if anything the idea of being gagged only made him moan louder.

Afterwards, while his body still trembled from his orgasm, his hand fell limply away from his mouth, the scarf drifting like a feather to the floor.

“Harry,” Louis said disapprovingly, swiping the expensive silk up, despite it being slightly damp with his saliva. He made a show of dusting it off. “This is Burberry.”

Harry glared at him, though the intensity of it was lessened by him being head over heels. “Muffins,” he said firmly. “Now.”

 

* * *

 

“A little bird told me something particularly interesting recently,” Nick said as he slowed his car to a stop at a traffic light.

Harry looked up, meeting Nick's gaze in the visor, pausing on the message he was sending to Louis.

Gemma raised her hand. “That was me. I was the little bird. Guilty as charged.”

“You weren’t charged just yet,” Nick said. “Anyway, this was something Caroline told me.”

“Everyone’s just been talking about me then?” Harry grumbled,

“Not about you. About Louis,” Nick clarified. “And the girl he was dating.”

Any concern for the message Harry was working on evaporated just like that. It was a naughty message anyway and it could wait. “What’s that then?” Harry asked, leaning forward between the driver and front passenger seat.

“Apparently the girl he was dating—what’s her name?”

“Eleanor,” Harry supplied.

“Yes,” Nick said. “Caroline was at a party recently for a friend of hers, Kelly Hurd. Her brother’s name is Max. And he was there with a girl. Eleanor. But Caroline didn’t find that out till much later. Kelly mentioned that Eleanor and Max had always been good friends but Max wanted more. But Eleanor was in a long-term relationship with a man from university.

“And then Kelly said that they ended things rather suddenly a little while ago because this man found someone else.”

Instantly, Harry’s face felt warm.

“Kelly mentioned that Max knows the guy personally because Max is a model and the guy works for Styles. So now Caroline, of course, has more questions. She waits till Kelly has a bit more alcohol in her and asks for the man’s name. Of course, it’s Louis. And then she asks him if Louis was sleeping with this other person…

“And Kelly says no. She says ‘It’s his employer’s son. So he wouldn’t.’ But Eleanor suspected they had something going on anyway.”

Harry felt kind of awful. Aside from that one time at Nick’s party, he hadn’t ever deliberately tried to push Louis and Eleanor apart. Even on Louis’ birthday, he’d gone there thinking that things were already over or coming to an end.

He hated that he might have given off the impression that he was moving in on Louis behind Eleanor’s back. He hated that he and Louis hadn’t yet spoken about Eleanor, about what happened between them, and how much of a part Harry actually played in it. He wanted to know. He felt he had a right to.

Nick glanced at Harry again in the visor. “You know I wouldn’t judge you if you actually had been sleeping with him beforehand.”

“Of course not,” Harry said. “We haven’t even-- I mean, we've--”

Nick and Gemma exchanged a glance. “No need to explain to me, Harold.”

That was bullshit. Nick loved a bit of gossip wherever he could find it. “Anyway, I’m only saying this so you’ll be more careful. We wouldn’t want rumours reaching your mum. Don’t give people a reason to go around talking about you.”

And stop looking at him like the sun shines out his arse,” Gemma said. “You do this thing with your eyes, it’s so obvious.”

That wasn’t even Harry’s fault.

Louis had always been supremely attractive to him. But now, Harry knew what Louis’ body looked like under the clothes. He knew what his body could do. He knew what his skin tasted like, smelled like up close. How was he meant to ever stop looking at him the way he did?

“Noted,” he said anyway, sitting back in his seat. He lifted his phone again and then paused, narrowed his eyes at Gemma, “What was the thing you told him?”

Gemma had been slurping again on her Frappuccino. “Oh,” she said and laughed. “Just that you look at him like the sun shines out his bum.” She shrugged. “And that he looks at you the same way.”

Nick and Gemma grinned. Harry rolled his eyes and shook his head and directed his attention back to his phone. If his ears and cheeks were a little pink, thankfully they didn’t say a thing.

 

* * *

 

Contrary to what it might look like he really had come to the office for the purposes of meeting with his mum. He was going to tell her no like Louis urged him. Because if he didn’t do it now, if he kept putting it off for days and days, he would look up and find himself on the runway in a few weeks wondering how he’d gotten there.

Anyway. His mum was rather preoccupied that afternoon and it seemed like she wouldn’t get a chance to speak with him at all. He’d seen her twice since he’d shown up, passing through the halls like a shadow. Just now she’d even left the building for yet another lunch date.

Somehow he ended up in the studio…watching Louis sketch designs.

His glasses were on and his face was marked by deep concentration. His one leg was tucked behind the other and every now and then he’d lift his foot and rub the back of his calf.

He was wearing a loose dark grey cardigan over a black fitted shirt and trousers that were entirely too tight. All that jogging made his thighs look marvellous.

Harry sat in one of the black swivel chairs near the window, one leg tucked up against his chest so he could rest his chin on his knee.

“I’m thinking…something more like that,” Louis said to Allen and Rachel, two junior designers who were leaning in, watching him work. He stepped back a little so they could see.

“Love the A-line there,” Allen commented, his chin propped on his dainty hand, gesturing with a daintier flick of his fingers.

Rachel nodded. “What about different straps? I’m not sold on the thin straps.”

Louis tilted his head at the drawing and rubbed his hand over his scruffy chin. He was so hot. Harry thought he might be melting into his seat.

“Yeah…” Louis turned the page of the wide sketchbook. “I’ll try something else.”

“Sounds good. We’ll leave you to it. Page us when you’re all finished?”

Louis smiled affirmatively. Allen and Rachel wandered toward the door, striking up another conversation.

There were a few others in the room. Alice and Helen and Edwin and more people Harry didn’t remember, all with sketchpads or MacBooks, talking amongst each other, or working on their own.

Louis remained at that table near the center of the room, his face lit by an outstretched desk light, his tongue peeking out a little between his folded lips.

His hands looked delicate while he cradled his pencil. But they weren’t really. Not when they were pressing bruises into Harry’s thighs or stroking his cock or pulling him into a kiss.

Harry’s breath shuddered when he exhaled. He looked down at his phone and sent a message that simply read, "Hi."

Louis glanced at his phone resting at the edge of his desk. His eyes floated up to where Harry was sitting. Still, clutching his pencil, he gave a wiggle of his fingers.

Harry smiled. He chewed on the inside of his jaw as he started on another message.

'Storage room?'

Louis looked again at his phone and huffed a laugh. He lifted his phone and began typing quickly.

'Do you not like that I have a job?'

'We got away with it fine before.'

Louis read Harry’s response and tapped out his own. He placed the phone down on the desk beside him and picked his pencil back up.

Harry’s phone buzzed.

'Best not push our luck.'

Harry frowned and groaned quietly.

'So unfair. Those trousers are unfair.'

Louis glanced at his phone and then shot Harry a confused glance. What? he mouthed. Harry rolled his eyes and typed an explanation.

'Your thighs and your bum look amaaaaaaaazing.'

Louis read the message. He shook his head, the smirk on his lips bashful. He still didn’t pick his phone up, determined to finish his work. Harry was determined to be a nuisance.

'I dream about your bum. Like every night.'

Louis’ eyes flickered to his phone and then away. The smirk grew a little bigger.

'You want to know what I dream about doing?'

Louis’ eyes scanned the message. He made no attempt to respond, focusing again on his sketchbook.

'You sitting on my face.'

Louis glanced at the message and his pencil stilled.

'I bet you taste really good…'

Louis’ hand was completely frozen. His eyes were trained on the phone, waiting for Harry’s next message. The only movement he made was with his tongue dragging slowly over his bottom lip.

'And I kind of want to bury my face between your legs.'

Louis glanced at Harry, his eyes narrowed. And when his phone buzzed again, he read the message there and snatched the phone up off the desk.

'Or you could ride my tongue?'

Louis’ thumbs flew over the screen as he typed.

'Go to the storage room.'

Harry smiled, scrambling up and exiting the room as calmly as he could.

Louis gave him a two-minute head start, and then he was stepping into the closet, pulling the door shut behind him. He shoved Harry unceremoniously into the shelf, dismantling a stack of boxes piled beside them.

“You’re a fucking menace,” Louis said, before kissing him.

Harry smiled against his mouth. “I know.”

“And so impatient,” Louis added.

“I haven’t touched you all day. How am I supposed to be patient?” Harry breathed. “Can I suck you off?”

“I can’t right now. I have to finish this project in an hour. And I have to leave early today so we can make it to Zayn’s show.”

Harry’s brows creased. “What?”

Louis ran his hands up and down Harry’s lower back. “I told you about it a few days ago. Zayn has an art show tonight.” When the recognition still didn’t show on Harry’s face, Louis sighed. “I should’ve known you weren’t listening to me. I’m learning not to speak to you when you’re sleepy.”

Harry smiled sheepishly. “Sorry. Sounds like fun though. I’d love to go.”

“Good,” Louis said, stepping away. Harry frowned. “I really have to go. Stop distracting me.”

Harry’s mouth dropped open. “Louis. You’re wearing the tightest trousers you own. Who’s distracting who?”

“You’re cute.” Louis laughed, pushing the door open. “See you later, love.”

 

* * *

 

“Good evening and thank you all for being here. My name is Zayn Malik and I’m happy to present these paintings from my most recent series ‘Sorrows of Winter Songbirds.’

Big thanks to—it looks like—my entire family for being here, and my fiancé, Liam,” he said tilting his glass to where they were all grouped together. His eyes swept back over the crowd. “And yeah, hope you all have a fun time and of course, enjoy the art.”

He raised his glass, signalling everyone to do the same, and it was with a toast that the show began. Zayn stepped down from the stage as the chatter amongst the guests started up once again, and people collected in front of the pieces displayed around the room. Zayn made his way toward them, shaking hands with a few attendees as he passed by, laughing and hugging a few others.

He looked happy, practically bouncing with energy and excitement when he finally embraced his family. His mum dropped kisses all over his cheeks, patting his face with her two hands. His dad did the same. He gave one big group hug to his sisters and his cousins, accepted more kisses from aunts and uncles. And finally, he found Liam. He pulled him in with a hand on the back of his neck and dropped a firm kiss on his smiling mouth.

Liam hugged him for a moment, his face tucked into his neck, murmuring something just for him to hear. He ran a gentle hand over the back of Zayn’s head as he spoke, fingers threading through his silky hair. Light caught on the silver band around his finger. Harry watched them with a warm smile on his face.

When they pulled away from each other, Zayn stepped over to Louis and Harry. He hugged Louis and planted a kiss on his cheek.

“I’m glad you both made it,” Zayn said hugging Harry, clapping him on his back and smiling wide.

“Happy to tag along,” Harry said.

“Stick around a bit later. We’re all going for drinks. Me, Liam, my cousins and a few mates from home.”

Harry glanced at Louis for an answer. He didn’t know if he had other plans for their night. He found Louis as looking at him with his brows raised. “You want to?” Louis asked.

“Yeah. Sounds like fun to me,” Harry said much to Zayn’s delight.

“Cool,” he said still patting him on his shoulder. He was clearly keyed up. “Alright, I have to go say hi to those gentlemen over there. I’ll chat with you boys later.”

He scurried off, already with a big smile on his face as he held out his hand for one of the men to shake.

Louis collected two champagne flutes from a serving platter and handed one to Harry. “See the man on the right, white hair, red-framed glasses?” he said.

Harry scanned the group of men Zayn was talking with. “Yeah. Who’s he?” he asked, keeping his eye on them and raising his glass to his mouth.

“One of the richest men in London. His family owns one of the best mobile phone carriers in the UK and he’s opening that big Burlesque club in Soho,” Louis said. “Zayn’s chatting him up because he knows he’ll probably end up writing a fat check before the night is through. He could possibly even feature some of Zayn’s paintings at the club.”

Harry watched the man smiling brightly at Zayn. They’d already shaken hands but the man didn’t look ready to release Zayn’s hand any time soon. “Does he like him?” Harry asked Louis.

Louis’ brows creased in confusion as he shifted his gaze back to Zayn and his supposed benefactor. “Not sure,” he said with a shrug.

“I bet he has a cat,” Harry commented. Louis looked at him confusedly. “He’s petting his hand like one.” Louis choked a little on his champagne.

“No, seriously,” Harry said laughing, “Is it just me or is he drooling?”

“Don’t let poor Liam hear you,” Louis said, glancing at Liam standing with Zayn’s cousins. Every other second Liam’s gaze slid over to Zayn and the man and their joined hands. Harry and Louis glanced at each other and grimaced.

“Think he’s already figured it out then,” Louis said with another laugh.

He deposited his empty glass on a tray and grabbed another. His free hand snaked around Harry’s waist. “Come on. Let’s go look at these paintings.”

 

* * *

 

Harry drummed his hands on the edge of his stool while he waited for the bartender to serve up his and Louis’ drinks. Over by the small table that Zayn and company had occupied, Louis was speaking rather animatedly. He had the whole table in fits and giggles, as he was so good at doing.

Harry loved just watching him. He was convinced he could watch Louis do anything and still be wholly fascinated.

Louis happened to glance his way as he was shaking his head at Liam’s ridiculousness. And he looked imploringly at Harry as if asking to be saved. Harry simply laughed.

Zayn appeared beside him at the bar without Harry even noticing his approach.

“I’m quite sure that if you smile any harder, your face will get stuck that way,” Zayn said.

Harry was grateful that the bartender served their drinks right then, gave him a way to hide the blush creeping over his face and neck.

“You look like a ball of sunshine,” Zayn said, ducking his head to catch Harry’s avoidant gaze. “That talk of yours went the way you wanted it to then, yeah?”

“Much better, I’d say,” Harry told him.

“So things are good?” Zayn asked to be sure.

Harry glanced again at Louis. “Really good…”

Louis was holding Liam’s shoulder, rambling off about some story or another, Liam’s eyes crinkled with amusement. Liam started to laugh, so loudly he could be heard over the DJ’s music. Louis, of course, looked appropriately chuffed.

“I’m glad you didn’t listen to me.”

Harry pulled his gaze away and stared at Zayn.

“I’m glad you didn’t give up,” Zayn added. He popped the maraschino cherry from his drink in his mouth and chewed. “Come on, babes. Let’s grab our boys and dance, yeah?”

Harry was beaming, happier than he expected to hear Zayn say those words. He lifted his and Louis’ drinks from the bar and hurried after him. He didn’t know if Louis was his boy just yet. They hadn’t had that particular talk. And Harry wouldn’t feel completely confident introducing Louis as his boyfriend to anyone.

But he wanted that. Just like he wanted every other thing on this earth with Louis.

He slinked up to Louis’ side. And right away, Louis curled his arm around his waist, accepting his drink. Liam was leading Zayn toward the dance floor.

“You want to join them?” Harry asked.

“Hm…I don’t know,” Louis said, sounding purposefully whiny and unsure. “The last time we were on a dance floor, things got out a hand.”

Harry grinned. “Yeah but this time you can do something about it.”

Louis smiled. He downed the rest of his drink, prompting Harry to do the same. He placed his glass on the table. “Good point,” he said. “Off we go then?”

It got out of hand, of course. Because it was Louis. And Harry could only stand their bodies pressed together for so long before his restraint crumbled.

This time when Louis had his hand on Harry’s waist, he didn’t hesitate before sliding it down over his bum instead. This time, when their mouths hovered close, it only took a second before they teetered forward and deleted the space between them.

And grinding and kissing and being touched was great but eventually, especially after a few shots, Harry was bordering on obscene. He was hard and desperate and strongly considering grabbing for Louis’ junk. And he simply wanted to get his man home.

The way it finally happened was when Zayn remarked to Liam, loud enough for them to hear, “Jesus, new couples and their PDA.”

New couples, huh? Even in the fuzz of his head Harry picked up on that one. He looked at Louis. Louis looked at him, and then he shot Zayn a glare and a very regal middle finger.

“You want to leave?” he leaned in to speak into Harry’s ear.

Harry hoped that was code for ‘want a blowjob?’ Or ‘want my cock?’ All of which were guaranteed affirmative answers on Harry’s part.

Harry nodded and took Louis’ hand, waving to Liam and Zayn before they weaved their way through the slight crowd and back into the cool February air. Harry shivered as soon as it met his skin, bouncing on his toes while Louis hailed a cab. He swayed a little on his feet as they stepped toward the car door. Louis pressed a hand to his waist to steady him.

“Can’t wait till we’re home,” Harry murmured. “I want to touch you.”

Louis sighed and shook his head. “I’m not sure how I’m managing to keep up with you,” he said, lifting Harry’s legs across his lap. “Do you feel sick?”

“No. I feel great,” Harry said, sitting forward. “I like you so much, Louis. You’re my favorite person. You’re so great.” He pressed a kiss to Louis’ cheek. “So lucky to have you. So happy. You make me so happy.”

“Alright, love. I hear you,” Louis said, patting his leg. “When we get back, I’ll make you a cup of tea, yeah? Send you right off to sleep.”

“I don’t want to go to sleep. When we get back, I want your hands all over me,” Harry said. “I want— I want you to fuck me. I want that so bad.”

“Dear God,” Louis glanced at the partition, halfway lowered, enough for the cabbie to overhear them. Harry didn’t care.

“I want you to bend me over your desk. And—and over your couch. And I want you to fuck me in the shower and in your car. And my mouth, I want you to fuck my mouth. And—”

Louis covered Harry’s mouth with his own, pushing their tongues together. “You’re being obscene, Harold.”

“I want you so much.”

“I want you too,” Louis said, and he kept kissing him the whole way home. Maybe just to keep him quiet. But that was okay. Harry didn’t care about the reasons. So long as they got home and he got what he wanted.

Maybe not to be fucked. In the back of his inebriated head, he knew he wanted to be sober for that. He wanted to remember every second of that experience.

But he wanted to touch and be touched, to climb heights only Louis could get him to. Over and over with no end in sight, he wanted to fall apart with Louis. Have Louis put him back together. And do it again. And do it again.

In the foyer, before the door had even closed properly, he pulled Louis up against his body and let his hands continue their descent down his back until he could spread his palms out over Louis' bum.

"What I said to you earlier, I wasn't joking," Harry said patting Louis’ cheeks. "I’ve never done it before. But I want to with you. I want to see how you taste…"

“Harry,” Louis said. He huffed a quiet laugh, avoiding eye contact. “You’re being ridiculous. Come on.” He turned out of his grasp and took his hand to lead him up to his room. He dug his forefinger into the space between Harry's belt and his trousers and tugged him towards the bed.

"I think about it all the time," Harry murmured, while Louis undressed him, pulling his boots off first.

“You’re drunk, baby,” Louis said, depositing Harry’s shirt by the foot of his bed. “You need to sleep.”

“I’m not. I only had three shots,” Harry said.

“Four. You had four,” Louis corrected. “I counted because you weren’t keeping track. You drank the rest of my martini too.”

Harry shrugged. “Forgetfulness runs in my family,” he said. “You’re trying to distract me. I’d do a good job of it. I could eat you out for hours, I swear. I just— Just need a chance to prove it to you. For hours, Lou...”

“Harry,” Louis implored. His cheeks were pink.

“You don’t want that? Haven’t I proved it already, how good I can make you feel? Right? And you make me feel good too, so good, all the time. Let me do this for you. Let me—”

"Jesus, okay.” Louis actually looked flustered. He cleared his throat and said again, “Okay.”

“Can I please?”

“Yeah...yes," Louis said. "Whatever you want."

Harry kissed him again, squeezing him around the middle. "I want you. All of you. Every way I can have you.”

“I hear you, H. I hear you,” Louis said pressing his hand to Harry’s mouth. He started dropping kisses all over Harry's chest. When he caught Harry's nipple between his lips, Harry's mouth fell open with a silent gasp.

"Come on, Louis, please," he said. He liked Louis’ mouth on his nipples, sure. But that wasn’t the goal here.

“Lie down,” Louis instructed him and pulled away so he could undress. Harry scooted onto the bed and watched him, his tongue darting out to lick his lips.

"You want me to sit on your face?" Louis asked. "You're sure about that?"

"Fuck yes, please yes," Harry babbled.

Louis gave him a push against his chest until Harry fell back on the bed.

"You gonna fuck me good with your tongue?" Louis kissed him again, wrapping his fingers around Harry's wrists and pinning them above his head. And yes, this was what Harry wanted. He wanted it rough and just this side of crazy.

"Yes, yes, Lou, so good. I promise."

Louis straddled his chest first, still keeping his hands pinned. "If you need a break or you want to stop, just stop. If you're fine to keep going, just make sure I come."

He was teasing, evidenced by the little smirk he shot Harry, but Harry was earnest and eager and Louis had no clue what he was getting himself into. "Let me show you. You'll come, I promise."

Louis smiled again, amused, and then he moved up a bit more. Harry got momentarily distracted by Louis' dick in his face, but then Louis' ass was hovering right over his mouth and Harry didn't wait. He licked right over Louis' hole, felt Louis shudder, heard him swear. Harry's hands were still pinned, which was fine. He brought his feet up on the bed to plant them on the mattress and he flattened his tongue against Louis' rim.

He started off just licking and sucking him, wetting him up like this was the best, most passionate kiss he would ever give another person.

Louis laced their fingers together and pressed down on Harry’s hands. Harry could hear his breathing gone ragged, could feel him shivering every other second.

And when Harry pushed his tongue past the damp puckered skin, and heard Louis groan. Harry kept at it that way, pushing his tongue in and out, sucking, mouthing. He hadn't done this before, but a lack of experience had never stopped him from doing anything and doing it well.

"Oh, fuck," Louis said quietly, almost a whisper. "Holy fuck."

Harry pulled back. "Want you to move, please. Ride my tongue."

They managed to make eye contact. Harry licked beneath Louis' balls, sucked one into his mouth. Maybe he was a little drunk. Except on Louis, on his smell and his sweat and the little noises he'd never made for Louis before.

"Now, please, Louis. I can take it. Promise," he murmured, before he was pushing his tongue back inside.

Louis rocked his hips forwards and worked up a gentle rhythm. Harry could hear him swear each time he moved.

“God,” Louis breathed, pulling at his cock, his body trembling. He was close, Harry could almost feel the pressure building beneath Louis’ skin. “Harry…”

“In my mouth, Lou, please,” Harry said all in one breath, parting his lips for him as Louis’ hand stuttered over his cock. Louis shuffled backwards, his abs clenched as he reached out and gripped Harry’s hair in his hand. He groaned, his head bowed, his eyes screwing shut as the first blurt of come splattered across Harry’s tongue and his top lip.

Louis wasn’t focusing on his aim at all. He seemed to have travelled to some other place in his head and Harry didn’t mind so long as he had him physically. He held on to Louis’ thigh and moaned after a painful tug on his hair and another blot of come landing on his tongue and his cheek. He swallowed and quickly, craned his neck to fit his mouth over the head of Louis' cock and sucked at him messily, sloppily, his damp eyes focused as much as possible on the man above him.

Louis trembled through it, his beautiful lips parted as he gasped, as he watched Harry finish him off. “You’re a fucking...miracle,” he mumbled, the hand in Harry’s curls turning gentle and reverent like his words.

He pulled his cock free of Harry’s mouth, and planted his bare ass in Harry's lap. Harry was so close, so on edge already, just from pleasing Louis. He hardly needed to be touched. So when Louis rocked down against him, it was more than enough. Too much, even. Harry came blindingly, his eyes shut tight, hands balled up in the duvet.

“That’s it, love.” Louis kept riding him, back and forth as Harry spilled on his own stomach. “Wish you could see how perfect you look. So fucking perfect.”

Louis leaned over to push his tongue past his lips, taking and giving. He was painstakingly generous in both regards.

“You’re amazing,” he said as he peppered kisses over Harry’s flushed face. Harry still couldn’t speak, his chest heaving between them. Louis murmured into his ear, “Luckiest bastard in the world, I am.”

“I did good, yeah?” Harry spoke when he found he could. He was desperately in need of that tea. In that second, though, he had Louis. And that was enough. Always enough.

Louis dropped another kiss on his mouth. “So good, baby. The very best.”

Chapter Text

Harry slapped and jabbed at his phone a few times before it fell silent and immediately returned to the space between one pillow and the next. Another hour of sleep was all he needed.

But also, maybe two.

“You know…” Louis began, voice warm like the sun on Harry’s back. “The purpose of setting an alarm isn’t so you can ignore it when it does its job.”

Harry peeked one eye open and saw him sauntering through the bedroom door. “What would you know?”

Louis chuckled, and Harry gave up playing the morning grump to crack a smile. He turned away from his pillow to meet Louis’ eyes.

“I know it’s nearly noon and you have to be at work in an hour,” Louis said. “And Ivor is teaching you about éclairs today, isn’t he?”

Harry groaned. Sure, it was nice that Louis remembered these things about him. He loved that. But he hated that he was right too. He studied him closely, eyes narrowing. “You went for a run without me.”

Louis stood guiltily in his joggers, a sweaty grey t-shirt, holding a hoodie in his hand that he tossed to the floor. “I tried to wake you but you wouldn’t budge,” he said. “Consider for a moment how you nearly just destroyed your phone and it’s not so hard to believe, is it?”

“You should have like poured water on me or something.”

Louis raised both brows. “Should I keep that in mind for next time?”

Harry stuck his tongue out at him like a child. “Come here,” he said, one arm poking out from beneath Louis’ fluffy duvet, beckoning him closer.

“I’m sweaty,” Louis complained. Still, he stepped up to the bed. “I need a shower.”

Harry sat up in bed and tugged Louis close by his waistband. He leaned in just like Harry wanted him to. The air was sharp with the smell of his sweat. With more time, Harry would lick him clean. He settled on a close-mouthed kiss. Louis smiled softly and granted him another.

“I like you sweaty,” Harry confessed.

“Gross,” Louis said, drawing back to look at him. For a second, that was all they did.

“So,” he began.

Harry lifted his brows. “So,” he repeated.

“Last night was fun, yeah?” Louis smiled.

Harry dropped his gaze to study the little mole on Louis’ neck. He was always the one known for uncanny eye contact but Louis sometimes looked at him with more force than even he could stand. “It was fun…” he said to the mole. “I was also very, very drunk.”

Louis nodded. “You were. Do you regret some things then?” he said quietly. “Like what we did?”

“Uh.” Harry’s brows creased. “I’m going to have to say no. I’d do it again. Right now. Or you know, later? Or whenever you want.”

Louis dropped his head to Harry’s shoulder, his own shoulders sinking with relief. Harry didn’t completely understand that response. He didn’t realize there was anything for Louis to be worried about. Harry was the one who’d made a complete arse of himself.

“Do you regret any of it?” Harry asked. “Because I know I was kind of…needy. And I don’t remember exactly what I said to you but I’m sure it was embarrassing. So I’m sorry if—”

Louis cupped his face and kissed him silent. “You were fine, I promise. Nothing to be sorry about. Not to me. Though the cab driver might say otherwise.”

Harry’s eyes widened. Louis laughed, his hands slipping away from Harry’s cheeks. With another kiss to the corner of his mouth, he stepped away, pulling his shirt off.

“I think it's worth it for us to talk about boundaries and the like, though,” he said, tossing the shirt on the edge of the bed. “What is and isn't okay. Like in bed. And in public. And other things too. I think we have a lot to talk about.”

Harry watched the sweat glisten on his stomach and his back and his biceps. “What?” he murmured.

Louis looked at him. “Am I distracting you, love?”

Harry turned over again, pushing his face into his pillow. “Not at all.”

He heard Louis’ laughter moving farther away. “I’ll be quick,” Louis said, stepping into the en-suite.

“I’ll make breakfast,” Harry called back. A second later, he heard the hiss of the shower and laid there for a moment, swathed in sunlight. With a big sigh and a stretch, he pushed himself out of bed.

Louis joined him a little later while Harry was still working on breakfast. He gratefully accepted the cup of tea Harry set there for him, damp hair cool on Harry’s bare shoulder when he kissed his cheek. He took a seat at the countertop, adjusting his glasses on his nose, and started in on his morning emails. Or so Harry thought.

Louis’ iPad glowed awake in front of him but when Harry glanced at him again, Louis was looking back at him. It happened again and then a third time. He watched Harry mosey around the kitchen with a smile hovering permanently over his teacup.

“If you don’t stop staring at me,” Harry finally said. “I’m going to cut my finger off or something.” He cut another slice of green pepper, pushed his fringe back and met Louis’ eyes. “What is it?”

Louis set his teacup down and leaned forward. “You’re different in the kitchen lately,” he replied.

Harry stopped chopping altogether, the point of his knife poised on the cutting board. “Different how?”

Louis rubbed at his scruffy chin. “Confident?”

Harry turned toward the hob to add the peppers to their eggs. “I’m only making an omelette,” he said. He smiled anyway, his chest rising with silly pride.

“Yeah but you aren’t seeing the way you chop. You can always tell a chef by the way he chops,” Louis said. “I watch Iron Chef. I would know.”

“Right, of course,” Harry nodded. “I doubted your expertise, I’m sorry.”

“Never do it again,” Louis said before a dainty sip of his tea.

Harry started in on his own cup, gaze shifting to their omelette bubbling in the pan. He drummed his fingers on the countertop.

“How confident would you say exactly?” he asked. “Or like what kind of confident? Like an overachiever kind of confident or a laid back kind of confident?”

Louis stared at him, lips curving like he was a second from laughing. “Like Harry Styles confident,” he said after a moment. “It’s not so complicated, H. It’s just you but without the second-guessing. You used to pick up an egg and cradle it like you were afraid you would break it. And you were uncomfortable with the idea of a ‘pinch’ of salt because it wasn’t specific. You always preferred using the measuring spoons.”

Louis smiled, shrugged. “And now you just move more calmly. When we made dinner here a few nights ago, I saw it then too. You’re more sure of yourself and it shows.”

Harry didn’t know what to do with himself then. He smiled like a goof and muttered, “Thank you.” He leaned over the counter for a kiss, would rather climb into Louis’ lap and litter his face with kisses, but just this would do.

“Could kiss you all day,” Louis said, mouth moving slowly over Harry’s.

“Then you should,” Harry murmured. It sounded to him like the best way to spend any day.

“Would love to. But I think the omelette needs rescuing.” Louis tilted his head to the side, peering over Harry’s shoulder at the hob. He turned out to be right.

“Have you heard anything from Cordon Bleu?” Louis asked after Harry served him a plate with his half of the omelette and toast.

“Um,” Harry hummed, slowly buttering his toast. “Not yet, no. But I should soon. Ivor told me that they rarely just say yes. They usually hold like exams at their campus before they accept you.”

“Like a hands-on exam, testing your cooking skills?” Louis asked. Harry nodded, licking his thumb clean. “And when are those?”

“End of the month,” Harry answered.

Louis’ brows creased. He took a bite of his toast. “I think you should have heard from them by now,” he said with his mouth full. “…When’s the last time you checked the post?”

Harry scratched a random spot on his bare shoulder. “Like five days ago.”

Louis’ jaw stilled. “Harry,” he said after swallowing. “You should be checking it every day. That’s a week since you last checked.”

Harry groaned. “I know. But I get anxious if I think about it too much. I told Flora to look out for it for me.”

“Are you going to check for it today?” Louis asked.

“Yes. After work.”

“As soon as you get home?” Louis lifted his brows.

Harry sighed. “Yes, dad.”

“Hey…” Louis flicked his right nipple. “I’m just keeping you on top of things. Because I know how much you want this.”

Harry rubbed his nipple. “I know,” he said. He leaned across the short distance between his chair and Louis’ and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “And I’m grateful for it.”

Louis answered him with a smirk. “One day I imagine you with a bakery or a restaurant or whatever it is you want. I think you deserve that.”

Harry rested his chin in his palm. “I’m not even sure right now what that is. Whether a bakery or restaurant or both. But I like confectioneries most.”

“Confectioneries,” Louis repeated with particular emphasis.

“Ivor’s favourite word choice,” Harry explained. For no reason really, he hooked his ankle around Louis’ under the table. Maybe just because he could. “I think it would be nice to own a restaurant someday, if I had a team of chefs to focus on entrees while I focus on the confectioneries.”

“Sounds brilliant,” Louis said.

“You think so?” Harry felt much less confident than Louis seemed to think he was. He rubbed his toe over the top of Louis’ foot. Nothing like morning footsie to release his nerves.

Louis smiled softly. “Yeah, I do,” he said. And then his hand settled on Harry’s thigh and Harry’s hand settled over his. And though breakfast was easier to manage with two hands, they didn’t let go for a little while.

“Coming over again tonight?” Louis asked while they were cleaning up the few dishes they’d used.

Harry dried the plate Louis handed him. “Should I?”

“You should,” Louis said. He offered nothing further but Harry didn’t need much. Already his ears felt warm. “I’m meeting Zayn later today for lunch. Could give you a ride to work if you want?”

“Please,” Harry said.

“Are you going to get changed at home? Or-- I think you left a shirt here two nights ago. I threw it in the wash.”

Louis didn't wait for him to answer. He was already wandering off toward the dryer for Harry's shirt. A shirt he'd left here a few nights ago. They were sharing a bed and sharing schedules. Having breakfast and doing dishes. And at some point, Harry would have to figure out if that all meant what he wanted it to mean.

He got dressed in his black jeans from the night before and the t-shirt Louis found in his pile of clean laundry. He climbed into Louis’ car, grateful for the ride with the winter wind so brutal this morning. It meant more time with Louis too, which was always nice. It also meant answers to questions.

He drummed his fingers on his knee, watching Louis’ profile when he twisted around to reverse out the drive.

“Have you ever been in a relationship with a man before?” Harry asked.

Louis’ eyes flickered to him briefly. He turned around again, shifting the gear into drive. “No, not seriously. Although, when I was 14 or so, there was this kid online.” He laughed. “We used to play World of Warcraft. I thought he was a girl at first, and then one day, he tells me he only dresses his character as a girl so boys will talk to him. And that was probably the first time I considered that I might like boys too. Because it didn’t bother me at all. I even let him call me his boyfriend for a month.”

Louis laughed again like it was all just a joke. But Harry sat more fascinated than Louis might have expected, entranced and eager to hear things Louis never thought to tell him before now.

“For a while, I used to say that was my first boyfriend too. Not out loud, but in my head. Felt like confirmation for me or something. But the shorter answer is no,” Louis said.

They were already close to the bakery. And Harry hadn’t made much progress with his questions. “What did you mean by boundaries? This morning, you said we should talk about boundaries?”

“So you were listening.” Louis smiled smugly. “I think it’s worth it for us to like sit and talk about things we are and aren’t okay with. Not just sexually but in terms of being seen together too. We have to be careful, you know?”

Harry nodded. “And word travels, I know.”

“Right,” Louis said. “So. In the cab, for example…”

Harry dropped his face into his palms. “I know that was irresponsible of me. Whatever it was I said, to say it with the cab driver there. I know and I’m sorry.”

“I’m not saying it for you to apologize. I told you it’s fine.” Louis pulled into a parking space and put the car in park. The bakery stood just beside them. “You really don’t remember?” he asked. “Like at all?”

Harry chewed his top lip. “I mean, I could guess.”

“Well…” Louis smiled, fingers tapping on the steering wheel. “You asked me to, and I quote, 'fuck my mouth'.”

“Jesus…” Harry breathed, covering his face with his hands.

“Said you wanted to be bent over my desk,” Louis added. “That might be my favourite.”

Harry groaned. “Don’t say anymore,” he pleaded.

“You also said I was your favourite person.”

“Well. That’s very true,” Harry mumbled, dropping his hands to his lap.

Louis’ brows arched high. “And the rest of it’s not?”

Harry lifted his leather bag off the ground and threw the strap over his shoulder. “I didn’t say that,” he said, blushing at the sound of Louis’ soft laughter. He reached for the door handle, refusing to look at him.

“What’s this? I don’t get a goodbye kiss?” Louis said, laughing still.

Harry sighed. He turned his head and looked Louis in the eye. “I’m sure we’ll talk about this some other time…but all of it’s true. You’re my favourite person. And I’d let you...you know, fuck my mouth if you wanted to.” Louis winced, biting into his bottom lip. They leaned in, mouths hovering. “And I think you should absolutely, definitely, consider bending me over your desk sometime. All true. Just so you know.”

Louis nodded, his eyes on Harry’s mouth, his own lips curving. “Glad I do.”

Then he kissed him, in the way that was starting to become Harry’s favourite. Slowly, gently, and totally in control. He cupped the back of his neck with one hand and moved their mouths together. Only enough tongue to be a tease. Only enough to have Harry thinking about it for the rest of the day.

“Have a good day at work,” Louis said.

Harry reached blindly for the door handle. He missed it twice before peeling his eyes away to grasp it securely. “See you later,” he mumbled.

Louis smiled. “Can’t wait.”

 

* * *

 

'Being 18 doesn’t mean you get to disappear. At least let me know where you’ve been staying. -Mum'

The text came just as Harry was preparing for his lunch break, after the fresh batch of croissants were neatly displayed and Roberta said they were finished for now.

'Sorry. Been with Niall and Nick.'

Roberta made them quick Nutella and banana sandwiches while Harry fixed cups of tea. They ate by the window in the kitchen. George joined them minutes later with hazelnut chocolate chip scones Ivor made at home. “If you like them,” George said, “he may consider trying them out here.”

'You have a perfectly good bed at home. Are you moving out?'

“Harry, do you not like them?” George asked.

Harry looked up and met their eyes, George and Roberta both leaned close with concern. “No, I love them.” He loved everything Ivor made, without question.

“My mum is being fussy is all,” he said as he typed back.

'Not moving out. I’m sorry I worried you.'

George patted his shoulder. “At least she cares.”

He didn’t feel consoled. His phone buzzed not seconds after while George was pulling on his uniform and Roberta was cleaning up.

'As soon as you have a break at work, please run home and let Flora in. She forgot her key. We’re having dinner this afternoon with a few friends from Portugal. Expecting you to be there. Speak to L for more details.'

Harry rubbed his forehead firmly with the tips of his fingers. That wasn’t how he’d planned to spend his Saturday night at all. He told George and Roberta he would be back shortly, pulled on his coat and scarf and started the walk back home.

Louis’ car was gone from the drive, he noticed as he passed the guest house. Flora’s car was parked in front of their own home. He helped her with the grocery bags she picked up, receiving a greeting kiss on his cheek.

“It’s like you moved away from home. Just disappeared without a word,” Flora was mumbling as they made their way into the house. She lifted her large handbag onto the countertop and started sorting through it. “That letter you were looking for came two days ago. Gemma told me to hold onto it for you. You two aren’t keeping things from your mum, are you?”

Harry accepted the envelope Flora extended to him, shaking his head. “No,” he said absently, already tearing the envelope open. From Le Cordon Bleu, it read on the front. Flora was still talking but Harry was too busy reading the words on the page.

“What are you smiling about?” Flora questioned.

Harry looked at her with big eyes and a smile so big it should have hurt. “Promise you won’t tell my mum?”

Flora crossed her arms over her chest, glaring unhappily at him.

“It’s not a bad thing. I’m just waiting to surprise her,” Harry explained. “I promise, it isn’t bad. Do you want to hear my good news or not?”

Flora still eyed him suspiciously. “Let’s hear it. I’ll promise afterwards.”

Good enough. “I’ve been invited to take an entry exam for Cordon Bleu,” he practically squealed. “In two weeks. In France.”

Flora’s eyes rounded immediately. She pressed her hand to her mouth. Harry squealed again, dropping his face into his hands. “That is very, very good news,” she murmured. “Wonderful news.”

She patted his cheeks. “I’m very happy for you, dear. And proud.”

“Thank you,” Harry grinned. He hugged her. He would probably hug everyone he came in contact with now. Roberta and George when he got back to the shop. Strangers, even. Louis. Especially Louis.

And speaking of which.

“I have to go tell…everyone else,” Harry said. “Thank you for holding onto this for me. Thank you for teaching me how to whisk that one time.”

Flora laughed and shooed him away. He hurried up to his room, where he’d spent so little time that everything felt a bit unfamiliar. He’d grown too used to Louis’ bedroom already after merely a week or so of spending his time there. He was learning quickly that he was most comfortable wherever Louis was too.

He spread out on the mattress, phone ringing in his ear.

“Hey.”

Harry smiled as soon as he heard Louis’ voice. “So. Guess what?”

 

* * *

 

He yanked his phone from his back pocket, balancing it as best as he could with the cookie sheets collected under his other arm. He didn’t check the name on the caller I.D.

“Hello?” he answered.

“Hey. It’s me again.”

Harry set the cookie sheets down on the counter, slipping further into the back for privacy. “Hi.” He smiled, leaning against the wall near the supply shelves and the walk-in fridge.

“You aren’t busy, are you?”

“Nope. Ivor came in so he’s sending me off early,” Harry said. “Should be back at yours in about fifteen minutes.”

“I’m out front, actually. Looking at the doughnuts right now. Did you make these ones with the sprinkles shaped like stars? Seems very you.”

Harry hurried to the front of the shop, practically sprinting, though Ivor would have a fit if he caught him. Endangering his precious confectioneries, he would say. Harry slipped through the swinging doors and there was Louis, leaning against the glass counter. They both lowered their phones.

“Hey,” Louis said again.

“Hi.” Harry bounced once on his toes and stepped closer. “What are you doing here?”

“Me and Zayn finished lunch early. So I’m here to take you home,” Louis shrugged.

Harry wanted to kiss him. But they were out in the open and he had to think about things like boundaries and discretion. But he didn’t think he’d get used to not being able to kiss Louis. Even if they’d only started less than two weeks ago.

“That was thoughtful. Just give me a second to change,” Harry said. “Do you want something while you wait?”

Louis pointed down into the glass. At the doughnuts with the star-shaped sprinkles. “These are yours,” he stated, not asked.

“Yes,” Harry answered, smiling.

“With black frosting to look like the night sky?”

Harry nodded. “The frosting is blackberry fig too,” he said. “And it has a blackberry crème filling.”

Louis groaned. “Have I told you yet that you’re brilliant?”

Slightly overwhelmed, Harry dragged his hands down his face. “I’m sure you have,” he said. He reached into the display case to remove one of the doughnuts and placed it in a pink paper bag. “I’m going to go change quickly.”

Because he wanted to kiss him. And he couldn’t do it here.

Later, on their way home, Harry asked, “Will you be there tonight at dinner?”

“No. Just your family and the Castelos,” Louis said. “You can still come by tonight if you want. We still have to celebrate your entry exam.”

“Definitely coming by tonight,” Harry said. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders, waiting for the heat in the car to kick in. “How was Zayn?”

“Very good. Won’t shut up about his wedding. But I’d be concerned if he could.”

Harry grinned. “I’m excited for them. A Halloween wedding is sick.”

“Yeah, definitely,” Louis said. “And having the guests come in costume?”

“Are they really?” Harry lifted his brows.

“It's just an idea. They've also discussed having the wedding party all be zombies,” Louis said with a laugh. “It’s going to be fucking ridiculous whatever they decide. Start thinking of your costume now.”

It wasn’t like Harry didn’t expect to be invited. It was safe to consider him and Zayn and Liam good friends now. But it was nice to hear Louis mention it anyway. It was nice to think of them going together.

 

* * *

 

'stop texting during dinner.'

Harry bit his bottom lip, gaze darting away from his phone momentarily. No one was looking at him.

'you texted me first.'

Louis responded quickly.

'only to say I was lonely. not to start a conversation.'

Harry rolled his eyes.

'telling me you’re lonely is bound to start a conversation.'

'less texting. more eating. hurry here…'

Harry chewed his thumbnail while hiding a smile, tucking his phone beneath his thigh. He lifted his fork.

“Harry, how about you?”

That was Mr Castelo. Harry looked at him, blinking, smiling, totally unaware of the initial topic.

“Sorry. What was that?” he asked politely. Everyone looked at him.

“I just asked Gemma if she was excited about London Fashion Week,” Mr Castelo said. “I’m sure you are too.”

“Oh.” Harry nodded, spearing a potato. “Very excited, yes.”

His mum sipped her wine. “Harry won’t be walking this year,” she said, setting her glass on the table. “Despite a wonderful performance in Berlin.”

Harry kept his gaze on his potatoes. He only chanced a glance in her direction when he noticed her raise her wine glass to her mouth again. They hadn’t talked about London Fashion Week since a week ago. He’d been putting it off and putting it off, and maybe avoiding his mum when he could. Not to mention, what little time he found now, he liked to spend with Louis.

Somehow the absence of a confrontation was worse. A passive-aggressive declaration from her hit harder than yelling and accusations ever could. He sat quietly while Mr Castelo mentioned “what a shame” that was, and Anne quietly agreed, looking at Harry once with neither a smile nor a frown.

Luckily, it was over quickly.

After Mr and Mrs Castelo and their daughter, Lena, departed, Harry changed into a t-shirt and sent Louis another message.

'On my way.'

His mum was sat with Robin on the couch with the fireplace blazing. Her drawing pad was in her lap, another design taking form on her computer. But her pen was still, her head resting against the back of the couch. Robin listened quietly as she murmured on, “I’m just not sure we understand each other anymore.”

Harry came to a pause at the doorway of the kitchen, cradling his shoes in his hand. He hadn’t planned to go through the back door. Practising “discretion” meant pretending to go through the front, only to loop around to Louis. But he had chosen this route to the kitchen because he planned to at least say bye.

“He doesn’t even talk to me so it isn’t like I could.”

Harry took a step back, turned and left through the front door. Gemma would let them know where he was.

Louis was waiting for him with mug cakes, wine, and a big smile that dimmed when he looked at Harry’s face. “What’s wrong?”

Harry shook his head. As far as he knew, he’d been smiling too. “Nothing,” he said, brows wrinkling with confusion.

“Something happen with your mum?” Louis guessed.

Harry smiled, smaller now, more timid. “Nothing worth telling. Not right now. Let’s talk about this mug cake. Did you use Nutella?”

“I did,” Louis said, his arm sliding around Harry’s waist. “We can have them later though. If you want to go out instead?”

“God, no,” Harry said. After copious amounts of booze last night and a cab ride full of word vomit, the last thing he wanted was to go out and make a fool of himself again. “What I’d like is ice cream on my cake. And I’d like to have it in bed. With the wine.”

And that turned out to be perfect enough for them both. Nothing cured quite as well as Louis’ jokes. Harry laughed until his stomach hurt but still emptied his mug of cake and licked his spoon clean. Two glasses of red wine later, he had Louis’ hands pinned to the bed, not quite kissing him, but getting there.

“Being a fucking tease,” is what Louis called it.

Harry smiled, turning his head to bite gently on Louis’ earlobe and spread kisses down the side of his neck. He released his wrists, dragging his hands down Louis’ arms and over his biceps, spreading them out over his chest. He kissed his sternum, and then his right nipple through the thin cotton of his shirt, with just the suggestion of the teeth.

“Who’s rewarding who here?” Louis said, breathlessly.

Harry lifted his head. “I thought you already rewarded me with mug cake and wine.”

“I was just getting started,” Louis said.

“Oh?” Harry said. “What else did you have planned?”

He thought he had a pretty good hold of him but Louis was never easily subdued. He reversed them, pushing Harry’s legs apart with his own, trapping his hands against the mattress. “Hands here,” he said. Harry nodded, with a small laugh. Louis undressed him slowly, without ever removing an article of his own clothing. He pulled Harry’s shirt over his head and threw a look at his hands. Keep them on the mattress is what it meant. Only after he’d dragged Harry’s pants down his legs, and had him completely naked and spread out on his duvet, did he deign to remove his own shirt.

Louis licked his lips, eyes running the length of Harry’s body, hand sliding over his knee and down his thigh.

“I want to tie you to my headboard,” he said.

Harry moaned, eyes shutting. “You should.”

Louis licked into his open mouth. “Stay like that,” he said.

Harry opened his eyes to watch Louis disappear into his closet. “Are you getting handcuffs?” he asked.

“Don't have any. Need to be a bit more creative,” Louis answered. The light in his closet went off and he stepped back into the room. Holding two of his ties.

“Oh my God.” Harry shut his eyes again. Louis kissed him again before planting his mouth on Harry’s favourite spot beneath his earlobe. He took his right hand and drew it upward to his headboard. Harry couldn’t help but watch, out of breath as he was, just from lying there.

“Not too tight?” Louis asked.

Harry shook his head. “It’s good,” he muttered.

Louis tied his other wrist with a delicate knot and tugged on it to make sure it was secure. “Good?” he checked again.

Harry nodded, and received a kiss. This time with tongue. The way he’d been waiting for all day. Louis’ teeth lingered on his bottom lip as he drew back.

“What if I have to scratch my nose?” He blinked curiously at Louis.

They both erupted in laughter. Louis covered his face with one hand. “You’re ruining it, babe.”

“Sorry.” Harry smiled, looking up at his restraints again. Tugging on them. “You’re going to have to do it for me.”

“Would gladly scratch your nose,” Louis said. He situated himself between Harry’s legs again, dragging his fingers lightly over his skin. They felt like feathers. Harry shivered when they danced over his waist.

“I’m so proud of you,” Louis murmured, his damp mouth on Harry’s neck, right over his pulse point. Harry wondered if he could feel it racing. “So fucking proud. Expected nothing less.”

Harry watched him descend down his body, hands sliding over his waist and his hips, parting his legs.

“I’m nervous about it now,” Harry confessed. He wouldn't score any points in pillow talk with this. “I wasn’t before and then my mum… If I can’t do this, she’ll say she was right, Louis. She’ll say I’m still just a kid. And I don’t know any better. if I can’t—”

“But you can,” Louis said with a kiss to Harry’s hip, followed by a bite. “You have potential as a model because you’re gorgeous. Because your body is fucking glorious.”

Their eyes met, Harry peering down his body at Louis between his legs.

“But that’s not what you were meant to do,” Louis said. “You’re going to do great, yeah—as a chef. You’re going to fucking coast through that exam. Because it’s what you’re meant to do.”

He lifted Harry’s leg over his shoulder and bit softly on his inner thigh. Harry’s back arched off the bed, hands tugging on the headboard and the ties that bound him to it. “Louis,” he sighed.

“I’ll go with you,” Louis said. “If you want me to go to France with you, I’m there. I want to be there.”

Harry sort of wanted to cry. Louis sucked on his thigh and nipped the skin with his teeth, his mouth burning wherever it met him.

“I want you there,” Harry said. Of course he did. Because no one made him feel as supported as Louis did. He needed him there, really.

“Then I’m there,” Louis assured him.

“You make me feel,” Harry began, searching for the words, “Ridiculously lucky.”

“I’m the luckiest though. If you saw yourself the way I do, you’d know,” Louis said, switching to Harry’s other thigh. Later Harry would have tons of bruises to marvel over, to run his thumb over, to watch glisten with water in the shower.

“Ate me out so well yesterday. Can’t stop thinking about it,” Louis was saying. “Such a pretty mouth, never saw it coming.”

His nose and mouth brushed over Harry’s balls but he kept going, wasn’t aiming for a blowjob like Harry had expected.

“Going to return the favour now, if that’s okay…”

Harry’s eyes popped open, gaze on the ceiling. Louis cradled his hips firmly and leaned in. His tongue met Harry’s skin and pushed past the sensitive ring of muscle.

Fuck,” Harry breathed.

“That’s the idea,” Louis murmured against his hole. He tugged him closer by the hips and fucked into him with his tongue.

After several orgasms, Harry still couldn't figure pillow talk out. He was blissed out, a little mindless. “Tell me about Eleanor,” he mumbled, watching Louis finish off his glass of wine. He had to be thirsty. After the rim job to end all, to settle wars, to initiate world peace.

Louis’ fingers slowed to a still on Harry's forearm draped across his lap. He looked at Harry confusedly but otherwise didn't seem totally put off. “Tell me what you want to know.”

Harry lifted his head, resting his elbow on his pillow, and cradling his head in his hand. “Why did you break up with her?”

“We both had different reasons,” Louis said. He started stroking Harry’s arm again. “She wanted to move forward with her career. And was looking to move to LA…”

“And you?”

Louis looked at him. “Pretty sure you know who my reason is.”

Harry turned his mouth toward his palm to hide a smile. And then a thought occurred to him, one he’d been avoiding. “Did she know? Did she think you were cheating on her...with me?”

Louis turned to face him completely, shifting closer. “Not at all. She figured out how I felt about you, yeah. But I think it was clear that nothing happened between us. Just that I wanted it to.”

Harry frowned. “That isn’t what I wanted, you know? I don’t know exactly what I wanted. But it wasn’t to hurt her.”

“It wasn't your fault. Even after us being together for years, I couldn’t see myself moving forward with her, marrying her, having kids with her. And she couldn’t see it with me either. We just weren’t forced to accept that until we started wanting other things.”

Harry would have to take that as truth. Even if he still felt guilty. “So, on Christmas Eve… you two were ending things then?”

“We already had by the time you showed up.”

Harry hid his face in his pillow. “I’m sorry for being an idiot. And being impatient. And not letting you explain,” he mumbled. “And not having the cake with you.”

“You’re far from impatient. Not after dealing with me,” Louis said. “And that cake was amazing. Ate half of it, feeling sorry for myself. Shared the rest with my family.”

They laughed quietly. Harry “So, in Berlin...?”

"That was the first time I had you alone since breaking up with her, since getting you to talk to me," Louis said. He took a breath. "And there you were in this hotel room, looking incredible, and I couldn't even control myself." 

"If I'd known you were single, you wouldn't've had to."

"To be fair, I tried to tell you," Louis said. "But. I think it was probably for the best."

Because Harry was still seventeen.

"Anyway, I never had a solid plan or anything like it, but I felt what I felt and I just hoped eventually we'd talk things through. It was worth it to wait.”

“Would have been much less dramatic,” Harry said. "For us to have talked it through."

“Yeah but sometimes a little drama is more fun,” Louis said. He stroked Harry’s lower back idly as their laughter trickled off and they settled down. Harry scooted even closer, their legs tangling together, their eyes drifting shut for a moment.

Louis murmured, “What happened with your mum?”

“Same as usual,” Harry said quietly. “Mr Castelo asked about London Fashion Week and she told him I wasn’t walking. Even though we haven’t talked about it. I’d say it was a good thing. But it feels more like the calm before the storm. Like she’s just waiting for the right moment to strike.”

“Then just be ready when she does,” Louis said. “Think it might be time you told her what you need to.”

Harry nodded. “I think I will.”

 

* * *

 

Ivor had an extra layer of insanity he’d been hiding the whole time. If he had his way, Harry would never see Louis or his friends or the light of day again. But thank God for George, who was always there to kiss Ivor quiet and send Harry home when they’d had more than enough training for one day.

As batshit as Ivor was, Harry felt more prepared than ever with his trip less than a week away, as Ivor educated him on culinary etiquette and posture.

“Straighter,” he said often, grabbing Harry’s shoulders and tugging them backwards. “Stand straighter.”

When he got too stern, George threw chocolate chips at him. “It’s just an exam, Ivie,” he would say.

And Ivor would answer, “Exams are important. Presentation is important.” Every aspect of culinary art, like any other medium, was of the utmost importance. And while Harry definitely preferred George’s way of thinking, he knew Ivor was right.

Which was why he stayed later at the bakery after school, long after the shop had closed. He worked until his eyelids were drooping and his hands were sore from mixing or kneading. Until sweat and flour covered his brow and fondant was stuck beneath his fingernails. With Ivor peering over his shoulder, shaking his head at times, and telling him to do it all again.

It was worth it for the times he ruffled Harry’s hair or clapped him on the back and said, “Well done.” Or the afternoon when he, Ivor, George, and Roberta opened a bottle of wine, and ate every last biscuit they’d baked that day, laughing over foolish jokes that only chefs would understand, musing over what Harry would name his restaurant when he had it.

“Le Maison de Louis,” Roberta suggested. House of Louis.

Harry stuffed another biscuit into his mouth and finished off his wine. He wasn’t blushing. And no, Le Maison de Louis did not have a ring to it.

 

* * *

 

He had a train to take with Louis on Thursday. And the exam Friday morning. And just two days left before it all began. And in terms of cooking, he felt ready. But sneaking away from his mum would be a challenge.

“I’ll take the day off,” Louis said, after picking him up on Tuesday. “I have enough vacation days to use. You’ll have to miss class.”

“I’ve checked the syllabus already. I won’t miss much,” Harry said. “And Niall will let me know if I do. What about London Fashion Week?”

“We’re two weeks ahead of schedule already. Should be fine,” said Louis. “It’s all taken care of.” Harry believed that. Louis sounded confident and Harry trusted him. But he had that niggling feeling that it wouldn’t be as easy as they made it seem. It never was.

Wednesday he arrived at Styles, Inc. after school for a board meeting with his mum. He wasn’t a member of the board by any means and didn’t plan to be. But he figured it would ease his mum’s anxiety and suspicion if he offered to join her like she’d always wanted.

The meeting was painfully boring. Its sole consolation was Louis taking notes beside him. He didn’t have any attention to spare for Harry but he smelled lovely and looked hot as fuck too. Harry passed the time easily, chewing on the end of his pen, and picturing him between his legs.

He really just wanted to get Louis home. Minutes after the meeting was over, that was his only thought. He followed his mum to her office, ready to ask if he was free to go.

Instead, when she returned, she sat down at her desk and said, “Have a seat. I have news for you,” his mum said.

“Good news?” he asked, lifting his brows. He took a seat in front of her.

She smiled. “Yes, actually.” She paused for dramatic effect, excepting the cup of tea that Amanda placed on the desk beside her. “This morning, I spoke with Allen Pennington. He’s one of the deans at Oxford. Acceptances don’t go out until the end of the month but he says you’re pretty much guaranteed a spot in the program.”

Harry glanced at Louis. Louis looked at him. His mum was busy scribbling on her calendar. She looked up after the stretch of silence had stretched on for too long.

Now might not have been the best time for this to happen but Harry was tired. Of putting this off. Of lying. Of smiling when he was far from happy. He was so tired.

Maybe the storm didn’t just come. Maybe he had to call it.

“The thing is,” he said after a breath. “I’m really just not sure I want to go to Oxford.” He kept his gaze on his hands in his lap. “I know at one point, we agreed it was the best school for me. But I don’t think it is anymore.”

His eyes flickered up and met hers. She wasn’t smiling. Just sitting there looking at him.

“Let’s speak about this at home,” she said dismissively, turning to request something of Louis.

“Alright. But my answer won't change.”

She looked at him again. More silence passed. Her arms crossed atop her glass desk. “If you won't go to Oxford, where are you planning to go to school?”

“I have an entry exam at Cordon Bleu on Friday," he said. He looked at Louis, terrified suddenly that he’d said the wrong thing. Louis nodded. Keep going.

"Cordon who?" Anne said.

"Bleu," Louis offered.

Anne glanced at him. "I’m sorry…” She held up one manicured hand. “The cooking school?"

Harry was acutely aware of everyone in the room. Amanda at the back and Jeanine. Louis beside his mum. His mother, especially. Everyone remained silent. No one gave Anne affirmation because by now it was clear she didn't need it. She looked at Harry. And Harry looked at her.

"Oh, Harry,” Anne started to shake her head slowly. “Let's be serious for a moment. What on earth are you planning to do with a degree in cooking?"

She didn't give him a chance to answer. She didn't like arguing in front of others. But once she got started, it was hard to stop.

"Education isn't a laughing matter, love. You expect me and your father to pay for you to cook? I cook. Gemma sometimes cooks. Louis, I'm sure, cooks. Everyone in the whole world cooks. You're meant to do something extraordinary. You're meant to find the niche, the speciality. That’s the only way you make it in life, by mastering something in a way no one else has.”

He saw Louis gesture toward the back of the room. A second later, the door closed, most likely because Amanda and Jeanine had left. His mother rambled on.

“You never even got back to me on London Fashion Week. I realize now you aren’t looking to be serious about this industry. Despite having the talent and all the connections you could need. You’d rather waste time on something that isn’t profitable.”

“You have a strict definition of what’s profitable,” Harry said. To his displeasure, his voice shook. “Just because something doesn’t bring in billions doesn’t mean you can’t profit from it.”

His mum sighed. “This is a fairytale. You’re telling me stories, honey.”

“I don’t think you’re trying to understand.”

“To be honest, I’m really not. I’ve indulged you with this baking thing for way too long. That’s my mistake and clearly nothing good has come of it,” she said. “Have Ivor and George taught you anything about business management? About marketing yourself? You haven’t learned anything.”

“Anne,” Louis began softly.

Anne's gaze snapped to him and she looked heated. Harry had this ridiculous urge to leap in front of him, to throw his body in front of Louis’ like his mum was aiming a bullet his way. He absolutely would.

She simply held up her hand to silence Louis. And Louis, of course, fell silent.

That was fair. This was Harry's battle, after all. He couldn't expect Louis to step in when the offence got too tough.

"I understand what you're saying," Harry said. "But none of this changes anything. If I’m accepted at Cordon Bleu, then I’m going.”

Anne dropped her pen on her desk and massaged her temples and the space between her eyes, little circles with her polished fingers.

"And who do you think is going to fund your time there?" she asked quietly.

"If you won't, dad will. He thinks it's a great idea."

Her brows reached for her hairline. "So your father knows? You both have just been discussing this without me?"

Harry rolled his eyes. "Mum. We haven't--"

"I'll just talk with him then.”

Harry cupped his forehead with his hand. "Why?" he murmured.

"Because this isn't what we agreed on. We were both to pay half of your tuition and fees. I have it in writing."

"The only one stopping you from doing that is yourself. You're refusing to help."

"I'm finished discussing this for now," she said reaching for her pen again, somewhat flustered. He knew his own face was red. He could feel his skin burning. And his eyes. That was the worst.

He didn't argue with people. He didn't like to do it. Especially not with people he cared about. And it was taxing, to say the least. He stood up, dragging his sleeve across the corner of his eye, and turned away.

"You should know that I only ever want what's best for you," his mum added. "That's all I've ever wanted. I love you more than you know. Or appreciate."

"You don't know what’s best for me," Harry mumbled. He hoped it was clear enough for her to hear though.

Anne shrugged sadly. "If you do this, you're doing it without my support."

Harry swallowed and forced himself to nod. "I understand," he said gruffly. "Have a good rest of your day then."

“Same to you,” Anne said, slipping her glasses onto her face. Her gaze returned to her iPad. The melee was over for now.

Harry hurried to Louis' office immediately, blinking fast, digging his nails into his palm, breathing hot puffs of air through his nose like a dragon. He just kept moving, ignoring the cubicles of people within the halls. And when he got to Louis’ office, he found the door was locked. Because, of fucking course, it was and his bloody keycard didn't even work to unlock it.

His eyes blurred and he made a frustrated sound, swiping his card once more and nearly putting his fist through the wall when it beeped dismissively at him. He was ten seconds from locking himself away in the supply cupboard instead.

And then a hand settled on his lower back. And Louis was right beside him, swiping his card, pushing the door open. They stepped inside and he tugged Harry against his chest right away, arms coming around his body.

"It's alright."

Harry turned his face into Louis' neck, still breathing fast. He hugged him, twisted his hands up in his rich textured blazer. It was a Styles design, a dark blue tweed with leather elbow pads and a silk lining. Harry knew each detail about it because he’d watched Louis pull it on this morning, caught in the stream of sunlight from the windows, and looking like every good dream Harry would ever have.

He nestled into the smooth material cladding Louis’ strong body now, confident that if he just remained here, he would feel just as good as he had that morning. But it didn’t work that way.

Louis' hands were warm and steady as they moved up and down his back. "You're alright,” he repeated. His hands moved like they were speaking words of comfort themselves.

"Get me out of here, Louis," Harry groaned, dropping his first tear on Louis' expensive blazer. At least it would fade in the dark material. "Please?"

Louis stepped out of his arms for just a moment. He went to his desk to grab his keys and his coat and returned to take Harry’s hand. "Let’s go.”

Harry knew Louis felt helpless. He hated to put him in that position, knowing too well what it was like to sit and watch someone else cry. He'd also much rather retreat to his room and weep to Bacon but he didn’t think Louis was planning to go anywhere, not with how tightly he was holding his hand.

“I’m sorry,” Harry mumbled for the third time, sitting in Louis' car.

Louis pressed a kiss to his palm. “Please stop apologizing.”

Harry dragged his sleeve over his eyes and tried to inhale mucus back into his nose. “This is disgusting,” he said of his stubbornly runny nose.

Louis chuckled sadly. He released Harry’s hand to reach into his glove compartment and pull a few of the restaurant napkins he hoarded there. Harry accepted them gratefully and blew his nose. He reclined his head against the seat, sticky napkin balled in his hand, and shut his eyes.

“I have an idea,” Louis said after a moment.

Harry sniffed and rolled his head to the right. “What?” he asked blinking pink, slightly puffy eyes.

“We should leave today,” Louis said. “To France.”

Harry’s brows furrowed. He wiped at his nose and sat up straighter. “But that would be two days too early.”

“Yeah. And I think you need the time away to get yourself ready for your exam.”

Harry bit his lip, glancing out the windscreen. “But what would you tell my mum?”

“I’ll figure it out. I think she’ll be grateful that I go along with you when she learns you’ve taken off,” Louis said. “Let’s just get the fuck out of here.”

Harry laughed, all watery and stuffy. He smiled when Louis kissed him, amazed that he would still want to with the state he was in.

“We have to swing back home and grab our luggage first.”

“And finish packing,” Louis said guiltily. “But it shouldn’t take me long at all.”

Their story going was that Harry had gone rogue. That he’d run away from home and that Louis had gone along to console him and urge him back. On the train ride to France, Louis spoke quietly to Anne. “I’ll make sure he comes home safe,” he said. “After the exam is over, yes. You have my word.”

Harry huffed a laugh. He wasn’t sure he was going home after this was over. But they'd have to wait and see.

The train eased over the English Channel, past a slightly overcast sky. Their gazes remained on the water, Harry’s head resting softly on Louis’ shoulder.

“I don’t want to go to the flat in Paris,” he mumbled. “There’s another house in Montpellier. The lake house.”

“Two houses in France?” Louis said, turning away from the window to look at him. “I never knew.”

“Yes, and this one is right on the water,” Harry said with a smile. “You’ll like it.”

Louis didn’t ask further questions, seemed to trust that wherever they were going Harry would feel better there. They picked up a rental car when they arrived in Paris, tossed their bags into the boot, and started on their way with the heat cranked and a bag of pretzels tucked between their two seats. Soft music drifted out of the speakers, slowly but surely lulling Harry to sleep.

“It’s alright if you sleep for a bit,” Louis said, shooting a glance at him after Harry yawned twice in a row.

“But you might get lost,” Harry said.

“I’ve got Siri to help me out for now. When we get closer, I’ll wake you,” he said. “Go on, it’s fine.”

Harry blinked sleepily at him, still reluctant, but a quick snooze would have been nice. “Okay,” he said finally. And he rested his head against the window and within a minute, he was out.

He awoke much later to the smell of coffee and found they were parked at a petrol pump on the side of the speedway, the bright red of Avia glowing in the distance. Louis pushed a Styrofoam cup into his hand.

Harry sat up straighter. “Thank you. How long have I been asleep?”

“About two hours? Maybe three?” Louis said. He finished with the petrol, hooking the nozzle back up. He ducked into the car again. “Want anything else from inside? Could stop somewhere further down too?”

Harry unbuckled his seatbelt. “Let me drive for a bit. There should be a pizza place about an hour away.”

They switched seats, Harry adjusting the seat because his legs were getting a bit longer than Louis’. He started the car up again, raking his hair back from his eyes, and started back on the road.

“You know I’ve never been to any of these places before,” Louis was saying. “Montpellier. Or Bordeaux.” Bordeaux, France, where Cordon Bleu’s campus was located, was probably best known for its namesake, the dry red wine.

“I’ve never been to Bordeaux either. But I hear there’s not much going on there. It’s mostly countryside like Montpellier. But it’s peaceful,” Harry explained. “We’ve never talked about your travels?”

“My travels?” Louis laughed. “You make me sound so sophisticated.”

“I think you’re very sophisticated,” Harry said, looking away from the road just to smile at him. “You’ve been to Spain, right? Where else?”

“New York, with your mum. Paris, obviously. Ireland once when I was ten or so. Think my favourite is probably Spain though.”

“Why’s that?”

“There was a lot to see. Too much really. I’m aching to go back. And the people are friendly. The food is amazing. The water’s warm.”

Harry smiled, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “Did you go with Eleanor? Have you travelled with her?”

“No, never. Schedules didn’t allow it.”

“Where’s one place you’ve always wanted to go?”

“Japan,” Louis answered immediately. “Not just Tokyo. But the countryside too.”

“Me too,” Harry said excitedly, eyes shifting away from the road again. “I’ve always wanted to go. But my mum never wanted me to travel that far by myself. And there’s no one to go with. Gemma’s busy. Niall goes to Ireland whenever he has a holiday. Everyone’s always busy.”

Harry went quiet, focusing solely on the road again. It seemed he was inadvertently asking Louis to go with him. And yes, that would be amazing. And here they were already taking a trip together. But somehow a vacation to Japan felt different, significant. Like a handful of things they’d done recently.

“Maybe we can go together.” Louis was looking on the windscreen now too but he’d said it. “I’d be more than up for it.”

Harry smiled to himself, tapping a happy beat on the steering wheel. “So would I.”

Fifteen minutes later, they found that pizza place off the A75, and hopped out, bundled in their coats and scarves to find a seat inside by the window.

“This is cute,” Louis said, looking around the restaurant, at its classic chandeliers and the art pieces on the wall, including a pitchfork. He lifted a long plastic menu off the table.

“My mum brought me and Gemma here a few times,” Harry said. “You’re going to love the pizza.” He lifted his own menu.

Louis asked him a bit more about his exam while they ate their dinner. Harry reiterated what Ivor had told him. It would happen in two parts: a written exam followed by one confectionary preparation of the head chef’s choosing. All while a handful of sous chefs circled the examinees like sharks.

“You’re going to do great,” Louis said, not for the first time, nor for the last, Harry suspected.

They returned to the road. Louis dozed for a little while. At another petrol station, he stopped for more coffee and they switched places again.

“We’re about fifteen minutes away,” Harry said. Louis accepted the cup from him and took a quick sip. He placed his cup in the cup holder and started the engine back up and pulled back onto the speedway.

“It’s a left at that mailbox,” Harry said after those fifteen minutes had passed. He leaned forward, dropping his feet from the dashboard.

Louis turned on his blinker, even though there was no one on the winding road behind them. He steered the car up through the tree-lined drive and parked in front of the house waiting there. “So…” he began, cutting the engine. “This is beautiful.”

The sun had nearly set but the sky was still light enough blue that they could see most of the house. White exterior with gleaming glass windows and black shutters. It was surrounded on all sides by tall pines. Harry unbuckled his seatbelt. “It is. No one’s been here for a while.”

Louis looked at him. “Does it help to be here?”

“When I was a kid, it did,” Harry said with a shrug. “And you’re here now, so I’m sure it will.”

Louis smiled. He leaned forward to drop a kiss on Harry’s mouth before plucking the keys from the ignition. “Let’s see,” he said.

Harry led him to the door, punching in the security code before the knob. It was a bit cold inside, considering the heat hadn’t been run since the start of winter. He watched Louis take a circling glance of the foyer before he went to mess with the thermostat.

“I could get used to this,” Louis said, stepping into the living room. He took the two steps up toward the kitchen, eyes scanning the wall of windows that faced the lake. “Out in oblivion where I’m free to walk around starkers.”

Harry laughed, dropping his hand away from the thermostat. He heard the hum of it kicking up throughout the house. “You’re free to walk around starkers back home too,” he said.

“Not outside, Harry.”

“Oh?” Harry lifted his brows. “You’re planning to walk around outside here in the nude?”

Louis shrugged. “Why not?”

“Well, it’s about 40 degrees out there. And we have neighbours across the lake. Some discretion might be necessary,” Harry said.

“In here then?” Louis said, lifting suggestive brows. He stepped closer to him, hands sliding over Harry’s waist. Harry removed his hands from the pockets of his coat and set them on Louis’ shoulders.

Earlier, during the board meeting and when he’d watched Louis getting dressed that morning, all he’d wanted was Louis’ hands on him. Sliding to the small of his back like they were now. He spent most of his days lately measuring time by the moments he was in Louis’ arms and the moments he wasn’t. And every second was a lead up to kissing him again.

But he was exhausted right then. His mum proved that there were more than two ways to count time. That there were also the moments when she made him feel small, like a little boy who’d done something wrong. Those moments mattered too. And he was stuck in one now.

He dropped his head to Louis’ shoulder, dark hair spilling over his blazer.

“I’m not feeling up to it,” he said quietly.

Louis held him a little closer. “That’s alright. We can just sleep too.”

Harry looked at Louis’ lips and bit his own. “Maybe we could kiss though.”

“That too,” Louis smiled.

And that was what they did. After a very strange, complicated day, they got ready for bed. Lit the fireplace in one of the master suites upstairs. And then scrawled into the king sized bed to kiss until they fell asleep.

 

* * *

 

Leftover pizza was breakfast enough the next morning. Neither of them felt like getting dressed just yet and going out in search of food.

“I checked the fridge for water. Kitchen’s completely empty,” Louis said while they sat at the island, picking around their pizza box. Harry munched on half a slice of prosciutto. “Except for some really old bear crisps. Really, really old. I tried them so I know.”

Harry laughed. “We passed a store up the street. We could go buy some things there, and grab lunch. Then make dinner later.”

“Then what? We’ve got a whole day,” Louis said. He took a sip of his tea.

Harry shrugged. He set his own mug down after a sip, and rested his chin in his palm. “Could make it up to you for last night…”

Louis’ brows creased. “You don’t have to make it up to me.”

“I know. But also to myself.” He ate another pepper and licked his thumb clean. Louis was still looking at him confusedly. Harry rolled his eyes. “Basically, what I’m saying is, you could let me eat you out again. And maybe you can tie me to the bed again too. I’ve been thinking about that ever since—”

Louis covered Harry’s mouth with his hand. “Do you do that on purpose?” he asked. “Or do you genuinely talk freely about these things because you have no shame?”

Harry pulled his hand away from his mouth to speak.  “It’s both. I’m seducing you. And I have no shame.”

“Makes sense. You don’t have to seduce me,” Louis said, pushing his chair back. He slapped Harry’s bum as he passed behind him. “Come along, love.”

Harry chugged the rest of his tea and hurried behind him, up the steps and into the room.

 

* * *

 

Shopping for groceries with Louis felt like some pinnacle of domesticity, even if they didn’t shop the way two domesticated adults were supposed to at all. Their cart looked more like the work of rampant children. Popcorn, chips, a tub of cookie dough ice cream, Nutella…

“Oh,” Harry gasped. “We should get stuff to make s’mores too. That might be fun.”

“Yeah, and…” Louis began. “We can tell ghost stories.”

Harry narrowed his eyes. “Are you making fun of me?”

“For once, no,” Louis said with a grin. “I mean it. I know stories that’ll make you shit yourself.”

“Can’t wait to do that.”

Louis raised his brows, smirking. “More kinks we need to discuss?”

Harry laughed, head tilted back. “Absolutely not,” he said. He moseyed off down the aisle to find marshmallows. “And we haven’t discussed any of them,” he called back to him.

“We should,” Louis shouted before Harry rounded the corner. And he was right. Harry made a quick detour to the small pharmacy section at the end of the market and found a small box of condoms and weird lube with a label in French. Good thing he knew French. He stuffed both at the bottom of the cart.

Louis caught up with him a moment later by the marshmallows, holding a box of graham crackers and bars of chocolate. He tossed them into the cart.

They had everything they needed to make sandwiches, as well as chicken, quinoa and vegetables for dinner. Tomorrow after the exam, they would head back to London, which meant most of the things they bought, they would have to eat that day. Challenge accepted.

Harry checked out while Louis flipped through a French magazine. He wasn’t entirely sure if Louis knew what he was reading. But at least it served as good distraction for when the cashier rang up the sex goods.

“So, kinks,” Louis said later, after they were finished lunch in the living room, and working on the ice cream. The fireplace was lit and the T.V. was on to a James Bond film. It was the second one to come on since they’d been sitting there.

Harry dipped his spoonful of ice cream into the tub of Nutella. “Mhm…” he hummed, mouth full. He groaned, eyes fluttering, from the hazelnut chocolatey goodness. Louis’s eyes narrowed.

“So, you like being tied up,” he said. Not a question. Harry nodded anyway. His ears prickled with heat. He scooped his spoon into the ice cream and the Nutella again. “What else?” Louis asked.

Harry shrugged. “Being rough is nice too.”

“I figured so,” Louis said with a smile. He took his own spoon to the ice cream. “You like it when I pull your hair.”

“You like that too,” Harry added.

Louis nodded. “I do.” He watched Harry lick his spoon clean. “That’s really distracting.”

Harry smiled and licked his lips. “Sorry not sorry…”

“Anything else?” Louis asked, peeling his eyes away from Harry’s mouth.

“I don’t know,” Harry said. He poked around in the ice cream for more cookie dough pieces. “Honestly, I’ve never given it a lot of thought with other people. I know there are things that interest me. But I don’t know if I like them.”

“Not until you try,” Louis supplied. Harry nodded, still not making eye contact. He was doing a shit job of having mature conversations about sex. Louis’ hand met the nape of his neck. “Whatever it is, you can try it with me. Just have to let me know.”

Harry glanced at him, worrying his bottom lip. “I will,” he said, which led to a kiss, then more kisses and Louis stroking the nape of his neck, until Harry relaxed completely, shifting closer to him on the couch.

They finished the tub of ice cream and dragged one of the thick quilts over the back of the couch across their bodies and snuggled up close. For a nap or kisses, either was fine with Harry. If the fire wasn’t blazing, he would still be cosy enough.

The couch was too small for them both really. But Harry slept with his legs wrapped around Louis’ and his face buried in his neck. Their arms were tucked around each other and the rise and fall of their chests happened harmoniously.

He would spend all his time, squeezed together on that couch if Louis wanted. That was his first thought when he woke up and found Louis there beside him. He tried not to move too much so he didn’t wake him. But he turned and blinked up and around the house for a moment.

The fire was beginning to die down. And the sun was low in the sky, sunset waiting a few hours away. Time was passing too quickly.

He stayed there like that a minute longer before the need to pee became too much, and then shifted more comfortably to get the pressure off his bladder. It didn’t really work. But it did wake Louis. His eyelids twitched and opened, bright blue eyes on Harry.

“Hi,” he said quietly, blinking the tiredness away.

“Hi,” Harry smiled. “Sorry I need to pee. Be right back.” He untangled their arms and legs to crawl over his body. He scurried off to the loo for a quick wee. He adjusted his messy hair in the mirror and then shrugged because there wasn’t much he could do about his appearance and it wasn’t like Louis cared.

He found him sitting up, checking his phone, when he returned to the couch.

“Your mum says hello,” Louis said.

Harry’s brows creased. “Did you call her?”

“She asked me to.” Louis lifted his gaze. “Is that okay?”

“Yes, of course. You’re not an accomplice to my crimes, as far as she knows,” Harry said. His mother might not disown him regardless of what he did, but Louis wasn’t so invulnerable. And Harry would never forgive himself if he got Louis fired.

Louis tossed his phone to the other end of the couch. “So. What’s the plan now?”

Harry ran his thumb over the rope tattooed on Louis’ wrist. He probably wouldn’t tell him just yet but he was a little obsessed with it. “Well…I need to take a shower,” he said. He pushed himself to his feet. “And you can join in on if you want.”

“Alright,” Louis said with a quiet laugh. He got to his feet as well, groaning softly from a stretch. Harry led him up the steps, pulling off his shirt along the way. They stripped out of their pants, forming a pile by the bathroom door.

The shower whined and hissed, quickly filling the room with steam, fogging up the glass door and the overhead window. They stepped into the spray of water, dampening their hair. Harry pushed his hair away from his eyes, pulling a dried flannel off the shower wall. He caught Louis looking at him.

“What?” he said but he already understood. He couldn’t keep his eyes off Louis either.

“Nothing.” Louis shook his head, smile small. “Here, let me.”

He held his hand out for the flannel and Harry handed it off. Turning his back to him, he waited for the touch of Louis’ hand. He felt his mouth first on the curve between his neck and shoulder. Then the flannel on his lower back.

“I’ll do you next,” Harry said.

Louis washed his skin like he was praying. Harry would be partway finished by now on his own. Not that he was complaining.

“Are you having fun?” Harry asked. “Out here with me?”

“I always have fun with you,” Louis answered.

 

* * *

 

“Definitely should consider more than confectioneries,” Louis said, setting his empty plate aside.

“You should stop complimenting me so much if you don’t want it to go to my head,” Harry said. “You’re going to turn me into Bobby Flay.”

“Fucking love Bobby Flay,” Louis said.

“That explains it,” Harry laughed. “Personally, I’d like to be Nigella Lawson. You know how she does that thing at the end of every episode where she sneaks down to the kitchen for a late night snack?”

Louis narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “I do. Why?”

“I do it all the time,” Harry said.

No,” Louis groaned and gasped at the same time.

Harry nodded. “I do. Sometimes I pretend I’m on camera too. Give a little wink for the viewers at home.” Harry demonstrated his wink.

Louis snorted. “I’m swooning.”

Harry laughed, standing with his empty plate. He took Louis’ too and went to the kitchen to clean them up. It was dark out now. Just past 6 PM. The sky was clear for the most part. But storm clouds hovered maybe an hour or so away. Harry finished with the dishes and cut off the tap.

“Hey, I want to show you something,” he called to Louis. “Could you grab the flashlight by the door?”

A few seconds later, Louis appeared in the kitchen, holding the flashlight. Harry grabbed his coat from off the back of the chair.

“It’s outside?” Louis asked.

Harry took the flashlight. “Yup.”

“Don’t want to show me in the morning?” Louis asked.

“Nope,” Harry answered with a mischievous grin. “Come on. It’ll be fun. And you have to see it at night.”

He found an old pair of his dad’s boots in the coat cupboard and pulled them on, while Louis slipped into his coat and his shoes. They convened again at the kitchen door and Harry switched the flashlight on and stepped into the cold air.

“So what is it you’re showing me?” Louis asked, trailing behind him. Harry reached back to take his hand. Louis laced their fingers together.

“You just have to see,” Harry answered cryptically.

He walked them down to the matted dirt path that cut through the trees on the side of the house. They walked parallel to the lake lingering through the clearing, feet snapping twigs here and there, led by the bright glow of the flashlight.

 “Feels like we’re headed to Narnia.”

Harry laughed. “But we didn’t go through a wardrobe.”

“There’s more than one way to get to Narnia, Harold,” Louis snarked. And then he started recounting all the ways the Pevensies had managed their way to Narnia. And Harry listened with an exasperated smile until the end of the dirt path appeared. And he tugged him forward.

They were stood on the opposite side of the woods, the lights of the house still visible through the clearing. They stood on the beginnings on a slight slope and down ahead of them was an open field of grass that would yield wildflowers in the spring.

Harry flicked the flashlight off, shrouding them in darkness. He titled his head up. “Look.”

Louis did, his eyes rounding immediately. “Holy shit,” he mumbled, scanning the sky.

Out here, without the trouble of light pollution, on a night when the moon was new, the stars were radiant. The closest ones could be seen twinkling and shifting with light, commanding attention. Even the farthest and the smallest were brilliant. Most nights in London it was hard to catch any of them.

Out here, the night sky was comprised entirely of the interstellar dots, smiling down on Harry and Louis, as they smiled back.

Harry took a seat and patted the ground beside him.

“I see why you like it here so much,” Louis murmured, once he was seated. “Think I’ve fallen in love with it too.”

Harry sat closer to him, arms around his knees. He hummed his agreement. "My mum used to bring me and Gemma here all the time. We’d sit out here too like this. After my dad left, it was the only way she could cheer us up,” he said quietly. “Sometimes coming here didn't even work."

"When's the last time you came here with her?"

"5 or 6 years ago maybe," Harry said. “Then my dad transferred complete ownership of Styles, Inc. to her. And she devoted all of her time to that.”

They grew quiet again while Louis probably turned his words over in his head and Harry chided himself on talking again about his mother. It was like he couldn’t stop. And surely, by now, Louis was tired of hearing about it.

Louis lifted his arm, silently inviting Harry to tuck himself beneath it. An offer Harry couldn’t refuse. He shuffled right beside him and Louis closed his arm around his shoulders, thumb rubbing circles against his shoulder. His scruffy jaw rested on Harry’s forehead.

"I think she just needs time,” Louis said quietly after a moment. “I think eventually she’ll come around. Even if it takes years. You just have to give her time."

Harry turned his face to Louis’ chest. "I'm tired of giving her time to be okay with who I am. I don't care anymore, Lou."

"We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to," Louis said, pressing a kiss to the top of Harry’s head. “But I think you do care…That’s who you are too—someone who cares what people think. And that’s not a bad thing. Unless you let it stop you from being you.”

Harry blinked out at the tops of the trees in the distance. He knew Louis was right. Not even deep down. But right there on the surface. Harry had always cared what people thought of him. Especially his mum. And it was never that he stopped caring, just that he eventually decided he was going to do and say and be what he wanted anyhow.

“What do you think I should do now?” Harry said. He cared what Louis thought too. Perhaps more than anyone. Consequences of being stupid in love, Harry guessed. And knowing Louis genuinely cared for him, knowing his opinions were more likely to soothe and strengthen, than cause pain.

“What you’ve been doing. Going after what you want, and knowing that you may be without your mum’s support for a while,” Louis said. “And also…”

Harry lifted his head to look him in the eye.

“You won’t like this,” Louis began, meeting his eyes. “But I don’t think you should isolate yourself from your family’s work. Not completely like you have been. Consider being a board member at least. It’ll be profitable for you in the future, even if you’re doing something else. I think you have to be the bigger person here. Show respect for your mum’s work if you want her to respect yours. And at the same time, do your own thing. She’ll come around then.”

Harry dropped his gaze again. And nodded. “I’ll consider it,” he said. He didn’t like it at all. But he trusted that Louis wouldn’t advise him without proper conviction. And Harry wasn’t likely to make the best decisions on his own with his head such a mess.

Louis would look out for him though. They’d look out for each other.

And speaking of which…

“Hey. I don’t want you to jump in, or try to protect me the next time she’s being fussy,” Harry said. “You’re going to get yourself fired.”

Louis huffed a laugh. “I can’t make any promises. I’ve never been one to bite my tongue.”

“Try biting it for me?” Harry asked. “So you don't lose your job?”

Louis rolled his eyes. “Yeah, okay. Zipping my lips from now on.”

Harry kissed him once. “Thank you.” I love you.

Harry loved him. There were a lot of confessions happening lately, from Harry to Louis and Harry to his mum. Someday soon he would confess that too.

They both stared up at the sky, the stars reflecting on their irises.

“I feel like I could reach out and touch them,” Louis said.

“I used to try when I was younger,” Harry confessed. “And I’d be so angry when I never could.”

Louis laughed. “I can see it now. Little baby Haz with little grabby hands. You were probably adorable.”

Harry gave him a look. “I’m still adorable,” he said, framing his chin with his hands, smiling with the dimples.

“Point made,” Louis said, pinching his dimple.

Harry cuddled up beside him again. As comfortable as it was, his balls might have been freezing off. He just wasn’t ready to leave yet.

“Thank you for coming here with me, Louis,” Harry said quietly, still looking upward. “It means a lot. And it’s much more fun with you here.”

“I’m having fun with you too. You know we can come back whenever you want,” Louis said. “I’d love that. Just say when.”

Harry studied him. “Okay. How about next weekend?”

“Well. Alright then,” Louis said with a laugh. “Just…I should probably make sure your mum hasn’t anything planned.”

“Okay,” Harry smiled. “Or whenever. We’ll figure it out.”

He returned his head to Louis’ chest. Still not ready to move quite yet. He couldn’t really feel his fingers and his ears stung from the cold. He should have worn a hat and gloves.

In the next minute, the weather made the decision for them. With their eyes on the stars, they didn’t see the tiny snowflakes until they were landing on their faces.

“Think that’s our cue to head inside,” Louis said.

“Probably,” Harry laughed, brushing snowflakes away from Louis’ eyelashes and the tip of his nose. They stood, Harry clutching the flashlight, reaching for Louis’ hand again.

“Could use a cuppa,” Louis said.

“Count me in,” Harry said. “We can watch that film too. And have popcorn. And cuddle.”

Without clothes on. And maybe make out for a bit. Harry was greedy, yes. But it was Louis.

“Sounds good,” Louis said as they stepped into the house. “I’ll start on the tea.”

Harry worked on the fireplace first, throwing pieces of firewood in each time the flames devoured another, stoking it to burn hotter. He checked that the doors and windows were locked, lined up his and Louis’ shoes by the door and marvelled for one dopey second about how nice it was to see their shoes together like that.

He wandered into the kitchen just in time to see Louis filling two ceramic mugs with steaming water. He added a splash of milk to each. “Here you go,” he said, handing him a mug.

“Thank you,” Harry smiled, blowing softly on the surface.

“Do you want to watch that film now?” Louis asked, taking a sip of his tea.

“Yeah. Do you want to get it started? I’ll grab blankets.”

“Sounds good,” Louis said, walking one way toward the living room, while Harry headed the other way toward the linen closet. He dug out a clean duvet and another armful of blankets. He went up to the bedroom and grabbed the pillows too.

And hid his goodies from earlier between them. He headed back to the living room and found Silver Linings Playbook lingering on the title screen.

He discreetly tucked the lube and condoms under the couch while Louis was looking at his phone and dropped the blankets on the floor. His mug was waiting on the coffee table for him because Louis was the most thoughtful person he’d ever met.

“Sit on the floor with me,” Harry said.

Louis slipped down the fluffy rug on the floor. And accepted the blanket that Harry covered him with. Harry sat down beside him and covered himself with a blanket as well. And then he reached for another blanket to wrap around both of them.

“We could build a fort with all these blankets…” Louis commented

Harry paused and his eyes snapped to Louis. “Oh my god,” he said. He started to stand back up. “We have to do it now. We have to build a fort.”

Louis snorted a laugh. “I’m a genius.”

“You are,” Harry said dropping a kiss on his cheek.

It took them another twenty minutes because it’d been too long since either of them had done this. It turned out to be quite a tedious task, figuring out how to get the blankets to hold, searching for clothespins in the kitchen drawers and in the laundry room. They had to craft their fort so they could still see the TV and be mindful of the fireplace too. And Harry had to run upstairs to grab more pillows and more blankets.

Finally, after a very complex endeavour, they collapsed for a moment on their backs, staring up and around at their work.

“This is sweet,” Harry said, unreasonably out of breath.

Louis grinned. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen one this nice.”

“We make a great team,” Harry said, turning his head to him.

Louis pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Yes, we do,” he said with another kiss to his mouth as well.

Harry shuffled forward, fluffing a pillow beneath his chin while Louis dug around for the remote somewhere behind him. Then he heard the rustle of a paper bag. He turned his head, just in time to see Louis opening his swag bag. And fuck--

Louis looked at him, brows arched high.

Harry snatched it from him. “That’s mine actually.”

“I figured,” Louis said.

Harry ignored him for the sake of not dying from embarrassing. “Let’s just—” he stuffed them back underneath a random pillow. His skin was actually on fire. “…Just leave that there.”

“Have they always been here?”

Harry shook his head.

“You just put them there then?”

“Yes,” Harry said quickly. “Film. Let’s watch the film.” He gestured toward the screen.

Louis probably didn’t intend to stop smiling for the rest of the night. Which meant Harry would have to not look at him. He fluffed his pillow again and settled in with a big breath.

Louis found the remote control and got comfortable too, jostling around for a few minutes. Harry kept his eyes trained on the opening credits. Louis finally stopped moving.

“When did you buy them?”

Harry dropped his face into his pillow and groaned. Could a person die from embarrassment? Could the fates be so generous? “At the store,” he mumbled. “When else?”

Louis hummed his understanding and went quiet again. Two minutes into the film, Harry was lying uncomfortably on his stiff dick and he couldn’t remember a single detail onscreen. He was tense waiting for the next question or really, the next answer. He was acutely aware of Louis beside him. He knew when Louis looked at him because he felt it, because he had snuck a glance his way only to have their eyes meet.

After two minutes, Louis asked his next question, voice quieter, but closer. “You bought condoms and lube so that we could watch a film?”

Harry turned his head, gaze dropping immediately to Louis’ smiling mouth.

“Or did you buy them because you wanted me to fuck you?”

All pretence died an untimely death right then. Harry wasn’t fooling anyone, not Louis, not himself. He bit slowly into his bottom lip and let it pop free.

“I’ve always wanted that,” he said quietly.

“When the time is right,” Louis supplied. “That’s what you said, yeah? What time is it now?”

Harry rested his head against his pillow, dark hair spilling forward. His stomach jackknifed as he spoke, “Feels like it might be the right one to me.”

That got Louis to close the thin sliver of space between their bodies. He pushed Harry over and onto his back, moving atop him. “You only had to say so.”

Their mouths met, Harry’s open and ready. He moaned against Louis’ tongue, then panted towards the ceiling when Louis broke away to drop kisses along the side of his neck. They rutted against each other, friction so good so soon. Too soon. Harry pushed Louis back, rolling them over, and settled into his lap. They stilled.

“You ruined it. It was supposed to happen organically,” Harry said, hands spread on Louis’ chest. “Like we start watching the film and then maybe we kiss for a bit and then it just happens.”

Louis smiled. “I think that might be a paradox, babe. It can’t happen organically if you have it planned out.” He ran his hands up and down Harry’s sides before sliding them beneath his t-shirt and stroking his skin. His hands were warm and confident. Harry wanted them everywhere.

“I didn’t have it planned. I had an idea,” Harry corrected. “Coming here with you and knowing we’d be alone. Knowing there would be a fire…and maybe snow.”

“Did you predict the blanket fort too?” Louis asked.

“Unfortunately, that was all you,” Harry said with a smile. He rocked his hips forward and back. Then once more, feeling Louis harden beneath him. “It was supposed to happen on its own. And then the swag bag would be there ready.”

Louis snorted. “The swag bag. So sorry I ruined it. Should we start over?”

“No,” Harry said quietly. “No, I want it now.”

Louis reversed them again, pushing Harry’s legs apart, kissing him slow. This time for sure, Harry was going to die. His heart was running a marathon in his chest. The blood thrummed in his ears and his fingertips and every place where Louis’ mouth met his skin.

“Next time just tell me,” Louis murmured. He pushed Harry’s shirt up under his arms and leaned in to mouth at one nipple, then the other. Harry wrapped his legs around Louis’ waist, ran his hands through his soft hair, and bucked up against him. Louis pulled his mouth away, leaving the skin damp. His voice was a gentle lull. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t give you. You just have to tell me and you have it.”

That sounded a lot like the jumble of nonsense in Harry’s head. That sounded like the kind of thing a person thought and said when they were in love. The way Harry felt about Louis. And perhaps the way Louis felt about him? He couldn’t work it now. Maybe later after his head had cleared.

He started tugging irately at Louis’ shirt, grumbling when he couldn’t get it off himself. Louis finally leaned away to pull it off completely, exposing all his warm skin to Harry’s hands. He dragged his palms over Louis’ chest and the tattoo beneath his collarbones. Louis let him touch for a moment. He reached absently for Harry’s waistband, tracing it with his fingers.

“You know,” Harry breathed, his voice shaking. “I considered putting on a sex playlist. Like on the intercom. So you’d hear it and get the idea.”

The corners of Louis’ eyes crinkled softly. “Oh, yeah?” he smiled. He tucked his fingers over the waistband. Harry lifted his hips so he could slide his sweatpants down his legs. Louis’ eyes flittered back up between his legs and the space between them. “What kind of songs were you thinking?”

Harry started to hum and then he sang, breathless and trying not to giggle, “Don’t see nothing’ wrong…” He snapped his finger. “…With a little bump and grind.” He punctuated his melody by grinding his hips up against Louis’.

Louis shook his head. “How’s it that you manage to be attractive doing shit like that?”

“You tell me.” Harry grinned. “I’ve another one for you.”

Louis leaned back in, dropping more kisses on Harry’s neck and collarbones. “Let’s hear it,” he said, sucking a bruise near Harry’s earlobe.

Harry’s eyelids fluttered closed. “Tonight,” he began. Louis’ mouth stilled when he caught the tune. “I’ll be your naughty girl.”

“God, stop,” Louis groaned. They kissed again, laughing into each other’s mouths. “You’re ridiculous.”

Harry shrugged. He knew already. But Louis was the one waiting between his legs. So what did that say about him?

“You sure about this?” Louis asked quietly.

In reply, Harry pulled his shirt off completely and tossed it aside. He set his unsteady fingers on Louis’ waistband. “I’m sure,” he said. And if his voice was unsteady too, Louis was kept from noticing by Harry tugging his joggers down. His lovely cock sprang forward. Harry kissed the tip and smiled.

Quickly, Louis shuffled back to strip. And then swooped in to kiss Harry again, both of them naked and exposed, cocks brushing. Harry willed his body to stop shaking, and his heart to not give out before he got fucked for the first time. How unfortunate would that be?

“We’ll take our time, okay?” Louis followed his words up with more kisses.

“Okay.” Harry nodded. “How should I— do you want me like this?”

Oddly, Louis started to laugh, his lips together in an attempt to stop. Harry looked at him curiously.

“Face down,” Louis said with a dramatic pause. “Ass up.”

Harry snorted, covering his face with one hand. “You’re actually worse than me,” he mumbled. “No one would guess what a dork you are.”

“The fact that you know should make it apparent how much I care about you,” Louis said.

They giggled like fools. Harry didn’t realize Louis had the lube in his hand until he started shuffling down his body. He watched him settle between his legs and press a kiss to his thigh, still laughing quietly. “This is good the way you are, just like this,” Louis said. “I want to see your face.”

Harry shifted more comfortably on the fluffy quilts and duvets piled beneath him.

Louis poured lube over his fingers. “Tell me if you need me to stop,” he said.

Harry couldn’t see that happening but he nodded anyway. Louis pressed a kiss to the inside of his knee. He brushed the back of his hand down Harry’s thigh before he reached his bum. Harry’s next breath was an unsteady progression past his lips. He blinked up at the top of their blanket fort and the swirling patterns of a quilt his mother had made for him when he was young. One stitched with stars and galaxies which she’d once charted with her polished nail, her voice a soft humming in his ear. He remembered how protected he’d felt then, how necessary her comfort had been, and why she made him the quilt in the first place for when she was away.

And now beneath that primordial patchwork of his childhood was the person he sought comfort from more than anymore. Louis, the love of his life, like a star himself. The reason perhaps that stars existed at all. The tip of his finger brushed Harry’s rim and Harry’s eyes drifted closed. He wasn’t a little boy anymore.

Louis kept running his free hand up and down Harry’s thigh. He sucked small kisses into his skin, and rubbed his beard and the tip of his nose against him too. All, it seemed, were methods of distracting him from the press of his finger.

What he must not have realized was that it felt good, right from the start. It wasn’t like Harry hadn’t done this to himself before. He’d taken three of his own fingers up his bum when he first grew curious. He hadn’t known what he was doing then, had hurt himself well enough too. But nowadays, when there was time, he liked at least two fingers involved while pulling one off.

The point was that Louis did it way better than Harry managed on his own, and it only burned slightly when he worked his way to three fingers. It took Harry a moment to adjust then but still he liked the stretch, liked the thought of being a little sore in the morning. And it was pretty much guaranteed that he would be. He wondered how many men Louis had done this to before or how many times he’d done it to himself.

The kisses and the bites and the scruff of Louis’ beard on his thighs weren’t distracting so much as they brought everything to a high, made the push and pull of Louis’ fingers that much more intense. He squeezed the base of his cock punishingly. He could come like this easily. All Louis had to do was press down on his spot a few more times, bite into his thigh again, keep murmuring his name the way he was doing.

Louis,” Harry grunted. “Stop, wait.”

Louis pulled his hand free instantly, gently so as not to hurt him. His mouth was gone. He blinked up at him dazedly. “Did I hurt you?”

“No. Not at all.” Harry squeezed his eyes shut. “I might come.”

“Oh.” He could hear the smile in Louis’ voice. His eyes opened. “It’s alright if you do,” Louis said.

“No, I want you to fuck me. It might never be this perfect again. We’ll end up doing it for the first time in your car and then we’ll sprain our necks. Or the neighbors will see us…”

Louis rolled his eyes. “Haven’t you called me dramatic once before? What nerve,” he said with a smile. “I hear you, love. But we’ve got all night.”

“Do you do that to yourself sometimes?” Harry asked. Blurted, really. “You’re kind of unbelievably good at it.”

Louis laughed, running his slick fingers over Harry’s groin. “Not so much lately,” he said. “Maybe I’ll show you sometime.”

Harry’s eyes rounded like planets. “Louis.”

Harry,” he replied, grinning. “Should we continue now?”

“Only if you promise to show me sometime?” Harry said.

Louis drew an X over his heart. “It’s alright if you come,” he said again.

Harry shook his head. “I won’t.” He wanted to hurry through this part and get to the one where Louis was in him. He relaxed, tried not to focus on how good it felt when Louis’ fingers returned. Louis at least did him the courtesy of avoiding his prostate, stretching and scissoring his fingers, adding a third. After a little while, he pulled them free, licking his lips. His eyes ran over Harry’s body again while he tore open a condom and leaned in to kiss Harry again.

He propped himself up with one hand pressed into the quilt beside Harry’s head. His other hand disappeared between them. Harry craned his neck to watch him roll the condom on and his own dick twitched and he clenched his cheeks.

Louis met his eyes, searching for apprehension again, it seemed. He saw none, didn’t want to waste too much time looking for it either. “Just relax, okay?”

Yeah, okay. Harry felt like a bullet lodged in a chamber, one second from bolting free. He nodded anyway, forced himself to go pliant.

Louis ran his cockhead over Harry’s hole—perhaps more for Harry’s sake than his own, getting him accustomed to the feeling of Louis there, however fleeting it was.

He pressed a kiss to Harry’s mouth and his cheek. All further distractions for when he nudged forward and breached his rim. Harry exhaled, mentally chanting relax, relax, relax so Louis could keep going.

“Are you okay?”

Harry nodded quickly. It was uncomfortable, to be honest. But he’d been prepared for initial discomfort. And there was no one he trusted more to work through that than Louis. He remained completely still, his eyes on the top of the fort, and waited until it got better, because he knew it would.

Because it was Louis. Everything was always good with Louis.

All the while Louis’ mouth was right against his ear, murmuring encouragement, telling him how beautiful he was.

“Do you need me to stop?” he asked at one point.

Harry tightened his legs around his waist. “No. Please don’t.”

Louis pulled away from the circle of his arms, running his hand up and down the back of Harry’s thigh. He pushed forward a bit more, his eyes fluttering for a moment. “Not even all the way in yet and you feel amazing.”

Harry couldn’t even respond. His lips were slightly parted, his eyes intent on Louis hovering above him like some sort of angel. And then Louis’ hips met his bum, the whole length of his cock hidden away. They stilled for a moment, just looking at each other.

Louis leaned in again, bracing himself on his arms. He brushed his thumb over Harry’s cheek and Harry turned into the touch and pressed a kiss to his palm.

“You’re so beautiful, Harry,” Louis mumbled.

Harry smiled. “You’re the most beautiful.”

Louis laughed softly and kissed him twice, running their noses together. Harry was pleasantly surprised by how gentle he was being. It wasn’t that he hadn’t expected as much but maybe not to this extent. He felt safe and secure, such a necessary feeling now when his head was a mess.

“Alright…” Louis mumbled. “You okay?”

Harry nodded, his hair brushing Louis’ forehead. “Keep going.”

“Okay.” Louis kissed him again. Okay, Harry repeated in his head.

Louis’ hips receded slowly and returned. And then again, and again. Harry’s eyelids fluttered with each short, incremental push of his cock. The smell of Louis’ skin was sharp and soothing. The quiet noises he made were mesmerizing.

Louis shifted them again. He sat back on his haunches, hands gently on Harry’s waist to pull him down on his cock, hips working forward, abs bunching. This angle was better. It got his cock deeper. Had him brushing Harry’s spot. Louis’ brow furrowed in concentration, eyes cast down on their bodies where they met. Harry watched too, as best as he could from the angle, for as long as he could before it became too much.

His eyes screwed shut. “Feels good,” he said, chest sinking with the deep breath he exhaled.

“Yeah?” Louis questioned.

“Yeah.” Harry opened his eyes and looked at him, nodding his head languidly. “Yeah, it’s good. Do you feel good?”

“So fucking good, yes,” Louis said. He leaned in to kiss him, settling atop his body, and propped Harry’s leg up around his waist. Harry folded himself around Louis, legs and arms tightening. He wanted to keep him as close as possible, never let go and never stop.

It was vivid. The glide of their chests together, Louis panting and licking into his mouth, and his cock pushing hot and eager into Harry’s body. How would the rest of the world ever appear as bright to him now?  He was ruined by Louis. He never would feel this good again. He would never love anything as much as he loved being with Louis.

He bit hard on his bottom lip before giving cadence to the confessions in his head. He turned his face into Louis’ neck and simply breathed in tandem with him.

“Fuck… Need you to come now, love,” Louis said, drawing back.

Harry nodded, just as Louis touched him, rubbing his thumb over the head of his cock. He whined in response, so sensitive by now, so ready that each touch felt like more than enough.

“You’re the best, you know that?” Louis said, pumping his hand quickly. “Best I’ve ever had. Can’t believe how fucking lucky I am.”

Harry’s eyes rolled shut. The pressure built and built higher. Until it hit a crescendo and then he was murmuring, “Louis.” One of the few things he remembered how to say.

“You know, anything you want from me, it’s yours,” Louis told him. “And me, I’m yours too.”

“Fuck,” Harry mewled. He pulled Louis into a sloppy kiss and started to spill over his fist and on his own stomach. He held their mouths together with his fingers pressed to the back of Louis’ neck.

Louis pulled back again and kept moving. And now that the need for release was gone, Harry could watch him work. He ran his hand down Louis’ sweaty chest, mesmerized by the glow of his skin, while Louis fucked into him three more times and stilled.

“Jesus, fuck,” Louis murmured, his head bowed. His whole body tensed, biceps and forearms, and his bum too where Harry’s hands ended up. “Holy fuck,” Louis exhaled.

Harry just kept watching him, lips beginning to curve, wider and wider until he was grinning. Louis slumped against his body, surrendering himself to the circle of Harry’s arms. And Harry smiled raptly at the top of the fort while stroking his back.

Louis reached down between their bodies after a moment and carefully pulled himself free. Harry winced as he left him. Louis discarded the condom in Harry’s empty goody bag and they shared a breathy laugh. He collapsed again beside him.

“Are you okay?”

Harry blinked, big grin still on his face. “Am I…okay?” He laughed and leaned in to kiss Louis’ smiling mouth. He whispered, "How are we going to stop doing that?"

Louis turned his face into his pillow, laughter muffled. "You’re going to kill me."

“You can’t die from too much sex,” Harry said sagely. He shuffled closer to Louis’ body. “Seriously. When can we do it again?”

Louis kissed him as best as he could while laughing, several quick kisses to Harry’s mouth and cheek. It really was a serious question. But Harry would ask him again later. Maybe when they were back in London on Louis’ bed or his couch or the floor. Harry wasn’t choosy.

“Are you okay?” he asked Louis.

Louis studied him for a moment. “You’re right,” he said. “Okay isn’t the right word at all. I’m perfect.”

Harry smiled, scooting close enough that their noses nearly touched. “That was fun.” And then he echoed Louis from earlier that day, “Everything is always fun with you.”

Now that he had him, now that they had each other, that was what Harry looked forward to most: just having fun with Louis, having good sex with Louis, laughing with Louis until their ribs were tired, and the stars burned out, and the sun exploded. And even then, laughing still.

 

* * *

 

They were running late. Getting up at 5 AM was a struggle. Packing their things was a punishment. And leaving the warmth of the house to crawl into the car was damn near insurmountable.

“Feel okay?” Louis asked, situated in the driver’s seat. Their eyes met. Harry was clearly grumpy, which meant Louis wasn’t asking about his mood.

Harry’s face suddenly felt warm and not from the heat pouring through the vents. He turned away to pull his seatbelt across his body and then met Louis’ gaze again. He was a little sore. But thinking about it only made him horny. And he was too tired to be horny.

“I feel good,” was all he said. “You?”

Louis nodded. “Good,” he said with a smile. He started the car.

They made a stop for coffee that they couldn’t really afford in terms of time but that was absolutely necessary for Louis to keep his eyes open. He insisted that Harry get a bit more sleep before they made it to Bordeaux. Harry took him up on that offer for about an hour and a half. Then he made him switch places, occupying the driver’s seat for the next two hours of the drive while Louis took a nap himself.

Driving through the French countryside with the sun rising ahead of him helped to calm his nerves. But maybe he’d been too calm. They arrived at the campus at 9:47 with just minutes to spare before his exam.

He wore black trousers and a simple shirt, as the letter had stated. At the registration desk, he was given a simple white chef’s smock and a hat, and a little over five minutes to make it to the exam room without being rejected entry. He was also given a number badge, 22.

“Thank you,” he said hurriedly. He and Louis rushed to the loo, squeezing into one stall together. Louis held the smock out for him to slip his arms into.

“Work on the hat,” he said to Harry, pulling the flaps of the smock around his torso.

Harry looped his hair into a quick bun and fit the hat atop his head, sliding his fingers beneath the brim to tuck stray curls away.

Louis finished with the last of the buttons on the smock. “Okay. Let’s go.”

They hurried back into the hall, just outside the examination room. Harry took Louis’ face into his hands and kissed him firmly, lips smushed together, cheeks smushed too. He pulled away, held a breath, and exhaled.

“Okay. See you after. Bye.”

“Bye,” Louis said with a big grin. Harry slipped into the room, the door shut behind him. He handed his number to the woman sitting at a table there, looking again out the glass pane of the door. Louis was waiting there still.

The woman handed the number back to him. “Thank you, Mr. Styles. Go on to your station. We’ll begin shortly.”

“Thank you.” Harry nodded. He glanced out the door again and waved once. Louis waved back, and once he stepped away and found his station, he could no longer see him. He ran his sweaty palms along the sides of his trousers, glancing around at the others in the room. One boy who looked to be praying. Another girl beside him who was all business, eyes straight ahead, hands folded atop her table.

Harry’s eyes flickered to the front again. He swallowed the lump in his throat.

A minute later, three sous chefs came around and distributed the exams along with #2 pencils. Once they returned to the front, the head examiner stated loudly, “You have an hour to complete this portion of the exam. When the timer goes off, please put your pencils down and wait for your exam to be collected. You may now begin.”

Harry turned the paper over and began.

Plenty of the terms were ones he’d heard Ivor, George, or Roberta throwing around day to day. There were scenarios for him to work through as well, and having encountered similar situations at the bakery or at events, Harry had answers ready. There were two questions he blanked on: the difference between a grande sauce and a small sauce, and the exact particulars of Russian Service.

Ivor told him they threw questions in there they didn’t expect most people to know. The written exam was more about testing your commitment to learning. The hands-on exam was about potential. And that was what mattered most.

He finished with ten minutes left on the clock.

After another twenty minutes, all of the exams had been collected and the sous chefs once again came around with a different sheet of paper for each examinee—a recipe.

A red-headed woman stood at the front, wearing a pair of pink cat-eye glasses, and a black smock. She introduced herself as Lucille, Senior Chef and patissier at Le Cordon Bleu.

“You have two hours to complete your dish. After that time, the timer here will go off. You are to put your utensils down and step away from your station. After your completion is validated, you will be free to go. Please expect responses during the first and second week of March,” she read from a clipboard in her hands. She looked up and her eyes scanned the room. “As always, je te dis merde.”

Each person for every five station had a different dish, so no one could watch what another person was doing and mimic them. Harry accessed the small fridge beneath his station and began extracting ingredients. When he glanced around, plenty of the students were already preheating their ovens. One girl was already chopping.

It didn’t make sense that they should all be so stern when none of them were proper chefs. But maybe that was the point. Maybe it was just about how confident you were. Fake it till you make it, and all that. Perhaps that was the best he could do.

Harry Styles confident, Louis had said.

Harry exhaled a deep breath, eyes scanning the recipe beside his hand. It was a simple clementine cream tart. Should take about an hour in all. With not much baking involved.

He turned and preheat his oven. He lifted the knife beside him and his first clementine. His gaze flickered constantly to the recipe but he found most of what he did was common sense. Making sure the crust was lightly browned. And the clementine cream was well pureed. Not overdoing it with the cream cheese. Those things came naturally to him.

His one regret was that he didn’t have his playlist on. But he hummed to himself instead. A song he’d added to the playlist recently, “Marchin’ On” by OneRepublic, suggested by Louis.

This way, if you stress the dough, you’ve got something to inspire you to keep going. Louis had been rather smug after saying that, like it was the most genius thing to leave his lips. But that was most of the things he said. He deserved to be smug.

One of the sous chefs walked by Harry’s station and he barely noticed her. Only stopped humming for one second to stand a bit straighter and shoot her a smile. She smiled back and continued on.

Harry set his finished tart on the anti-griddle to cool and gave it twenty minutes while he cleaned up his station. For the plating, he only needed to garnish the top with a bit of whipped cream, one slice of the clementine, and zest.

He wiped his sleeve across his forehead and stepped away from his station, hands at his sides. Only then did he realize he was one of the few people remaining.

The sous chef came by again. “Finished?” she asked with another smile.

Harry nodded. “Yes.”

She eyed his tart carefully. “Badge please?” He handed it over. She glanced at her clipboard, scribbling. She set the badge down by the tart. “You’re free to go, Mr. Styles. Please return your uniform before leaving the building.”

“Thank you,” Harry said, already sliding his hat off, loose curls from his bun popping free.

He started back to the door, eager to find Louis, excited for the rest of their day with this burden lifted. He didn’t see Lucille until she was standing right in his path, peering at him through the gleaming frames of her glasses.

“Harry Styles,” she repeated. “You’re Ivor’s student then?”

George would have a good laugh about that.

Harry straightened his back like he was supposed to, militaristic, chin slightly raised. “Yes. I work at his bakery.”

Lucille nodded. A smile so infinitesimal lit her lipstick-painted mouth. “I can tell,” she said. “Good day to you.”

Harry bowed his head. “Same to you,” he said, eyes lingering. Lucille stepped away first. Harry’s eyes stretched wide in shock as he left the room, exhaling a quiet breath.

Louis was waiting in the hall, sitting alone on a wooden bench. His head against the wall. Eyes closed. Arms crossed over his chest. Dozing. Harry took a seat beside him and nudged him gently with his hip.

Louis covered his mouth when he yawned like a kitten, eyelids crinkling. “So,” he murmured. “How’d it go?”

Harry explained as best as he could, but outside the exam room, his exhaustion quickly caught up with him. He set his head against Louis’ shoulder and his voice dragged on through a summary of the written exam and the clementine tart. And finally, Lucille, barely smiling and paying him what had to be a compliment.

Louis pulled back, dropping his shoulder so Harry was forced to lift his head and look at him.

“Hey,” Harry grumbled.

Louis ignored him. “The head chef talked to you,” he repeated.

“Not the head chef. Senior chef. There’s a difference,” Harry said, tiredly.

“Okay, whatever. You smashed it then?” Louis asked, eyes bright like the sun gleaming at the end of the hall. “That’s what I’m getting here. You smashed it?”

Slowly, Harry grinned. “I think, yeah…” he began. He laughed, cheeks gone rosy, dimples out. “I smashed it.”

Chapter Text

It was raining on the train ride back to London. Louis sat across from him, sketching on a paper napkin. Harry rested his head against the window and watched, sharing smiles with him whenever he glanced his way.

His phone rang where he held it in his lap. He glanced at the screen and gazed out the window again as he lifted it to his ear. “Hi, dad.”

"Hey, H,” his dad answered. Immediately, he followed with a sigh. “Just finished a phone call with your mum."

"Yeah?" Harry said tiredly. Louis was looking at him again. He sent him a reassuring smile. “How did that go?”

"Well, I heard you had a big row. She's pretty upset, says you haven't even been staying at home lately. Thinks you're seeing someone and you won't even introduce her to them.”

Harry shut his eyes, thumping his head once on the window. It was so like her to paint things in such a light, only mentioning Harry’s mistakes and not her own.

"I know things are difficult between you two. But you can't just shut her out. You have to try and talk to her."

"I've tried," Harry said. "I've tried and each time it ends the same way. She says we'll talk about it later because she has a meeting or a project to finish. It isn’t my fault."

"I'm not blaming you."

It sounded like it.

"I'm just saying that maybe you have to keep trying. Be persistent. Don't give up on things with her. She's your mum. You can't just give up on your mum."

Harry wasn’t planning to give up on her. Not just because Louis had suggested as much. But because he loved her. And all the plans he had for his life were bound to be a lot more rewarding if he someday had her support.

"I haven't,” he said. “If anything, it's the other way around."

His dad sighed again, a little louder this time. "Have you been seeing someone?"

Harry hesitated, shooting a glance at Louis. Louis was already looking at him, still smiling, his pen stilled in hand.

"Yeah," Harry said quietly.

"Why haven't you told anyone about them?"

"It's complicated right now. I'd have to explain some other time," Harry said, raking his hair away from his eyes.

“A bloke?”

“Yeah.” Harry watched the water zipping by, a stormy gray beneath an overcast sky. He turned his Styrofoam coffee cup slowly in his cup holder. “You know…I’m not sure I’m attracted to women anymore. Not as much as I used to be. Or like at all.”

Louis’ brows furrowed. Harry smiled bashfully.

“Well. Don’t get too caught up in trying to figure that all out. Just enjoy your life. Enjoy people,” his dad said. “All I hope is that he treats you well. Whoever he is.”

Harry smiled. “Very well…”

“Good. Talk to your mum, alright? Just try again for my sake. I deserve peace in my old age, don’t I?”

Harry huffed a laugh. “I’ll try again for the sake of your happy retirement.”

“That’s all I want,” his dad said. “I love you. Tell your new friend to swing around for a drink sometime.”

Harry laughed again. That was a nice thought. Louis getting drinks with his dad. It would happen someday, he hoped. “Will do. I love you too.”

He ended his call and shifted to Louis’ side of the booth, hands in his pockets.

“Everything alright?” Louis asked.

“Peachy. What are you drawing?”

Louis turned the napkin toward him. “Started out as a simple sketch. Turned into you.”

The figure on the napkin had curly hair and a pensive smile. Harry touch the corner of the drawing. He turned to Louis, their faces close, and he snuck a quick kiss. “Can I have it?”

“Sure,” Louis said, his gaze on Harry's mouth. He took a breath. “'Though now I feel like I need to draw you properly. To redeem myself.”

Harry slipped the napkin into his coat pocket. “I’d love for you to. Under one condition,” he said with a stern look. “You have to draw me like…” He paused for dramatic effect.

Louis’ eyes narrowed. “Don’t do it.”

“…one of your French girls,” Harry finished.

Louis dropped his head back against the seat. “Wake me when we get to London.”

Harry laughed, resting his head on Louis’ shoulder, looping his hand around Louis' forearm. They might not have intended to but soon enough, they were both snoozing, and didn’t wake until London.

 

* * *

 

“Hey,” Louis said quietly, his voice right beside Harry’s ear.

Harry grumbled, nuzzled closer. “Shh. Sleeping.”

“I know you’re awake.” Louis shifted a little.

“No, don’t move. Please? It’s comfortable,” Harry mumbled. He pressed his face against Louis’ shoulder. “Stay.”

Louis readjusted his arm around Harry’s body. “For a bit longer then,” he said.

Harry inhaled the scent of his skin and shut his eyes.

“I feel like I’m turning you into an old man or something," Louis said. "It’s Friday night and we’re taking a nap."

“I’m having plenty of fun,” Harry argued.

“My point exactly,” Louis replied. He squeezed Harry tight for a moment, rubbing his back. Harry loved that. “I want to take you out sometime.”

Harry drew his head back to look at him. “Like on a date?”

“Yeah.” Louis smiled, gaze soft. “Go on a date with me.”

Harry narrowed his eyes. “Are you asking me because you think I should be going out all the time?”

Louis scoffed. “Allow me to be selfish for a moment, yeah?” he said. “It might just be possible that I’d want to go on a date with you because I like you.”

Harry bit his top lip when he smiled, his cheek dimpling. He set his head back down on the throw pillow “Alright,” he said. “Let’s go on a date then. But after my nap, please.”

“Didn’t mean tonight,” Louis said. “Give me some time to plan it out.”

“Okay. And then after you take me out, I’ll take you out,” Harry said. His head was already spinning with ideas. Louis needed a good Swedish massage, deep conditioning, and fine wine.

“That grin you’re wearing is suspicious,” Louis said. He leaned close to peer at Harry’s dimple.

“What are you doing?” Harry asked with a breathy laugh.

“Checking out this dimple. Trying to see what you’re hiding in there.”

Harry snorted, turning his face into his pillow. Louis blew a raspberry on his cheek, right over the dimple, and Harry snorted louder, pushing him away. “Just reminded me of something,” he said breathlessly. “You’re going to be one of those dads who does magic tricks to cheer his kids up. Pretending you’ve found a coin behind their ear. Or that you found their smile when they're sad.”

Louis propped himself up on his elbow, peering down at him. His brow creased. “Not sure I’ve heard of that last one before.”

“My granddad used to do it all the time,” Harry said. “Whenever we were sad, he’d say he’d hidden our smiles somewhere around the house where we’d never find it. So we’d run around looking for them. We were like six, in our defence. When we’d end up in front of the big mirror in the foyer, he’d point and say ‘you found it!’ Because, by then, we’d had so much fun, we were all smiling again.”

Louis laughed. “Clever.”

Harry shrugged. “Not really a magic trick, I guess. But back then we genuinely thought he’d found a way to hide our smiles literally right under our noses. And even after we were older and figured it out, we still ended up smiling just because he was ridiculous.”

“How cute,” Louis said with a warm smile, setting his chin on Harry’s chest.

“I can see you doing that too,” Harry said.

“Maybe. Seems like a brilliant idea to me. I haven’t given much thought to that though. Having kids.”

Harry lifted his brows. “Do you want kids?”

“Yeah, of course. Someday. Feels like I'm running short on time though.”

“You’re only 25,” Harry said flatly. “You have plenty of time. And not many people have kids at your age anymore.”

“You sound like my mum,” Louis said.

“Well, you’re a mummy's boy, so I'll take that as a compliment,” Harry said. Louis laughed it off but it was true. With the way he’d spoken of his mum or the rest of his family in the past, it was clear that they were all quite special to him. Harry just hoped he got a chance to meet them soon.

“Going back to sleep now, okay?” he said.

“No,” Louis groaned. “Seriously. Let’s order Thai. And play a game or something.”

“Like a board game?” Harry asked.

“Yeah. Like Scrabble. I love scrabble,” Louis said.

“I learn something new about you every day,” Harry reported. Which had to be the consequences of their pseudo-relationship, of sharing a bed and sharing their free time. Louis’ list of hidden hobbies and habits was ever-growing.

“Why not,” Harry said. Because he’d love to sleep, sure. But Thai food and Scrabble sounded a lot more interesting.

 

* * *

 

“Lou,” Harry murmured, pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth. Louis’ back was warm and quite comfortable where Harry rested. Most of his face was buried in a pillow and the noise he made was muffled.

“Louis.” Harry gave him another kiss and poked him in his cheek. “Hey.”

Louis' mouth twitched. He exhaled loudly through his nose. His eyelashes fluttered. “Hm?”

“I’m going home now,” Harry said softly.

Louis’ eyes opened and he frowned. “No, why?”

“I’m not feeling too well honestly. Kind of stuffy,” Harry said. He felt like he'd been fighting off some sort of bug all week, and now it was finally catching up with him.

“I can take care of you,” Louis said, shifting over onto his side. He studied Harry, pressing his palm to his cheek. "You're a little warm."

Harry smiled, touching his hand to Louis’, turning his mouth to kiss his palm.

“You’re going into the office tomorrow morning, remember?” he said. “It’s okay. I want to wake up at home. Ease my mum’s worries. I’ll see you later?”

“Of course,” Louis said. He rubbed his thumb over Harry’s dimple. “See you then.”

Harry leaned in for a quick kiss and then crawled out of bed, found his shirt and the rest of his clothes, and his duffle from their short time in France. He made his way back across the lawn and slipped in through the front door.

He took cough syrup for his scratchy throat and went straight back to bed.

 

* * *

 

He woke up with a stuffy nose and an aching throat despite his preventive measures. He dropped his face into his pillow and groaned. It wasn’t a good time for him to be sick. There was never a good time but the point stood. He’d be attending London Fashion Week looking like he’d caught the plague.

He lay on his back for several minutes before lifting his phone and calling Ivor. He’d wanted to gush about the exam and Lucille especially but Ivor wouldn’t want him around the food if he wasn’t feeling well.

After their call and all three of his coworkers at the bakery wishing him well, he pulled a throw around his shoulders and shuffled down to the kitchen for a cup of tea and maybe a bowl of microwaved soup for breakfast.

His mum was sat right at the counter, glasses on, watching something on her iPad. She wore a thick cable knit jumper and leggings. Her hair was bound up wildly with tendrils going this way and that. She looked the way Harry remembered her as a little boy, haywire, a little disorganized, yet calm.

“Good morning,” he said.

She lifted her head and sent him a small smile, reaching out to pause whatever she was watching. “Good morning,” she said. She set her iPad down. “Did you have a safe trip home?”

“I did,” Harry said but he was pretty sure Louis had already told her so. He extracted the orange juice from the fridge. “Feeling a bit icky today. So I’m staying home from work.”

“Do you need me to have Louis pick you up anything?” his mum asked. “Or I can go fetch it. I was going to head to the office around noon.”

“Not right now.” He couldn’t think of anything just yet. But he’d probably come up with something later just so Louis could drop by.

He threw back some paracetamol for his headache and swallowed it down with the orange juice. He considered having breakfast but he lacked the energy to make anything. Soup really wasn’t a terrible idea.

“So, Harry…”

He froze while scanning through a cupboard for Poptarts. His mum looked at him, lips parting for a breath.

“I wanted to say…that I’m sorry for Wednesday. Even if I didn’t agree with your choices, that wasn’t the best way to say it. Especially in front of Louis and…others.”

Harry leaned against the counter. “Thank you. I’m sorry too for not waiting until we were home.” He wasn’t really. He wasn’t sorry for anything but he felt weird not apologizing for at least something.

“I’m still not convinced that paying for you to go to a culinary school is a wise financial move for me or educational move for you,” she said quietly. “But I’ve spoken with your father. And we’ve agreed that if you’re accepted, he’ll fund your first year there. And if you keep your grades up, then I’ll pay for your second year. And we’ll return to paying half each year afterwards until your graduation.”

It sounded too much like legal jargon. Harry’s head hurt too much to care. He nodded. “Thank you,” he said with a smile.

She twisted her wedding ring around her finger, which Harry knew by now was a nervous habit, especially because he did the same. “One further stipulation that your father and I both agree on, is that you take a few business courses at the nearby university while you’re away. Even if you plan to cook for the rest of your life, I’m sure those skills will come in handy.”

He hesitated for a second. “I agree,” he said eventually. “That’s fine.”

“Also, one more thing,” she said. Harry waited. “Are you dating someone?”

Well, fuck.

Really, he should have seen that coming. His dad had as much as prepared him for it. He shrugged. “Just casual stuff, I guess.”

“Casual?” she questioned. “Is it Niall?”

Harry choked on air. “Jesus. No. Niall isn’t gay.”

“Nick, then?” She lifted her brows.

“No,” Harry said again. "I know you like him, but no."

His mother huffed a laugh. Her smile was familiar, his favourite of hers. “Louis?” she said, still laughing quietly at the absurdity of it. A joke. Just a joke. Harry’s heart still plunged into his stomach. “I don’t know. Is it a woman?”

“No,” Harry said, so grateful he didn’t have to answer each question individually. “A man.”

“Do I get to meet him?” she asked hopefully, resting her chin in her palm.

“It’s just casual right now. Not time to meet the family just yet. When it is, I’ll bring him by,” Harry said. Another lie. If he could, he would have introduced Louis to everyone by now.

His mum smiled. “Well, whoever he is, I think it’s clear he makes you happy. Which is good enough for me.”

It probably wouldn’t be in the end, though the sentiment was nice.

“Do you want to have tea?” she asked.

Harry smiled, watching her hop up from her stool. “Uh, sure,” he said.

He took a seat while she withdrew two cups for them both. He watched her, the way he would when he was a kid, resting his head on his arms. She added a few splashes of a milk to each cup and set one down in front of him.

“Working on designs?” Harry asked, nodding to the MacBook open in front of her. He took a sip of tea.

“I was. They’re boots,” she said excitedly. “They’ll have a leopard print on the back. Like this…” She pulled up another design to show him.

“I like them,” he said.

“Me too,” she said, smiling. “I got distracted though. Watching this video. Have you seen this?” She reached for her iPad again. “Adele surprises a group of Adele impersonators. She comes in costume. It’s really cute. I’ve watched it three times already.”

Harry looked at her. “Only three times?” he gasped.

His mum rolled her eyes. “I know. But it’s the boots. You can only stare at boots for so long,” she said. And then they both laughed. “Honestly, watch this video.” He watched her restart it and pulled his eyes away from her smile to look at the screen.

There was nowhere else he had to be right then. And it was nice to have his mum smile at him the way she was. He’d missed her, maybe more than he understood until that moment right then. Eventually, she went to grab the biscuits from the tin she kept above the fridge and they snacked on them and sipped their tea and talked for a while about work and school. Even if there was somewhere else he had to be, he wouldn’t have been in a hurry to get there.

 

* * *

 

King Kong had just started on the television when there was a knock at his bedroom door. Harry tugged the duvet up a bit further to cover his bare legs.

“Come in,” he called, eyes flickering way from the screen for a second. The door opened and Louis peeked his head inside.

“Hey.”

Harry turned away from the TV completely, smiling brightly. “Well, hello,” he said, sitting up a bit straighter.

Louis lifted the white paper bag in his hand. “Your mum sent soup.” He closed the door behind him and stepped closer to set the bag on Harry’s bedside table.

“How are you feeling?” he asked. “And don’t say ‘better because you’re here’ or something like that.”

“But I do feel better with you here,” Harry complained. “I feel fine. Still stuffy. But I’ve taken medicine so the headache isn’t so bad.”

“Good,” Louis said. “Make sure to have the soup. And let me know if you need anything else…”

“You,” Harry said, lifting his brows suggestively.

Louis snorted. “I have to get back to work.”

“You’re not staying for a little bit? For a cuddle?” Harry asked. And he turned the charm up to maximum capacity, even fluttered his lashes a bit. Louis shook his head, laughing.

“I really have to go.”

“Just ten minutes?” Harry asked.

Louis rocked back and forth on his heels. “There’s no one else home?”

Harry shook his head. “Robin is playing golf or something I think. And Gemma is in the US. But you knew that. And Flora won’t come around until 5.”

Louis narrowed his eyes. “I’ll stay for fifteen minutes,” he conceded.

Harry lifted his covers for Louis to climb under. Louis removed his shoes and tossed his jacket to the foot of the bed and slipped in beside him, his arm coming around Harry’s waist, warm chest to Harry’s back. Right away, Harry felt…needy. He was 18. It really wasn’t his fault. But he also just felt better, warmer, more comfortable. Louis smelled good as always. His jeans were soft against Harry’s bare legs.

“Missed waking up to you this morning,” Louis murmured.

Harry smiled. “Me too. I got to talk to my mum earlier though,” he said. “Things are much better.”

“She did seem like she was in a good mood. Now I know why,” Louis said. “I’m proud of you.”

Harry snuggled back against him, maybe pushing his bum into Louis’ crotch more than necessary. “How’s work so far?”

“Pretty good. Finalizing things for tomorrow’s show. Got your outfit finalized too.”

“Did you pick it out?” Harry asked.

“I did,” Louis confirmed.

“Good. I like when you dress me,” Harry said, snuggling further.

Louis hummed, squeezing him a little tighter. Harry didn’t have much further to go with his bum. But he snuggled closer still. “Jesus, Harry,” Louis groaned. “How do you even have energy for this? You’re supposed to be ill.”

“I can be ill and horny,” Harry replied, grinding a little more purposefully now. Louis rested his forehead against Harry’s curls, breathing gone a little ragged. Then he withdrew his hips.

“You’re going to make me come in my jeans. And I have to go back to work in these jeans,” Louis said.

“I have a perfect solution for that though,” Harry said. “You can take them off.”

“Fifteen minutes isn’t enough time for me to take off my jeans.”

“Have a solution for that too,” Harry grinned. “You can stay for twenty minutes or thirty. Or a whole hour.”

“When I lose my job, are you planning to rehire me as your personal assistant?”

Harry looked at him. “Duh.”

Louis laughed.

“You should take off your jeans,” Harry said.

“I should have had the soup delivered,” Louis replied. But he reached down to pop his jeans open, and started pushing them down his legs. Harry removed his pants, kicking them to the foot of the bed where Louis’ jeans and pants ended up too.

His bum met Louis’ crotch again, his dick warm and hard. Louis reached for Harry and started to stroke him slowly. “You always get what you want.”

Harry smiled. “You make me sound spoiled.”

“No one’s accusing you but yourself,” Louis said, twisting his fist around the top of Harry’s cock. He was the best at everything. Even simple hand jobs were phenomenal. He planted his lips at the base of Harry’s neck and sucked gently, careful not to leave a mark Harry wouldn’t be able to explain. Harry rocked his bum backwards. The suggestion of Louis’ cock slipping into him coalesced with the scrape of his beard and his hand tight around Harry’s cock, and it was all too much too soon. Harry came embarrassingly fast, and peered down at his cock with a frown.

“Was planning to draw that out a little bit,” he mumbled.

Louis pressed his face into Harry’s curls, body shaking while he snickered. “You’re adorable,” he mumbled. He removed his hand, forehead resting against Harry’s shoulder. “I should go now,” he said but he was very noticeably still hard.

“You can fuck me,” Harry blurted.

Louis shook his head. “Not enough time,” he said. “But I wish.”

“My mouth then…” Harry suggested.

Louis looked at his mouth with hooded eyes. He groaned. “No, Jesus, you’re sick, H. Your throat is already sore.”

“Thighs?” Harry asked. Louis’ eyes rounded. Harry was pretty sure he had him fooled into thinking he was a minx. What Louis didn’t know was that Harry spent a good part of his time at 15 and 16 watching gay porn like it was his favourite TV show. And in a way it was.

He didn’t have a clue what he was doing half the time. But he was pretty sure he had the thighs for this. He was pretty sure Louis liked his thighs a lot too. So why not?

Harry licked his lips. “You can if you want to,” he said. “I just want you to feel good.”

“You keep catching me off guard,” Louis said. “I keep thinking I’ve got a handle on you and you surprise me again.”

Harry smiled. “Surprise,” he sang. He cast his eyes down beneath the covers and wet his hand with his own come. It was marginally disgusting but if he paused to find his French lube, Louis might leave. He wrapped his sticky hand around Louis and stroked him twice, watching his eyelids flutter. He was beautiful like this.

He took a laboured breath, setting his hand on Harry’s hip. “Tell me to stop if you aren’t comfortable,” he said.

Harry nodded. He felt Louis’ cock rub against the back of his thighs. He bit into his bottom lip when Louis pushed through the tight space between them.

Louis pulled back and pushed through again. Harry squeezed his thighs as tightly as he could. His childhood bed squeaked and complained as Louis quickened his pace, fucking him like he had on Thursday, except completely different. It felt odd but intimate simply to let Louis use him. It felt wild and desperate like Harry so often was with Louis. It made sense.

When he came, Harry moaned too, biting the corner of his pillow. Louis left his thighs sticky and damp. He squeezed Harry to his chest, burying his face in his curls, trying to catch his breath before either of them moved.

He cleaned him up afterwards with a flannel from the en-suite and offered to change Harry’s sheets but Harry refused. He’d kept Louis here long enough. He shuffled out of bed to walk Louis downstairs and reheat his soup, wearing his throw like a cape, and wearing a pair of women’s slippers that might have belonged to his mum.

Louis paused at the front door. “Feel better soon.”

“I’ll try,” Harry said smiling, resting his head against the door frame. “Thank you for staying…and stuff.”

Louis laughed. “Yeah. And stuff. Thanks for that too,” he said. “Don’t feel like going back to work at all though.”

“I mean, you can stay for as long as you want.”

Louis rolled his eyes. “Tempting.” He kissed him once on the mouth. “Really, really tempting. I’m starting to miss you already,” he said softly. He reached for the doorknob. “See you.”

Harry refused to pout. He was not a little kid. Although the whole being in love thing sometimes made him feel like one. “See you,” he said with a small wave and then Louis stepped out the door.

 

* * *

 

When the interviewer asked Harry about his absence at this year’s shows, it might not have been the best idea for him to say:

“I think I’m finished with modeling actually. Just showing up to these things to support my family.”

In fact, yeah, it definitely wasn’t his best idea. His mum luckily was a few feet away being interviewed herself, as was Gemma. But she would hear the interview later. The media would quote him. And it really just wasn’t his best idea.

“I might have just mucked that up,” he whispered to Louis as they progressed into the galleria.

“How so?” Louis asked.

“I basically announced that I was done modelling,” Harry said with a wince.

Louis set dismal eyes on him. “Your mum will be thrilled to read that tomorrow.”

“Whoops, I'm sorry,” Harry said. He should have paid more attention to Louis’ brief media training session the previous day but it’d dissolved into a make-out session before they’d gotten very far.

“Don’t be. We’ll handle it,” Louis said. He ushered him further into the galleria and toward their row of seats at the very front of the stage. He took a seat beside Gemma, who was sat beside his mum. Louis shuffled in beside him.

“Don’t you have to be backstage or something?” Harry asked.

“Not for this show but the one after,” Louis replied. “Which means, we get to watch a whole hour of Ricardo Houssay together.”

Harry’s brows creased. “Doesn’t everyone in the industry hate him?”

“You bet. And guess who hates him the most?” Louis lifted his brows and tilted his head forward. Harry turned and looked at his mum, sitting primly with her lips pressed firmly together. She looked unimpressed before the show had even begun.

Harry snorted. “This should be fun then.”

“That’s what I’m thinking,” Louis murmured.

They settled comfortably into their seats and the house lights died.

It was dark enough that Harry felt emboldened to reach across his armrest and set his hand on Louis’ thigh. Louis smiled and placed his own hand atop Harry’s.

Houssay turned out to have a penchant for theatrics and cultural appropriation. As in, he favoured ethnic designs and ironically enough, hired exactly zero ethnic models. His show also featured a snake curled around a model’s gold-painted body and a hawk perched on his own forearm when he came out to take his bow.

Harry giggled with Louis ceaselessly, hands pressed to their mouths to stifle laughter, but they snorted aloud each time they looked in Anne’s direction. She always looked seconds from hopping onstage and rallying protesters.

They all headed backstage afterwards for the first of his mum’s shows that week. Not wanting to distract Louis, Harry wandered around on his own, chatting with models and nibbling on imported cheese. It went by quickly and he managed to not feel guilty about sitting the show out, except for once when he made eye contact with his mum.

 

* * *

 

The next day was the same and the next as well. For the models and the ones who lived for this work, perhaps it was exciting. For Harry, it felt more like a chore.

School was boring, especially because at this point, with his applications submitted for university, it was mostly pointless. And it wasn’t like he had Louis to look forward to afterwards. Each day of London Fashion Week left Louis worn out and his nights were devoted to sleeping.

After countless runways and shows and cheese platters, Harry was tired. The minor bug from Saturday was gone but he was feeling crazed. And on Night 4, Louis showed up wearing leather trousers. Yes, really. Leather. Trousers.

“What are these?” Harry slapped his hands against Louis’ thighs and pulled at the material.

Louis swatted his hands away. “They’re Gucci and they’re expensive as fuck. Hands off,” he said, grinning. “They’re from last season. A friend from Vanity Fair sent them to me.”

“Tell them to send more,” Harry said. “Your bum looks perfect. This is literally illegal.”

He was so contemplating stepping close again and copping a feel. And then the front door opened and Anne stepped out of the house, followed by Gemma, and Harry took an unfortunate step away.

The after party was more entertaining that night. There was an American photographer practically salivating over Louis. Harry was absolutely the jealous kind but it was hard to be jealous when Louis looked so painfully unimpressed.

“Noel, you still work for Teen Vogue, don’t you?” Poppy Judd, another model and one of Gemma’s friends, asked the American man—Noel.

“Yes. Although I’m hoping to do some work for Vogue this year,” Noel said, looking at Louis, like maybe that would peak his interest.

On cue, Louis lifted his brows and took a sip of his drink. “Good luck to you.”

Harry pressed his smiling mouth to the edge of his glass. Beside him, his mum spoke up.

“I have plenty friends at Vogue, Noel. I’d be happy to put you in touch with them,” Anne said. “Louis can give you more information.”

“Oh, I’d truly love that,” Noel said, dipping his head gratefully. He looked at Louis. “I’ll give you my number so we can connect later.”

Harry snorted quietly to himself. Louis’ eyes flickered to his and then to Noel. “Sure,” he said. And then Noel was extracting his phone and Louis gave him his. He overheard Noel ask quietly, “Maybe we could talk more over coffee?” And Harry rolled his eyes. Louis preferred tea.

He thought he wasn’t jealous. He wasn’t. But he didn’t find it very funny anymore either.

“Excuse me,” he said to the group, ignoring Gemma’s knowing eyes and Louis’ eyes. And everyone. He actually really needed a wee.

He set his glass down on a nearby table and started off in what he thought was the right direction. He walked down a corridor lined with gleaming mirrors, dragging his finger along the glass, humming quietly to himself.

“You know, you’re headed toward the kitchen, don’t you?”

Harry smiled to himself, turning to face Louis. “Makes sense,” he said. “Can't seem to help myself.”

Louis laughed, stepping closer. “I think the loo is that way,” he pointed to the left. “If that’s what you’re looking for.”

“I was. Thank you,” Harry said, glancing behind them to ensure they weren’t being followed. “So, Noel…” He couldn’t help it.

Louis sighed. “Lovely, isn’t he?”

“He’s alright. He seemed just as charmed by the leather trousers as me,” Harry commented.

“Good,” Louis said. “Someone has to appreciate them. My balls are throwing a fucking riot.”

Harry chuckled. “On behalf of all the men charmed by your attire, I’m sorry your balls have to suffer.”

“You say ‘all the men’ like I’ve got a roomful of suitors. I think it might just be you and Noel,” Louis said.

“I caught a few others staring. Definitely more than me and Noel,” Harry said. “Just remember that I was the first.”

Louis smirked. “How could I forget? You’re also the only one I care about.”

For no rational reason, that was the thing that got Harry’s face feeling warm. He chanced a glance in one of the mirrors beside him and found his ears growing pink.

“As long as we’re clear then,” he replied. Of course, there’d be no reason for clarification if Louis were his boyfriend.

I’m pretty clear. Though I think you were actually a little jealous for a moment,” Louis said. “You weren’t though, were you, sweetheart?”

Harry looked at him. They came to a halt in the corridor and by now they must have passed the loo already. He saw his face reflected in the mirrors behind Louis’ head and saw Louis’ face reflected too. And they both looked hungry. Harry licked his lips and took one quick step forward.

Louis’ arms went around his waist easily and his mouth fell open to receive the kiss. Lately, Harry always felt like he was lying in a barren desert and that Louis was fresh water. He always felt parched for him.

Louis pulled away, took his hand, and tugged him further down the hall. He turned into an auxiliary hallway, pressed Harry into the wall and pressed his body to his. Their mouths met again. Louis pushed his thigh between Harry’s legs.

Harry pulled back to breathe deep. He rode Louis’ thigh mindlessly, slipping his hands down until they reached soft leather.

“Take me home,” he said. “Please? Take me to bed.”

“I can’t tonight,” Louis said. He pressed his mouth over Harry’s pulse point, causing him to shiver. He dropped kisses down the side of his neck. Harry hoped he was admiring his cologne. Louis sucked gently on his earlobe. “I won’t be finished here until 1. And you have work at 5.”

“I’m young. I don’t need much sleep,” Harry breathed, closing his hands over Louis’ bum. The material was smooth beneath his fingers, like Louis’ bare skin.

“Pretty sure it doesn’t work that way,” Louis said. He cupped Harry’s jaw and they looked at each other. He slid his thumb over Harry’s damp bottom lip. “How could you be jealous of anyone?”

Harry wrapped his lips around Louis’ thumb and sucked eagerly, the way he would if they were naked and he was on his knees.

Louis’ eyes were pinned to his mouth, his own lip bitten red. “You drive me insane.”

Harry let his thumb pop free of his mouth. “Take me home and make me pay for it.”

Louis clenched his jaw, thrusting his thigh against Harry’s crotch again. Harry rested his head against the wall and moaned to the gold-painted ceiling.

“I can beg if you want me to,” he mumbled.

“Don’t,” Louis said and with a frustrated breath, he drew back. He held Harry back too. “Tomorrow, okay? I promise.”

Harry honest-to-God considered throwing a tantrum. “You’re leaving me like this?” he asked, gesturing to his crotch. “This is a fucking safety hazard.”

“Jesus. No,” Louis said. “We’re both going to go into the loo and cool off. And maybe if there’s no one in there, I’ll give you blowjob.”

Harry actually pouted. “I don’t want a blowjob.”

“I know what you want,” Louis said. “But tomorrow, I promise.”

And Harry figured that for now a blowjob was better than nothing at all. Except he didn’t even get that. There was an attendant in the loo handing out hand towels and he didn’t look like he was going anywhere. In the end, Harry left the venue with Gemma, horny and unsatisfied and ready for tomorrow.

 

* * *

 

He had the whole day planned. Friday night with Louis would start as any night should: with a nice well-balanced meal. He’d follow it up with a back massage for Louis and copious glasses of wine, all guaranteed methods to have Louis fucking him into his couch before the night was through. Harry was nothing if not efficient.

But first there was work. He went out with George for a few of the morning deliveries and even got to drive the van. While George ran in to drop off a box of scones, he snapped a selfie from the driver’s seat to send Louis.

'Guess who’s on delivery.'

Louis sent him a selfie of his own. He was seated in his office, chin rested on his fist, smiling for the camera. Harry brushed his thumb over the picture. He closed the picture to read the rest of Louis’ message.

'aren’t you cute. should I expect you here soon?'

Harry pouted. 'I wish. :('

'can’t wait til tonight xx'

'me neither… x'

George climbed back into the passenger seat. Harry pocketed his phone and started the van back up. At 11, Ivor sent him home to spend the rest of his day off from school “being a kid.” Harry reminded him that he was 18. Ivor shoved a box of rejects in his hands and physically guided him to the door.

Regrettably, it was being at work that kept his mind off Louis and made the hours move faster until he saw him. Louis wouldn’t be home until 6 or 7 and there was still too much time to kill.

Bacon greeted him at the door, biting at his ankles. “Missed you too,” Harry murmured. He lifted him into his arm and trotted off to the kitchen, kissing his tummy.

“Harry!” Flora exclaimed. His heart stopped for about five seconds. He stared wide-eyed at her. She hurried forward, holding an envelope in her hand, waving it around. “You got another letter! From the school. Look, look!”

Harry set Bacon down and accepted the envelope, heart thudding wildly from being startled or from the letter or both really. He tore it open, fingers fumbling to lift the flap and pull the folded paper into the open. It was like he’d never opened an envelope in his life. It proved so difficult Flora snatched the envelope from him, unfolded it and handed it back, gesturing with her hands for him to read.

There were a lot of words on the page.

But the only one that mattered was “accepted.” Harry sunk to the ground, clutching the paper to his chest. He lied prostrate on the floor, eyes and throat burning.

“What is it?” Flora was practically screaming. “Love, it’s alright. Please don’t cry.”

“I got in,” he whispered.

“Please speak up love. You’re scaring me,” Flora complained.

“I got in,” he repeated, holding the paper up to her. She took it from him. He said it again to the universe, “I got in.”

“You got in!” Flora screeched, bouncing on her toes. “Oh God, Harry. Get off the floor so I can hug you.” She pulled him up by the back of his jumper. He scrambled to his feet and into her arms. “I’m so, so proud of you, my love. And your mum will be so very proud.”

He hoped so. But there was someone else he needed to tell right that second, and it couldn’t wait until tonight. “Thank you, Flora. Thank you for everything,” he said. He hugged her tightly again and lifted Bacon off the floor to press a kiss to his wrinkly little face. And then he hurried off.

 

* * *

 

“Come in.”

Harry pushed Louis’ office door open and stepped inside. Louis’ lips paused before they could meet the rim of his mug.

“Good afternoon,” Harry said, smiling as he shut the door behind him. If Louis noticed that he locked it, he said nothing.

“Good afternoon,” Louis replied, smiling slowly, brows furrowed. “This is a nice surprise.”

Harry stepped closer, placing the latte and the pastry he’d picked up on the way atop Louis’ desk. “You said you wanted a delivery so here I am," he said. "I bring gifts from the bakery."

“So sweet of you,” Louis said. Harry came close to press a greeting kiss to his mouth. “Did I see you lock the door just now?”

“Maybe,” Harry said, kissing Louis’ scruffy chin. “I might have come with ulterior motives as well.”

“Oh, yeah? Like what?”

Harry smirked. “First, to show you something,” he said, reaching into his back pocket. He pulled out a condom and two packets of lube and dropped them on Louis’ desk.

Louis opened his mouth to speak.

“Not that. This,” Harry said pulling out the letter as well. He handed it off.

Louis peeled his gaze away from the sex goods. “What’s this?” he asked, as he unfolded the letter, brows furrowed in concentration. He read over it, or he read the one word that mattered. “Fuck.”

Harry grinned.

“Holy fuck, Harry,” Louis looked up at him, his eyes wide. “You got in!”

“I got in,” Harry said for what felt like the fiftieth time that day. He’d told everyone at the bakery and then he’d called his dad on the way to the office and then he’d told Gemma.

He got into the one school he’d been dreaming of going to.

He fucking got in.

“Fuck,” Louis said again. He pulled Harry in for another kiss, smacking several onto his lips. “I’m so proud of you, babe. I'm so, so proud.”

Harry laughed as Louis spread kisses all over his face. “Thank you. Would’ve been impossible without you,” he said. “So really, thank you.”

“You’re welcome. God, this is so great. We should celebrate. We have to celebrate tonight.”

“Mhm,” Harry hummed, kissing Louis again, a bit firmer. He cupped the back of his neck and pressed his lips to Louis’ until their mouths fell open, and then there was tongue. He sank into Louis’ lap and got comfortable.

“More than one ulterior motive?” Louis asked when they parted for breath.

Harry smiled. He started to unbutton Louis’ dress shirt. “Bingo.”

“What was the second one?”

"Being bent over your desk," Harry said. He leaned in to kiss Louis again. He got the shirt open and reached down to unfasten Louis’ trousers next. Louis reached toward his desk and tapped his iPad to check his schedule.

“Tell me if this isn’t okay,” Harry murmured.

“More than okay,” Louis said. He hesitated for second. “We have to be really quick. And quiet.” Harry nodded eagerly, leaning in to kiss him again.

Louis unfastened Harry’s trousers. “Did you take yourself before coming here?” he asked.

“I did,” Harry said.

"Up,” Louis said, slapping Harry’s thigh. Harry scrambled up quickly, goosebumps spreading across his skin. Louis ushered him forward. “Over the desk.”

Harry spread his torso out over Louis' mahogany desk, dark curls spilling forward. He shut his eyes while Louis dragged his jeans down his legs and over his socked feet. He stepped out of them.

“If you have to hide for any reason, just get under the desk,” Louis said, while he kissed his way back up Harry’s legs. Harry hummed his understanding, his head growing fuzzy from the rough scrape of Louis’ beard on his thighs. His hand spread out over Harry’s bare bum.

“Jesus,” Louis mumbled. “Took your time prepping yourself didn’t you?”

“For you, yes,” Harry said, listening to the rip of a condom wrapper. He clenched his cheeks tightly. “You’re so thick, I had to.”

Louis huffed a laugh. “You flatter me. How many fingers?”

“Three,” Harry said, watching Louis’s hand collect the lube. Harry bit his lip, pressing his forehead to the desk. He was so ready he was shaking.

“Where?”

“In the car,” Harry said. “Right before I came up here.”

“Fuck,” Louis muttered. “And no one saw you?”

“I parked in the back. I don’t think so,” Harry said. But the thought of someone seeing wasn’t terrifying to him. Who knew?

“Couldn’t wait ‘til I was home, could you?”

“Why wait when I could have you now?” Harry replied.

“Fair enough,” Louis said. He took hold of Harry’s hip, pressing his cock against his rim, and then he slipped inside.

Harry’s eyes fluttered closed. “Do it hard,” he murmured.

“Planned on it.” Louis pulled back and rocked forward. "You should see yourself," he said. "Came here for the sole purpose of getting fucked, didn’t you?"

Harry nodded. "Could have me anywhere you wanted," he babbled.

“Want you everywhere.” Louis spread one hand over Harry's right cheek and spread him apart. His thumb caught on his wet hole, pressed into the skin tight around his own cock. He started to fuck fast, thumping his hips against Harry’s ass, the pens and pencils in the cup nearby rattling with every thrust.

Harry tried to gag himself with his own fist and failed. He moaned aloud.

“Gotta stay quiet for me, H,” Louis said. Harry nodded. “You feel so good, baby. Fuck, can’t even believe—”

And then there was a knock at the door that had Harry's eyes widening.

Louis hesitated for a second, slowing down.

"Louis,” someone called through the door. It sounded like Jeanine. “Sorry to bother you. Just have a quick question.”

“Don’t stop,” Harry whispered.

“Yes," Louis answered Jeanine, his voice strained. Jeanine started speaking again, explaining something that made no sense to Harry’s buzzing ears. Harry pushed his bum back to meet Louis’ hips, begging for it.

"…you said you wanted to get that finalized this morning?" Jeanine finished.

Louis' next thrust forced Harry further up his desk and he accidentally knocked a short stack of papers off the edge. They fluttered to the floor like feathers. Louis pressed close to him, breath tickling the sweaty skin of Harry’s neck.

"That's it, Lou,” Harry said. “Fuck me harder."

Louis did, tugging him back to meet each of his thrusts, getting him so good and so deep Harry was on the verge of tears.

“Louis, did you get that?” Jeanine asked. Harry forgot she was there. He pressed his cheek against the cool wood of Louis’ desk and bit into his fist to keep quiet.

"You know what?” Louis called to Jeanine. “I have a conference— a conference call in two minutes... I’m just gonna finish that up. And get back to you on that."

Louis pulled out. "Turn around," he ordered Harry quietly, his mouth right at the shell of his ear. Harry turned over, sitting up on the desk, swinging his legs open.

"So should I come back in about ten minutes?" Jeanine asked.

Louis stepped back between Harry’s legs, grabbed hold of his thighs and pushed into him again, his eyelids slipping closed. "Fifteen," he told Jeanine. "See you then."

Harry wrapped his arms around his shoulders. He dropped his head back, unfocused eyes on the ornate ceiling as he started to laugh. He turned his head to watch Jeanine's silhouette move away from the door through the frosted glass pane.

"Fuck, you're gonna get me fired," Louis said. He was working up such a sweat his poor quiff was losing its shape. Harry pushed his fingers through it, pressed another kiss to Louis’ mouth.

"I told you, I’d rehire you," Harry said. "You feel so good, Louis—"

Another knock at the door. Harry clapped a hand over his mouth.

"Hey, Louis?"

Amanda.

Louis groaned quietly into Harry's neck. “Yes?” he called.

"Have you seen Harry this morning?" Amanda asked.

Louis crossed his eyes and they shared a silent laugh.

"Sorry, I haven’t," Louis said to Amanda. The next snap of his hips got Harry’s prostate head on, had his whole body trembling. Louis kissed him to keep him quiet.

"That's odd," Amanda said. "The front desk said he was on his way up five minutes ago. And I know he usually stops here first."

"I'll give him a ring," Louis broke away to say. He leaned over Harry’s body, spreading him out flat on his desk, pushing a stack of folders out of the way. Harry slid his hands up Louis’ forearms, marvelling at his tattoos.

“’Kay. Thanks,” Amanda said. “It’s nothing important. See you!”

Louis pressed his palm over Harry's mouth when he started whining. He spoke into his ear, “You have no idea how incredibly hot you are. I bet she really wishes she could see you like this. But this is just for me, isn’t it?” Harry nodded, quiet moans muffled by Louis’ hand over his mouth. “You’re mine, right?”

Harry tightened his legs around Louis’ waist to say “yes.”

“Oh! Sorry, Louis, I’m back,” Amanda said. "There are cream puffs in the kitchen from Harry’s bakery. And warm pretzels that Gretchen made apparently."

"Great. Thanks—" Louis called to her.

Harry couldn’t hold out any longer. His cock rubbed against the soft ridges of Louis’ abs each time he moved against him, and Louis was splitting him open, hitting his spot every time. Squeezing his eyes shut, he felt the pressure peak suddenly. Louis groaned when Harry clenched tight around him, digging his nails into Louis’ forearm.

"Hey. You alright?" Amanda asked. “Sound kind of funny in there.”

Harry breathed a laugh through his nose, mouth still covered by Louis' hand. Come leaked out against his tummy, and he just laughed through his orgasm, feeling daring and euphoric, but most of all, very well fucked.

"Yes, I'm good," Louis said. "Just on the phone. Thanks again."

"Oh, so sorry! Bye then," Amanda said. Harry tilted his head back to watch her shadow retreat too, and then he focused on Louis, still moving against him. He tapped Louis’ hand for him to pull it away

“Let me ride you,” he breathed. “Gonna finish you off.”

“Won’t take long.” Louis tugged him up, and they sank back into his leather desk chair. Harry started moving right away, rocking his hips gently in Louis’ lap. He ran his hand up Louis’ chest between the open flaps of his dress shirt. His nail caught on his right nipple.

Louis closed his eyes, setting his head back against the chair. “Really close,” he said dazedly, like he was in another world.

Harry pushed his fingers through Louis’ hair, resting their foreheads together while he moved. “When I leave, I hope everyone can tell how well you took care of me.”

Louis’ eyes opened and locked on his, bleary and bright blue.

“Always take such good care of me, Lou.”

Louis tensed up suddenly, squeezing his eyes shut. He shivered and shuddered. "Jesus, Harry,” he sighed, voice strained. He cupped Harry’s hips to stop him from moving. His chest rose and fell rapidly.

Harry moved his mouth to Louis’ lips. “You’re amazing.” He kissed him and rested his head on Louis’ shoulder. Louis hugged him close. “So amazing.”

“So are you, love. That was crazy,” Louis said quietly.

“I think we might be a little crazy,” Harry said regretfully. “But I like us anyway.”

Louis laughed. “I do too.”

 

 

* * *

 

MARCH

Louis was planning something. A first date like he’d mentioned or some kind of surprise party. Niall, who definitely couldn’t be trusted with secrets, kept looking at Harry lately and giggling. And Harry happened to see Zayn at Asda recently and as they left, Zayn said to him, “See you next week!” Only, Harry hadn’t made plans with him for next week. He never even got a chance to question him about it.

At this point, he was putting all his cards on a surprise party.

Tuesday night, they went for tacos after Louis picked Harry up for school.

“All I’m saying is that you aren’t as stealthy as you think,” Harry mumbled with his mouth full. He took another bite of his taco. “Definitely not fooling me.”

Louis grabbed a couple napkins from the dispenser and slid them across the table. “All I know is you’re having an issue with that taco sauce.”

Harry slid the stack of napkins closer to himself with his middle finger. Louis laughed, reaching for his cup of water. His phone started buzzing on the table. They both looked at the screen. The word ‘Mum’ looked back at them.

Louis stole one of Harry’s napkins and wiped his hands. He lifted his phone to his ear. “Hello, love,” he said, smiling.

Harry smiled too, definitely a sucker for momma’s boys. Or just Louis, really. He watched him dopily until Louis’ smile faded.

“Wait, what?” Louis said, pressing his finger to his ear to shut out the overhead music. He set his forehead into his palm. “Oh, fuck, Lottie,” he mumbled. “Where’s mum? Is she alright? …When did it happen?” He bit his thumbnail. “Alright. Put her on the phone then.”

Louis lifted his head and looked at Harry, his smile small. He directed his attention back to the phone. “Hi, Mum… I’m so sorry. No, I’m having dinner. Yeah, I’m alright. Just wish I was there… I’ll leave tomorrow as early as I can.”

Harry drummed his fingers on the table as he waited anxiously. He’d lost his appetite for his last taco. Louis’ phone call lasted for another two minutes. He talked to another member of his family and promised again that he would be there tomorrow. And then he hung up, staring at his phone.

Harry watched him, chewing his bottom lip. Louis’ eyes flickered up and met his. “So,” he said, running his hand down his hair. “My nan just passed.”

“I’m so sorry,” Harry said immediately. He reached across the table for Louis’ hand.

Louis sighed heavily. “She was sick for a while. Just never knew when it was going to happen.” He squeezed Harry’s hand in his. “Fuck, this just—”

Harry stroked Louis’ hand with his thumb. “Do you want to leave?”

“If you’re finished?” Louis asked.

Harry nodded. “I’m not hungry anymore,” he said. “Let’s go.”

The drive home was silent except for the radio. Harry held Louis’ hand in his lap. Louis looked out the windscreen with far away eyes, only paying enough attention to operate the car safely. His mind was elsewhere. Even the pressure from his hand in Harry’s was weak.

He parked the car in his drive.

“Should I stay with you tonight?” Harry asked. He hadn’t planned to.

Louis shook his head. “Not tonight. Just need to get myself together so I can leave tomorrow. Thank you though.”

Harry smiled. “You’re welcome.” He circled his thumbs around themselves. “I don’t know how to say this so it won’t sound presumptuous or anything. But if you wanted, I’d be happy to go with you. For support or something. And I know it might be weird, me meeting your family but if you need someone there, I won’t make it weird I promise.”

Louis laughed quietly. “That’s an awful way for you to meet my family, isn’t it? At a funeral? Wouldn’t that be bad luck?”

“Bad luck for what?” Harry asked, brows raised.

Louis hesitated. “Our sexual relationship or I don’t know,” he said with a small laugh. “Something.”

“I think we’d be fine,” Harry said. “The offer’s open. Otherwise, I’ll wait in your bed, with freshly made croissants and wine for when you get back.”

Louis chuckled. “Sounds like the better deal to be honest,” he said.

Harry leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Louis’ mouth. “Just let me know. I really am sorry about your nan.”

“Thank you,” Louis said. “I want you to meet my family. I just don’t know if now’s the best time.”

“I get that. Whatever you want,” Harry said with another kiss.

“See you in the morning?” Louis asked.

“Of course,” Harry smiled. One last kiss and he hopped out of the car and hurried up his own drive through the light drizzle.

Around two a.m., Louis called.

Harry turned over in bed to glance at the time. “Hi,” he said groggily, resting the phone atop his ear.

“Sorry, were you asleep? Your light’s on…”

“I fell asleep reading,” Harry explained. “Are you alright?”

“I’m doing better. I miss you though. I wish you’d stayed,” Louis mumbled.

Harry smiled. “I can still come over if you want.”

“No, it’s too late. Plus I’ve had two drinks. I’ll be asleep soon,” Louis said. Harry laughed quietly, reaching for his light and cutting it off. He shuffled further under his covers.

“So you called to tell me you missed me?” Harry wondered.

“No,” Louis said, laughing softly. “Actually, I was thinking— I just wanted to say— I changed my mind… And I want you to come. Meet my family and all that. If you’re still up for it?”

Harry bit his bottom lip and grinned. “I’m up for it,” he said. “Absolutely.”

“Good,” Louis sighed in relief. “Thank you…”

“Thank you for letting me be there for you,” Harry said. He shifted more comfortably in bed, shutting his eyes. “What are you drinking?”

“Just straight whiskey,” Louis said.

Harry laughed. “That’ll do wonders for your beard.” And Harry’s thighs. Truly, he couldn’t wait.

“You know, that’s not scientifically proven,” Louis said regretfully.

“Just keep going with that whiskey and we’ll see,” Harry said. “Don’t go too hard though.”

“I think I’m done for now,” Louis said. “It’s pretty late.”

“Very late,” Harry agreed sadly. Not that he wanted to hang up just yet.

Louis was quiet for a moment. And then he said, “I sleep better when you’re here.”

Harry’s eye fluttered open to the dark of his room. His breathing slowed. In this moment that was sort of monumental. He shut his eyes again, pictured Louis tucked in bed, and pictured himself there too. He murmured, “So do I.”

 

* * *

 

His mum thought it was very kind of him to want to support Louis. She also arranged for flowers to be sent to Louis’ family home and told Harry to give them all her condolences.

Three days passed while Louis’ family made funeral arrangements. On Friday afternoon, Harry took a train to Doncaster. And after a little while without him, he was more than happy to see Louis waiting on the platform.

“When we get there, should I expect your whole family to be waiting?” Harry asked.

Louis smiled. “No, actually you’re in luck. My mum, my stepdad, and all the youngest ones are staying with my granddad about ten minutes away. My two oldest sisters are at home with me.”

Louis lowered the radio. “Also, they know,” he added.

Harry blinked. “They know?”

Louis nodded, glancing at him. “About you and me.”

“Oh.” Harry exhaled. “Well, since we’re being honest, Gemma knows.”

“I figured,” Louis said.

“Also my mum.”

Louis nearly snapped his neck clean off. Harry grinned. “Too easy, love…”

“Fuck,” Louis breathed. “Do you know that if I have a heart attack while I’m driving, we’re both going to die?”

Harry shrugged, still smiling. “How about your mum…?”

“No way,” Louis said. “She would actually probably have a heart attack.”

Harry looked away. “Why do you think she’d respond that way?” He felt Louis glance at him twice but he kept his gaze on the car ahead.

“You’re my employer’s son,” Louis said. He didn’t need to say much more.

Harry sighed. “Has it ever occurred to you that we’re Romeo and Juliet?”

Louis laughed, shooting him another glance. “So long as I’m Juliet,” he said. “Romeo was a fucking arse.”

A minute later, they pulled up to Louis’ family home. “They’re cool, I promise,” Louis told him, giving his hand a squeeze. Harry took a breath, throwing the strap of his duffle over his shoulder. “If they stare, it’s because you’re gorgeous.”

Harry pretended that didn’t have as big of an effect on him as it really did.

Louis’ sisters were in the kitchen. The oldest one, Lottie, was sat at the counter, beside the second oldest who they called Fizzy. Lottie was on her laptop, messaging someone it looked like. Fizzy was sipping a cup of tea and scrolling through her phone.

Louis guided him into the kitchen with a hand on his hip. The girls looked up and smiled immediately. “Hi,’ they both said.

Harry waved. “Hello.”

“This is Harry,” Louis said. “H, this is Lottie. And Fizzy.”

“Nice to meet you,” Harry said.

Lottie smiled wider, sharing a glance with her sister. The resemblance when she did so was daunting. She reminded him so much of Louis when he was up to no good.

“Tea?” Lottie asked.

“Later,” Louis said.

“I wasn’t asking you,” she snarked, lifting her brows.

“Harry?” Fizzy asked. “Tea?”

Louis started guiding him out of the kitchen before Harry could answer. “Later,” he repeated to his sisters.

“I don’t mind having tea with them,” Harry said as they started up the stairs. “It’ll be like a bonding experience.”

“They’re going to question you until bedtime,” Louis said. “And Lottie is obsessed with Styles. We got her a bag one year for Christmas and she was never the same.”

Harry would have to send her something from the upcoming season then. He followed Louis to his bedroom, hand in hand. Louis flipped a lamp on. Harry took a look around.

“Welcome to my childhood abode,” Louis said.

Harry shot him a smile, walking toward the window. “It’s so…nerdy.” He took in all the Marvel posters and football posters. “I love it.”

Louis laughed. “Now that it has your approval, I feel better about growing up here.”

“We’ve seen each other’s childhood rooms now,” Harry said, crossing his arms and strolling closer. “I don’t know about you but I’d say that’s pretty big.”

“I think it might be a bigger deal when you aren’t still living in yours,” Louis said, lifting his brows.

Harry narrowed his eyes. “I’m turning the other cheek on that one. Being the adult.”

“You’re definitely the adult,” Louis said, suppressing a laugh.

Harry turned the other cheek. He walked to Louis’ desk where there was a stack of comic books. He lifted one into his hand, tucking a strand of hair behind his ear. He kicked off his shoes. “I love X-Men,” he said, wiggling the comic.

Louis simply watched him, small, pensive smile on his face.

Harry removed his school blazer and set it on Louis’ chair, pushing his sleeves up to his elbows. He replaced the one book and lifted another. “Do you have all of them?”

“Every one until I moved out,” Louis said. He was reclined on his bed, still just watching.

Harry set the comic book down, righting the stack. “Are the rest back home?”

“They are,” Louis said. “I’m shocked you haven’t discovered my stash beneath the bed yet.”

“I’ll be looking under your bed first thing,” Harry said. He spotted sketches on the desk too and pushed papers aside to study them. He lifted one to the light, just a simple drawing of a girl sitting against a tree.

“It’s supposed to be my sister,” Louis said. “None of those are very good…”

“I think they’re lovely,” Harry said. “Just like all of your work.”

Louis watched him set the drawing back down and approach the bed. Harry took a seat on the mattress. “Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked.

Louis rested his head on the mattress. He took Harry’s forearm and gave him a tug so he did the same. “I’m just really happy you’re here,” he said. “I think this would all suck a lot more if you weren’t.”

Harry stroked Louis’ cheek with his thumb. “I’m glad I could help.”

Louis kissed his thumb. “My nan liked my work too, including the stuff I thought was shit. She was a huge support growing up. She let me draw her a few times too.”

Harry smiled. “Would you show me?” he asked softly.

“Yeah,” Louis said. He sat up and climbed off the bed. “Let me just find them.”

He shuffled around in his bookshelf until he found the sketchbook he was looking for. And then he got into the same position in bed. They set the book down, shifting onto their elbows, and sorted through it. Louis showed him the sketches of his grandmother, a beautiful woman with squinty eyes like Louis’ when she smiled.

“Your whole family is gorgeous,” Harry commented. He set his hand atop Louis’ when he tried to pass another sketch. “Your mum, right?”

“Mhm,” Louis hummed, resting his chin in his palm. “I had a portrait phase clearly. Then for a while, I thought I wanted to paint scenery. And then I started sketching clothing and never really stopped.”

“They’re all amazing,” Harry said, flipping through the book himself, shaking his head in dismay. They were really amazing. He wanted other people to see them. He wanted Louis’ work in some gallery someday. He wanted his designs on real figures, on models, on runways. He felt an odd sense of pride and personal ambition like Louis’ work was his too, solely because he wanted to support him.

“I want to support you,” he said to him, meeting his eyes. Louis was already looking at him. His brow creased.

“You already do,” Louis said.

Harry shook his head. “I mean like with this. With accomplishing whatever it is you want to accomplish. I know you don’t want to work for my mum forever. And you shouldn’t with how talented you are,” he said, his cheeks a little warm. They always did that when he got too passionate. “I just want you to know that I support you and your own work. And I will in the future too.”

Louis blinked. “Wow,” he breathed. He turned his face into his mattress and stayed like that for a second. When he looked at Harry again, his cheeks were slightly pink.

Harry laughed. “You’re so dramatic.”

“This coming from the queen of drama queens. I’m truly honoured,” Louis said, laughing. His gaze was soft. He set his hand on the back of Harry’s neck and his fingertips were too. “Thank you…”

They smiled. Harry leaned in to kiss him once. Louis drew him in for another.

“I’m really glad you’re here,” he said again.

 

* * *

 

Johannah, or Jay, Louis’ mum, was intimidatingly beautiful. Her eyes were kind and her smile was genuine and yet somehow Harry was completely wracked with nerves from the moment he saw her. She was wearing a slim, elegant black dress and a wide-brimmed hat with lace, holding a bouquet of roses with one hand, holding her husband’s hand with the other.

He stood outside of the church while she stepped out of a limo, waiting between Louis and Lottie. He was grateful now for Lottie’s questions to keep him occupied. He found out that she was studying chemistry at Man U, she wanted to make a line of vegan hair and make up products, and she had a poster of his sister hung up in her dorm room.

“I want to be her,” she confessed. Harry would have to let Gemma know. He was sure they’d get along.

And then Jay was right there, followed by the youngest children. She took Fizzy’s hand who was standing beside Louis and hugged her. She kissed Louis’ cheek, speaking to him quietly, and then kissing him again. And then she was right in front of him.

“This is Harry,” he thought Louis said. But his voice sounded like it was passing through water. Every sound in that moment did. It was a real Hollywood, special effects moment. Jay met Harry’s eyes, taking his hand.

“It’s so nice to finally meet you,” she said, smiling. She leaned in and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “We’ll talk later, I hope. Thank you for coming.”

“Of course,” Harry said smiling. “Nice to meet you.”

She smiled again, eyes flickering to Louis, and then she stepped to Lottie and touched her cheek, speaking to her softly. Lottie hooked her arm through her mother’s and they turned and started toward the steps of the church.

Louis glanced back at him, smiling. “Not so bad, right?” he said quietly.

“Ask me again later,” Harry said. Louis laughed quietly. They took the steps into the church.

 

* * *

 

Doris, the youngest girl in the house, had attached herself to Harry’s leg. He leaned down to hoist her into his arms for the fifth time that day. She was tiring him out, for sure. But she was already his favorite.

He trotted her off toward the kitchen in her black polka dot dress, pressing a kiss to her cheek. “Let’s find your brother,” he said, passing a few of Louis’ cousins and some relatives he hadn’t yet been introduced to. He and Louis were both pretty much on the same page as far as introductions were concerned. Too many introductions and you run the risk of seeming like a significant other.

They stepped into the kitchen and there was Jay.

She had a napkin pressed to her nose, sniffling quietly. Harry started to turn away and then paused, noting the dish in her hand. He set Doris down and whispered quietly for her to find Louis. She moseyed off, back into the living room.

“Could I help with anything?” Harry asked Jay.

Jay’s brows arched in surprise when she noticed him. “Harry,” she said. She wiped the napkin under her eyes. “Yes, actually. If you could just take these dishes into the dining room? That would be lovely.”

He stepped forward. “Sure,” he said, lifting one dish each into either of his hands. “Let me know if you need anything else.”

Two of Louis’ aunts returned to the kitchen right then, prompting Harry to clear the area. Jay sent him another warm smile just before he did.

He met up with Louis and Stan, who’d dropped by with flowers and cake from his own family. Doris was seated in Louis’ lap, running her fingers through his scruffy beard. Harry took a seat on Louis’ armrest, smiled, and made grabby hands for his beer.

It was later, after they'd eaten and Harry rang his mum to check in, that he lost track of Louis and wandered in search of him.

“Your employer’s son?” he heard and froze just before the entryway to the kitchen. He didn’t like to eavesdrop but the words made him stop short. He couldn't move now.

“Not sure I’m following.” That was Louis.

“Oh, Boo,” Jay said. “If you’re trying to pretend you aren’t sleeping with him, you’re doing a poor job of it. I’ve had two of your aunts ask me already about your new boyfriend.”

Louis remained quiet.

“Your employer’s son?” Jay repeated more firmly. Still Louis was quiet. “Do you like him?”

“He’s a friend.”

“I’m sure. But not just a friend. Is this a casual thing? Does he like you?” So far Louis had hardly spoken. But he must have been nodding or answering with his eyes. Because again, she sighed, and said despondently, “Oh, love.”

The kitchen sink turned on. “You have such a good job right now. You’ve worked so hard for it. Why would you risk that? How old is he?”

“18.”

They were both quiet. Harry started to turn away, really eager to not hear more. And then Jay spoke again, “Is it serious? Do you love him?”

Harry’s heart did an about-face and halted. Louis didn’t answer this question verbally either. His mum prattled on, “You need to tread very carefully with this.”

“I am,” Louis said. “But he isn’t fragile. He knows what he wants. He’s just- I don’t know. He’s great honestly. He’s a beautiful person.”

Jay sighed. “He is very good-looking.”

“Inside too though. All of him—” Louis stopped. “Anyway, it’ll be fine. He’s off to school soon. I’m sure he’ll meet some rich French bloke. And I don’t know…it’ll be fine.”

“And what about you? After you’ve gotten your heart broken?”

“I won’t…” Harry thought he heard Louis say. But by then he was backing away from the kitchen. His face was burning, his throat felt tight. He took another step back and stumbled into someone behind him, the sound of a silver platter hitting the ground ricocheted through the hallway.

Louis’ aunt stooped down quickly to retrieve the platter.

“God, I’m so sorry,” Harry said, kneeling down to help. “Let me, please.”

“It’s alright,” she said with a warm smile, and accepted the tray from his hands. “Thank you, love.”

“Hey.”

Harry turned, met Louis’ eyes, and looked away. “Just being clumsy as usual,” he mumbled as he stood and brushed off his knees. He shot another smile to Louis’ aunt, watching her disappear into the kitchen.

Louis’ cautious eyes flickered over his face. “You’re not that bad.”

Harry smiled but he really couldn’t meet Louis’ gaze now, not for long before he looked away. “I was looking for you. Your cousins wanted us to play footie.”

“Oh yeah? You in?” Louis asked.

“Sure,” Harry said. He turned and started through the house, unwilling to check whether Louis followed. They joined Louis’ cousins in the backyard. Harry left his blazer inside and rolled up his sleeves, and played in bare feet. The soft grass and the laughter of the other boys was a comfort. Someone brought them beers and they played on until their clothes were dirty.

He had a good time for the most part, so long as he didn’t make eye contact with Louis for too long. He hardly made eye contact with him at all.

Around 10, they said their goodbyes. And it was true that everyone thought Harry was Louis’ boyfriend. He could tell from the way Louis’ aunts kissed his cheeks and told him to come back soon. And Charlotte exchanged numbers with him, said they should get lunch sometime. (It probably wouldn’t happen.) Being linked to Louis was bittersweet. He wanted it. So badly, he did. But if Louis didn’t expect them to last long, how could he?

They left with containers full of leftovers and pie. And started their drive back home, radio cranked, but not loud enough to drown out the silence. Harry fell asleep at some point and woke up when there were fifteen minutes left before home. By then, it was midnight.

Louis killed the engine and sat back in his seat. He lowered the radio down to a whisper. Harry sat tensely beside him.

“I have a question for you,” Louis said. “And I promise I won’t be upset regardless of how you answer.”

Harry nodded. “Okay.”

“Did you happen to hear me talking to my mum earlier? In the kitchen?”

Harry squeezed his tired eyelids. “I heard most of it. But I didn’t mean to,” he said. “I was just looking for you and then I heard— I’m sorry. I feel awful about snooping.”

“You should.”

Harry’s stared at Louis, drawing a breath. He searched quickly for more apologies. “Louis,” he began. “It really was an accident, I swear.”

Louis dropped his head back against his headrest. “Harry, I’m kidding,” he said with a breathy laugh. “I’m not upset. Not even close. It wasn’t something we should have been talking about in the open anyway.”

Harry sighed. “I still feel sorry about it.”

“Well, so do I. About what you might have heard. Not that I have bad things to say of you. But I wouldn’t want you to worry about something I said to my mum or something she said to me. It’s different when I talk to her, you know?” He rubbed his scruffy chin, back and forth while he thought. “Still, I know some of it might leave you with questions.”

“No, I get it, really,” Harry said. “And we don’t have to talk about it. I wasn’t meant to hear it anyway.”

“Doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions if you have them.”

“I don’t.”

Louis tilted his head to catch Harry’s avoidant gaze. “None at all?”

“Not really?”

Louis just looked at him.

Harry exhaled. “You said…that soon I’d go off to school and meet some French bloke?”

Louis dragged his hand down his face. “I did say that. Why did I say that…” he mumbled.

“I don’t know. Clearly…” Harry swallowed. “It’s like you don’t trust me or something.”

“That’s not it at all,” Louis said with a small shake of his head. “Of course I trust you. It’s not like that.”

“That’s how it sounded. I don’t know what you think this is. But I’m not fickle. And I wouldn’t do something like that to hurt you…”

Louis shook his head again. “Haz, I know that. I do. It’s more about us, about this. It’s about getting too caught up in something that’s likely…short-term...”

Harry swallowed again over the sudden soreness of his throat. “We’re short-term?”

Louis looked at him imploringly. “We aren’t even in a relationship, babe,” he said with a sad twitch of his lips.

Harry’s gaze flickered to the windscreen. “This is why I said I shouldn’t ask.” He reached for the door handle and opened the door. “I’m just going—”

Louis reached across him and pulled the door closed again. “H, please don’t leave. I hate having you mad at me. I don’t— Please, let’s just talk.”

“I’m not mad. I just think I should go,” Harry said, still not looking at him.

Louis exhaled, resting his head against Harry’s shoulder briefly. He thumped his head a few times. So dramatic. “Please don’t,” he said. “We should be able to talk about things like this.”

“Sure,” Harry agreed. “But you weren’t telling me, Louis. You were telling your mum.”

“Even so. I want to talk about it now,” Louis said. “Okay? Please?”

He sat back once Harry nodded and he was sure he wasn’t going to leave. He was looking at him now and Harry felt sort of ill and caught out. He didn’t even know where to begin.

He picked at the bed of his nails, organizing his next words as carefully as he could. “I don’t plan on going off to school and finding some French bloke. Or anyone else,” he said quietly. “I don’t want to just be your friend.”

Louis tried not to laugh and failed. Harry glared at him. “I’m sorry,” Louis said. “But you’re definitely not just a friend.”

“That’s what you told your mum. ‘He’s a friend.’ That’s what you said. And I don’t want that,” Harry explained. “I get why you said that to your mum. But if that’s how you really feel— If this is just some friends with benefits bullshit, I don’t want that.”

“Alright.” Louis nodded. “Then what do you want?”

“I want you,” Harry said. “Long-term.”

Louis licked his bottom lip. He took a breath. “Alright,” he said again. “What else?”

“Even if we’re a secret, I want to be with you. Like actually be with you. I think it would be worth it to try. That’s all,” Harry said with finality. He added quickly, “And I want you to trust me.”

Louis leaned over and kissed him deeply, for several minutes before Harry broke away. “I wasn’t saying any of that to turn you on or something.”

“I know. But you did,” Louis said.

Harry got distracted, as usual, by Louis’ tongue on his. He started getting a little fevered, started grabbing for him and tugging him closer, and then the light bulb flickered back on and he pushed Louis arms-length away. “Wait,” he breathed. “We’re having a serious talk.”

“We are,” Louis said. “Me too.”

Harry blinked. “You too what?”

“Just to everything. I agree with it all. I want this too,” Louis said, leaning in again.

Wait…what does that mean?” Harry asked.

“Whatever you want it to mean,” Louis said, mouth on his neck. “I just want you.”

“Louis…” Harry mumbled breathlessly. “Can I call you my boyfriend then?”

“Please do,” Louis said, pushing their mouths together again. Harry’s heart was about to give out. He could hardly breathe, aside from the hot pants of air he released against Louis’ mouth.

“And you’ll call me yours?”

Louis smiled against his mouth and murmured, “I’d love to.” He pulled back. “Wait. Okay wait.” Harry grumbled. They seriously were not in sync.

“Listen to me for a second,” Louis said.

Harry nodded, bleary eyes on Louis’ mouth.

“I can’t make promises to you, alright?” Louis said. “I want this with you but I can’t make promises about how long it’ll last. I’m being honest when I say I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t even know if this is a good idea. I don’t want to hurt you again. But things are still up in the air. With your mum and the secrecy. But I want to be with you. I really do.”

“Me too,” Harry mumbled, flattening his palms on either side of Louis’ face. “I’m not afraid to be hurt, really. You’re worth the risk.”

Louis kissed him again. “You’re really incredible, Harry.”

“You are too,” Harry said.

They made out like adolescent boys until the windows began to fog up and they had their hands tucked away in each other’s trousers. And Harry wasn’t one to complain about hand jobs but Louis officially being his boyfriend called for celebration in an actual bed.

So he let Louis lead him inside and fuck him until his voice was gone. And it was good. Always so good with Louis…

Just not mind-numbing enough to silence that pesky question buzzing in his head:

When your mum asked if you loved me, did you nod or shake your head?

Chapter Text

Soft fingertips brushed his cheek as his eyes drifted open. He recognized the scent of Louis’ cologne first, turned away from the throw pillow beneath his head, and found him kneeled beside the couch.

“Hi, there,” Louis said with a smile.

Harry inhaled a deep breath through his nose, squeezing his eyes shut, then blinking them open. “Sorry,” he mumbled, pushing himself up onto one elbow. “You said I could let myself in.”

“Then why are you apologizing?” Louis questioned, brows furrowed. “I like seeing you here. You’re nice to come home to.”

Fading orange sunlight flushed Louis’ living room and the thin space between them. Louis appeared to glow, which wasn’t out of the ordinary but Harry was a little entranced anyhow. He smiled. “Welcome home, then,” he said, and after a pause, added, “boyfriend.”

Louis grinned. “Hasn’t gotten old yet?”

“It hasn’t even been a whole week,” Harry said, leaning in. “But no, it’s never getting old.”

“How comforting,” Louis said. He met him with a kiss, his thumb brushing Harry’s dimple and his bottom lip. “Thought you and your mum had yoga today?”

“She cancelled,” Harry said, with a shrug. “We could do yoga though.”

Louis lifted his brows. “Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah, if you’re not too tired,” Harry said. “We can keep it simple.”

Louis considered it, rolling his neck on his shoulders. “Yeah, guess I’m up for it.”

He changed into a t-shirt and black briefs while Harry rearranged the coffee table and found a suitable playlist on his phone. Louis joined him a second later, swatting at Harry’s hand when he pinched his bum. Harry led them through a steady round of beginner poses, ones meant to loosen all those sore, tense muscles, and get the blood circulating properly. They extended their arms and legs, arched their backs towards the sky, and sank their knees to the floor. They breathed in tandem while Harry counted slowly, glancing at him frequently, smiling.

When they were lying on the ground with their legs curled to their chests, Louis said to him, “Happy Baby is my favourite.”

Harry turned his head to Louis. “You’re supposed to be focusing on breathing.”

“I’m multitasking,” Louis replied.

Harry laughed. “Hold the position for five seconds more.”

“Or eternity,” Louis said. “Let’s stay like this forever.”

Harry ignored him. “Slowly lower your legs. Let your shoulders sink into the ground,” he instructed. “And return to sitting position.”

“What’s this one called?”

“Sukhasana,” Harry said.

Louis sat upright and they faced each other. “Write me a poem.”

“Maybe when you’re quiet for more than five minutes,” Harry murmured. “Straighten your spine, breathe in through your nose.”

Louis made a face as he did so, nostrils flaring obscenely. Harry’s lips twitched. “And breathe out.”

Louis exhaled as loudly and obnoxiously as he could.

Harry laughed. “You’re ridiculous.”

“Imagine how boring this would be without me though,” Louis replied.

“It’s never boring. It’s meant to be relaxing,” Harry corrected him.

Louis sighed, broke position, and crawled forward. “I’m very relaxed,” he said, climbing into Harry’s space. He took Harry’s hands into his own and kissed him firmly on the mouth. Harry, always too weak to Louis’ charm, kissed back, yoga forgotten while Louis straddled him and pressed his hands into the ground.

“So relaxed,” Louis assured him. “I’m a changed man.”

“Oh, yeah?” Harry smiled up at him.

“I feel like Spiderman,” Louis said. His thighs caged Harry’s hips snugly.

Harry giggled, head tilted back into the carpet.

Louis released his hands and leaned over his body and pressed a kiss to Harry’s cheek. “Love these dimples,” he murmured. Harry’s cheeks flushed beneath his soft mouth. Louis kissed him again, and murmured, “Beautiful.”

Another kiss. A second. The third turned to full-on making out with tongue and gentle biting, and mutual erections Harry was all too aware of.

“I like you sitting here,” Harry said, resting his hands on Louis’ thighs.

“You like me sitting in your lap?” Louis questioned. He ran his hand through Harry’s hair and pressed a kiss to his forehead, followed by another to his eyelid.

“Mhm,” Harry hummed.

“Me too,” Louis said, mouth moving to his throat. Harry shivered, blinking up at the ceiling. His eyes fluttered shut and then popped open when Louis moved his hips. “How about this? You like when I’m just sitting here or you want me to move?”

Harry couldn’t even answer him. Their eyes were locked on each other now with every little thrust of Louis’ hips, forward and back over Harry’s crotch. Louis set his hands atop Harry’s and moved them to his hips. He leaned in again to kiss him, slipping his tongue into his mouth.

“Louis,” Harry breathed when they parted, fingers tightening on Louis’ hips. “Do you ever think about--?”

Louis’ hips slowed, both brows rising.

“About me fucking you?” Harry finished quietly.

“Yes,” Louis said without pause. He kissed him again, taking Harry’s moan into his mouth.

“Can we?” Harry asked when they parted again.

Louis answered by kissing him deeper, grinding down against him more firmly. Harry started thinking about it. Not that he’d ever really stopped thinking about it. In the rare spaces of time, when he wasn’t preoccupied with thoughts of Louis fucking him, he was thinking of the opposite. But he started really thinking about it now. About Louis, who was usually so calm and collected and graceful, falling apart beneath him.

Harry moaned again, pushing his hips up, nudging his hard, sadly clothed erection against Louis’ bum. He held Louis’ hips firmly and did it again.

Louis pressed a hand to Harry’s chest and sat back in his lap. “Okay,” he breathed. “Let’s pause for a second…”

Harry squeezed his eyes shut. That was exactly what he didn’t want to do. He sucked in a deep breath, blinking up at Louis. He dropped his hands to his sides.

“Fuck, okay,” Louis sighed. “First, the answer is yes. We can. But not right now.”

“Because you don’t think I’m ready?” Harry asked.

Louis smiled. “I think you’re more than ready. Doesn’t take much training as is,” he said. “But your dick's pretty big and I have work in the morning.”

“Oh. Right,” Harry said with a laugh. “But soon, maybe?”

“Definitely soon,” Louis agreed.

“What about right now?” Harry said.

Louis’ brows wrinkled. “I just said--”

Harry shook his head. “No, I mean, what do I get right now?”

“Oh,” Louis said, smiling. “What do you want?”

Harry shrugged. “Maybe just keep moving like you were doing,” he said.

“Yeah?” Louis questioned, his hips gliding forward again. “That’s all it takes?”

Harry’s lashes fluttered. “Maybe if you kiss me too.”

“I can do that,” Louis said, leaning in. His thumb met Harry’s bottom lip as he sucked on the top one. He licked into his mouth slowly. He moved, spreading kisses across his jaw, sucking on his earlobe. “How about this?”

Harry’s breath hitched. He nodded, pushing his hips upward yet again.

Louis slid his free hand beneath his t-shirt, up along his ribcage, and brushed a thumb over his nipple. He pinched. Harry moaned, back arching. Louis rocked his bum into his crotch. There was something about this desperate, teenage grind that had Harry’s head spinning. He was close already. It wouldn’t take much at all.

When he came in his pants minutes later, Louis sat backward and smiled proudly. “Good boy.”

Harry pulled at the waistband of Louis’ briefs and let them snap against his skin. “Now you,” he said, tugging on them again.

Louis shook his head. “Maybe in the shower if you want to join me.”

“Can I give you a blowjob?” Harry asked.

Louis gasped as he climbed off of him. “A blowjob?” he said, sounding appalled. He pressed a hand to his chest as he made his way to the bedroom. “How could you even ask that of me?”

Harry hurried after him and yanked Louis’ briefs down to his ankles, laughing aloud. “Meet you in the shower.”

“Little shit,” Louis said, laughing. He left the briefs behind and raced him the rest of the way there.

 

* * *

 

Harry woke the next morning with a smile, his arms and legs spread out at his sides like a starfish, blinking sleepy eyes at the ceiling. He was unfortunately in his own bed where he’d retired for the night after dinner with his family, but the last few weeks were finally settling in on him, seeping into his veins, turning his blood to champagne and each thump of his heart to the sweetest music.

There was a text waiting for him from Louis, as there always was these days. A simple “Good morning, love” followed by several randomly chosen emojis. Harry smiled, sending back a slew of his own.

Lying there on Thursday morning, he finally had time to take it all in: the seemingly endless bouts of very good sex with the man of his dreams, who was now officially, his boyfriend; the possibility that that very man loved him.

The more Harry thought about it (and he thought of it a lot), the more confident he was that Louis’ answer to his mum’s question had been yes, that he’d nodded, and confirmed as much to her. He loved him, maybe? And Harry loved him too.

Not to forget, he was also headed to the school of his choice. He’d done well on his mock exams. He was eating well. He’d slept well. His hair was shinier. His skin was as clear as it ever would be. And he was happy.

There were a million other ways he could describe the way he felt but in its simplest terms, he was truly happy.

So, that was what prompted him to get up and wash his face and brush his teeth, do a couple push ups and sit ups and jab at the air a few times like a boxer. He put on music and started to clean his room, pausing to slip on his pink boots, and made his bed wearing just those and a pair of black briefs. Bacon stared cautiously at him from his perch by the window but Harry merely put on a show for him, air guitar and all.

A knock on the door had him rushing to turn down his music. He waited. His mum pushed the door open and called, “Harry?”

“Yes,” he said.

She peeked in. Her eyes fell on his pink boots. “Are you wearing those to class?”

“No class today. I was just trying them on,” he said, panting.

She nodded. “Alright. Well, would you mind coming down? There’s someone here I want you to meet.”

“Who?”

She smiled. “A friend.”

“Okay,” Harry said slowly. “Let me just get dressed.”

She left him to do so, while Harry pulled on a t-shirt and jeans, and whistled for Bacon to follow him down the stairs.

There was a man standing with his mum in the foyer, a tall, handsome gentleman wearing a denim jacket and well-fitted, most likely custom-tailored trousers. He looked rich. He looked like every man Harry was accustomed to seeing in his family’s company.

Harry took the last step and smiled. “Hi.”

“Hello,” the man said in reply.

“Harry, this is Carson,” his mum said and Carson held out his hand for a shake, smiling brightly.

“Nice to meet you, Harry,” he said.

Harry shook his strong hand once and released. “Same to you.”

Anne touched Carson’s shoulder as she spoke. “Carson and I have worked together before. He’s in town for a few months while filming for our new campaign. And I film, I believe.”

“Oh, how nice," Harry said. "In town from where?”

“Spain,” Carson said. His eyes hadn’t left Harry once.

Harry smiled. “Well, welcome to London.”

“Thank you,” Carson said. He glanced at Anne, bashfully, and then focused on Harry, “I have to say. I’ve seen some of your photographs. I was there in Berlin as well. Considering that you’ve worked with the best photographers, I’m surprised to find they haven’t done you justice. Even the runway fails you. You’re stunning up close.”

Jesus. Harry licked his lips, glancing at his mum. “I appreciate that,” he said with a tiny modest bow of his head. “Thank you.”

Anne studied them both, her hands clasped in front of herself. An awkward beat of silence passed between the three of them. Harry thought, as usual, of Louis. He’d enjoy this story later.

“Carson doesn’t know too many people in the UK. I’m hoping you and Gemma can show him around when you have time,” Anne said. “Gem might be feeling tired, since she just got back from New York last night. But H, maybe if you’re free today?”

Harry looked at her, trying to read her and failing. “I have work today actually. In an hour. But some other time, I’d be happy to.”

Carson nodded. “Maybe we can find a time when you’re free.”

Harry hesitated. He wished Louis was here, although he couldn’t see how that would help. He simply liked when he was around. His brain functioned better.

“Yes,” Harry said. “Of course.”

Carson smiled. “Good. I’ve left my number with your mother. I’ll wait to hear from you.”

“Sounds good,” Harry said, smiling, more tensely now. He glanced down at Bacon. “Should probably take him out for a walk. It was nice meeting you.”

“And you,” Carson said.

With that, Harry quickly retrieved his shoes by the door, grabbed the leash on the way, and stepped outside. Louis’ car was gone, Harry noticed as he clipped Bacon’s leash on. He’d have to wait until later to hear the story then.

 

* * *

 

“Mum asked if I know who you’re seeing,” Gemma said, voice muffled by a spoonful of yoghurt and granola. She’d finally pulled herself out of bed to meet Harry for lunch, though from the lack of makeup, the sloppy bun, and the sunglasses she refused to remove, she hadn’t yet shaken off the jetlag. Bacon sat at her feet, leashed to the armrest of her chair. “Right before she left for Paris this morning.”

Harry’s mouth frozen enroute to the straw of his smoothie. “What did you say?”

Gemma rolled her eyes and waved her hand around. “Something about you testing the waters, and not dating anyone in particular that I knew of. I don’t know if she believed me and I hate lying to her. She’s going to figure it out, H. She would have already, I think, if she had the time.”

Harry set his hands in his lap. “I think she’s trying to set me up with that model from Spain. Carson? She introduced me to him earlier.”

“Another admirer?” Gemma said with an amused smile.

“Unfortunately,” Harry murmured. “I’m not really worried about her finding out about Louis. I’ve accepted that it’s inevitable.”

Gemma sighed. “Or you could just stop seeing him? Seems like the best solution. Louis won’t lose his job. Mum won’t roast you like a Christmas ham. Works for everyone.”

“I can’t do that,” Harry said. He hesitated, looking at Gemma, looking at a red bus passing down the street. He took a breath. “I’m sort of in love with him.”

Gemma paused as she was going for another spoonful of her yogurt. Her gaze floated up to him and remained for a long while. “You know,” she said carefully. “I’ve always seen that as a bit abstract. What does it really even mean to be in love with someone? Does anyone really know?”

Harry looked down at his hands in his lap. “I think I do,” he said and continued, softly like he was half-dreaming. “I asked him once if he was in love with his girlfriend while he was still dating her, and he couldn’t say he was. I think we all have a hard time defining what it means to be in love. But when you are, you know it, and you don’t have any problem saying so.

“I just know I’ve never felt this way about anyone. I care about him, more than I can explain. I want the best for him, whatever that means. Even if we don’t end up together long-term. But I want that too. I want him to be with me for as long as possible. Hopefully forever. I can’t even explain it all. It just is what it is.”

Gemma was smiling now. “Okay, Homer,” she said with a sigh. “So you’re in love with him…”

“I am.” Harry nodded. “So. Eventually I’ll have to tell mum. Because unless he decides he doesn’t want me anymore, I’m not giving him up.”

“Fair enough,” Gemma said, poking her spoon around in her yoghurt. “Well, you’ll have plenty of time to expose yourself next weekend.”

Harry’s brows furrowed.

“The beach?” Gemma said slowly. “Did you forget?”

“Fuck,” Harry muttered. “I did. I thought we weren’t doing that this year.”

“Mum feels it’s especially important this year,” Gemma said. “She thinks we all need some time to bond as a family. Although, as usual, she’s bringing her assistant along because she’ll be working the entire time. This time, I guess it works in your favour.”

During their beach weekend the previous year, his mum’s former assistant, Joan, was already one foot through the door. Within another month, she sent in her one-month notice. Harry had been so busy with school and Cordon Bleu and Louis lately that he’d forgotten their annual beach trip was around the corner. Given how tense things constantly were with his mum, he wasn’t looking forward to it at all. Even with Louis being there. Maybe especially with Louis there.

Gemma sighed. “Have to say, I’m jealous.”

“Why?” Harry asked, resting his arms on the cafe table.

“I broke up with Aaron. Again,” Gemma said. “I think for good this time. I started seeing this girl and then I broke up with her too.” She shrugged.

“Wait. What?”

“What?” Gemma repeated.

Harry looked at her. “You were dating a girl?”

“Why do you look so surprised?” Gemma asked.

He fish-faced, both palms up and open to the sky. “Because I’m literally surprised.”

“You’ve seen me kiss girls before.”

“One girl!” Harry said. “At a party where you were pissed fucking drunk.”

“I’ve kissed more than one girl. And I’ve done more than kissing,” Gemma said, lifting her water for a long, dainty sip.

Harry shook his head, a hand pressed to his face. “We’re suffering from a serious lack of communication.”

“You’re so dramatic,” Gemma said. “We’re fine. I’ve just been dating the same boy for a while, so it never came up. I’ve dated a lot of boys. But I’d like to try dating more girls. I don't know. I’m just not clicking with anyone, really. There’s always something missing.”

Harry frowned. His mind was still reeling from the bisexuality bombshell his sister had just dropped on him. But he forgot that for a moment.

“It takes time,” he said. “You’re young. You have more than enough time.”

“Says you. You’re 18 and in love,” Gemma said, lifting her brows.

“Yes, but I’m in a dysfunctional, secret relationship, so. It’s not perfect.”

“It shouldn’t be,” Gemma said. “You aren’t meant to fall in love and have things be perfect. That isn’t how it works. It’s supposed to be rocky and messy, but at least you’re sure of it. That’s the most important part. I’ve never been sure of anyone.”

Harry reached across the table with his palm up. Gemma rolled her eyes but set her own hand in his. “You will be eventually,” he said, smiling. “You have time to find someone who makes it happen. If it doesn’t happen in the next ten years, I’ll personally start looking myself.”

Gemma laughed. “Please let it not take ten years.”

“I’m betting that it won’t,” Harry said. His phone resting on the table buzzed and he released his sister’s hand to lift it. Louis had sent him a pic of himself, modelling a pair of pink sunnies. Harry whimpered and turned the screen toward Gemma. “Look how cute he is.”

 

* * *

 

“I’m sorry again that we didn’t get a chance to meet up last night.”

Harry shut his car off. “No, it’s okay, but I’m sorry too,” he said, resting his head against the window. Louis had stayed late at the office. Harry had forgotten an exam that morning and stayed up to cram for it. It wasn’t an ideal night for either of them.

He was tired now. Desperately in need of a nap and a night spent curled around his favourite person. “Tonight, though, definitely,” he said. “Right?”

“Of course,” Louis said. “I actually have something planned.”

Harry lifted his head. “Yeah?”

“Yeah, but that’s all I can say for now,” Louis said. There was some commotion on his end, and he said quietly: “I’ll be there in a second.”

“Do you have to go?” Harry asked.

“Yes, but so do you. Class starts in a few minutes.”

“Unfortunately, it does,” Harry mumbled. “All of this is kind of pointless considering I’ve been accepted to my school of choice already.”

“I felt the same way when I was finishing up, but it’s worth it. Once you’re officially done, you’ll see what I mean."

Harry wasn't sure. “I miss you.”

“I miss you too,” Louis said. “I’m excited to see you tonight.”

“Same here,” Harry replied, grabbing his bag from the passenger seat. He saw Niall at the entrance to the school building and waved. Niall tapped his watch in reply, prompting Harry to glance at his own. The time had flown faster than he realized. “Shit, sorry, I really do have to go.”

“No, it’s okay,” Louis said, while Harry fumbled for his keys in the ignition. “Good luck on your exam. And have a good day, yeah?”

Harry yanked his keys free and opened his door, his tired mind thrown off focus, buzzing with thoughts of his exam and the winding of the clock. “You too,” he said quickly. “Love you.”

His brain came to screeching halt. He held his next breath. On the other end, there were more voices and sounds from his mum’s office. But Louis was quiet for several terrifying seconds.

Harry shut his eyes. “Louis?”

“Yeah, I’m here,” Louis said.

“Did you-- “ He trailed off. Did you hear that? he wanted to ask, but couldn’t.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean-- I have to go. I’m late for class.”

“Right, yeah.” Louis paused. “So, I’ll talk to you later?”

“Yes, bye,” Harry said, stepping out of his car.

“Bye.”

They hung up. Harry dropped his forehead against his car door and stayed there, forgetting Niall, forgetting class, forgetting his exam. After barely studying for it, he’d be lucky if he answered any questions correctly, especially now.

Love you, he’d said. If the deafening silence on the other end was any indication, Louis had heard him. Love you. How the fuck had that just happened?

 

* * *

 

The truth was like medicine. It was healing for the body, but bitter to the taste and hard to swallow. It made getting in the car after school much harder for Harry. Starting the engine took ten full minutes after two individual pep talks and a round of Augustana, Coldplay, and Kodaline on repeat. Every second brought him closer to facing Louis and having the inevitably awkward conversation he’d been dreading all day.

This wasn’t how he’d ever imagined telling him. Erecting an extravagant affair just to announce to Louis that he loved him never seemed quite right. But a slip of the tongue definitely didn’t either. He could brush it off. He could pretend he meant it the way one person said it to their friend, except Louis was his boyfriend now, and even when they were just friends, he’d never said it then either.

The oddest part was that he’d liked it. He’d liked the way it had tumbled from his mouth, the way he hadn’t thought about it before saying it, how easy, and habitual, and natural it felt. He wanted to say it again, and then again. He wanted to tell Louis he loved him in the morning, at lunch, at night. He wanted to tell him before they parted and when they met again. He wanted that right, even if Louis didn’t feel the same way. Now that he’d had it once, he felt greedy for it.

He reached for the gear shift and Niall, from out of the sky, collided with his passenger door. Harry lowered the window, eyes wide. “What the fuck,” he said. “Are you alright?”

“I forgot,” Niall panted. “I told him not to include me in this ‘cause I’d probably fuck it up, but he insisted.”

“What?” Harry’s face wrinkled with confusion. “Who are you talking about?”

Niall extended an iPad through the window. “This is from Louis. You’re supposed to watch the video on there before you leave school. That’s all I know.”

Harry took the iPad eagerly. “When did he give you this?”

“Last night,” Niall said.

When he was supposed to be at work. Harry narrowed his eyes, his lips twitching. He’d had suspicions all week. This made them flare up again.

“Anything else?” Harry asked.

“That’s all I’ve got,” Niall said. “See you tonight.”

“Tonight?”

Niall smiled and waved, stepping away from the car. Harry watched him mosey off toward his own car. He raised his window and shut his engine off, sitting back in his seat. The iPad came to life beneath his thumb. A video waited on screen. Harry tapped the play button and there was Louis.

“Hello, Sunshine,” he said, grinning. Harry smiled, sinking a little further into his seat. “As you suspected, I’ve been up to no good the last few weeks. But I think you’ll enjoy this. A lot. I’ve basically made it so you can’t not enjoy it. In about two hours or so, I’m going to see you in person. If this all goes according to plan. But before then, you’ve got some messages from friends who want to congratulate you on getting into Cordon Bleu. Bacon, for example...” He lifted Bacon in his arms, his cute pug face overwhelming Louis’ in the frame. “...wishes you all the success you can hope for. His one request is that you start a line of gourmet dog treats just for him.”

Harry laughed, shaking his head. “Ridiculous,” he murmured.

“The next message will be waiting for you by the time you get home,” Louis said. “And that’s where you should head…right…about…now.”

The video ended. Harry took a breath, setting the iPad down in the passenger seat, his veins thrumming with excitement.

“As you wish,” he said, starting the engine up again. He pulled onto the road and headed home.

 

* * *

 

“I’m meant to give you this,” Gemma said, extending a black garment bag to Harry. “And to tell you to check your email.”

She was there waiting in the foyer when he got home, rising from her seat on the staircase. Harry laughed, taking the garment bag. “This is crazy.”

“And very sweet. I haven’t said this yet but I like him. Like not just as mum's assistant, but as your person,” she said. She nodded her head to the iPad tucked beneath his arm. “Your email, check it.”

"Thank you," Harry said. "I'm really glad you like him." He headed up the stairs, fumbling with the iPad and the garment bag. One email was sitting in the inbox. It’s subject line read simply, “Having Fun Yet?”

Harry rolled his eyes as he entered his room, flopping down on the bed with the garment bag thrown beside him. He loaded the next video in the email and started it up. Liam and Zayn appeared on the screen.

“Hi, Harry,” they said, waving. Harry grinned.

“We heard about your acceptance to Cordon Bleu,” Liam said. “Super happy to hear it, mate. We’re both extremely proud and couldn’t be more excited for you.”

“We hope you have a sick time while you’re away,” Zayn said. “Have good experiences and learn a lot and come back ready to open your restaurant or whatever it is you’re after. We’re excited about everything in store for you, mate.”

“It’s been great getting to know you these past few months. We’re happy you’ve been there for Louis and happy he’s been there for you,” Liam added, smiling. “And we’re happy you’ll be there for us come October!”

Zayn for no reason threw up a gang sign. “For our Night of Payne!”

Liam sighed. “No…”

“Yes,” Zayn said. He looked into the camera. “That’s what we’re calling our whole wedding theme. Our slogan on the invitations will be ‘Are you ready for the pain?’ except it’ll be p-a-y-n-e. Isn’t that sick?”

Harry laughed. “Definitely…”

“Try to dissuade him, H, please?” Liam asked.

“I’ll try,” Harry said to the screen.

“Louis said to only make this a minute long,” Zayn reminded Liam. He looked at the camera again. “Anyway, congrats again! We can’t wait to celebrate with you in person. What else was there?”

“Oh, and open the garment bag for a surprise!” Liam added. They waved and the video ended.

Harry set the iPad down and looked at the garment bag beside him. He stood and reached for the zipper, dragging it down the length of the bag, floral fabric slowly easing into view. He held his breath. The garment bag, sitting fully open, revealed a silky white shirt with carefully embroidered flowers on its collar. There was a note card included. Harry lifted it, flipped it open, and read.

Something for you to wear if you’d like, but you don’t have to. A t-shirt and jeans would also suit you just fine. Again, no pressure, but I made this one myself. You’re getting close. Two more videos to go. The next one will be waiting for you when you’re dressed and headed to me. -L

Harry folded the note card and tucked it in his back pocket. He removed the shirt entirely from the garment bag and ran his fingers across the soft glowing silk. He brushed the embroidered roses on the collar delicately with his thumb. He pictured Louis crafting them by hand. He wondered how long it’d taken him. When had he started?

Harry lifted the blouse and pressed it to his nose, trying to chase the scent of Louis’ fingertips. He hugged it like a friend and then he put it on.

 

* * *

 

There was a car waiting for him. Because of course. Their longtime driver, Simon, held the door open for him and he thanked him, slipping inside. He ran a hand through his curls and took a breath, waking the iPad in his lap. Another email had arrived -- the subject line: “I Bet You Look Amazing”

Biting his lip, Harry opened the email where Louis had written something this time. “Are you excited? Because I sure as fuck am.”

Harry bypassed the video to send back a reply, which Louis probably wouldn’t expect. “Just so you know, this is already the best date ever. I have no idea how I’ll top this.”

Within seconds, Louis sent a response. “You aren’t supposed to reply to me. It breaks the illusion of it all,” his email read. “But of course, you can’t top this.”

Harry shook his head, tapping on the video. He waited for it to start up. This time it was Niall, Gemma, and Nick all jammed together on the screen.

“Hi, H,” Gemma said with a wave. Nick grinned and wiggled his brows. Niall pushed him out of the frame.

“Okay, we’re going to try to do this right,” Gemma said. “But we’re already a mess, so-- no promises. It took a lot to get us all here together. Specifically Nick…”

“I’m a busy man,” Nick murmured. “But I’ll make exceptions here and there.”

“Anyway,” Gemma said. “I guess I’ll go first. Congrats, for like the one millionth time, on getting into school. I can’t even put into words how proud I am of you. I don’t say this enough but you’re my favourite person and you baking biscuits when mum wants you walking runways is bad ass and impressive. I don’t know how many people can say they have a little brother they can look up to, but I can. So… I love you and all that.”

She made a face, wrinkling her nose, and looked to Niall for him to follow-up.

“I’ve got nothing to say as pretty as that,” Niall said. “But you know, I’m proud of you, and I’m gonna miss you when you’re away but I’ll come visit a lot and I expect you to make me some gourmet shit. Especially since you haven’t ever baked a single thing for me. I don’t even know how well you bake ‘cause you’ve never made me a single thing.”

“I made those biscuits at the New Year’s party,” Harry grumbled to himself. “He ate, like, twenty.”

“But I forgive you,” Niall continued. “I just expect you to make it up to me when you become Chef Styles.”

“My turn?” Nick asked, as if Gemma and Niall weren’t looking at him expectantly. “All I have to say is don’t forget us when you’re rolling around in the sheets with Bobby Flay and having martinis with Nigella. Remember the little people. Also, I’m proud of you and happy for you. I’ve never been to Bordeaux so I’m looking forward to seeing you there.

“And another thing,” Nick said. “Your boyfriend is very cute for this. I applaud him.”

“I agree,” Gemma said. “Definitely a keeper.”

“Still waiting to know if he's got a sister,” Niall said.

“She’s too young for you…” Harry said. He didn’t think Louis would approve of Niall dating his sister anyhow.

“We’ve taken way too long on this,” Gemma said. “Bye, H. See you soon!”

They all waved and blew kisses and the video came to an end. Another was sitting in his inbox.

“Last One!” the subject line read.

Harry opened the email and started the video.

“Hello, again!” Louis said when he appeared on his screen.

By now, Harry was more than happy just to see his face. “Hi, Lou,” he said in reply.

“So, you should be really close by now. In fact, by the time this video finishes you’ll be parked and I’ll be waiting for you. Fun fact: your destination is a lot closer than you think, and your driver’s just been driving around in circles to buy more time.”

Harry snorted, glancing through the tinted partition at Simon. He smiled and focused on the video again.

“Simon’s a good sport for indulging me, and so is everyone else who helped with this. They didn’t mind too much though because as it turns out, a lot of people love you, Harry,” Louis said.

After a breath, he added, “Including me.”

Harry’s eyes widened.

“Yeah, I said that,” Louis murmured like he couldn’t believe it himself. He glanced downward for a moment. “I have this all kind of scripted out here but that was definitely not apart of the plan.” He took another moment to think. Harry could almost see the wheels turning in his head. “Fuck it. What’s done is done, right? So, yes, Harry, I do love you. Now is probably not the best time to say so. And this isn’t exactly how I imagined saying it in the first place. But there it is. Could probably just stop recording and start this all over again, honestly. But that wouldn’t be fair. I feel like I’ve been dancing around the words for a while now. And it just feels right to say them now as you’re getting ready to meet me. It feels like a good way to wrap this all up.

“And obviously, I don’t mean it in the lad’s way, like how I say it to Zayn and Liam sometimes. I mean like-- You remember when you asked me if I was in love with Eleanor and I couldn’t answer you? I didn’t know what it meant at the time. I couldn’t pinpoint the difference between just loving a person and being in love with them. But I think I got it now. I think to be in love with someone is to love them exceptionally. To love them a grade above everyone else. And yeah, that didn’t feel right back then but it does with you.”

Harry snatched a handful of tissues from the box on the floor, trying to dry his eyes before he dropped a tear on his fancy blouse. “Fuck,” he muttered to himself. The iPad was sprawled in his lap and Louis spoke on.

“So, yeah, I’m in love with you. I have been for a while. Maybe since I gave you that locket. I didn’t carve the words there but I meant them. Always in my heart, I meant that.”

Harry covered his face with his hands while Louis audibly drew a deep breath. “This went really off the rails very quickly. I meant to say that I’m really proud of you,” Louis said, laughing, “For following your heart and chasing your dreams and all that. But anyway, I guess I’ll say more of that in person. We’ll probably have a lot to talk about. You should be parked now and I’m going to be really eager to see you, so go join me on the roof.”

Louis waved and the video came to a close. Harry sat there, curled in on himself, knowing he looked terrible now, not caring one bit. He couldn’t move for long minutes, except to blow his nose. When he could, he sucked in a series of trembling breaths and dried his palms on his trousers. He couldn’t think. He had to see Louis and then his brain would work again. He’d gone too long without seeing him.

He tapped on the window, his view obstructed by Simon, waiting outside his door. Simon opened it for him and Harry stepped out, halting immediately.

They were at the bakery. La Maison de Sucre, with its sign lit up as if it wasn’t well past working hours. The inside of the shop was completely dark and as far as Harry could tell from standing just outside the windows, there wasn’t a single person around or inside.

“Thanks, Simon,” Harry said with a smile. He stepped up to the door, put his hand on the handle, and pushed the door open. The shop bell rang.

“Hello,” he sang, glancing around. His boots echoed softly on the wooden floors. “I’m here.”

The chairs were stacked as they always were at night. The till was covered. The display cases were dark and empty.

Harry didn’t actually know how to get upstairs. He hadn’t been aware that the bakery had an upstairs until recently when Ivor mentioned cleaning up the roof, to which George had shushed him. Now Harry was starting to understand why.

The only way to get there was through George and Ivor’s office, which he didn’t feel entirely comfortable entering without their permission. Of course, when he rounded the kitchen corner, he found the door to the office wide open, and the lamp by the desk turned on.

He glanced at the spiral staircase in the corner and without further hesitation, approached it and climbed it to the top. There was a glass skylight which functioned as the solitary entryway to the roof. He pushed it open, and climbed through, found his footing on the roof, and looked around.

A thousand fairy lights strung up around the roof flickered on. A dozen or so smiling faces greeted him. Harry began to laugh.

“Surprise!” they yelled.

He saw his sister, Niall, Nick, Caroline, George, Ivor, Roberta, Jeff, and Victor, fucking Ed who he hadn’t seen in what felt like years, Zayn and Liam too. He couldn’t stop laughing, clapping a hand over his mouth. All this joy needed a way out. He saw Cara, oddly enough. He saw Louis’ sister, Lottie, which he was more than happy about.

He turned on his heels, because while the faces ahead of him were bright and beautiful, there was one missing.

Louis was waiting a few steps away with a soft, pleased smile.

Harry closed the distance between them with two easy strides, his arms thrown around Louis’ shoulders, face tucked away. “I love you,” he said just for him to hear.

“I love you too” Louis said, sliding his arms around Harry’s waist, laughing. “I’m happy you made it. I was getting a little concerned. Was it finding the stairs that kept you?”

“Try me fucking sobbing after your last video, you dick,” Harry murmured. Their bodies shook with laughter. They squeezed each other tighter. “I cannot believe this. I’m going to put you on a talk show. World’s Best Boyfriend. I’m going to send in an article to the paper about you. I’m calling parliament.”

Louis chuckled. “But then people will want to steal me away,” he said, brows wrinkling, a playful smile on his beautiful mouth.

“I’d love to see them try,” Harry said. That seemed as good a time as any for a long, deep kiss. He physically couldn’t let him go. It felt impossible.

“Should probably give some of this love to your other guests,” Louis said. “Not in the same way obviously, but you know…”

“Right…” Harry laughed, taking Louis’ hand. “Almost forgot about them.”

He turned to face everyone again, waving. He greeted them all with hugs, although he held Louis’ hand for as long as possible while doing so. It was Ed who finally broke his hold and hugged him forever. Harry pinched and patted his cheeks, begged him to never leave again. Ed swore to do what he could.

He had a group hug with the bakery team and thanked them profusely for hosting this all on the roof.

“We’ve been saying we’d have a party up here for ages and we never did,” George said. “So really, you’re helping us. As usual.”

Harry smiled bashfully. “I’m a handful. You all basically got me into university.”

“Which you will never forget when you’re a top chef in the future,” Roberta said.

“Never, I swear,” Harry said, grinning.

Ivor took him by the shoulder and stepped close, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I think this is my first time realising that you’re dating Louis. As in your mum's assistant, Louis.”

Harry nodded. “For a little while now.”

“Does she know? I can’t imagine so,” Ivor asked, taking on that parental tone he sometimes couldn’t avoid.

Harry drew a breath. “She doesn’t, but I’ll tell her eventually. I’d like to tell her myself…”

Ivor looked taken aback. “Well, you don’t think I’d tell her, do you?” he scoffed. “Your mum and I aren’t so close that I’d consider that. You’re a part of our team. You’re my protege, which is why I want the very best for you.”

Harry smiled, a little tensely, waiting.

“But I do think you’ve found it in him. I like the way he looks at you,” Ivor said. “Very much the way I look at George.”

Harry’s smile grew. “That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

“Oh, be quiet. I can be very nice when I’m ready. Just watch,” Ivor said. He tilted his head and made a beckoning motion with his hand. A second later, Louis returned to Harry’s side, smiling at them both. Ivor told him, “Let’s get started on the shots.”

Getting drunk with his boss wasn’t something Harry had ever even imagined doing. But once it was happening, it turned out to be a stellar idea. George and Ivor got especially cuddly after even the slightest bit of alcohol, a sight Harry rarely got to see. In fact, something about their rooftop soirée made everyone cozier than usual. He'd found his one and only spot to sit on Louis’ lap, an arm looped over his shoulders. Under the twinkling lights, everyone had found similar arrangements. Niall was cuddling with Ed. Jeff and Victor were the same. Cara had positioned herself on Gemma’s lap, and Nick was sort of leaning against them both. Zayn was leaning against the rooftop railing and Liam was dancing around him.

Laughter drifted between them all. Alcohol made their lips looser and their bodies softer until they were like a giant cuddle puddle of warmth and love.

Harry snorted randomly before he could take his next shot, and Louis looked at him. “What?”

“Cuddle puddle,” Harry said. “Of warmth and love.”

Louis laughed, lifting his drink to his mouth and eying the one in Harry’s hand. “I think you’re about done.”

“What? No, I’m just getting started,” Harry said, although he set his cup down, and lifted his other arm around Louis’ shoulders. “This is really great. Have I said that yet?”

“I think so,” Louis said, looking amused.

“I love having all my friends here. I love having you here. I love you.”

Louis smiled, squeezing Harry’s hip. “I heard you,” he said. “This morning, I mean.”

Harry was a little too tipsy to be embarrassed about it now. “Which means I said it first.”

“Actually, no,” Louis said, with a sympathetic smile. “I recorded that video two days ago.”

Harry's mouth dropped open.

“I thought you realised that,” Louis said, laughing.

Harry pouted. “I thought so but I was hoping not. I don’t think what I said should count really. I said it too quickly. I was distracted. Not like right now…” He lifted his hand to Louis’ cheek.

“You’re a little drunk though,” Louis countered.

“Yes, but I can still say it clearly now. So I want to, a lot, until you get tired of it,” Harry said.

“I doubt I will,” Louis replied.

“Even so,” Harry murmured. “I love you.”

He kissed him. Louis’ lips curved against his own.

“I love you,” Harry said again.

Louis wrapped both arms around his waist and squeezed him close. Harry had every intention of turning fully and straddling him. And then he saw Gemma nearing the roof door with Cara in tow, their fingers linked.

“We’re taking off,” she called to him.

Harry glanced at their joined hands and smiled. “Thanks for coming.”

Ivor and George had sprung up to start dancing. Try A Little Tenderness by Otis Redding had come on and this was apparently their song. Louis had rested his head to Harry’s shoulder now. Harry ran his fingers through his hair, combing it back behind his ears.

“Hey,” he said to him quietly. Louis lifted his head. “Let’s join them.”

Louis smiled, slapping his thigh gently. “Alright then.”

Harry stood from his cozy perch, reaching for Louis’ hand, and they moseyed over to George and Ivor. Nick and Caroline sauntered over as well. Liam finally convinced Zayn to sway with him. Victor and Jeff sadly were drunk off their arses and giggling in the corner. Harry beckoned Lottie to join them and the three of them danced with the rest of their bunch, laughing at odd moves, working out synchronized ones: Harry’s robot and Louis’ “Stop the Traffic, Let Them Through.”

It was late. Harry didn’t know from looking at a watch. He could simply feel it in his bones and the latent heaviness of his eyelids. But he couldn’t care less.

Time was flying again but this time, Harry was soaring too.

 

* * *

 

Louis didn’t bother to turn the lights on. Moonlight filtered in faintly through his curtains but mostly, they were washed in darkness. Harry teetered inside behind him, hand against the wall to steady himself. He heard Louis’ keys hit the counter while he removed his shoes. Louis removed his jacket and threw it over the back of a chair, rolling his shoulders. Harry leaned his head against the wall between the kitchen and the hallway and watched him.

“So much for being discreet,” he murmured. “Lots of people know about us now.”

“That’s true,” Louis replied, kicking off his shoes.

Harry waited, crossing his arms. When Louis said nothing else, he asked, “Are you worried?”

“Not right now,” Louis said, turning to face him. They looked at each other, took in as much as they could in the dark. “You make me feel reckless. I think I’ve told you that before. I lose any sense of self-preservation around you.”

“I figured that out when you fucked me in your office,” Harry said, smugly.

“Were you expecting me to turn you away?” Louis wondered.

Harry shrugged. “I don’t know. I would have settled for giving you a blowjob.”

Louis’ laugh was soft, breathy. “You shouldn’t have to settle for anything.”

“It’s not really settling though. Not with you,” Harry said.

“Good to know,” Louis said. He met Harry by the wall. He lifted his hands to his hips, shifting the silky material beneath his palms. “I kind of want people to know.”

“Know what?” Harry asked, hazy mind receding.

“About us. About you,” Louis murmured.

“What about me?”

“That you’re mine,” Louis said, stepping close. Their bodies met. Harry curled his arms atop Louis’ shoulders. “I want everyone to know.”

“You’re drunk,” Harry whispered.

“In love,” Louis said, laughing.

Harry kissed him, cupping the back of Louis’ neck. Louis ran his hands up Harry’s back and down to his bum. Harry did the same. They touched each other, never settling on one place for too long, just mapping out each place with their fleeting fingertips.

“You look amazing in this,” Louis said, unbuttoning Harry’s shirt. “It’s perfect.”

“I love it,” Harry said. “I haven’t even said thank you. I love it so much. You must’ve--” His voice fell off when Louis got the shirt open and pressed his mouth to his chest. “Must’ve worked so hard on it. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Louis said, his mouth brushing Harry’s nipple.

Harry groaned. Usually he was all for foreplay. But not tonight.

“Why are we still wearing clothes?” he asked the ceiling. He held Louis back. “Bed. Now please.”

“You sound like a robot. Or an alien,” Louis said, following him to the bedroom.

“Both are true,” Harry replied. He removed his shirt and laid it carefully over the ottoman in the corner of Louis’ room. “I’m an alien robot.”

“I think this is something we should have talked about at the start of our relationship,” Louis said, tossing his own shirt over the end of the bed.

Harry pushed him down onto the mattress. “My apologies,” he said in his best robot impression.

“Sexy,” Louis commented. “Do that voice again.”

“Do you want to fuck?” Harry said in his robot voice. “Please answer yes or no.”

Louis laughed as their mouths met and Harry planted himself in Louis’ lap. “The answer is yes, but you’re going to have to take these off,” Louis said, unbuttoning Harry’s jeans.

“I have an idea,” Harry murmured.

“There it is,” Louis said. “The beginning of the robot apocalypse.”

Harry laughed. “I mean it,” he said, cupping Louis’ scruffy jaw. “You always take such good care of me, Louis. You should let me take care of you.”

“No,” Louis complained. “Tonight’s supposed to be all about you.”

“Then indulge me,” Harry said, brushing his thumb across Louis’ bottom lip.

Louis smirked, pressing a kiss to his thumb. “What do you want?” he asked, covering Harry’s hand with his own. He kissed his palm.

“I want to fuck you,” Harry said with a smile.

Louis paused, brows lifting. “Oh, really?”

Harry nodded.

Louis collapsed backwards on the bed. His eyes trailed down his body and his hand lifted to touch Harry's bicep. “I see lifting all those boxes and equipment at the bakery is paying off.”

“I didn't think you'd noticed,” Harry said.

“I notice everything about you,” Louis told him. He squeezed his bicep. “I noticed this. How strong you've gotten. You think I don't think about you fucking me into my mattress sometimes.”

Harry whimpered. “You're a tease.”

“I love teasing you,” Louis said.

Harry narrowed his eyes. “Is this a yes or a no?”

“I have a better idea,” Louis said. He sat forward, flipped them and easily, gracefully, straddled Harry’s lap. “I'm going to ride you.”

Harry groaned. “Please yes.”

Louis kissed him, pressing his tongue into Harry’s mouth, until he could hardly breath. “Strip,” he said when he pulled back, climbing off Harry's lap. “Be ready when I get back.”

“I want to watch,” Harry said, imagining Louis prepping himself in the loo, which just wasn’t fair. He wanted to experience all of it. Louis even had promised him as much.

“You will,” Louis said at the door of the loo. “Don't touch yourself while I'm gone.”

Harry pulled off his trousers once the door shut. He tossed his briefs to the floor to join them and spread himself out of the bed with lube and condoms within reach. It hurt not to reach out and comfort himself. He tucked his hands behind his back to quell the temptation.

Water ran in the bathroom for several minutes and then it shut off suddenly. Harry held his breath. The door opened, the light clicked off, and Louis entered the room wearing absolutely nothing.

“I’m going to die,” Harry mumbled.

“So dramatic,” Louis said, mounting his lap. Harry reached for his hips and Louis took his wrists in his hands. “I think we should get the ties out again.”

“I want to touch you,” Harry complained.

“I want you to just watch,” Louis said. “But it's up to you. I'm indulging you, right?”

Harry bit down on his bottom lip.

“Whatever you want,” Louis assured him.

“Tie me up,” Harry said.

Louis smiled. “Are you sure?”

Harry nodded. “Please hurry. My cock hurts.”

“Should I kiss it better?”

“Louis,” Harry whined.

Louis laughed, climbing away again. He was taking his time, the nerve of him. He was being selective about ties instead of just choosing the closest ones. Harry was dying.

“Louis!”

“So impatient tonight,” Louis said on his return, tossing two ties to the bed. “Scoot back, toward the headboard.”

Harry obeyed. “What would you do if I died from sexual denial?”

“Is that what we’re calling it?” Louis asked, taking Harry’s right wrist into his hand.

“Sexual impediment,” Harry offered.

“Oh, I like that one,” Louis said, tying his wrist securely to the headboard, tugging on it. “Good?”

“Good,” Harry said. “How about coital block?”

Louis froze. “Just like that, I’m soft.”

Harry snorted. “We’ll go with that one,” he said.

“Coital block sounds painful,” Louis said, securing his left wrist to the headboard and testing it as well.

“Then it fits because I’m in pain,” Harry said. “I’m going to die from coital block.”

“How about from a mind-blowing orgasm instead?” Louis suggested, planting himself again in Harry’s lap. His bum settled right atop his cock.

A hitch of breath. “I’d prefer that,” Harry said. “Please, Louis…”

“I fucking love when you beg,” Louis said, biting his bottom lip. “This'll be fun.”

He scooted backwards, lifting the lube on the mattress into his hand. “Now just watch me.”

“Oh my God,” Harry whispered to himself. He lifted his eyes to the ceiling, imparting his pleas to the heavens and the universe. He dropped his gaze and focused on Louis, who’d taken his own cock into his hand and stroked himself twice. He uncapped the bottle of lube, poured some onto his waiting fingers with a glance thrown at Harry.

“Ready?” Louis asked.

Harry didn’t even answer him. Louis smiled, more than smug at this point. He was comfortable here, where he was in control and knew it. Everything that happened tonight was right in the palm of his hand, Harry included, and he liked it that way.

He touched himself and easily, pressed the tip of one finger inside.

“I might come,” Harry blabbered.

“You’re joking,” Louis said, laughing.

“I don’t know, Lou. I don’t know,” Harry said, watching Louis push his index finger a little deeper. He moaned, or Harry moaned, or they both did. Who knew? “Oh my God.”

“You’re going to be fine,” Louis said. “You’re not going to come because you want me to ride your cock. You’re just fine.”

Harry’s toes curled, as if Louis were fingering him. He missed that, honestly. He missed being touched. He felt a little selfish. He felt jealous of Louis for touching himself, which didn’t make any sense whatsoever but in the moment, he felt it anyway.

“Fuck,” Louis muttered, after he’d worked his way to two fingers, when they were buried knuckle-deep. He wasn’t even being gentle with himself. He didn’t need to be apparently.

Harry tried to detach. He tried to suspend himself, to hover above the scene and watch it play out, instead of allowing himself to be tortured by it. “You like it rough?” he mumbled.

Louis looked at him, eyes dazed. “Yeah. But with you, I just like it however it is.” He moaned again, dropping his head back. “Found my spot.”

Harry bit down hard on his bottom lip.

“Feels good,” Louis said softly. With more lube, Louis brought a third finger into play. “Fuck.”

Harry whimpered, shifting on the mattress. A blurb of precome wet his tummy. He was shaking, unconsciously pulling at his restraints. He looked away, trying to find the distance again.

Louis rocked down against his fingers instead of pushing them into himself. He was getting wild about it, chasing his spot and groaning loudly whenever he found it. “Jesus,” he breathed, his voice gone high-pitched and whiny and sweet. His hair dampened at his temples. His eyes had drifted shut. He was beautiful.

“Louis, please,” Harry babbled, voice breaking. “Please, please, please, please--”

Louis pulled his fingers free and crawled forward. He kissed him, Harry’s voice muffled when their lips and their tongues met. His back arched away from the mattress when Louis touched his cock and rolled a condom down his length. He didn’t bother warming the lube. He poured it on directly. He was moving quickly, a little recklessly, as he positioned himself.

“Look at me, Harry,” Louis said.

Harry peeled his eyes away from the space between them, blinking dazedly at his face.

“Are you alright?” Louis asked. His hand was shaking with barely contained restraint.

Harry nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I'm good, yes. Please…”

Louis took him slowly as if all the time in the universe belonged to them. Harry dropped his head on the pillows beneath him. His eyes rolled shut.

Louis would probably forgive him if Harry came too quickly the first time he ever fucked a man. But Harry would never let himself live it down either. With a random bloke, perhaps he wouldn’t care. But not with Louis. With Louis, he wanted this whole experience to last as long as possible.

Louis’ bum met his hips and they stilled for a moment, trying to catch their breath. It felt surreal. He’d dreamt of this very thing but never like this. Louis reached for the ties and unfastened them, letting them slip away. He pressed Harry’s hands into the pillows instead and thread their fingers together. His hips moved like a pendulum. Forward and back, forward and back, working Harry into a trance. He moved carefully, slowly, meticulously.

Harry choked on a tiny sob as Louis clenched on him. “I can’t-- I’m gonna--”

“It’s okay,” Louis said, leaning down to kiss him quiet. “Whenever you’re ready…”

Harry watched him. His gaze bounced everywhere, from the point where they were joined, to the sweat on Louis’ neck and chest, to his biceps. He was overwhelmed. “So good,” he mumbled. He felt like crying, it was so good.

“So fucking good,” Louis echoed him, head reclining on his shoulders. His thighs shook cradling Harry’s hips. He sighed. “You’re so big. Love the way you feel.”

“You feel amazing,” Harry mumbled, his eyes prickling. “I love you.”

Louis smiled. “So you’ve said.”

“So much. I love you so much,” Harry babbled.

Louis’ eyes closed as a moan dropped from his mouth. Harry was so close. Any second now it’d happen for him. But he just…

“I want--” Harry took a breath when Louis set his blue eyes on him.

Louis asked, “what is it?”

Harry wiggled his hands free of Louis’ and took him by the hip. “Like this,” he said, turning them. Louis collapsed on the mattress. Harry positioned himself between his legs.

“Oh,” Louis said with a laugh, eyebrows shooting upward. “Impressive.”

“Shut up,” Harry grumbled, oddly embarrassed. “I just-- I want to see how it is like this.”

Louis' hands slipped down to the curve of Harry’s bum. He patted. “Go on, then.”

Harry covered Louis’ body with his own, pressing his forearms into the mattress beside his head. They looked at each other, their noses wrinkling. “Hi,” Harry whispered.

“Hello,” Louis said cordially. “Lovely weather we’re having.”

Harry laughed softly. “Has been very nice these past few days.”

“H,” Louis said, laughing. He slapped Harry’s bum. “Come on.”

Harry had done this before with a girl. Just like this. But it hadn’t ever felt this way. He was more nervous now than he’d been then. He should have known years ago. Being around women was always so easy for him. He charmed them effortlessly without having to give too much of himself to do so. When he was young, he didn’t realize that he just hadn’t been trying much at all.

With men -- specifically, with Louis -- he naturally upped his effort. He’d worked harder for what he had now because he wanted it more than anything else. What he felt for Louis was incomparable to whatever he felt for a woman. He understood that now.

Any prior experiences in this situation were null and void. Everything he did with Louis, he did, in a sense, as a virgin. So yes, he was bloody fucking nervous.

He got his hips to move just as Louis had done.

“That’s it, baby,” Louis said quietly, hand caressing his lower back.

“Good?” Harry asked.

“Very.” Louis pulled him in for a kiss. “Doing perfect. Just like that--”

His voice fell off and turned to a groan on Harry’s next thrust.

Harry smiled. “Perfect, you say?”

“Shut up and fuck me,” Louis said.

“That’s what I’m doing,” Harry complained. He was firmer about it the next time his hips met Louis’ bum.

Louis laughed and groaned at the same time. “Do it harder.”

“This is a lot of work,” Harry said, sweat forming on his brow.

Louis laughed breathlessly. “Feel free to flip us on over if you get too tired.”

“No,” Harry said. “No, like this is good…”

Louis felt better than Harry would have ever thought. He associated him so often with being older, with dominating, guiding him, advising him, or bending him over his desk… But this Louis was softer, more pliant. He was open for Harry like Harry always had been for him.

They held each other, so close to the high, almost there. Louis had a hand around himself, moving desperately.

“Love you,” Harry murmured, forehead against Louis’, mouths brushing.

Their eyes locked. Louis didn’t have any jokes or quips this time. He said it, just as he tipped over and fell into an orgasm. “I love you too.”

Unsurprisingly, that was the thing to finish Harry off.

Chapter Text

Harry woke flooded in harsh but welcome morning light. They’d forgotten to pull the drapes closed, too tired and too boneless to do anything except spoon. He woke tummy up, though he vividly remembered how he'd fallen asleep facing Louis, how he’d curled his arms and legs possessively around Louis’ body. Perhaps it was the sex that made him do that. Perhaps it was how easily Louis could murmur ‘I love you’ into his ear positioned that way. And he said it over and over until Harry fell asleep, his nose pushed against the sweaty curve of Louis’ neck.

He woke feeling immediately, boundlessly happy, as all his memories, from sun up to sun down the day before came rushing back, this full-throttle assault that he was open arms for. He remembered the blouse Louis had made for him, the rooftop full of friends, stumbling home, drunk and needy, and then the bed, and then Louis sinking onto him, the two of them sinking together in a new but somehow familiar way. How could a night ever compare?

He turned over and met Louis’ gaze, a shocked laugh leaving him. Louis smiled, biting his bottom lip.

“How long have you been watching me?” Harry asked.

“Not long,” Louis said. “Just since you started smiling at the ceiling. I'm a bit worried, babe.”

“I was thinking.”

“Uh oh,” Louis said, dodging Harry’s hand when he swatted at him. He laughed. “‘Bout what?”

Harry smiled, all dimples and teeth. “How happy I am.”

Louis’ smile matched his own, though he pushed his face into his pillow to hide it. “Me too,” he said, lifting his face when he’d run out of air.

“Yeah?” Harry asked.

“Yeah,” Louis said, leaning in to kiss him, clearly not minding if Harry’s breath was stale. Harry felt stale. He felt worn out and bleary, but happy, of course. A shower would do the trick. And maybe sex. Always sex. Louis’ brows wrinkled. “What are you thinking about now?”

“Sex,” Harry answered honestly.

“Of course,” Louis said.

“Specifically last night,” Harry said.

“Last night was incredible,” Louis said, running his fingers through Harry’s fringe. His thumb brushed his dimple. “I’m a little sore, to be honest.” He cast a glance at Harry’s crotch. “No surprise there.”

“Sorry about that.”

“You shouldn’t be. I like it,” Louis said, flicking his nipple. Harry curled away from him with a laugh. Louis threw an arm around his waist, tugging him close, and suddenly they were all curled up together again in a tangle of sheets and limbs.

“Thank you,” Louis said.

“I should be thanking you,” Harry said. “For the party and the blouse. I still can’t believe you did that.”

“Designing things for you is easy,” Louis said. “You make it easy.”

“Louis,” Harry said, looking at him very seriously, “Are you calling me your muse?”

“Have I not called you that before?”

“I’m pretty sure I would’ve remembered.”

“Oh,” Louis said. He shrugged. “Well, yes, Harry. I do consider you my muse.”

Harry groaned. “That’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever said to me.”

“Are you sure?” Louis asked. “Would’ve thought ‘I’m madly in love with you’ would top everything else.”

Harry beamed. “Oh, yes, you’re right. That tops everything.” He touched Louis’ stubbled cheek, his thumb trailing over his bottom lip. “I’m madly in love with you too.”

Louis kissed his thumb, then his mouth. And Harry thought he could just die, right here, right now. Like all that joy and mirth would fill him up until he exploded with it.

As much as he’d loved last night, as much as he couldn’t wait to do it again, he missed being fucked until he forgot himself, and then coddled afterwards. He was needy to a fault, but he had a man who loved him in spite of it. Maybe, in part, because of it.

He let his legs fall open and Louis situated himself there without second thought.

And Harry hardly ever had to ask when Louis was always in a giving mood.

*

Harry cultivating Louis’ kitchen to suit his needs was admittedly domestic. He couldn’t remember when he’d started, but bit by bit, his things had migrated from his home to Louis’ — his favourite measuring spoons, a recipe book he’d received for his birthday, the butter he liked to bake with, and a whole slew of other items Louis wouldn’t have use for.  It was mostly a practical move; Flora always got fussy when Harry wanted to use the kitchen at home while she was around and Louis hardly ever used his own kitchen.

But Harry also liked the suggestion — that the kitchen was theirs . It made him think about actually sharing a kitchen with Louis someday. A whole home. About their things equally and chaotically dispersed in the fridge. And in the cupboards. And their books together in the bookshelves. Their clothes stuffed into the drawers. Everything perfect and everything theirs.

Louis appeared right then, his hair slightly damp from a shower. And Harry wanted to blurt all those thoughts out. Can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with you .

“I made you tea,” Harry said instead.

Louis exhaled a breath of relief. “Bless you.” He reached for the cup sat on the counter and removed the saucer Harry had rested over top of it. He took a sip. “So what are you making?”

“It’s just a chocolate cake,” Harry said. “All three-year-old’s like chocolate.”

Technically, Alex, his half-brother, was turning four, but Harry’s point stood. There’d be a birthday party at noon and Harry regretted telling Natalia that he’d bring cake. Louis was jetting off to Paris soon and Harry could have done with more time unoccupied with him.

Granted, he hadn't been prepared at all for Louis' trip to Paris. Harry might've liked to draw him a bath and make him breakfast, but that plan was ruined.

“All packed?” he asked.

Louis gave him a look. “Really, Harry.”

“You should stop leaving things to the last minute,” Harry said. “How are you so responsible with everything else?”

“Compartmentalization,” Louis said, leaning into the counter beside him. “I’m almost all packed.”

Harry focused on his mixing bowl. “I still can’t believe she’s sending you away without warning. We’re supposed to be going to the beach next weekend.”

“I’ll be back in time for the beach,” Louis said. “It’s just a week.”

“Sounds like forever to me.”

“It would kill you not to be dramatic, wouldn’t it?”

“Probably. I’ve never tried.”

Louis nudged Harry’s hip with his own. “I’ll be back before you know it,” he said. “That’s the prettiest chocolate frosting I’ve ever seen, by the way.”

"It’s chocolate hazelnut," Harry corrected with a smug smile. "And thank you."

He stopped folding the frosting, pulling the spatula from the bowl.

"Want a taste?"

Harry lifted the spatula to Louis' mouth, and Louis dragged his tongue just over the edge. "So good," Louis said, licking chocolate off his lips.

Harry’s eyes lingered on Louis' lips. Slowly, he started folding the frosting again.

"You know how this would taste even better?" Louis asked.

"On the cake?" Harry supplied.

"No," Louis said, scooping a bit of frosting off the side of the bowl. Harry didn’t have a second to reprimand him before Louis smeared the sticky mess across his throat. He leaned in, his tongue sliding over Harry’s skin, causing his brain to short circuit. “Much better.”

"You think so?" Harry mumbled, his eyes closing.

"Know so," Louis said. He must have scooped out more frosting because he was spreading some now down the front of Harry's neck to the dip between his collarbones. He pushed him back against the worktop and got his mouth back on him, sucking frosting from his skin.

Harry let go of the spatula all together, hands falling to Louis’ hips. He dipped his own finger into the frosting and wiped it over Louis’ jaw.

"See? It's much better like this," Louis said.

"So much better," Harry said. "Though I should still save some for the cake."

“Maybe,” Louis said. He ran his thumb over Harry’s bottom lip and then pushed their mouths together to lick the frosting he’d spread there.

"Or not.” Harry reached blindly for the counter, trying to steady himself as Louis slotted their legs together just right. “Jesus. Just fuck me.”

He felt Louis smirk against his neck. “In front of the baked goods?” Louis asked, untying Harry’s apron. “Darling, we shouldn’t.”

 

* * *

 

Trips to his dad’s massive yet somehow quaint home on the lake were always welcome reprieves. Natalia was still aloof, but Alex nearly exploded seeing Harry arrive. And Harry hadn’t seen his dad in a while. His cake turned out to be a bigger hit than expected too. The frosting, he knew, was fantastic based on intimate, private experience.

He and his dad rendezvoused on the balcony overlooking the lake, his dad with a glass of Jameson and Harry with his wine. Neighboring houses cast shifting rectangles of light onto the water. The moon was bright overhead, not quite full but days away. Harry reclined his head against the back of his chair.

“He’s a handful,” Des said, meaning Alex. The boy and his band of energized friends had worn everyone ragged, even Harry who prided himself on being able to keep up with children.

“I hope you’re enjoying every second of it,” Harry said. “One day, you’ll look up and he’ll be modelling or baking.”

Des laughed. “How’s the baking going?”

“Fine,” Harry said. “I’m excited to get to school and get started.”

“I’ll tell you what you just told me. Enjoy every second of it. Take the time you have to fully prepare.”

Harry tried, but lately, especially since yesterday, he thought incessantly about his future, about his career and his life with Louis. He wanted to get to a place where he was doing what he wanted and living the life he dreamed of.

“How’s that person you’re dating?” Des asked as if he’d read his mind somehow.

Before when Harry was asked about Louis, he’d get nervous or anxious. He never knew what to say or how to say it when he was aiming to be discreet. But last night had changed a lot. He was loved and in love, and people knew about it. And suddenly, Harry wanted his dad to know too.

“He’s good,” he said. “He’s away right now on a business trip.”

“Is he a model?”

“No,” Harry said. “He’s, like, an assistant. Did I mention that he’s a little older?”

“How much older?”

“Like mid 20s.”

Des shrugged. “I dated a thirty-year-old woman when I was nineteen. Not that I advise you do the same, but you’re not a kid anymore.”

Well, that was one hurdle down.

“Where does he work?”

“He works with Mum actually," Harry said, coughing to get the words out. "At the office.”

His dad’s brows creased. “Does your mum know?”

“Not yet,” Harry said.

Des placed his glass on the table beside him. “What did you say his name was?”

“I didn’t,” Harry said. “It’s, uh— It’s Louis.”

“Sounds familiar,” Des said, sitting up straighter. “He works with your mum how?”

“Like her assistant? He’s her personal assistant.”

His dad just looked at him. Harry looked down into his wine glass, chewing on the inside of his cheek.

Des rested his forehead in his palm, massaging his temples where his grey hair had long receded. “Jesus Christ, H.”

“It’s not that bad,” Harry said quickly.

“But you haven’t spoken to your mum about it,” Des said, looking at him like he was crazy. “That says everything I need to know. If you didn’t feel wrong about it, you’d tell her.”

“I don’t feel wrong about it. I just know she won’t be happy. And I know it might cost Louis his job.”

“And why do you think that is?”

Harry could only look at him. He hadn’t expected his dad to lose his cool. Because he hardly ever did. Maybe he’d also gotten trapped in his bubble with Louis. He forgot that outside of their late nights and whispered conversations, there was a whole world of people that wouldn’t approve.

“Where’s your head at right now?” his dad asked.

Harry sighed loudly and set his wine glass down. “When we talked, you said all you were concerned about was that he treats me well. And he does. No one’s ever treated me better.”

“I didn’t mean—”

“Just let me finish,” Harry said. “I’m a better person because of him. I’m braver. And stronger. He encourages me and supports me. And I think I’ve done the same for him. And us being together isn’t his fault. I went after him first. I was obnoxious and persistent.”

“It takes two to agree to a relationship.”

“Even so. I’m the one who started it. He tried to do the right thing and I never did.” Harry stood up, his hands propped on his hips. “We’re in love. I love him. He loves me. It's not wrong.”

Des seemed to capitulate then, reclining in his chair again. He lifted his drink and had a sip. Harry crossed his arms over his chest, leaning into the balcony. He waited.

“Your mum’s going to fire him,” Des said. “You know that, right?”

Sometimes, Harry did. He liked to trick himself into having hope about the whole thing. He liked to imagine a scenario in which he, his mother, and Louis sat down over cups of tea and talked very calmly about this whole thing. But sometimes, Harry was also realistic. And he remembered who his mother was. And he knew…

“There’s nothing she hates more than being lied to,” his dad said. “She’d fire him in a heartbeat. And she definitely wouldn’t write him a positive recommendation. I take it he’s interested in fashion?”

“He’s brilliant,” Harry said. “He’s a brilliant designer.”

“Well, he won’t be when she’s done with him.”

Harry felt his throat burning. He wouldn’t cry but he wanted to all of a sudden. He knew where this was going.

“You have to end this, Harry,” Des said. “If you care about him, and I see that you do, you should end it before she finds out.”

“What if I told her?” Harry asked. “If I just sat down with her and told her everything.”

Des shook his head. “I know this might be hard for you to hear, but I did try to make it work with your mum. For a long time, I tried—”

Not only was it hard to hear, Harry also wasn’t interested in hearing it. Not even a little bit. “Dad—”

“Just listen. I sat down with her and I told her things weren’t working. I told her we should get counselling or take some time apart, but there was hardly any time. I didn’t know what to do-- It’s my fault, H. I’m not saying it isn’t. I’m the one who left. But the point is that she’s stubborn and she’s difficult. And by the time you get through to her, I imagine Louis will be out of work and employed at a fast food chain.”

Harry looked away, feeling tears building in the corners of his eyes. “I’m not leaving him. I can’t do that.”

Des seemed years older as he sat there looking at Harry who eventually looked back at him. The conversation had aged him. When he sighed, it sounded like a last breath. He stood up, snagging his whiskey off the table. He left Harry out on the balcony, touching his cheek just once.

 

* * *

 

“Sounds like you’re out,” Louis said.

“I am,” Harry replied. “I’m having dinner with my mum’s coworker. I’ll tell you about it later.”

Louis huffed a laugh. “You sound ecstatic.”

The car pulled up to the kerb. “I can’t keep still, I’m so excited,” Harry said dryly.

“Put on a smile for me, love.”

“I’ll try,” Harry said, thanking the driver. He climbed out of the car.

“I have to run too,” Louis said. “I miss you. I’ll ring you later.”

Harry stood on the pavement, listening to the bustle on Louis’ end. He’d probably be working late, and they probably wouldn’t talk for long later on, if at all. Louis had fallen asleep on the line yesterday too. It’d been three days since Alex’s birthday and Harry hadn’t found a chance to mention his conversation with his dad, which he desperately wanted to do. He needed Louis home more than ever. “Please do,” he said. “I love you.”

“Are you alright?” Louis asked.

“I’m good, yeah,” Harry lied.

Louis was quiet for a second. “We’ll talk soon, I promise. I love you too.”

And then they said ‘bye’ and Harry hurried into the restaurant where he was led to a reserved table and offered a glass of wine.

He waited for fifteen minutes before collecting his phone off the table and requesting an Uber. It was just as he did that Carson stepped into the restaurant up ahead, looking flustered, spotting Harry immediately. Harry regretfully cancelled the ride, set his phone back on the table, and worked a smile onto his face.

Carson approached the table. Harry stood, accepting a cordial kiss on his cheek. “I’m so sorry I’m late,” the other man said.

“It’s no problem,” Harry said, taking his seat. He spread his napkin across his lap. “You look like you ran here.”

“For half the trip, yes. I took the tube for the other half and got completely turned around. Ended up in the South Bank.”

Harry smiled sympathetically. “It was brave of you attempting the tube at rush hour.”

“Stupid, you mean.”

“Maybe a little,” Harry said, shrugging and the other man laughed. He was looking at Harry that same way he had when they first met, his eyes a little round and bottomless. Not scarily so. Harry had to admit he was attractive and attention from kind, attractive men was always nice in an abstract sense. But he was aiming to keep this as friendly and professional as possible. He focused adamantly on his menu, breaking eye contact. “I hear they’ve got great cheese here.”

“I love cheese,” Carson said.

They ordered wine and charcuterie to start while Carson told him of his ventures in Spain, comparing the culture, the food, the men, the women to those of the UK. He had tendentious opinions about it all, shaped by a very privileged, extravagant lifestyle. Harry couldn’t help but think of Louis, who was down-to-earth and thrifty and humble whenever he could be. Harry loved that about him. He loved so much about him. Particularly that Harry’s wealth never mattered between the two of them and he never felt he had to perform.

He took a sip of his wine, trying to focus on what Carson was saying, but it’d been a while since he checked his phone and he wondered if Louis had texted him.

“When were you last in Spain?” Carson asked.

Harry thought about it. “It’s been a while. I can’t really remember.”

“I’d love to take you. Have you been outside of the UK recently?”

Of course, Harry recalled France with Louis. His cherry popped. Smores, snuggles, and staying in bed for as long as possible. “A trip to Paris recently,” he said to Carson. “I had an exam to take for a school I’m attending this autumn.”

“Which one?”

“Cordon Bleu,” Harry said, proudly.

“You’re a chef,” Carson said, brows raised.

“Well, I’m hoping to be,” Harry said. “I still need a lot of training. I work at this bakery and my boss recently told me I needed to a hate cooking a little bit before I could consider myself a chef.”

“And do you hate cooking?”

“I get frustrated sometimes, but I never hate it,” Harry said. “Maybe I’ve had it too easy.”

Carson smiled. “You’re Harry Styles. What could be too hard for you?”

Louis had said something similar to him before. Harry had even recalled it right before he took his exam. Harry Styles confident. But branding Harry’s confidence had worked because Harry knew he didn’t have to measure up to anything or anyone else. Somehow the way Carson said his name, Harry felt like the brand — his brand — was the thing to measure up to.

Harry didn’t respond, though. He didn’t want this man to know too much about him, didn’t want things to get too personal. So he simply returned his smile and then suggested ordering the steak.

They were at an Italian restaurant in Soho. The waiter came by and refilled their glasses, and as Harry lifted his own, he looked around and noticed how many people were on dates. His mum had suggested this place, and now that he thought about it, it was just the kind of spot he’d think to bring Louis to. It was romantic, dimly lit with small tables which forced a two-person party to lean close. A small candle decorated the table along with a solitary rose in a vase.

Harry took a bigger sip of his wine and set the glass down, found Carson looking at him already.

“You look fantastic, by the way,” he said.

Harry cleared his throat, pushing a lock of hair behind his ear. Would that gesture seem flirty? Probably. “Thank you,” he said. And then, because he was polite: “You look nice too.”

“I’m glad you agreed to have dinner with me,” Carson said.

Harry set his hands in his lap, looking just past Carson’s head for the waiter to appear with his steak. “Well, you’re new to London and it can be lonely without friends.”

He said the word deliberately. Carson didn’t seem put off at all.

“I thought you’d just take me on a tour of the city. Didn’t realize I’d be getting dinner instead.”

Harry’s brain halted at that. Had he set himself up without realising it? Could he have gotten away with simply hopping onto a boat tour down the Thames with Carson and calling it a day? Now that he thought of it, when he’d recommended dinner with Carson, his mum had looked pleased before suggesting this place. He wanted to face plant.

Harry shrugged. “Just seemed like a nice thing to do.”

Carson narrowed his eyes a little, but not suspiciously. Coyly. Harry wanted to slide out of his chair and disappear beneath the table. His steak finally arrived and he ate as quickly and as gracefully as possible without choking. Carson talked of his film. At one point, their legs touched beneath the table and Harry very slowly moved his own away.

“When do you leave for France?” Carson asked.

“Not until September,” Harry said.

“Oh, good. I have you for a whole summer then.”

Harry laughed awkwardly. It suddenly seemed very clear that a rejection on his part was inevitable. This man was beautiful, but dense. Harry’s signals and subtle hints had thus far been ineffective. It was never going to happen between them and he’d have to say so as succinctly as possible. He wondered how as Carson prattled on, and then someone stepped up to their table.

Not the waiter.

Harry froze upon seeing Eleanor. They both froze, staring at each other, Eleanor with a very tense smile, Harry expressionless. And then he did smile, or he tried to.

“Hi,” he said. His voice sounded tinny to his own ears.

Her eyes were lined with dark eyeliner, her lips a deep red. She looked beautiful and vampiric. Standing just a few feet behind her was a man, waiting patiently.

“Hi,” she said, smiling, and then her eyes flickered to Carson. And Harry, for some reason, felt ill. He thought to explain before realising that was ridiculous. “How’s Louis?”

Harry glanced at Carson. Eleanor saw him do it, and she tilted her head a bit, her eyes gone squinty for a second. “He’s great,” Harry said. “He’s in Paris. It’s good to see you.”

It wasn’t. Neither of them looked happy to see one another.

“Likewise,” she said. “Tell Louis I said hi.”

And then she was gone with another look at Carson and a tense quirk of her lips. Harry reached for his wine when she was out of sight.

“I sense bad blood,” Carson said. “Is Louis a man you fought over?”

Harry couldn’t have that getting back to his mum. “No,” Harry said quickly. “She's just not my biggest fan, I guess.”

“Shame on her.”

It was Harry's fault, but sure. He started in on his steak again, thought better of it, and set his knife down. “There is someone, though, actually,” Harry said. “I’ve been seeing someone for a little while now. And I’m really happy with them.”

Carson maintained his smile, though it shrank noticeably. “I’m a little sad to hear that.”

“I’d love for us to be friends, though,” Harry said. “And we could always do this again. I’d love to give you that tour of the city.”

Carson lifted his glass of wine, gesturing for a toast. Harry lifted his own and their glasses touched with a clink. “To new friendship,” Carson said, and they drank.

 

* * *

 

It took him only a day to forget about Carson and Eleanor, and even his father and their talk on the balcony. There were other things occupying substantial real estate in his head. Like Louis and seeing Louis on Saturday and Louis at the beach and Louis in swim trunks and Louis sporting a tan. Eventually, that was all he cared about.

His mum was her happiest when she was away from the bustle of the city. Down by the private shoreline of their Mykonos hideaway, she and Robin were sprawled on lounge chairs, wide-brimmed hats perched atop their heads and their hands linked between them. Harry watched from poolside, his feet dunked into the water. Gemma floated nearby on an inflated slice of pizza, a book in her hands.

“You look sad,” she reported.

Harry looked at her. “I’m not, actually. I’m pretty happy.”

“Even without Louis here?”

“He’s on his way, so yes,” Harry said. “Do you ever get the feeling that life is too good? Like it throws off the balance of the universe for it to be this good?”

Gemma closed her book and rested it on her chest. She turned her sunglass-shielded eyes towards him. “If you say things like that, bad things are bound to happen.”

“But that’s what I mean. I think bad things are bound to happen no matter what we do. There’s the calm and then the storm.”

“Who thinks about that while they’re on holiday?”

Harry did apparently. He was happy, but anxious too. Louis' arrival would get him out of his head, he hoped. One more day and he’d be fine.

 

* * *

 

Louis arrived early Saturday evening, right before the sun set. Harry heard the crunch of gravel beneath tires, the low hum of an engine, and a door shutting softly. He sat upright, left his room, and paused in the hallway overlooking the foyer. Robin opened the door when the bell rang and then Louis was standing there, setting his bag down.

“Glad you could join us, Louis,” Robin said.

“Thanks for having me,” Louis said.

Let me just get Anne.”

“I can show him to his room,” Harry called, starting down the steps at a pace that took severe self-control to maintain. Louis’ eyes met his, a smile teasing the corner of his mouth. “Mum’s resting I think. I’ve got it.”

Robin sauntered off as Harry reached for Louis’ holdall and hoisted it over his shoulder. There were three rooms upstairs and two downstairs. He’d wanted to stay downstairs as well, close to where Louis would be sleeping but it’d be suspicious when he’d never done that in the years prior. He led Louis to the spare room, quickly, dropping the holdall as soon as he was through the door. Louis pushed the door shut and Harry reached for him. They reached for each other. Their mouths were jammed together, no room left for air or a ‘hello’ or a ‘how do you do’.

Harry pushed Louis’ baseball cap off, fingers drifting through the short, soft tendrils of his hair, tugging a little. Louis pinned Harry’s hips to the wall with his own.

“Where’s your mum?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” Harry didn’t particularly care right now, either.

“I should say hi,” Louis said, regrettably. “See if she needs anything.”

I need something,” Harry said.

Louis sighed. “I missed you like crazy.”

“Show me then, please ,” Harry said, leaning in again. He brushed their noses together, mouths growing closer in painstaking increments as if they had the time. Then he kissed him, cupping the back of his neck, trying to hold on. Their lips detached loudly as Louis pulled away.

“Tonight,” he said. “I promise.”

“Louis—”

The door shut after him.

 

* * *

 

Dinner wasn’t a formal affair by any means but his mum insisted that they all sit down together and make a big deal of it anyway. They had a cook come in and prepare local dishes — lots of jerk-seasoned and curried meats. It was nice, actually, and Harry would enjoy it more if Louis weren’t sat directly beside him. He was, inevitably, distracted by the soft black shirt he wore and the cologne drifting away from him and the brush of his hand against Harry’s knee at one point.

His plan had completely fallen through earlier on. He’d planned to christen Louis’ guest bed the very instant he arrived. But his mum had sat Louis down and they’d run through plans for some dinner that wasn’t taking place for another month and that couldn’t possibly be more important than Harry’s unwilling week-long bout of celibacy.

He never knew himself to be so whiny until he started dating someone secretly. And not just any someone. It was Louis, specifically, that made it so unbearable. With his perfect smiling mouth and his delicate hands, currently curled around his wine glass.

“I might need to head to Paris myself,” Harry’s mum was saying to Louis. “I trust you with picking the right venue, but I’d also like to see it.”

“I understand completely,” Louis said. “Plus, it’s nice there right now. The weather was great.”

Anne looked pleased. “Maybe we should all go. We haven’t been there in so long.”

They hadn't been there as a family, but she forgot about Harry's exam, that he'd been there with Louis just a month ago. Harry thought again about the blanket fort and Louis pushing into him so painstakingly slow. He glanced at him, wondering if he thought about it too. He saw Louis’ mouth curve just the slightest bit and Harry lowered his gaze, lifting a forkful of rice to his mouth to deter a full-blown smile.

“I’m already booked for LA in a week,” Gemma said. “But maybe when I’m back.”

“I’ll have Amanda work something out,” their mum said. “Actually, Harry—  Carson is in Paris next week. Maybe you can meet him for lunch.”

Harry nearly dropped his fork. He looked at his mum. “Oh. Yeah, sure.”

“He’s asked about you,” Anne said, shrugging. “I assumed dinner went well.”

Harry looked at Gemma, his brain firing off distress signals.

Gemma cleared her throat. "You know I was also thinking--"

“Sorry, who’s Carson?” Louis interrupted, lifting his wine glass. The smile he wore could’ve been stitched on. He was an expert with a needle and thread and it showed.

“Oh, that's right. You haven’t met him, have you, Lou?” Anne asked. “We’ll have to introduce you when we’re back in the office. He’s the one we hired for the new campaign.”

“Right,” Louis said. “Took you out to dinner?”

Harry looked at Louis because the question was obviously for him. “Uh, sort of. I kind of took him out, I guess. He’s new to London, so. I was going to show him around, you know…”

“I think you did a good job,” his mum said, smiling, nudging him with her toe. She’d had too many sangrias and now too many glasses of wine and maybe it was starting to show. “Let’s have Amanda look into your schedule for next week too. We’ll see if we can get you two connected again. What is in this seasoning? It’s so good,” she said, spearing a piece of chicken. “I wonder if Flora can make this.”

“I doubt it,” Harry heard Gemma say, but he tuned the rest out. He couldn’t look at Louis again, which he knew made it worst. He was acting guilty and he shouldn’t. He felt guilty, but he’d done nothing wrong. It sounded worse than it was. He’d explain and they’d be fine, but he had to make it through the rest of dinner first.

“Robin and I are going out after dinner,” his mum was saying.

And he thanked his lucky stars, shovelling food into his mouth as if that would make the night pass quicker, would make his parents head off to their bar, and would see him and Louis alone in bed without the tension sitting between them now.

 

* * *

 

Harry tapped on the door softly and when there was no answer, he twisted the knob, pushed it open and stepped inside. Louis had just stepped out of the shower. Harry suspected he only took the shower because he needed a moment to clear his head. He hadn’t said anything after dinner. He’d excused himself and then he’d stepped into the guest room. And Harry had to wait until his parents left and until the shower cut off in Louis’ room and the length of that time he waited was probably only thirty minutes but felt like days.

Now, standing in the room, whatever had transpired between them felt insurmountable.

Louis was wearing a towel around his waist and nothing else. Harry suppressed his innate reaction to that and forced himself to focus.

“Could’ve knocked,” Louis said.

Harry stood there awkwardly, his shoulders hunched. “Didn’t think I had to.”

"I need to get dressed," Louis said, rummaging around in his holdall.

“I’ve seen you naked plenty,” Harry said, trying to smile. He wasn’t sure it worked.

Louis sighed, pulling the towel off. He sat on his bed, running the towel through his hair. “I’m tired, Harry.”

“I didn’t come for—” Harry curled his fists at his sides. “I just want to talk.”

“About?”

“Carson.”

Louis looked at him. “Is there something to talk about?”

“Well, you’re upset. So yes, I think so.” Harry took a step closer. “I had dinner with him because my mum wanted me to. I told him I wasn’t interested.”

“On the phone, you told me he was your mum’s coworker.”

“To me, that’s all he is,” Harry said.

“But you left out the part where he’s interested in you. Or the part where your mum knew that and clearly wants to set you two up together. You knew all that before you agreed to go out with him.”

“What was I supposed to say?”

“How about no?" Louis suggested. "Why is it so hard for you to just say no to her?”

“I didn’t want her to suspect—”

“Suspect what? That you're with me? 'Cause it’s so obvious we’re together, right?” Louis asked incredulously. “No one’s suspecting anything about us, Harry, believe me.”

“Why on earth are you upset about that? Do you want everyone to know?”

“That's not what I'm saying. I’d like for the person I’m with to not date other people.”

Harry groaned, long and loud. “It wasn’t a date to me . Yes, I knew he was interested, but I wasn’t. Of course I wasn’t. I told him so. I even told him I was with someone. My mum doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Carson and I agreed to be friends.”

“That’s why you took him to a posh Italian place, yeah? To make a new friend.”

Harry readied a rebuttal, and then paused. “How do you know it was a posh Italian place?" he asked slowly, carefully. "We didn’t have time to talk about the Italian place.”

Louis stood, wrapping the towel around his waist again. Harry waited, his brows arched. “I talked to Eleanor,” Louis said. “You forgot to mention that you saw her.”

Harry stared at him a long time, his heart loud in his ears. “We hardly had a second to talk about anything while you were away. When would I have found time to mention her?” he asked or mumbled. He couldn’t hear his own voice. He felt like he was having an out-of-body experience all of a sudden, looking down on these two people fighting about things he and Louis would never fight about. He crossed his arms over his chest tightly. “Is this a regular thing then? You two catch up often?”

“Come the fuck on, Harry. It’s not like that.”

“How am I supposed to know?” Harry asked, lifting his shoulders. “This is my first time hearing that you two are still in touch.”

“Are you not in touch with Jeff?”

“That’s different!”

Louis propped his hands on his hips. “That’s fair.”

“You and Eleanor dated for years . I dated Jeff because I was hung up on you. And then I broke up with him the second I thought you were interested.”

Louis pressed the heels of his palms into his eyelids. “There’s absolutely nothing going on with her, I swear.”

Harry knew that, but it wasn’t the point. He chewed on his bottom lip, his eyes a little wide. “Do you talk often?”

“Christ,” Louis said under his breath. “No, we don’t.”

“Do you feel like you can confide in her or something?” Harry asked. “Are there things you say to her that you can’t say to me?”

“Harry,” Louis said, his voice soft. “Of course not. The last time we talked, it was because my nan had just died. And then recently— She was just being nosy and suspicious. And it was out of line, to be honest. I even told her so. But that’s why she got in touch. She said she saw you on a date at a posh Italian place and she thought I should know. And I didn’t think anything of it, because I know you’ve got a lot of friends. I knew it was nothing or I thought— I didn’t know the bloke had feelings for you, obviously. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, what she and I talked about. You forget the part where I’m in love with you. Not her. There’s nothing I’ve got to say to her that I can’t share with you.”

“You thought right about Carson,” Harry said. “It was nothing. I left some details out on the phone, but only because we didn’t have time to discuss everything.”

Louis sat down on the bed again, leaning forward and cradling his head in his hands. Harry joined him, knee-walking across the short distance to Louis, sinking onto his haunches behind him. He ran a hand up Louis’ bare back, the smooth muscle tense but such a tease. He curled both arms around Louis’ middle and rested his head against Louis’ shoulder. “I’m in love with you too,” he said. “Doesn’t stop us from being jealous tits, though, right?”

Louis might’ve laughed. Just a bit. Harry would take it. Louis touched his hand, his head still bowed.

Harry pressed a kiss to his shoulder. “I told my dad about us.”

A beat of silence passed. Louis dropped his hand. “Wait, what?”

“After Alex’s party,” Harry said tentatively, “I told my dad the truth. About you and me. He didn’t take it very well, but—”

Louis pulled away and stood, wrapping the towel around his waist again. “How could you tell him of all people?”

That wasn’t the reaction Harry had expected, obviously. For a minute, he sat there, trying to get his tongue working again. He felt like he had a case of morning dry-mouth. His head was fuzzy, too, like he’d just woken up. Maybe he was dreaming all of this. “He would never tell anyone. I’ve told him so many things in the past, and he’s never said a thing. He was the first person I came out to.”

“That’s not how it works, Harry. You can’t know that for sure.”

“I think I know my own dad better than you,” Harry said. “And I think I know better than to do something that would risk your job.”

“It’s not about my job at all,” Louis said.

“What the fuck is it about then?” Harry asked, feeling like he was going mad. “What is any of this about? Why are we still fighting?”

Louis paced away from him, then back, then towards the glass door that led out to a small balcony, and back. Harry glared at him the whole time while Harry vacillated nauseatingly between feeling angry and feeling foolish.

“Just ‘cause you turned eighteen, it didn't suddenly make everything alright. We were wrong to think it would.”

"But we never thought that," Harry said. "We always knew this would be hard."

"You're right, yeah. You're right. But it turned out to be the least of our worries, didn't it? You being seventeen. That's nothing compared to me being so arse-over-tit in love with you that even imagining your mum setting you up with someone else makes me want to ring her up and tell her everything. Every fucking thing. That's crazy, yeah? But that's what happens when you're in love. I want everyone to know. I want to tell everyone and I can’t. ‘Cause you’re too young and I’m not supposed to be fucking you, Harry. I’m supposed to be helping you with your exams and buying you lunch and making sure you’re not getting into trouble. But I am the trouble. Because I’m fucking in love with you. You don't think I'd love to tell your dad and your mum and your fucking nan, whoever. But I can’t even—” He cut himself off.

“I'm not too young to know what I want,” Harry insisted. “You said so yourself.”

“I don’t know what I said or thought back then. I thought I was a responsible adult too, but look at me now.”

“For fuck’s sake. Would you get over yourself?” Harry said with a grand roll of his eyes. “I liked you from the moment I saw you. I was fucked just looking at you. You didn’t have to do anything. You walked through the fucking door and it was over for me. If you want to feel sorry for yourself, fine. But I guess then I’ll have to feel bad too. 'Cause I’m the one who wanted you even though you had a girlfriend. I’m the one sabotaging your job.”

Louis’ expression had gone soft. “It wouldn’t be your fault if I lost my job.”

“Yes, it would,” Harry said, his vision blurring. “It would. You don’t have to say it. I know it would. But I’m really fucking selfish, as it turns out, because I don’t actually care enough to let you go. There's truly nothing that could get me to leave you except—" He drew a trembling breath and exhaled.

This was growing up, wasn't it? Saying impossible things, doing impossible things, for the people you loved.

"If you can't do this anymore, just say so. I'd understand," Harry said. "If it's too much for you, just tell me and I'll go."

Louis was silent, his head ducked. Harry hated that he couldn't see his eyes. He thought to lift Louis' chin, but realized he was even more terrified of what he'd see if he did. Resignation? Defeat?

"One day, I'd like to tell my mum about us too. I'd like for us to be together in the open," Harry said, "But if you can't see that happening, it's fine." His voice broke. He dragged his wrist across his damp cheek quickly and drew a sharp breath. "I just want you to know- I'm not saying this to make you feel guilty, Louis, but I want you to know that it won't be because of me. If we fall apart, it won't be because I'm too young or because I don't know what I want. I know exactly what I want and it's always been you. It's always going to be you."

There was a pause, a moment of contemplation. Harry couldn't take it anymore. He started to stand.

And then Louis got down on his knees all of a sudden, right at the foot of the bed, right in front of him, and got as close as he could.

"I'm sorry," he said, his head falling into Harry's lap, his voice muffled. He hugged Harry around the middle, clinging to him, so tightly he could hardly breathe. "I'm sorry."

Harry dried his face roughly, setting his unsteady hands on Louis' shoulders. He rested his head against Louis', shutting his eyes. "It's alright,” he said, hugging him back.

"I'm sorry."

Harry pressed his face into Louis' shoulder. "It's okay."

"I don’t know what I’m doing at all," Louis mumbled, his cheek smushed against Harry’s thigh. "I know you think I do most of the time, but I don't have a clue."

“Can we not figure it out together?” Harry asked. Louis lifted his head and looked at him with glassy red-rimmed eyes. He nodded, and Harry pressed a kiss to his mouth, holding onto him with his fingers tangled in his hair. When he licked into his mouth, Harry tasted his own tears on Louis' tongue. Or maybe they were Louis' tears. Harry rested their foreheads together. “Can we be done with this now? Please?” he asked. "I missed you."

“I missed you too.”

“Then please get in bed."

Slowly, Louis stood and Harry gave a slight tug to the towel around Louis' hips. It fell open and slipped to the floor.

“You promised," Harry said.

Louis’ eyelids were at half-mast, which was how Harry had wanted him to look at him all night. Louis moved closer, pressing a palm into the mattress, “Did you lock the door?” he asked.

Harry nodded. Somehow he’d remembered to. “My parents won’t be back for a while.”

“You still have to stay quiet,” Louis said.

“I’ll be good,” Harry assured him.

Louis smiled. His first genuine smile in too long. “Do you even know how to be good, love?”

“For you, yeah.”

That must’ve been the right answer because he got a kiss for it. Several kisses along his neck and down his chest as Louis shoved his shirt up beneath his armpits. Harry pulled the shirt off entirely as Louis mouthed at his nipple and left a little bite on one of his abs. He reached for Harry’s jeans, unfastened them, and pulled them off deftly before sinking on top of him again. They stilled as Louis’ eyes moved across his face, his brows slightly furrowed.

"How could you ever think I'd leave you?" Louis asked before kissing him again, saying several words more with his lips and tongue.

Harry bucked his hips upwards until Louis got the hint and parted to find condoms and lube in his holdall.

Harry hadn’t touched himself while Louis was gone, which he realised belatedly as Louis sank two fingers into him. He felt the stretch more than usual, but the discomfort only lasted a second before Louis took his cock into his mouth.

Harry ran his fingers through Louis’ soft hair, fighting the urge to thrust into Louis' mouth. He looked in the direction of the window, wishing he could see the beach from this angle. The night ocean lapping at the shore might've reminded him of Louis’ tongue and Louis’ careful but expert fingers. But the ocean was uncertain and capricious. And Louis wasn’t that at all.

Louis was calm and collected at the best of times. Louis was strong and sure. But he could be insecure too. He didn't know everything as much as he wished he did. Harry knew him. They knew each other. He was more certain about Louis than anything else.

“I’m good,” Harry said, suddenly desperate for Louis inside him. “Louis, please.”

Louis crawled upwards until their mouths met.

“When’s the last time you got tested?” Harry asked, pulling away.

"Uh-"

“I did it in autumn last year,” Harry continued before Louis could answer. “And then, with Jeff— Obviously, we didn’t do much. My first time was with you, so— I’m clean.”

Louis licked his lips. “I did it recently.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I don’t know why. The last time was before Eleanor but that was in uni. So I figured— I’m with you now, so I thought it’d be a good idea. In case we— In case you wanted—”

“I do want,” Harry said, nodding. “Do you?”

“Harry,” Louis sighed. “I want everything with you.”

Harry reached for the condom on the bed and chucked it over the edge. Louis watched it go overboard, laughing. Harry reached for the lube, uncapped it, and coated Louis' length, a little distracted by how Louis thrust through his fist as if he couldn't help himself.

“Alright,” Louis said, batting his hand away.

Harry smiled, shuffling backwards, situating himself a bit more comfortably. And then Louis settled on top of him, brushing a kiss over his mouth and his jaw as he pushed into him until his hips were flush with Harry’s. He released an overwhelmed breath that Harry couldn’t help feeling smug about. “Missed you so much,” Louis said. 

Harry couldn’t look at him or else he’d cry. He still felt like crying. They’d be happy tears now but Louis would still stop and Harry didn’t want him to stop. He shut his eyes as Louis brushed his fingers over his cheek. Harry took his hand in his own, pushing his face into his palm and Louis fucked into him again, a thrust that echoed in the room, followed by another until his pace was quick and desperate and merciless. Harry moaned too loudly, his mouth parting against Louis’ palm, Louis’ thumb catching on his bottom lip. He took the digit into his mouth to quiet himself, securing his lips around his fingertip and his legs more tightly around Louis’ waist, lifting his hips off the bed to meet Louis’.

Louis pulled his thumb away to kiss him, as he sank onto Harry’s body, unable to keep himself suspended above him. There was no room left between them and Harry loved it that way, loved the heat of Louis’ breath against his neck as he tucked his face away, and the sweaty slide of their chests together. He loved that there was nowhere to go when Louis nailed his spot. He had to submit to the weight of him and take it.

"God fucking--" Harry breathed. He dug his fingers into Louis' back, which made him fuck harder.

Harry didn’t know what to do with himself except to cling. He hugged Louis close and squeezed his hips between his thighs and tried to make sense of words Louis mumbled against his skin. A lot of ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ but overwhelmingly, ‘love’. He said ‘love’ several times over and Harry never got tired of hearing it.

And then Harry came blindingly, locking himself around Louis’ body even tighter, his body tense, his head thrown back. Louis mouthed at his neck as he fucked into him with hurried but efficient snaps of his hips until he stilled and came with a little groan pressed into Harry’s collarbone. Harry felt it when he came. As Louis pulled away, he felt the moisture between his thighs and touched himself, pushed it back inside while Louis was distracted snagging his towel off the floor.

He wiped Harry off and left the bed to shut the light off. He returned, the mattress creaking softly under his weight.

“That was nice,” Harry said quietly, marvelling at the moonlight gilding the soft tendrils of Louis’ hair and his eyelashes.

Louis turned to him, smiling. “Just nice?”

“It was perfect.”

“I thought so too,” Louis said, his eyes drifting towards the ceiling again.

Harry drew a steady breath. “What are you thinking about?”

Louis turned his head away a slightly, gaze on the ceiling, as if he didn’t intend to answer. And Harry wouldn’t press him. “Why do you love me?” Louis mumbled suddenly.

Harry rubbed his eyelids tiredly. “Are you trying to pick another fight?”

“No, I’m being genuine.”

“It’s the sex,” Harry said. “I can’t go a day without it.”

Louis laughed. “Be serious.”

“I think being ridiculously, disgustingly happy with you is one reason,” Harry said, picking at the quilt. It wasn’t that he didn’t know the answer. He just couldn’t conjure something well-worded on the spot. “I don’t know— Why do you love me?”

“Tons of reasons,” Louis said, easily. “You’re brilliant and you’re funny. I never get tired of talking to you. Or being around you. And you make it easy for me to be myself. I have to be professional around everyone else. But I’m just me when I’m with you.”

Harry had expected a joke, to be honest. Or, at least, not that. He sat upright and dug around inside the bedside table drawer until he found a matchbook — one for each of the rooms in case a storm took the power out. He lit the white candle that sat in a gold candlestick on the windowsill and turned back, settling down beside Louis again.

“I need to see your face for this,” Harry said. “Do you want to start over?”

“I think I’ll pass.”

“Where you left off is fine then.”

Louis smiled. “You’re stronger than you know. I feel like nothing could stop you from getting what you wanted. And that’s— it’s inspirational or something, I don’t know. It’s so easy to feel that way myself. Like I can do anything.”

“You can,” Harry said. “I absolutely believe that.”

“I’m just trying to figure out how this all happened so quickly.”

“What’s that?”

“How I fell for you so quickly. How it feels this way so quickly. Between us. It hasn’t been that long, you know. But it feels like it’s been ages.”

“Oh,” Harry said stupidly. “Do you believe in soulmates?”

“I think so.”

“Well, it might have something to do with it. I think you’re mine.”

"I like the thought of that,” Louis said. “What you said earlier. About being fucked just ‘cause I walked through the door. That was me too. I knew it— The second I saw you, knew you’d be trouble.”

“I’m not sorry.”

“Good,” Louis said, pulling him close. “You shouldn’t be.”

Harry quieted, running his fingers along Louis’ forearm which he’d draped over Harry’s chest. He pressed his nose against Louis’ soft skin, smelling the soap he’d used. He was so comfortable and warm right then, he’d be asleep any minute.

“Shall we tell your mum then?”

And just like that, Harry wasn’t sleepy at all. He lifted his head and looked at Louis with wide eyes. There was a tiny smile on Louis’ mouth, but nothing else to indicate that he was joking. Harry’s gaze moved all over his face. He studied every line and freckle. “What about your job?” he asked.

“I never planned to work for your mum forever,” Louis said. “I mean, I planned to stay on for more than a year, though, obviously, but then there was you.”

“But you worked so hard for this job.”

“I had a few connections.”

“You worked for it,” Harry insisted. “You deserved the opportunity. You worked your arse off.”

“And I hit the jackpot too,” Louis said. “Found the love of my life. How many people can say the same thing?”

“Louis,” Harry said, softly.

“Harry,” Louis replied. He sounded sure of himself. Like it’d be hard to change his mind.

“No. No, you should do this for yourself,” Harry said. “When you’re absolutely ready to move on to another job.”

“Or I could do it for us. I’ve got a big mouth, babe. I don’t know how much longer I can go without talking about you all the time to anyone who’ll listen.”

Harry laughed in spite of himself. “Please listen to me. She’d make it difficult for you to find a new job in fashion. You’d need a good recommendation letter and she wouldn’t give it to you.”

“If I wanted to be an assistant forever, that’d be true. But I don’t. What I need is to be innovative,” Louis said. “And avant-garde. And I’ve got a muse who makes that possible.”

Harry bit his bottom lip hard, trying to stifle a sob.

“I’m not afraid of losing my job,” Louis said. “There’s really nothing that scares me more than losing you.”

Harry’s face crumbled a bit. He moved closer, pushing his face into Louis’ pillow.

“Are you crying?” Louis asked laughing, his fingers running through Harry’s hair.

“Yes, but don’t mind me,” Harry mumbled. “I kind of want to spend the rest of my life with you, if that’s alright?” He raised his head, mostly because he couldn’t breathe.

Louis kissed him, sliding his thumb beneath Harry’s eye to catch a tear. He kissed him with a stroke of his tongue that Harry hadn’t expected but needed all the same. “I think that’s alright, yeah,” Louis paused to say.

Harry grew breathless, speaking between a pant and a sigh, as he straddled Louis’ hips.  “Let’s tell my mum.”

“Let’s,” Louis agreed as Harry ducked down to kiss him, his hair curtaining them off from the rest of the world. Louis reached up and cupped his face. “At the end of the summer, though, yeah? When you’re off to school. It’s a while from now, but—”

“That’s perfect,” Harry said.

A perfect plan, it was. Louis would have time to find another job. Harry would be away from his mum. Louis could even stay with him in France. They could get a place together. Everything perfect and theirs.

Chapter Text

When Louis’ car pulled into his drive, Harry shut the textbook in his lap and set it aside. He propped his elbows up on his knees and cupped his hands beneath his chin, smiling.

Louis stepped out of the car with his suit jacket thrown over his forearm arm, the sleeves of his dress shirt rolled up to his elbows, and his top buttons undone. He looked pristine with perfectly coiffed hair and a tan he’d been sporting since Greece.

Harry had never felt luckier. “Hello, handsome,” he said.

Louis cracked a smile, folding his sunglasses up, tucking them in his breast pocket. “Hi,” he said. “Did you lose your key?”

“No,” Harry said. “I’m waiting here to blindfold you.”

“Kinky.”

Harry pictured Louis blindfolded in bed while being teased. He wondered why they hadn’t done that yet. “I have a surprise.”

Louis shut the car door, his smile wider now. “Is it you?”

“Wouldn’t be much of a surprise,” Harry said, standing as Louis approached. He took his hand as he mounted the steps. “It’s even better.”

“Than you?” Louis asked, leaning in to kiss him. “Not sure that’s possible.”

“I guess you’ll just have to see. Close your eyes.” Louis did as told, and Harry lifted the headband, drawing it around his eyes and smoothing it down along his cheekbones. He kissed him because he couldn’t help himself and took his hand again. “Okay, step down.”

He led Louis around the side of the house and into the back garden. “Okay,” he said, pulling the blindfold off. “You can open your eyes.”

And Louis did, his lips forming a broad smile. “Fuck yes,” he said.

Harry laughed and Louis took off towards the trampoline. He kicked off his shoes and tossed his suit jacket towards Harry, who just barely caught it. “Fuck yes!” Louis shouted, starting to jump. “Harry, get your arse up here.”

Harry hooked Louis’ jacket on the railing by the back door and scrambled up to join him, laughing all the while. “Consider it a welcome home present.”

“I was only gone for a week,” Louis said.

“Technically, I ordered it two weeks ago,” Harry said, jumping. “The shipping time for these things is ridiculous.”

“Good luck getting me to do anything else from now on,” Louis said. He jumped into Harry’s space, taking him by the waist. “You know someone at your house could probably see us from here.”

“There’s no one home,” Harry said. “But we should take that into account for our next place. We should have a garden with tall trees and shrubs that block us from view.”

“Also a little kinky,” Louis said, as they slowed and he kissed him. “Our next place, huh?”

“That’s the idea,” Harry said. “We’ll have to start with a small flat first. I’ve got a trust fund but I don’t get access to it until I turn 21.”

Louis laughed. “Jesus. You could have told me that before. I scored myself a trust fund baby.”

“Are you saying you’re secretly a gold digger?”

“Not much of a secret, is it?”

Harry whacked his shoulder gently. “We have to survive until I turn 21 at least, which might mean a tiny one-bedroom with poor heat and roaches.”

“I do have money, you know? My job pays quite well.”

Harry felt a twinge of sadness again, as he had on and off for the past few days, about Louis giving everything up for him — a job that paid well, that came with housing, and that gave him a way into the industry he admired.

Louis never missed a thing. He squeezed Harry reassuringly. “What’s next? After the dodgy flat?”

“A big house with an iron fence and roses out front. A hot tub and our trampoline in the back. And a few pets. Our very own family.” Which included a few kids one day, if Louis was interested. Not for a long time, but Harry could see it someday.

Louis’ smile was impossibly soft, like maybe he could too. “Sounds perfect,” he said, and started to jump again, jumping away and up and up and up. “I can do a backflip on this thing. Want to see?”

Harry lifted his brows, his smile wary. “Do I?”

Maybe the backflip had been possible at one point in Louis’ life but it wasn’t anymore. He ended up doing everything but the backflip. Lots of spins and kung-fu moves, and finally, he collapsed dragging Harry down with him. They lay there in a fit of giggles, out of breath and tangled together and sprawled across the length of the trampoline.

“I’m exhausted,” Louis said.

“Not too much, though, I hope,” Harry said, turning over, and smiling suggestively. “We haven’t even christened it yet.”

“You’re a very bad boy, you know that?” Louis said, sitting upright. “We’re not having sex outside.”

“Wait, why not?” Harry asked, following him. “No one’s home. And they couldn’t see us if we stay low.”

Louis climbed off the trampoline. “We agreed on the end of the summer, didn’t we? For when we’d expose ourselves to your mum and whoever else, yeah?”

Harry’s lips twitched. “Yes.”

“I thought so,” Louis said with a smirk. “Join me inside, love.”

With another grumble, Harry climbed down and followed him inside.

 

* * *

 

Nick couldn't let another month pass without throwing a party, even if that meant just a simple gathering with just a few friends. Harry arrived with a bottle of wine and a bag of popcorn flavoured with Himalayan pink salt that he thought Nick would enjoy. He greeted Alexa and Caroline and Daisy at the door and they wrapped him up in big hugs and kissed his cheeks. He got fur from Caroline’s pink coat and a lock of Daisy’s hair in his mouth and had to pull away.

“Where's Louis?” Nick asked him.

“He had to work late,” Harry said. “My mum’s attending a benefit in Italy. Said he’d come if he could.”

“Gemma’s on the way, though, isn’t she?” Caroline asked. “I haven’t seen her in ages.”

Harry glanced around Nick’s flat as far as he could see. “That’s weird. She left before I did, I thought. She had to swing by Aaron’s to pick up something.”

Nick rolled his eyes. “Tell me she’s not still seeing him.”

“Actually, no,” Harry said, smiling. He was sure Gemma had been getting close with Cara. They’d always been close, but closer now, in a way she probably wasn’t ready to talk about yet. So he didn’t ask. As long as she was happy, he was too. And she seemed happy, as of late. “Let me just text her.”

Harry sent off a ‘Where are you?’ and tucked his phone away. Nick poured him a glass of Prosecco. Harry lingered in the kitchen with the rest while Nick fiddled with his stereo. Someone offered him a hit of weed but he passed it up because being high always made him want to lie down or snuggle, which was somewhat counterproductive to the partying thing. Someone else was doing coke off the dining table, and a DJ Harry had met once at another party had just suggested doing whip-its.

He felt quite chill and yet quite exuberant without any help, sat on the kitchen floor with Alexa who was talking about the puppy she’d just adopted. Harry told her he’d like to adopt a puppy with Louis someday.

“He’d make a good dad,” he told her for no reason at all.

Alexa poured herself more sparkling rose. “Are you absolutely head over heels?”

Harry covered his face with his hands. “Completely, absolutely, totally. Head over heels.”

The spliff came around again and Harry considered it this time but his mobile began vibrating in his pocket. Or so he thought. It could also have been the music shaking the floor.

“Your mobile’s ringing,” Daisy said, nudging him. Somehow her head had ended up in his lap while she added a video to her Instagram story.

Daisy sat upright, leaning close to Lou for a selfie. Harry reached into his pocket and just barely saw his dad’s name on the screen before it went black and he’d missed the call. It started ringing again, almost immediately, which couldn’t have been good. He hadn’t spoken to his dad since he told him about Louis. He’d been avoiding a follow-up talk with him, but he couldn’t forever.

“I’ll be right back,” he said to the others and stood. He took the call as he stepped into Nick’s bedroom. “Hello?”

“H.”

“Hey,” Harry said, his brows wrinkling. “You sound funny.”

“Harry, it’s your sister,” Des said.

Harry had forgotten to shut the bedroom door. He had to turn away now, pressing a finger to his other ear. “Sorry, what?”

“It’s Gemma!” his dad said, sounding almost angry. “It’s your sister. There’s been an accident. I called to give you the name of the hospital. I’m headed there now. Your mum is getting on the first flight...”

“Harry,” Nick said, stepping into the room. Harry looked at him and Nick approached slowly, carefully. He mouthed, “Alright?”

“H, are you listening to me?” Harry’s dad said.

“I’m listening,” Harry said, as Nick touched his shoulder. Harry took hold of his arm.

“Take down the name of the hospital…” his dad was saying.

Without knowing any details whatsoever, Harry envisioned the worst. Gemma was badly injured. Or paralyzed. Or perhaps she had just ten minutes to live and Harry would never make it in time to say goodbye.

“Chase Farm Hospital,” Harry repeated numbly, crushing Nick’s forearm beneath his fingers. He’d say sorry another time. “I got it.”

“Get there as soon as you can.”

 

* * *

 

Siblings were supposed to cover for each other always. It was integral to the relationship: No matter what, no matter how close a family was or how cool the parents were, it was “us against them,” siblings against everyone else, Harry and Gemma against the world. And they’d done an incredible job of that for the past eighteen years.

Harry always relied on her quick thinking and her cunning. Like the time they’d nearly got caught smoking a cigarette and Gemma buried it in the litter box. They had a cat at the time named Nancy, long before Bacon came into the picture. Once Nancy scratched Harry and Gemma suggested giving her the silent treatment because cats hated to be ignored. And it worked, of course. Nancy warmed up to Harry within hours, embarking them on a new leg of companionship for the next year that Nancy was alive.

Gemma was the first person he talked about sex with. The first person to buy him a box of condoms. She was, of course, one of the first people to know about him and Louis.

And she’d had his back through it all.

On the drive to the hospital, Harry couldn’t help thinking that somehow he hadn’t done the same.

 

* * *

 

He sat with his head nearly sandwiched between his knees. He was alone. Because it’d take his father another hour to get to London, Robin was stuck in traffic, and so was Louis. Nick had offered to come, but Harry lied and said Gemma was fine, although he didn’t know that at all. In fact, since he’d arrived, no one had said as much, and seemed less likely to as each minute passed.

What he knew was that the accident had been bad. Two cars slamming into each other. The other veering off and hitting a tree. He didn’t know which car had hit the tree and he didn’t know if it mattered ultimately.

Clueless and alone, Harry was able to forget himself somehow, to become someone else in the moment. Just a spectator with no connection to the scenes playing out before him.

It was almost as if the whooshing of the doors at the end of the hall, each time they swung open or shut, had hypnotised him. He focused on the different faces in the waiting room and the endless possible stories behind them.

Once, an elderly woman came rushing through the doors — whoosh, whoosh — clutching a bible in her hands with a look of terror where the age-old laugh lines should’ve been and Harry thought how fucked it was, to be near the end of your life and watch someone you love die first.

There was a little boy and his mother, who squeezed his hand as if to break his fingers, as if she didn’t realise how tightly she was holding onto him. And the little boy didn’t look pained at all, just sat there, swinging his legs back and forth. She was the ship in danger of drifting away and he didn’t mind being her anchor.

Harry watched countless people come through the doors, lulled by the whoosh, whoosh , enough to doze but not enough to sleep.

The next time he looked towards the doors, it was because he heard the squeak of trainers on the linoleum. He almost thought he was dreaming to see Louis rushing towards him, his hair windblown, his face slightly flushed. But then he was there, looking down at him.

"Harry," he breathed.

Harry looked up at him, his eyes stinging from the glare of the light above him. And he was back, ripped from his dissociative comfort. Not a spectator at all, but another face in a collection of faces.

Louis sank to his knees between Harry's legs, looping his arms around him. "It's okay," he said, cupping the back of his head. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get here sooner.”

Harry hid his face in Louis' neck and cried, holding onto him like the old woman did her bible, like the mother held her son.

 

* * *

 

Without Louis there, Harry wouldn’t’ve managed a thing. Louis was the one to ask more questions when another half-hour passed without answers. He had to pretend to be Gemma’s cousin, but it worked, although afterwards, Harry wished it hadn’t. He could have done without hearing about the haemorrhaging and the trauma and the infection. He stumbled off to the loo afterwards and emptied Nick’s posh party food into the closest toilet.

Louis brought him two bottles of water, and when he heard Harry’s stomach rumble, he left to get them food. He returned minutes later with an orange and a ham and cheese sandwich wrapped in plastic film.

"Didn’t have the best-looking bananas,” Louis said. He must’ve seen the way Harry looked at the sandwich as if it were a soiled nappy. He stuffed it back into the paper bag and sat down. “Maybe you can try eating it later.”

"Maybe," Harry said.

Louis looked like he wanted to say something else but he looped an arm around Harry's shoulders instead and pulled him close and Harry dozed off again. He woke minutes after Robin arrived. He sat in a chair opposite them, playing a crossword puzzle with a pencil he’d borrowed from reception.

Ten minutes after that, Harry’s dad turned up, marching straight to the receptionist’s desk like he had fury to let loose. He missed them sitting there entirely as he announced who he was and dove into his interrogation. The receptionist was clearly unnerved.

“Dad,” Harry called to him, and then Des turned, looking a bit crazed. Harry stood and went to him, throwing his arms around his shoulders. “They’re still operating,” he said when they separated. “We’ve seen the nurse a few times. She can explain it all to you. Come sit with us, yeah?”

Des joined them, slumping in a hospital chair, scrubbing his hands over his tired eyes.

“How are Alex and Nat?” Harry asked.

“Fine. Had to sneak out without worrying Alex,” Des said. He spotted Robin then and lifted a hand in an awkward, but cordial wave. “Your mum’s not here yet, huh?”

Louis leaned forward then. “She’s landing in about thirty minutes,” he offered.

Des looked at him quizzically, then at Harry. Louis stuck his free hand out (t