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with your love we could breathe underwater

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*

Louis probably should have worn a wetsuit.

It’s late May and the water is only just starting to warm up, enough to make skin diving bearable but still chilly enough to serve as a constant reminder not to spend too much time out.

He loves the feeling of the water directly against his skin though, clean and smooth as he glides along, movements unrestricted by bulky black neoprene. If this means a shorter dive, he thinks it’s a worthy trade.

Shivering against the chill, he wades further into the ocean until he’s in up to his neck. After floating in place for a few minutes and letting his body temperature adjust, he pulls down his mask and sets off toward a cove that he had been told was a promising location.

The water is calm and clear once he makes it past the surf break and he swims along easily, admiring the patterns on the ocean floor formed by the currents. Sun beams reflect down from the surface and cast shadows along the sandy ridges, occasionally dancing across the eye of a flounder buried beneath the sand or the tail of a goby resting in the concaves.

By the time he arrives at the cove he’s numb to the cold, making it easier to start fully appreciating the sea life around him, and immediately he can tell that the tip he’d been given was a good one.

The coral reef in front of him stretches on for ages, twisting and turning along the base of the cliffs that tower above the water. Today’s current is gentle and as a result the sea life is abundant. Everywhere he looks he can see brightly coloured fish poking their heads out of tiny crevices and flitting about feeding on little morsels.

Louis makes his way along the reef, observing everything as closely as possible while making sure not to touch any of the coral. Schools of fish swirl around him, completely unbothered by his presence, and seaweed tickles his ankles as he passes by. He keeps a mental tally as usual of the fish he sees that he can easily identify and takes notes on those that he isn’t familiar with to research later.

About fifteen minutes have passed when he spots a zebra moray peeking out of a hole in a large wall of rock not far off. He slows down and creeps forward inch by inch, careful not to make any sudden movements that might frighten it away.

Floating in place, swaying with the ebb and flow of the tide, he watches as the eel edges out slowly, as if checking to see if the coast is clear, before slipping back into the hole. It repeats the same motion, making it a bit further out each time, until eventually it decides it’s safe and leaves the hideaway completely.

Louis watches in awe as the eel weaves through the water, body undulating and stripes standing out in sharp contrast to the sand below. He’s focused so intently on it that he doesn’t realize how close he’s been drifting to a kelp forest until he finds himself tangled up in the middle of it. Tearing his eyes away from the eel, he looks down to see strands of seaweed wrapping around his legs. He sighs and sets about freeing himself from the slippery mess.

He’s halfway through unwinding a particularly stubborn strand of kelp from his ankle when he catches something out of the corner of his eye. A bright glimmer and a flash of vibrant colour. Abandoning his task, Louis spins around in search of the source and nearly inhales a mouthful of water through his snorkel when he locates it.

About fifteen feet away, peeking out through a small clearing in the kelp, is a long, smooth set of iridescent scales. They stretch on for a good three feet before vanishing into the plants again, glimmering and shining as they move gently with the tide.

Louis racks his brain, trying to recall anything he’s learned in his years of marine biology courses that might explain what he’s seeing. Nothing comes to mind. The size of the creature alone narrows down the possibilities hugely and the colour of the scales - light purple and green and glittering unlike anything he has ever encountered - eliminate all other options he can think of.

Fear and excitement race through his blood, sending chills down his spine. Whatever he’s looking at could be dangerous considering it is, after all, unidentified. And certainly not small. But it’s strange and exciting and new and as usual, curiosity gets the better of him. Before he even has time to approve of his own actions, Louis finds himself cautiously weaving his way through the kelp closer and closer to the scaled creature.

He slows down once he gets about five feet away, transfixed by the way the scales catch and reflect the light that shines down from the surface. Taking a deep breath through his snorkel and steadily ignoring the part of his brain screaming how foolish this is, he reaches out a hand and pushes the nearest strand of kelp aside.

A flurry of bubbles erupt around him and the creature’s tail thrashes powerfully before vanishing from sight in the blink of an eye. Louis is propelled backward through the water by the force of it, his vision obscured by the kelp swirling and twisting around him as he tries to make his way out of the mess.

Moments later he breaks the surface and tears his mask off, heart racing and breath coming shallow and fast. All he can think is “Land. Now.” and after a brief minute of treading water to catch his breath, he sets off toward the shore at triple his usual speed.

*

Later that night when Louis recounts his adventure to Niall over dinner, it’s impossible to ignore just how absurd the whole thing sounds.

“So you’re telling me,” Niall says around a mouthful of chicken, “that what you saw was at least three feet long?”

Louis nods.

“With sparkling scales-”

“Iridescent, more like,” Louis corrects.

“Okay, iridescent. Three feet long with iridescent purple and green scales.”

Louis nods again, gazing intently at his meal in front of him.

“And you’re sure you didn't smoke up before this?” Niall asks.

Louis rolls his eyes. “Yes Niall, I’m sure. I’m a professional, remember.”

Niall snorts into his beer and Louis glares at his plate.

“I’m serious Niall, that’s what I saw. Why the hell would I make something like that up?”

“Nah, I believe you,” Niall assures him. “But you know, I think it’s pretty obvious what it was that you saw.”

Louis’ head perks up at that, silently urging Niall to go on.

Niall leans forward on his elbows and fixes his eyes on Louis, expression serious and focused.

“A mermaid.”

Mouth slightly open in surprise, Louis stares at Niall, who holds his gaze for a whole twenty seconds before he erupts into laughter.

“Oh fuck off,” Louis says, kicking at Niall’s feet under the table. It takes about two minutes for Niall to calm down enough to speak again, his cheeks still red with laughter.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. You should have seen the look on your face,” he says between fits of snickers.

“You’re a dick,” Louis says, a small smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

“I know,” Niall says cheerfully before digging back into his food. He chews for a bit before adding, “But seriously mate, whatever it was you saw...that’s pretty weird.”

“Yeah,” Louis agrees, poking at his mostly untouched food with his fork. “Yeah, it really is.”

*

Louis can’t sleep. Every time he closes his eyes he sees swirls of purple and green.

After dinner he had pored over books and web searches for hours before giving up with a huff of frustration, with Niall’s absurd suggestion biting at the back of his mind.

Niall’s suggestion that he still cannot get out of his head. He tells himself repeatedly that it’s not possible, that it’s far more likely he imagined the whole thing. And yet nothing he tells himself is convincing enough to put his mind at ease.

He finally falls asleep hours later, the purple and green scales following him into his dreams, only this time with decidedly human torsos attached.

*

The first thing Louis decides upon waking up, after a night of restless sleep, is that he’s going back.

He knows the chances of seeing whatever it was he saw again are slim to nonexistent, but he also knows that if he doesn’t at least try, it will haunt him. Probably forever. And he refuses to live with that kind of regret.

So he ignores Niall’s knowing smirk as he gathers his gear and makes his way back down to the beach later in the afternoon.

By the time he reaches the cove again he’s feeling more ridiculous than he was when he left. He tells himself that if nothing else at least he’ll get a good day of observation under his belt. It is, after all, a wonderful location.

The reef is just as beautiful as it was yesterday; bright and colourful and full of life. Louis tries not to set his expectations too high as he adjusts his mask and sets off.

Nearly an hour has passed when Louis starts to feel the cold of the water catching up with him. He has seen a decent amount of fish and any other time he would be more than pleased with the day’s results, but not today. He halfheartedly watches a school of tang dart in and out of an anemone and reminds himself that he knew coming back here had been a long shot.

Reluctantly, he turns around to begin the swim back. He’s only made it a few feet however, when he nearly inhales half the ocean.

No less than ten feet in front of him and partially obscured in a bed of kelp once again are the same purple and green scales that have refused to leave his thoughts for the past 24 hours. He blinks a few times in disbelief, shakes his head, and even pinches his arm in an attempt to convince himself that yes, this is real and yes, the creature hadn’t been a figment of his imagination.

Once he accepts the fact that this is both real and happening, he’s at a loss of what to do next. He hadn’t actually expected to see the creature again, despite hoping the contrary, so his plan ends here. Does he try to approach it again and risk frightening it away? Or wait here treading water until it decides to move along on its own accord?

His decision is made for him only moments later when the creature starts to move, edging it’s way toward a clearing in the kelp. He follows along slowly, keeping his distance with his heartbeat pounding in his ears.

And then he actually does inhale half the ocean.

*

The first thing Louis notices once his coughing fit has subsided is that somehow, he’s now sitting on a rock above the surface.

The second thing he notices is a pair of very large, very round, very green eyes peering up at him from the water beneath a mop of curly wet hair. Definitely the same eyes that caused him to swallow an unhealthy amount of salt water and subsequently landed him here.

The eyes continue to stare at him and Louis opens his mouth to say hello but instead finds himself blurting out, “Please tell me you have legs under there.”

Green Eyes tilts his head to the side curiously, rising up from the water enough to reveal a nose and a pair of bright pink lips and Louis inhales sharply. He’s never seen a more beautiful face, features all far too big and too soft and too pretty to be real. It’s becoming increasingly likely that he’s hallucinating.

“Wait,” Louis says, realizing he is completely unsure who, let alone what, he is speaking to. “Can you even understand me?

Green Eyes nods, chin dipping in and out of the water.

“Can you...speak?” Louis inquires.

“Yes,” Green Eyes replies, voice smooth and much deeper than expected.

“What are you?” Louis asks bluntly, figuring they may as well get right to the point.

“I’m Harry,” Green Eyes states matter-of-factly. Louis notices a piece of bright red coral tucked behind his left ear, secured by a tangle of wet curls. Odd.

“Harry,” Louis repeats. “I’m Louis. And that’s not what I meant.”

Harry bobs in the water, lips forming a small and timid smile. “What did you mean?”

Louis can’t believe that this is a conversation he’s having. He’s prepared to wake up from this dream at any moment. “I mean, what are you? Besides Harry.”

Harry stares intently at him and Louis feels his skin tingle a bit under his gaze.

“Well...I’m a mermaid...” Harry begins slowly and Louis lets out a breath he wasn’t aware he was holding.

“No,” Louis stops him. “No. That’s impossible. Mermaids don’t exist.”

“Yes they do,” Harry replies simply.

“No, they’re not supposed to. You’re not supposed to be real,” Louis argues.

Harry’s brow furrows, a look of confusion spreading over his face. “But I am real. I exist, see,” he says, raising a hand out of the water and wiggling his fingers at Louis.

Louis finds himself relaxing a bit. Harry seems harmless, really. And he’s quite cute, for something that’s not supposed to exist. If Louis is indeed having a hallucination right now, at least it’s a cute one.

“Okay then, Harry the mermaid. Can you show me your tail?” Louis asks.

Harry perks up at this, confusion instantly replaced by excitement. “‘Course!” he says happily, before tilting to the side and lifting his tail above the water.

And there it is. Shimmering green and purple and just as real as he remembered. Louis stares in awe, completely speechless, as Harry waves his tail about, sunlight reflecting off water droplets clinging to the scales and making them glitter especially bright.

“Wow,” he breathes out once his brain has caught up. “It’s beautiful.”

“Thank you,” Harry giggles. Because apparently mermaids not only exist, but they also giggle and have vibrant green eyes and beautiful soft looking lips and pretty brown curls. It’s all a bit overwhelming.

“Can I…” Louis pauses and clears his throat. “Would it be alright if I uh...touched it?” Without hesitating, Harry nods and swims closer to Louis, lifting his tail further out of the water.

Louis reaches out his hand slowly before stopping, wondering if he’s overstepping his boundaries. Harry is, after all, a complete stranger. This is the equivalent of asking to touch a stranger’s legs. Oh god, Louis is a creep.

Harry must be able to read Louis’ internal dilemma on his face because he flips the tip of his tail at Louis playfully, brushing it against his fingers.

“Go ahead,” he says, smiling up at Louis reassuringly. “It’s okay, I don’t mind.”

Curiosity and the enticing glimmer of the scales get the better of Louis and he nods, reaching forward again and gently resting his hand on the middle of Harry’s tail.

It’s cool to the touch at first, water still trickling off in small streams, but underneath the chill of the water there’s warmth. It feels solid and alive, practically vibrating beneath his touch.

Completely transfixed, he runs his hand along, slowly feeling the scales slide beneath his fingertips, smooth no matter which direction he moves his hand. They’re more like tiles than actual scales, but they’re soft and warm.

He looks up at Harry to comment on it and feels his breath catch in his throat.

Harry’s head is floating gently in the water, hair billowing out around him in abstract waves like some undiscovered Van Gogh masterpiece. His eyes are closed, lips parted slightly, and he looks completely at peace. When Louis moves his hand again, Harry’s eyelashes flutter and he lets out a small, content sigh.

Louis stops his movements and just stares at Harry, fully convinced that he is definitely the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.

Eventually Harry realizes Louis has stopped, and he opens his eyes, blinking sleepily up at Louis with a lazy smile on his face. Louis smiles back and they stay like that for a while, just smiling softly at each other as the sea moves around them.

“So,” Harry says, breaking the silence that settled between them. “Am I real now?”

Louis laughs quietly in amazement. “I’m still having a hard time believing it, if I’m honest.”

Harry pouts exaggeratedly and flips over onto his stomach, swimming closer to Louis. He lifts himself up, perching his elbows on the edge of the rock and revealing a torso of smooth, pale skin. Resting his chin in his hands, he stares at Louis with what Louis assumes is meant to be a serious expression but doesn’t quite reach the mark. He’s too cute for his own good.

“Then I’ll just have to prove it to you,” Harry says, wiggling his tail and settling into place as if he doesn't plan to leave until he has accomplished his task. “Ask me things.”

Louis is amused by his determination, and considering how he has no less than a thousand questions buzzing around his brain right now, he decides to humor Harry.

“Okay, how are you breathing right now?” Louis asks.

“Through my mouth?” Harry replies, quirking an eyebrow as if it’s the most obvious answer in the world. Which, in hindsight, Louis supposes it is.

“Well yeah, okay, but what about when you’re underwater? How do you breathe then?”

“Through my gills.”

Louis gapes at him. “You have gills?”

“Mhm, look,” Harry says and turns his head, pushing a handful of curls past his ear.

Louis leans down closer to get a better look and there, a bit below his ear on the side of his neck, are a pair of gills. They’re not that different from those of a shark, just a few small lines that would hardly have been noticeable even if it weren't for the mess of hair obscuring them.

“Oh my god, that’s sick,” Louis says as he watches them move minutely with Harry’s breathing.

Harry jerks his head around to look at Louis, covering his gills with his hand protectively.

“No they’re not, they’re perfectly healthy,” he says, looking concerned and bit offended.

“What, I didn’t...oh,” Louis pauses, as it occurs to him that mermaids probably don’t use the same expressions that humans do, and that he had just unintentionally told Harry that his gills are unhealthy. Oops.

“No, no, that’s not what I meant, I didn’t mean sick as in ill,” he tries to explain hurriedly. “I meant that they look cool. Sick can mean cool sometimes, for humans, depending on the situation. It’s an expression.” He’s doing a rubbish job at explaining and he can tell by the skeptical look Harry gives him.

“That’s dumb,” Harry says.

“Yeah, it is,” Louis agrees. “English is weird.”

Harry nods then, seeming to have accepted his explanation, and something dawns on Louis. “Hold on, I’ve got another question. How do you even know English? I mean I’m glad you do, don’t get me wrong, but shouldn’t you speak some kind of, I don’t know, Merman...ese?”

“Mermanese,” Harry snorts. “It’s called Mermish, actually. But mermaids have spoken English for centuries. We speak all kinds of human languages from all over the world. My mum told me we learned them all so that we could communicate with sailors back when humans were still trying to sail across the world and kept getting lost at sea.”

“Oh,” Louis says as he processes this. “Mermaids used to speak with humans? Why don’t you anymore?”

“I’m speaking to you right now, aren’t I?” Harry says with a smirk.

Louis splashes at him with his toes and Harry slips off the rock and back into the water. “And here I was thinking I was special.”

Harry’s eyes widen instantly and he wiggles back onto the rock closer to Louis. “No, you are! You’re very special. You’re the most special person I’ve ever met,” he says earnestly.

“Have you met many people?” Louis asks out of curiosity.

“Well...no. Just you, actually,” Harry says looking down at the rock. “I’ve never spoken to a human before.”

Louis had figured as much from the way their interaction had been going so far, but it was still different hearing it from Harry. Harry, who is currently twisting the piece of coral tucked behind his ear and gazing past a spot on the rock, eyes unfocused. He looks troubled and Louis doesn’t like it.

“Hey, are you okay?” Louis asks softly. Harry stops twisting the coral and looks up at Louis, worrying his bottom lip with his teeth.

“Yeah, I’m fine, it’s just…” he trails off and Louis waits patiently for him to continue. “I’m not supposed to be speaking to you right now. At all. I could get in a lot of trouble if the King found out.”

Ah. A forbidden encounter. “What happens then?” Louis asks. “If he does find out?”

“Probably nothing too severe considering he’s my uncle,” Harry says with a shrug, “but it wouldn’t be a very good example for everyone else. And I’d feel bad for disobeying him.”

His uncle. Not only is he speaking with a mermaid, Louis thinks to himself, but a royal mermaid. This day could not get any more surreal.

“And yet here you are anyway. What a rebel,” Louis teases.

“Here I am.”

“So then, your highness,” Louis says, smirking as Harry blushes, “why are you speaking to me? What makes me so special?”

He means it jokingly, but it causes Harry to duck his head, looking mildly embarrassed.

“Well,” he begins, twisting the coral behind his ear again - a nervous habit it seems, one that Louis finds oddly endearing. “I couldn’t stop thinking about you after watching you yesterday, so I came back.”

Louis stares down at him, all joking forgotten, and his surprise must show on his face because Harry’s eyes widen comically.

“Oh no, that sounded creepy, that’s not what I meant. I wasn’t watching you...I mean I was, but…oh no,” he gives up, covering his face with his hands. Louis gives him a moment to compose himself, trying to ignore the way his own heart is beating slightly faster than usual.

“I enjoy watching humans sometimes,” Harry tries again. “I like seeing them swim and interact with the fish, they always look so fascinated and amazed by everything. But you were different. I could tell how much you appreciated and respected all of the creatures and the plants - I felt like you connected with the ocean in a way that the others didn’t. I got carried away watching you and when you almost saw me I panicked and swam off, but I kept thinking about you and I was hoping that maybe, if I was really lucky, you’d come back today. And you did,” he finishes breathlessly, peering up at Louis through his eyelashes.

It takes a moment for this admission to sink in. For Louis to wrap his mind around the fact that Harry had been thinking about Louis just as much as Louis had been thinking about him. That they had both left enough of an impression on each other, in their own ways, to lead them back here, to this moment.

“I came back here to find you, too,” he tells Harry, who looks at him questioningly.

“Your tail,” Louis says, nodding at it. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I even dreamt about it,” he laughs. “So I came back because I was curious and because it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Well, until I saw the rest of you,” he says, allowing his eyes to drift across Harry’s face and down his smooth torso to the point where it disappears into the water.

Harry’s blush intensifies - whether it’s due to Louis’ words or his less-than-subtle staring, he’s not sure - but his entire face lights up all the same, eyes sparkling and his smile threatening to take over his face.

“You came back to see me,” he states, and Louis nods.

Harry twirls happily in the water, tail splashing water across Louis’ ankles and he shivers, goosebumps crawling up his legs. It’s only then that he notices how close the sun is to setting.

Harry seems to notice at the same time and he stills, reaching a hand out to touch Louis’ ankle.

“Will you come back again?” he asks, hope visible in his eyes.

“Nothing in the world could stop me,” Louis replies without a moment’s hesitation, and Harry beams.

*

It becomes a routine after that, meeting every day at the same place to spend the afternoon in each other’s company.

Sometimes they swim together. Louis does have research to do after all, and Harry is more than happy to accompany him and help out. He finds himself observing Harry more than anything else though, unable to tear his eyes away from the way he glides gracefully through the water, tail shimmering and hair flowing freely. He moves with such ease between the corals and kelp, and Louis feels clumsy in comparison as he kicks along with his flippers trying to keep up.

Harry takes Louis to explore new coves and discover new things, and Louis quickly learns that sea creatures love Harry just as much as Harry appears to love them. He watches on fondly while fish of every colour and size swirl around Harry as he giggles happily, meeting Louis’ gaze from time to time and gesturing at a different fish excitedly.

They spend most of their time above the surface though, talking about anything and everything that comes to mind.

Louis tells Harry about his family and friends and about falling in love with marine biology in uni after he had somehow enrolled in a course by accident. He tells him about meeting Niall in that class and how Niall’s enthusiasm for the subject had been contagious and how, before long, Louis found himself changing majors.

Harry tells him about his family as well, and about his best friend Zayn who, according to Harry, knows everything there is to know about anything. He talks about the castle he grew up in and Louis’ mind overflows with questions. Harry patiently answers every one Louis shoots at him, and asks just as many of his own in return.

The questions they have for each other are never-ending, their curiosity only growing with each new bit of information they learn about the worlds they are so unfamiliar with. Often they completely lose track of time, wrapped up in discovery and each other, only snapping out of their little bubble when the sun starts to set and Louis starts to shiver.

It gets harder to part ways each day, and more often than not they find themselves huddled together watching the sunset, Harry perched at the base of Louis’ rock with his tail in the water and head resting in Louis’ lap. Louis finds it easy to ignore the cold when his fingers are tucked in Harry’s curls, heat radiating off Harry’s body and happiness warming his blood.

Their time apart gets harder, too. They haven’t even known each other all of two weeks and yet Louis finds himself wondering what he ever did with his time before meeting Harry. He spends his mornings roaming around aimlessly, fiddling with whatever he can get his hands on and checking the clock incessantly until it’s time to leave. Niall wastes a grand total of two days trying to get Louis to tell him why he’s so twitchy before he gives up bothering him about it. Louis appreciates Niall a lot.

*

By now Louis is used to Harry showing up at their spot with various corals and shiny objects tucked behind his ear. He had asked Harry about it a few days into their friendship and Harry had shrugged, explaining that it was just something he liked to do, something that made him feel pretty. Since then Louis had made sure to compliment him on his choice of accessory each time, loving the way it made Harry’s face light up.

Today when Harry pokes his head out of the water, greeting Louis with an excited smile, it’s apparent he’s gone all out. Nestled in his curls is a thin crown of shells, sparkling and glittering as droplets of water collect in their ridges. He looks like a Disney character come to life.

“This is new,” Louis says when Harry hops up onto the rock beside him. He reaches out and runs his fingers gently along the shells, trailing off on the side to tuck a wet curl behind Harry’s ear.

Harry nods, tilting his head into Louis’ touch. “My sister made it for me. She and her friends wear them sometimes and I’ve always wanted one. She let me pick out the shells and everything. Do you like it?” he asks hopefully.

“I love it,” Louis answers earnestly. “You look beautiful.”

Harry preens at the compliment and scoots closer to Louis, tail flipping happily in the water. “I could ask her to make another if you’d like, so you can have one too. We could match.” He looks positively thrilled at the prospect.

“Maybe,” Louis says with a laugh. “I’m not sure it would suit me like it does you, though. My sisters used to make flower crowns when we were younger and they insisted I wore them whenever we had tea parties with their toys. I always thought I looked ridiculous.”

“Flowers!” Harry chirps, eyes brightening in the way Louis has come to notice they do whenever he talks about the things he loves. “I love flowers! Or, well, the pictures I’ve seen. And I love reading about them, all of the diff-”

“Wait,” Louis interrupts. “Have you never seen a flower?”

“Not a real one,” Harry says sadly. “They don’t grow in the water. Well, most of them. There are some kinds that do, or so I’ve read. But not around here, I don’t think. Zayn says they grow in Atlantis but other than that I’m not sure where I’d go to find-”

Louis - who is still trying to process the fact that Harry has never seen a flower before - suddenly snaps his entire body around to face Harry, who jumps, startled, and slips a foot down the rock.

“Hold on,” he interrupts again. “Did you just say Atlantis?”

“Yes, Atlantis,” Harry says as he wiggles his way back up next to Louis, readjusting his shell crown carefully from where it had slipped over his eyes. “Zayn says flowers grow there, but of course I’ve never seen this for myself considering-”

“Atlantis doesn’t exist,” Louis interjects and Harry huffs out an annoyed breath at being interrupted for the third time in a row.

“Yes it does.”

“No, no that’s impossible,” Louis argues shaking his head. “Humans have been looking for Atlantis for decades, centuries even, and never found a thing. Surely if it actually existed…” he trails off, his thoughts a jumbled mess.

“Louis,” Harry begins patiently, “you didn’t believe mermaids existed until you met me. Is it really that hard to believe that Atlantis exists too?”

And well, he has a point. Atlantis isn’t all that different from mermaids, a myth that everyone assumes is nothing more than just that - a myth. And yet here Harry is, warm and solid and alive beside him, and so very real. If Harry exists, and Louis is positive by now that he is not imagining him nor dreaming him up, could Atlantis exist as well?

He looks at Harry incredulously and asks, “How? Where? What is it like and how have humans never been able to discover it?”

“Well,” Harry says thoughtfully, “I don’t know all that much about it, it’s rather off limits actually. There are legends of curses and monsters surrounding the area. Keeps us away and keeps the curiosity to a minimum. For most, that is.”

“Curses,” Louis murmurs. “Do you believe that?”

“No,” Harry laughs. “Mermaids are extremely superstitious. They tell us all sorts of ridiculous things when we’re young. For example,” Harry begins as he lifts his hand, and Louis feels his breath catch in his throat when Harry gently brushes his fingertips across his face. “They say that if we touch a human’s skin, our scales will start to fall off,” he says, as his fingers glide along Louis’ cheek and down his jaw, leaving trails of sparks tingling beneath his skin in their wake.

They stare at each other, unblinking, with Harry’s hand resting on Louis’ neck. Louis feels a sudden urge to cover it with his own, to hold Harry’s hand in his and press soft kisses along his knuckles.

He’s startled from his thoughts when Harry flips the tip of his tail up into his lap, waving it in front of him.

“See? No curse.”

Louis exhales slowly, trying to recall the point Harry had been trying to prove. Right. Atlantis.

“So if there are no curses, is there a reason you haven’t gone?” he asks. “Is it far?”

“It’s not far at all really, less than an hour swim if Zayn’s maps are correct,” Harry says. “But I’ve never gone because technically we’re forbidden.”

“You’re forbidden from speaking to me,” Louis points out.

“Mmm, I am,” Harry agrees. “I kind of like breaking the rules though,” he says, shooting Louis a mischievous look. “But breaking the rules isn’t very fun when you’re alone.”

“You can’t get Zayn to go with you?”

Harry shakes his head. “I’ve tried. It’s hard enough to get him to leave his room. An adventure to a lost forbidden cursed city is out of the question.” He looks disappointed at this, staring down at the rock and picking absently at a barnacle stuck to the surface. It takes all of two seconds for Louis to reach a decision.

“I’ll go with you.”

Harry’s had snaps up immediately. “You’ll what?”

“I’ll go with you,” Louis repeats. “To Atlantis. We can go together. I’ve always fancied myself a bit of a rule breaker as well,” he says, nudging Harry’s shoulder with his own.

Harry gapes at him for a moment before a smile begins to spread across his face.

“Really?”

“Of course, Curly,” Louis says and Harry blushes at the nickname. “I’ve thought about Atlantis my entire life. Seeing it would be a dream come true. If it really does exist.”

“It does!” Harry insists. “I’ll show you, it’ll be so much fun. We can explore together and see real live flowers and who knows what else!”

Harry beams at Louis, eyes sparkling, and Louis feels his chest tighten with excitement and something else that he pushes to the back of his mind.

“Sounds brilliant,” Louis says. “When shall we go?”

“Erm, well,” Harry says, tugging at his bottom lip with his fingers, trying and failing to contain his eagerness. “I mean. Tomorrow? Could work? If you’re not busy, of course.”

Louis grins at him. “Tomorrow it is, then. You, me, and Atlantis.”

Harry looks so happy he could burst.

*

The sun has barely started to rise and Louis is already buzzing around his room, trying and failing to not wake Niall as he searches desperately for his best pair of flippers. He had managed roughly four hours of restless sleep before giving up entirely, too excited about the day to come. He and Harry had agreed to meet earlier than usual, taking into consideration the time it would take to swim to and locate their destination. They’re not sure how hard it will be to find, but Harry has assured Louis that Zayn’s maps are very thorough.

Louis is a bit more concerned with the swim itself than finding the city though. He’s a strong swimmer and has successfully completed a handful of marathons, but Harry is, well. Louis struggles to keep up with him on a good day. This is a much longer swim than they’ve had together thus far, and consequently the reason Louis is currently tearing his room apart at 5am in search of his diving gear.

He hears a cough and turns to see Niall leaning against the doorjamb, half awake and bleary eyed, looking puzzled.

“Hey, do you know where my dark blue flippers are by any chance?” Louis asks, tossing an old mask over his shoulder.

“Them fancy ones?” Niall asks, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. “What do you need those for?”

“I’m going on a dive,” Louis answers distractedly, before emptying an entire hamper of clothing out on the floor. “Aha! Here they are,” he exclaims, untangling the flippers from an old scarf and waving them triumphantly in Niall’s direction.

“You’re mad. I’m going back to sleep,” Niall says, shaking his head. “Have fun on your dive, or whatever it really is you get up to these days.”

Louis feels a slight pang of guilt as Niall walks away. He knows Niall isn’t actually upset with him, he never is, even when he should be, but he can’t help but feel bad for not telling him the truth. Eventually he will, when the time is right, because he can’t keep anything from Niall for that long. Nor does he want to. It’s just a complicated subject. How does one go about telling their best friend that they’ve befriended a mermaid and that now the two of them are planning an adventure to a lost underwater city that supposedly doesn’t exist?

Oh well, he thinks. That’s a problem for a different day. Right now he needs to make sure his diving tank is full and then squeeze his way into his wetsuit, a struggle in and of itself.

Half an hour and two bowls of cereal later, Louis is suited up and ready to go. He steps out the door, shouting goodbye to Niall as he heads off. A few feet outside the gate he pauses, glancing into the neighbor’s front yard. After casting a furtive glance over both shoulders, he reaches over the fence and plucks a rose from the nearest bush, careful to avoid the thorns, before heading off to the beach.

*

By the time Harry pops his head out of the water, shell crown once again nestled in his curls, Louis has managed to pick all the thorns off of the rose stem, only pricking himself twice in the process.

He holds the rose out as Harry swims nearer, suddenly feeling a bit nervous. When Harry sees it, his eyes widen and he scrambles up the rock, nearly launching himself into Louis’ lap.

“Louis,” he breathes, inching closer and closer to the flower. “Is…is that a rose?”

Louis nods, passing the flower over to Harry who continues to stare at it as if it’ll vanish should he blink. “I brought it for you because I figured that if today doesn’t quite go as planned, then at least you’d still get to see one.”

Harry finally tears his gaze away from the flower and blinks up at Louis. The look on his face is so soft it causes Louis’ stomach to swoop.

“Thank you,” Harry whispers, leaning in and pressing a soft kiss to Louis’ cheek, and this time his stomach does a full somersault. He takes the flower from Louis and holds it carefully in his hands, gently petting the pink petals.

“It’s beautiful,” he says, cradling it to his chest like a newborn baby.

You’re beautiful, Louis thinks as he watches Harry turn the flower over, observing it with wonder and awe.

Once he finishes inspecting the rose, Harry looks back at Louis. “You look funny,” he says with an amused expression as he eyes Louis up and down.

Louis huffs exaggeratedly, putting his hands on his hips. “I bring you a flower and that’s the thanks I get? An insult to my appearance? I’m offended, Harold.”

“I mean this,” Harry giggles, plucking at the wetsuit covering Louis’ arm. “You look wonderful, always. But I’ve never seen you in one of these before,” he says, leaning around Louis to study the suit. “What’s that?” he asks, pointing at the diving tank resting against the rock behind them.

“It’s oxygen,” Louis explains, “so I can breathe underwater and keep up with you and actually help you during our search without having to come up for air every other minute or waiting behind.”

Harry eyes the tank curiously. “Humans come up with some amazing things.”

“I guess we do,” Louis laughs. “We kind of have to though, we can’t breathe both underwater and above like you,” he says, poking at Harry’s gill and smiling when Harry yelps.

“Tickles,” he says scrunching his shoulder up to his ear to shield his gill from Louis’ reach. Louis raises an eyebrow and stores this very useful information away for later.

“It only lasts about an hour though, give or take,” Louis continues, “so we won’t be able to spend too long there, I’m afraid. I can bring more next time, though.”

“Wait, what do you mean?” Harry asks, furrowing his brow in confusion.

“The oxygen in the tank only lasts for an hour-”

“But you won’t need it,” Harry interrupts. “After we find Atlantis, I mean. You’ll be able to breathe once we’re there. There’s air.”

Louis gapes at him. “What. Is there really?”

“Of course,” Harry says, looking thoroughly amused. “How else would flowers be able grow?”

And well, somehow Louis hadn’t thought of that.

“Oh. That makes sense,” he says, feeling a bit dumb. “But...how?”

Harry shrugs. “No idea. I guess we’ll find out when we get there.” He’s bouncing on the rock, smiling excitedly at the thought of solving this mystery, and Louis feels himself begin to smile too before a less pleasant thought occurs to him.

“What about you, though?” he says carefully. “How will you be able to explore if there’s no water? You can’t, you know, walk…”

Harry shrugs again, clearly undeterred. “I’ll still be able to see it though, that’s all I ever expected anyway. And now I have you to explore and report back to me. Even better!” He grins at Louis, slipping slowly into the water, unable to contain his eagerness to set off.

Harry’s positivity is contagious and Louis feels more hopeful than ever that there could be something amazing waiting for them. He suddenly can’t wait to find out.

“Then what are we waiting for,” he says, reaching for his diving tank and pulling his mask down over his face. “Atlantis awaits!”

*

As it turns out, Louis is no help at all when it comes to reading the map, seeing as it is written entirely in Mermish and covered in strange symbols that mean nothing to him. Harry doesn’t seem to have a problem deciphering it though, and guides Louis along easily.

About 45 minutes into their swim, the fatigue starts to set in and Louis is about to ask Harry for a break when Harry stops suddenly.

“We’re here,” he says as Louis bumps into him, lifting his head above the surface in surprise. Louis removes his mask and leans back into the water, floating in place for a moment to catch his breath.

“You okay?” Harry asks, swimming over to Louis and taking the mask from his hands. He has his rose tucked into his hair with the stem threaded into his shell crown, having refused to leave it behind despite Louis trying to convince him that there are hundreds more where it came from. He looks equal parts adorable and ridiculous.

“I’m fine,” Louis says flapping his hand about aimlessly. “Not really used to swimming that far is all.”

“You did great though, you’re the best human swimmer I know,” he says cheekily.

“I’m the only human swimmer you know,” Louis responds dryly, splashing at Harry’s face. Harry ducks underwater and pops up on Louis’ other side.

“Why would I need to know anyone else when I know you,” Harry says simply. Louis isn’t sure how much he means by it, but his heart flutters all the same.

“All right,” he says clearing his throat. “Where to from here?”

“Down,” Harry replies, pointing at the surface.

Louis rolls his eyes fondly, checking his oxygen tank and pulling his mask back over his eyes. He gives Harry a thumbs up, who returns it and then dives, rather extravagantly, down into the water.

*

Despite being out in the middle of the ocean, there are giant rock formations directly beneath the surface and the further down they swim, the more come into view. Huge cliffs jut up into the water, sprinkled with crevices and caves, tunnels and arches. It’s all very unusual for the middle of the ocean and Louis hopes it’s a good sign.

Harry leads them along, counting formations as he goes and stopping periodically to check his map, while Louis observes their surroundings with increasing awe as the rocks multiply in size and number. Eventually they arrive at a tunnel and Harry gestures for Louis to follow him through. When they reach the other side Louis gasps, freezing in place.

Stretching out below them as far as the eye can see is a massive canyon, dropping down hundreds of feet before disappearing into pitch black. Ledges stick out along the canyon walls and on some of them Louis can see what appear to be remains of old ships in various stages of decay.

Louis feels a mixture of adrenaline and fear as he observes the wreckage, trying not to think of how many lost their lives to the cliffs and how many were swallowed by the trench below them. He jumps when he feels a hand on his shoulder and turns to see Harry giving him a reassuring look. Harry gestures down at the canyon, silently asking him if he’s okay to go on, and Louis swallows the lump in his throat and nods.

They swim over the edge and begin the journey down, with Louis sticking as close to Harry’s side as possible. As they approach the first shipwreck, Harry can sense Louis’ unease and he reaches a hand out to him which Louis takes gratefully, instantly feeling anchored and safe.

The shipwrecks seem to get progressively older as they venture deeper down and Louis recognizes craftsmanship dating back to at least the 16th century. They pass an especially large galleon and he slows down a bit to admire it, having never seen one in real life before. Remnants of the decaying canvas sails drip off the rigging in slivers, swaying in the slight current of the ocean, ghostlike and mesmerizing.

He’s mulling over the chances of this ship having been a pirate ship before it sank when he catches a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye. Following the source quickly, he stops in his tracks when he spots it, jolting Harry to a halt in front of him.

Less than 20 feet away, winding between the masts of the ship, is the largest shark Louis has ever seen. Harry is staring at Louis, who has become frozen to the spot, looking confused and concerned. When Louis raises a slightly trembling hand to point out the creature, Harry laughs, bubbles leaving his mouth in place of sound.

Louis blinks at him like he’s lost his mind. He knows deep down that sharks aren’t inherently dangerous and that the chances of being attacked by a shark are incredibly slim, but he’s also heard his fair share of accidental horror stories and a shark this size is no laughing matter. Harry however, doesn’t seem to agree because a moment later he’s giving Louis’ hand a squeeze before letting go and swimming off right toward the shark.

He watches on in horror, still unable to move, as Harry stops in front of it, holding out a hand and making noiseless movements with his mouth. And then, to Louis’ utter bewilderment, the shark nuzzles Harry’s hand. If Louis wasn’t currently underwater relying on a tube of oxygen to breathe, his jaw would have dropped at the sight.

The two then begin to swim around each other, Harry looking simply gleeful. Even the shark looks happy, which Louis wasn’t even aware was possible. He should have known Harry would be able to charm a shark as easily as all the other creatures they’ve encountered, but it’s incredible to witness all the same.

Once Harry and the shark have finished their bizarre greeting ritual, he smiles at Louis, swimming back and giving him a look that says I told you so.

Louis just shakes his head in disbelief and they continue on.

It’s not long until they come to another stop and Harry pulls out his map. He studies it for a moment before nodding to himself and ducking around a protruding rock in front of them.

Louis follows him and sees that Harry has found a small tunnel, mostly hidden from sight by a rock overhang. Gesturing toward the tunnel and for Louis to follow him, Harry slips through, wiggling carefully so as not to hit the edges. Louis swims through, focusing on the slight shine of Harry’s tail in the otherwise dark tunnel. It stretches on and on and Louis is just beginning to feel hints of claustrophobia sneaking up on him when, to his relief, they reach the end.

The first thing he notices is that the water on the other side of the tunnel is glowing with a strange light blue tint that feels almost unnatural. Louis’ confusion only intensifies when he sees Harry swimming up toward what must be the surface and, apparently, the source of the glowing. He swims after Harry, the water surrounding them getting brighter and brighter as they ascend. The moment they reach the surface, Louis’ breath is knocked out of his chest.

They’ve found themselves floating in the middle of a massive underwater cavern, with walls towering up hundreds of feet around them and stalactites the size of small cars dripping down from the ceiling. But what’s truly spectacular is the realization that every inch of rock surrounding them is covered in glowing blue crystals of every shape and size. It’s unlike anything Louis has ever seen in his life.

Removing his mouthpiece and mask, Louis inhales deeply. The cave air is crisp and much fresher than he would have expected. He turns to see Harry, who seems to be thinking the same, taking deep breaths and gazing up at the glowing roof of the cave in awe.

“Harry,” Louis says, voice coming out croaky as it often does after a dive. “Where are we?”

Harry spins around to look at him, his eyes reflecting the glowing water and glittering like emeralds. “This is where the map cuts off.”

Louis blinks at him and Harry lays the map out in front of them, letting it float on the surface of the water.

“This is where we came from,” he says, pointing to a spot near the map’s edge and tracing his finger along their path. “And this is where we are now.” His finger comes to a stop on what Louis assumes is their cave near the bottom right corner of the map. There are symbols spiraling around the walls of the cave and in the very center, a large, simply drawn crystal. “I always assumed the crystal was a symbol for, I don’t know, reaching your destination-”

“X marks the spot,” Louis supplies.

“Yes, exactly. But clearly,” Harry says, gesturing around the cave, “it was much more literal.”

Louis stares down at the map in thought. “This can’t be it though, right? I mean this...isn’t Atlantis.”

“No, definitely not,” Harry says. “See these symbols? These are different from the others. They’re written in a dialect that has been lost to us for centuries. I’d assume they tell us where to go next but I can’t read them.”

“Well that’s just lovely,” Louis huffs. He feels a tiny bit of the hope that has been accumulating throughout the day, against his will, slip away.

“Louuuiiiss,” Harry whines. “Don’t give up now. We’re close, I can feel it.”

“Alright then, Mr. Know-It-All,” Louis teases. “What do you suggest we do?”

Harry considers this for a moment. “Well, we came from down below, so we know it’s not down there. Which leaves either up,” he points to the ceiling, shaking his head, “or…”

“The walls,” Louis finishes.

“Yep,” Harry nods. “Another tunnel or passageway hidden somewhere, probably.”

Louis spins around slowly, taking in the size of the cave. “Harry, this place is massive. It could take hours to find.”

“We could start today and if we don’t find it come back again and -”

“We could split up,” Louis interrupts. Harry frowns, inching closer to Louis. “Just for a little while,” he assures him, secretly pleased by Harry’s apparent unwillingness to part ways. “We can each take a side and meet up back here in the middle when we’re tired.”

“Or when we find something,” Harry adds, grinning hopefully.

“Preferably that, yes.”

“Okay,” Harry agrees. “Okay, let’s do that.”

“Yeah?”

Harry nods enthusiastically. “You go that way,” he says pointing to the right. “I’ll go the other way. Oh, and Louis?” he adds on, voice soft.

Louis turns to find Harry inches away from his face and he subconsciously drifts closer, eyes flitting down to Harry’s lips. Harry leans forward slowly until his mouth is just barely brushing against Louis’ cheek and whispers, “Last one to find Atlantis is a rotten fish egg.”

Harry then erupts into a fit of giggles and flaps off to his side of the cave, leaving a flurry of bubbles and a very flustered Louis behind him.

*

Every stretch of rock is starting to look exactly the same as the last bit and the crystals are burning spots in Louis’ eyes as he works his way along the cavern wall, inspecting every inch of it for any signs of, well, anything. A hint of a passage or marking or something that doesn’t belong. He’s had no luck at all though, and is beginning to ponder just how soon is too soon to give up. They hadn’t decided on a time, not that there was any way of keeping track down here, but they’ve been searching for what feels like a lifetime. Louis is bored and he misses Harry.

He shakes his head at that last thought. Despite his complaining thoughts, they probably haven’t actually been apart for more than two hours. But that’s two hours cutting into his precious Harry Time. He’s getting far too attached.

Who wouldn’t grow attached though? Everything about Harry is delightful and exciting and enchanting. He’s so happy, full of life and wonder and a genuine enthusiasm for everything. He’s unlike anyone Louis has ever met and Louis simply cannot get enough of him.

A loud shriek startles Louis from his Harry induced daydream and he spins around, crystal spots dancing in his eyes as he tries to focus on where it came from.

“Louis!” he hears Harry yell from across the cavern. “Louis come quick, you’re not going to believe this!”

He’s found something. Louis feels adrenaline rushing through his veins as he speeds off across the cave, swimming toward the sound of Harry’s voice.

He finds Harry bouncing up and down in the water, positively vibrating with excitement.

“Harry?” Louis starts, and Harry launches forward, grabbing his hand and dragging him in the direction of the nearest wall of rock.

“I found it Louis, I found it!” Harry babbles wildly. “It’s incredible wait until you see it, it’s - here.”

He comes to a stop in front of a patch of crystal covered rock that looks no different from the rest.

“Erm…” Louis trails off, but Harry just tugs him to the side and a tiny passageway comes into view, camouflaged perfectly into the wall.

They slip through the passageway and turn around a corner and, oh.

Oh.

A flat platform of rock stretches out a few feet in front of them, leading up to a wall made of a mostly clear, bubble-looking substance that glows in a way similar to the crystals in the cave. It stretches up farther than Louis can see, and on the other side of it he can make out green shapes, slightly distorted by the wall.

He turns to look at Harry, who like himself seems momentarily speechless, and together they swim forward.

Louis hoists himself out of the water and onto the ledge, scooting toward the wall. The green shapes become less blurry as he leans in closer and he can make out trees and plants on the other side. Harry hops up next to him, wiggling in as close as his tail will allow him.

“Watch this,” Harry says and he lifts a hand to the wall, pressing it gently against the surface. The wall hums as Harry presses his hand right through, waving his fingers on the other side.

“Wow,” Louis breathes as he mimics Harry, pressing his hand against the wall. He can feel it buzzing as he pushes his hand through, but other than that he’s met with no resistance.

“It’s like some kind of force field,” he mutters, sticking his arm further through and then pulling it back out again.

“I don’t know what that means,” Harry says, “but look.” Using his tail, he splashes a bucket worth of water at the wall. Instead of going through like their hands, it simply rolls off in large beads. “Waterproof.”

“So that’s how the water stays out. Incredible,” Louis says, peering past the wall. He can see trees and bushes, vines and cliffs, and even what appear to be mountains in the distance. “Harry, there’s an entire world in there.”

“I know,” Harry says, looking in alongside Louis. “And you’re going to get to explore it all!”

He sounds excited and cheerful as ever, but Louis can’t help but frown. He wants to explore, of course he does. It’s Atlantis, a fact he’s nowhere near managing to wrap his head around just yet. But he wants to do it with Harry, wants to find new amazing things with him, wants to share the experience with him.

“I don’t want to go without you,” he admits. Harry turns to him and fixes him with a serious look.

“Louis, you know I can’t walk around in there.”

“I know, but-”

“No,” Harry interrupts him. “We didn’t come all this way for nothing. You don’t have to stay long this time if you don’t want to, but please, for me?”

Louis looks back and forth between Harry and the city, his curiosity increasing. A quick poke around wouldn’t be bad, at least to be able to say that he has stepped foot in Atlantis.

“I guess, just for a bit…”

Harry claps his hands excitedly at this. “Yes! It doesn’t have to be long at all. Just enough to tell me what it’s like.”

He looks so hopeful and Louis cannot possibly refuse him.

“All right, all right, you win,” Louis concedes. “I’ll go in and have a look around, and bring you back a flower.”

Harry lights up at this and Louis finds himself thinking that he would bring Harry one hundred flowers, if it kept him looking this happy.

So with Harry’s encouragement, a kiss on the cheek, and excitement growing in his chest, Louis steps through the wall and into the lost city of Atlantis.

*

Five minutes later he bursts back through the wall, startling Harry who had been sprawled across the rock flipping his tail about mindlessly.

“Harry,” he gasps, out of breath. “Harry, I think I’ve solved the problem.”

Harry looks at him, confused. “What problem? Why are you back already, is everything okay?”

“I’m fine, more than fine,” Louis says hurriedly. “I think I’ve figured out how to get you into Atlantis. Follow me.”

Harry looks more confused than ever, but doesn’t argue as he slips back into the water and follows Louis as he leads him along the rock ledge.

“I was looking for a flower when I heard it,” Louis explains, hopping over a break in the ledge and ducking past a protruding wall. “At first I thought it was the force field or something, but then I recognized it.”

“Recognized what?” Harry asks, swimming along quickly to keep up.

“This,” Louis says coming to a stop and pointing at the ground in front of him where the rock path cuts off.

Harry stares at it and then up at him, looking puzzled. “I don’t understand?”

“It’s a river,” Louis explains, pointing toward the wall, where water somehow seems to be flowing right through. “I heard the water running and came to find it and followed it back here. I have no idea how it’s getting through the wall, but it’s pretty deep and I think you should be able to swim up it.”

He watches as realization dawns on Harry and he inches toward the wall in a daze. His hand slides through as easily as before and he turns to Louis, eyes wide and bright.

“Louis…” he says slowly, voice dripping with amazement. “I’m going to be able to see Atlantis.”

“You are.”

“From the inside.”

“I know.”

“With you,” he adds, and the look of joy on his face as he says it makes Louis want to jump into the water and hold him close and never let him go.

Harry’s mind is clearly on the same track because seconds later he launches himself onto the ledge and tugs at Louis’ legs. Louis goes down easily and suddenly finds his arms full of Harry, hugging him tight.

“Thank you,” Harry whispers into his ear. Louis fails to repress a shiver as a droplet of water falls off Harry’s hair and rolls down his neck.

Louis shrugs as best he can wrapped up in Harry’s arms. “S’just a river.”

“No,” Harry says as he pulls back and Louis instantly misses his warmth. “Not just for that, for everything.” He’s staring at Louis with the most intense, sincere look and Louis gulps, giving him a soft nod that says I understand, and reaching out to touch the now battered and wilted rose petals still tucked in Harry’s hair.

Louis wants to kiss him more than he’s ever wanted anything in his life. But he’s worried that if he kisses him now, he’ll never be able to stop, and they’re sitting on a ledge right in front of Atlantis. Which they actually have the option to explore together now.

So he pushes the thought away. Another time, he tells himself and instead smiles fondly at Harry, who gives him what feels like a knowing look.

“Shall we?” Louis asks, gesturing toward the city.

Harry nods enthusiastically and slips back into the water, giving Louis a final glance before they both cross through the wall.

*

The moment he steps into the city Louis breathes in deeply, appreciative of how fresh and natural the air smells and feels. He hasn’t really had a chance to look around yet, too preoccupied with finding the river and getting Harry inside with him, but now as he looks around he can see just how vast the city is. And it really is an entire lost city - with ancient ruins covered in vines as far as he can see, bridges running over the rivers that cross through the city, and crumbling pathways winding up hills and in between clusters of trees. There is so much to explore he has no idea where to start.

All thoughts of exploring are pushed out of his mind though, when he hears a startled yelp and turns to see Harry flopping around in the water. He seems to be having trouble staying above the surface and Louis feels fear pulse through his veins as he races over to the river.

“Harry!” he yells, “Harry, what’s wrong?” He jumps into the river and swims over to where Harry is flailing about, trying desperately to keep his head above the surface.

“Louis,” Harry gasps, words garbled by the water slipping past his lips. “Tail. Help,” he manages before his head goes under and Louis is at his side in an instant, gripping him around the waist and dragging him to the river bank.

He gets Harry settled on the sand and leans over him, holding his head up carefully to make sure he’s breathing properly.

“Harry,” he says, gently brushing the curls out of his eyes and trying to calm him. “Are you okay, darling? Talk to me, what happened?”

Harry looks up at him, eyes panicked. “My tail,” he squeaks, voice tiny and scared. “It’s gone.”

“What?” Louis says in disbelief. “How can it be - oh my god.”

All the air vanishes from Louis’ lungs when he looks down. His head starts to spin and he feels dizzy, swaying slightly as he stares at where Harry’s tail should be. Where, now, in its place, is a pair of legs. Actual human legs, feet and all.

He looks at Harry, jaw dropped and speechless. Harry stares back at him, looking confused and lost as Louis scrambles to find his words again.

“Harry,” he croaks. “You have legs.” Harry gives him a tiny nod, propping himself up shakily on his elbows to look down at them.

“I do,” he whispers. “How?”

Louis just shakes his head helplessly. “I...have no idea. Can you move them?”

Harry draws his brows together, focusing intensely, and Louis watches as he slowly wiggles his toes. He looks up at Louis, smiling a bit at his accomplishment.

“At least they work then. But I still don’t understand,” Louis says, trying to make sense of the situation. There is no logical explanation for it. But, then again, there is no logical explanation for any of this. He’s currently sitting with a mermaid in Atlantis after all, this really is just yet another seemingly impossible situation following a string of seemingly impossible events.

“It happened when I passed through the wall,” Harry explains. “It was instant, painless. I didn’t even notice until I tried to keep swimming and nothing was happening. And then I started to sink. I don’t know how you swim with these things,” he says picking up one of his legs and letting it flop back down again.

“Now you understand why it’s so hard to keep up with you. I need all the help I can get,” he says, waving one of his discarded flippers in Harry’s face. He smiles when this earns a small laugh from Harry, who looks considerably more at ease. “Do you think it has something to do with all this?” he asks, waving his hand around at their surroundings.

Harry looks concentrated as he stares over at the wall where they had entered. “I think so, yes. Because it happened right when I passed through. It must have to do with whatever it is keeping everything here alive. Which I think the wall has a part in,” he says thoughtfully. “It changes things.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, when I was sinking in the river I managed to swallow quite a bit of it, as you noticed,” Harry says in embarrassment, “and I realized it wasn’t salty.”

“The river wasn’t saltwater?” Louis asks.

“Nope. It was freshwater. Even though the source of it was the ocean. Whatever changed it to fresh as it came in...maybe that was what changed me too?”

Louis gives him a bewildered shrug. He still has no idea what to make of the situation, but this explanation makes as much sense as anything. “I guess?” he says, when another thought occurs to him and he pauses. “I wonder if your tail will grow back if you leave.”

Harry visibly pales at this. “Oh, I hadn’t even thought-- oh no. Louis, what if I’m stuck with these things forever?” He stares down at his legs, pouting at them as if they’ve personally offended him.

“Hey now, legs aren’t all that bad. They have their uses,” Louis says, glancing down at Harry’s again. And that’s when it dawns on him. He’d been so distracted with making sure Harry was okay and trying to wrap his head around the fact that a mermaid had just grown legs, that he hadn’t even registered that Harry was, understandably, completely nude. Nor had he registered what else he had grown. Oh.

“And other benefits,” he mutters to himself, feeling his cheeks heat up as he tears his eyes away.

Harry gives him a curious glance, tilting his head to the side and looking like the picture of innocence, making Louis feel incredibly guilty for the direction his thoughts are currently headed. Louis clears his throat awkwardly, all too aware of how red he must be, and focuses on Harry’s face, willing his eyes not to wander back down again.

“Uhm,” Louis says, voice coming out squeakier than he would have preferred. “Why don’t we uh, swim back out. Just to test and see if it grows back? To like, make sure and stuff.”

“Okay,” Harry says, looking bemused at Louis’ sudden extreme shift in behaviour. “I’d like to find out, I think. Can you help me back in?” He reaches out to Louis with both hands, wiggling his fingers expectantly. Louis blinks at him, still flustered by Harry’s current state, before shaking his head to get his mind out of the gutter and focus on the task at hand.

“Yeah, yes of course. C’mere,” he says as he stands up, reaching down to lift Harry onto his feet. Or, well, he attempts to do so. He manages to get Harry standing up right for a grand total of five seconds before Harry’s legs give out and he topples over, splashing right into the river and dragging Louis along with him.

“Sorry!” Harry gasps, as Louis swims over to steady him and keep his head above the surface, wrapping an arm tight around his waist. “I didn’t know what to do with them.”

“It’s okay,” Louis laughs. “We can work on that.” Harry nods, blushing slightly as Louis leads them back to the river’s entrance.

As it turns out, Harry’s tail does indeed grow back the moment he leaves the city. He spends the next few minutes excitedly swimming back and forth through the wall, while Louis watches with amusement and steadies him every time his legs grow back.

“Louis!” Harry chirps once he’s finally done testing out his transformation. “This is amazing! I can be a people here!”

“You can be a people, yes,” Louis laughs as he guides Harry back up the river, struggling to keep his grasp as Harry squirms excitedly.

“I can go exploring with you now! I can walk and run and climb and -”

“Woah settle down, cowboy,” Louis says, helping Harry up onto the river bank. “Don’t get too ahead of yourself. We’ve got to get you standing upright for starters.”

“Cowboy,” Harry repeats, wrinkling his nose. “I’m not a cow. Anyway, it can’t be that hard. You do it.”

“True,” Louis says, standing up and finally unzipping the top half of his wetsuit, sighing with relief at being partially freed from the clingy material. He doesn’t miss the way Harry’s eyes trail down his chest as it’s revealed. “But I’ve had years of experience. You’re basically a newborn baby.”

Harry huffs. “I am not a baby,” he says petulantly, not at all helping his case.

“Hmm,” Louis hums. “We’ll see about that. Come on then, up you get.” He reaches down offering Harry his hand, who takes it, still scowling slightly, and Louis has to stifle a giggle.

Harry rises up slowly, relying more on Louis pulling him and supporting his weight than his actual legs. Once he’s standing he wobbles dangerously, leaning into Louis and clutching his side tightly. He slowly tries to push away from Louis to stand on his own, but each time he continues to wobble as if his legs are made of jello.

“Harry,” Louis says, interrupting his valiant albeit fruitless efforts. “Try and balance your weight evenly on each foot. Don’t stand on just one or the other. And try to stand up straight.”

Harry nods, furrowing his eyebrows in concentration and staring down at his legs determinedly. After readjusting his feet he lets go of Louis again and this time, after a brief moment of instability, he manages to remain standing up on his own.

“I did it!” Harry exclaims, delighted with his accomplishment. He stands in place, slowly lifting one foot up and then placing it back down on the ground, and then repeating the movement with the other.

“Atta boy,” Louis says, reaching out to grab Harry’s hand when he starts to get shaky again. “Do you wanna try taking a step?” Harry nods enthusiastically and lifts his foot up, placing it down a few inches in front of him and blinking up at Louis, waiting to be instructed on what to do next.

“All right, now transfer your weight to that foot - you need to lean forward too - woah not that much, careful. There you go.” Louis gives Harry’s hand a squeeze as he accomplishes his first, two inch step. He gets a few more steps in with Louis at his side, keeping him from leaning too far in any one direction.

“I think I’m getting the hang of this,” Harry says, staring down at his feet.

He takes three more quick steps before he starts to wobble again and falls forward, arms pinwheeling at his sides as he tries and fails to keep himself upright. Louis swoops in front of him, just in time to catch him in his arms before he falls on his face.

“Oops,” Harry says sheepishly, peering up at Louis through his eyelashes.

“Hi,” Louis replies fondly. “You got a little overeager there.”

Harry nods pleasantly, slumping over and nuzzling his face into Louis chest. “It’s hard. Carry me,” he mumbles and Louis feels electricity spider webbing out from the point where Harry’s lips touch his skin. He swallows and Harry feels it, giggling and reaching up to poke at Louis’ throat. He traces his finger across the stubble dusting Louis’ neck and Louis shivers, trying to compose himself.

“I’d love to,” he says, shifting slightly to try and redistribute Harry’s weight, “but you’re pretty big, you know. I don’t think we’d make it very far.”

“I think you’re strong enough,” Harry says, snaking his hand over to give Louis’ bicep a soft squeeze and okay, Louis really needs Harry to stop touching him before he combusts.

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Louis says as he steps back, propping Harry up on his feet. Harry pouts at him and opens his mouth to protest but Louis places a finger to his lips and Harry snaps his mouth shut, clasping his hands together obediently.

“Good boy. Now let’s get you trying to walk again, yeah?”

Harry agrees and they set off, very, very slowly.

*

About an hour, five falls, and countless stumbles later, Harry has finally gotten the hang of walking. Well, sort of. He still wobbles like a newborn deer and trips over his own feet, but he’s staying upright for the most part now and he can keep up with Louis. Baby steps.

They haven’t made it very far into the city, having decided that today would be dedicated to getting Harry used to his legs, but already they’ve seen more than they could have ever expected.

The entire place seems to be thriving, minus any actual human inhabitants. There are plants everywhere - prehistoric palms and ferns, ginkgos and magnolia trees, cedars and pines - all coexisting in the same climate, while nearly every inch of the ground is covered in grasses, ferns, and soft mosses. Louis is grateful for the sake of Harry’s knees and palms because despite his best efforts, he hasn’t been able to catch Harry every time he starts to fall.

The flowers are abundant too - they bloom from the ground and from bushes and hang off vines and trees - and Harry is delighted. He drags Louis over to each one as they pass, examining them and proudly naming them when he can, which is fairly often. There are insects too, and they can hear birds chirping in the trees leading Louis to wonder what other kinds of life still exist down here. And more importantly, how.

Perhaps the strangest thing about it all is the sky, or whatever it is that is in the place where the sky should be. It looks like sky, but Louis knows it can’t possibly be because they are, after all, underwater. There’s no sun, but it glows a pleasant blue, not too different from that of the crystals back in the cave. He figures the two must be related somehow, but like so many other things here the logistics are completely beyond him, so he pushes it to the back of his mind as they wander along.

Eventually the path along the river that they had been following forks off in two different directions; one heading toward what they assume is the inner city, where stone ruins and buildings are nestled into the hills towering in the distance, the other heading toward more of the forest-jungle hybrid that surrounds the city.

Harry stops at the fork and looks at Louis expectantly. “Which way?”

Louis glances longingly at the path leading into the city. He’s so, so curious as to what lies ahead, but they’ve already spent a few hours walking around, plus the time it took to swim out in the first place, and he knows that it’s an adventure for a different day.

“I figure we should probably save the city for next time, so we can get right to it. More time to explore and all that,” Louis says. “We’ll need some gear too, I reckon. I wasn’t expecting there to be this much here. And plus,” he adds, “you’re getting tired.”

“I’m not!” Harry protests, before looking down at the ground a little sheepishly and tapping his toes together. “Maybe a little.”

“That’s what I thought,” Louis smiles. “Why don’t we continue on a bit and find a nice place to rest?”

“’Kay,” Harry agrees easily. He reaches out for Louis’ hand again before starting down the path, focusing intently on each step with his tongue poking slightly out of his mouth.

Louis feels fondness bubbling up in his chest. It’s been a rough day for him, between Harry being adorable and Harry being completely unclothed. He isn’t sure which is more difficult to handle, really - the way Harry stumbles along so enthusiastically, undeterred by every trip and fall while rambling on happily about this and that, or the way he’s so comfortable in his natural state, shameless and completely unaware of the effect he has on Louis.

He’s been attracted to Harry since the moment he saw him, he knows this, but somehow it’s been amplified today to an extreme. He doesn’t understand why, after having known Harry for a few weeks, he suddenly struggles to focus on anything past how much he wants to kiss him, how desperate he is to drag his lips along his collarbones, how badly he longs to nibble at the spot on his neck just below his jaw.

It could be due to the fact that Harry is even more affectionate than usual, curling into Louis’s side as they walk and insisting on keeping their fingers interlocked. Or, more likely, he thinks, it could be that Harry’s newly grown legs put them on the same level. The minimal physical barrier that had existed between them has crumbled, making things possible - things that previously hadn’t even crossed Louis’ mind considering they were never an option. And now that they are an option, he’s unable to think of much else.

Before his thoughts can head down an even less appropriate track, he’s startled out of them by a loud gasp. He looks over at Harry and finds him staring straight ahead, eyes nearly bulging out of their sockets, and Louis follows his gaze to find the largest magnolia tree he’s ever seen in his life. It’s completely covered in giant blossoms, its branches stretching out in every direction, forming an umbrella over the mossy ground below. It looks like something right out of a fairytale.

Harry walks over to the tree and reaches up to try and grab one of the flowers, swaying precariously on his tippy toes while Louis steadies him with a hand on his hip. He manages to grab a branch and pulls it down, staring at the flower and then up at Louis.

“It’s as big as my face!” he exclaims in awe.

“They’ve been around ever since dinosaur times. Everything was bigger back then,” Louis says. “I’ve never seen one this big though.”

“Dinosaurs?” Harry inquires, tilting his head to the side curiously.

Louis blinks at him for a moment. “You know about flowers but you don’t know what dinosaurs are?” he asks and Harry shakes his head. It’s so easy to forget sometimes, how different their worlds really are, when they fit so effortlessly together and understand each other so easily. But then something will come up and Louis will be reminded of this gap between them. A gap that somehow brings them even closer still, allowing them the opportunity to teach each other, learn together, and share the things that mean the most to them.

“You have a lot to catch up on,” Louis says, loving the way he grins at the promise of more knowledge. Harry lets the branch go carefully, giggling when one of the petals falls off and he catches it in his palms.

“Can we rest here?” Harry asks, and Louis nods, leading them over to the base of the tree. He sits down and helps Harry along with him, who immediately leans into his side, sighing contentedly.

“It’s really beautiful here,” Harry comments, as they gaze out at the view before them.

“It is,” Louis agrees. “Is it everything you had hoped it would be?”

Harry nods, resting his head on Louis shoulder. “Everything and so much more. I’m glad I get to experience it all with you. Wouldn’t be the same without you.”

Louis hums in agreement as he threads his fingers through Harry’s curls. They’re fully dry now, and extra curly; perfect little ringlets falling around his face and tickling the sides of his neck. Louis loves them; he thinks they may be one of his very favourite things about Harry. That or maybe the way he smells - like the ocean and the wind and the sun all at once, with a lingering scent of rose.

The moss is soft beneath them and the weight of Harry’s head on his shoulder is soothing, his breathing steady. He thinks Harry might have fallen asleep and considers joining him, letting his eyes fall shut and relaxing further into the trunk of their tree.

“You called me darling,” Harry whispers, so softly Louis nearly misses it as he blinks his eyes open.

“I what?” he asks, not entirely sure he heard Harry correctly.

“When you pulled me out of the river and were making sure I was okay. It was all kind of a blur, I was terrified by these,” he says, lifting his feet up and wiggling them about. “But I remember you calling me darling, clear as day.”

And ah, that’s right. It had kind of just slipped out without permission, coming to him as naturally as every other aspect of their relationship has so far.

“I guess I did, yeah,” Louis says with a small, nervous laugh.

“I liked it,” Harry mumbles sleepily. “Made me feel safe.” Louis feels his chest constrict at this and before he can think of a response, Harry is actually asleep this time, hands still clutching his petal and soft breaths escaping his slightly parted lips.

“You are safe, with me,” Louis says to himself as presses a light kiss to Harry’s forehead. He closes his eyes again and joins Harry, lulled to sleep by the sound of the river in the distance and Harry’s steady heartbeat.

*

They leave an hour earlier the next day and make it to Atlantis twice as fast as they did last time, giving them nearly the whole day to explore. Louis had packed his waterproof diving bag with some things they might need as well, including, most importantly, some clothes for Harry.

Harry, however, is much less impressed by Louis’ foresight.

“Clothes?” he says, wrinkling his nose at the offending garments. “Why would I want those?”

“Because,” Louis explains patiently, “clothes are what people wear. I brought some for myself as well, see? So I won’t be stuck in this god-awful thing all day,” he says, plucking at his wetsuit. Yesterday really had been awful, having to walk around in a clammy wetsuit the entire time. It had taken him ages to pry it off later that night and his skin was covered in very unflattering wrinkles that refused to go away for at least an hour. Today he was going to be comfortable.

“Why don’t you just not wear clothes, like me!” Harry says as he holds his arms out proudly. Louis focuses on his face, willing himself to stay focused and to remember the point he had been trying to make.

“I’m a respectable man, Harold. Respectable men don’t just walk around lost cities completely starkers.” Harry frowns a little at this, as if he’s trying to decide whether or not he should be offended. “Besides,” Louis adds, “it’s incredibly distracting.”

He watches as Harry’s frown slides into a grin. “Distracting?” he asks as he walks forward closer to Louis, who holds his ground.

“Yes, you heard me,” Louis huffs, pushing the clothes against Harry’s chest and stopping him in his place. “Please?”

Harry blinks down at him, eyes searching, and Louis wonders just how much he can read of what’s probably written across his face. “Okay,” he agrees, taking the clothes from Louis’ hands. “But only these,” he says as he extracts the shorts Louis had brought him from the bundle and passes the rest back to Louis.

“Fine,” Louis says, secretly a bit pleased with Harry’s decision. It’s not as if he isn’t perfectly used to Harry’s torso by now, it would be a shame to cover it up really. “Shoes too, though. Trust me, you’ll need them.”

He passes the pair he stole from Niall over to Harry, whose feet are far too big to fit into a pair of Louis’ own shoes. Harry dangles them by the laces, staring at them quizzically. “Uhm…” he starts, clearly not sure what to do with them.

“Here, sit down, I’ll help you with them,” Louis offers and Harry plops himself down on the ground. Pulling a pair of socks from his bag as well, Louis gets to work coaxing Harry’s feet into them and lacing up his shoes. “There. All done.”

Harry stands up carefully, testing each foot with a few small steps, before smiling up at Louis. “The pebbles don’t hurt anymore,” he comments and Louis laughs.

“That’s the magic of shoes for you.”

Harry trots off to test his new shoes out further and Louis takes this opportunity to hurriedly slip out of his wetsuit and into the clothes he’d brought for himself. He finishes tying his shoes and stands up to see Harry watching him intently. Harry blushes when they make eye contact, quickly averting his gaze and shuffling his feet. Trying his best not to wonder how long Harry had been watching him and ignoring the way the thought makes his skin tingle, Louis repacks his bag and clears his throat.

“All right, so. City today, yeah?” Louis asks and Harry looks back at him and nods eagerly. He reaches out his hand for Harry to take and they set off toward the fork in the path and the city that lies beyond.

*

As it turns out, the city is much, much bigger than either of them had anticipated.

From the distance it had looked like a scattering of hills with buildings tucked in along the sides, but once they make their way up and over the nearest hill, they are met with a sight that takes their breath away.

Stretching out before them as far as the eye can see are old stone buildings, structures, and statues. Some are clumped together in what appear to be small villages, others are nestled into the hills spanning the distance, and some stand on their own in the middle of abandoned squares and on the tops of small mountains.

What is most remarkable however, are the rivers that wind through the entire city, forking off and branching out in every direction. They twist and turn, merging into each other and cutting paths through the land, peppered with bridges crossing from one side to the other. There are waterfalls too, cascading off mountains and crashing into the rivers, fueling them along

“Wow,” Harry breathes out, breaking their stunned silence.

“Yeah,” Louis agrees oh so eloquently, still a bit speechless at the sight. “Where do we even start?”

They look out over the land a bit longer before Harry points at one of the nearest mountains. It’s not too tall, but stands above everything around it, with some stone form on the top and waterfalls crashing over the sides. Louis can see a pathway weaving back and forth across it from where they stand.

“Maybe we can start there,” Harry suggests. “So we can get a good view of the city.”

“I like the way you think,” Louis says in agreement and they head down the hill and toward the mountain.

They reach the base a few minutes later and Louis stops, peering upwards. “Looks like it gets a bit steep near the top. Are you sure you’re okay with this? It might be tricky,” he tells Harry, remembering that today is only his second day on legs.

“’Course. I’ve got you to help me if it gets rough, right?” he asks, grinning at Louis.

“True. We’re going slow though, okay? I don’t want you getting hurt.”

Harry rolls his eyes fondly. “It’s okay Lou, I wasn’t born yesterday.”

“You weren’t, no, but your legs were,” Louis points out, biting back a smile at the nickname. “But alright, just stay close to me, yeah?”

“Wouldn’t want it any different,” Harry says seriously. By now, Louis should maybe be used to the way the simplest things Harry says make his heart flutter, but he’s not. He doesn’t think he minds much, either.

*

They quickly realize that the path isn’t as steep as it looked from the distance, with the zig-zag pattern that cuts back and forth lessening the intensity of the slope, but it’s old and worn and crumbling so Louis insists on taking it slow anyway. Harry’s footing is even more unsteady than usual and Louis has taken to leaving an arm around his waist at all times, just to be safe. He keeps him on the inside of the path, against the mountain and further away from harm, despite Harry’s initial whining about wanting to see more of the view.

The view really is spectacular, with more and more scenery coming into sight the further up they climb, and exposing a pattern to the city’s layout. The entire thing seems to be centered around the tallest mountain, with the rest of the city spiraling out around it, buildings getting simpler and more sparse until they reach meadows that turn into the forests that surround the border.

Even the rivers have a pattern. The majority of them branch off from waterfalls and cascade down every side of the center mountain before weaving through the city. The one that he and Harry had swam in from appears to be one of the few flowing in from the ocean and Louis wonders where the rest of the waterfalls are getting their water from.

Speaking of waterfalls, he thinks, pausing for a moment to listen to a rushing sound in the distance. They round a few more corners, the sound getting louder and louder with each step, before turning a final corner and coming to a stop in front of massive waterfall crashing down across the path.

“Wow,” Harry breathes out beside him, as he edges his way closer to the waterfall. He peers over the side of the path, watching the water continue to fall before eventually hitting the ground and flowing out to join one of the many rivers below. “Long drop.”

Louis nods, tightening his grip on Harry as he looks for a way around the waterfall and spotting a fork in the path that appears to lead behind it. “Here, this way,” he says as he guides them away from the edge.

The noise behind the waterfall is absolutely deafening as water crashes around them, hitting the rocks and erupting into sprays of mist that make it hard to see the other side. Harry turns to Louis, laughter dancing in his eyes as he mouths something that Louis can’t make out.

What?” he yells over the roaring as Harry points at the water, then at themselves, and then at their clothes, mouthing the word wet. Louis looks back in front of them and yeah, the chances of them making it to the other side without getting completely soaked are slim to none. But still, it can’t hurt to try. He mimes a running gesture at Harry, pointing across the path, and Harry nods, holding up his fingers and counting down 3, 2, 1..

They take off, laughing and trying their best to shield their eyes from the spray as they dart blindly toward the other side. Harry bumps into Louis as he stumbles and Louis reaches out for his hand, finding it immediately and guiding Harry along behind him until they reach the other side, breathless and flushed and soaked despite their efforts.

“I guess the running was pointless,” Louis says, attempting to wring some of the water out of his shirt.

“Clothing is pointless,” Harry giggles while brushing his dripping curls out of his eyes. “I told you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Louis huffs. “You just want an excuse to ogle me more, admit it.”

Harry shrugs, smiling lopsidedly as his hair falls back down into his face. “I’m only human.”

Louis rolls his eyes, hoping the flush on his cheeks is enough to hide the additional blush creeping over them. “You’ve had legs for two days, that hardly qualifies as human.”

Harry’s smile falters a little and he looks down at his feet, shuffling them about awkwardly. “Should’ve worn my shells today,” he mumbles as he toys with his hair, trying to keep his mop of curls out of his eyes.

“Wait, I have an idea,” Louis says, grabbing his bag and digging around inside it before pulling out the scarf he had come across yesterday while searching for his flippers. “I brought this in case we needed to, I don't know, mark a tree or something, but I think it might...” he trails off, gesturing for Harry to come closer.

Harry shuffles over to him, giving Louis a confused look as he stretches the scarf out and reaches up to wrap it around Harry’s head. He spends a while adjusting it and tucking curls in here and there before stepping back to admire his work.

“There. Problem solved,” Louis grins as Harry reaches up to gingerly touch the scarf nestled in his hair.

“Thank you,” he says, looking at Louis with his smile fully restored. “Now about that shirt…”

Louis gasps, shaking his head in feigned disbelief. “You’re not going to give up on that, are you?” Harry just stares at him expectantly, hands clasped in front of himself, the picture of innocence. Louis knows better.

And yet he finds himself complying anyway, as he pulls his shirt off with a sigh, thinking he’d probably do anything Harry asked and also thinking he should be more frightened by that realization than he is. He doesn’t miss the way Harry’s eyes drift over his torso before meeting his and giving him a content nod. “Much better.”

Trying not to feel too smug about Harry’s reaction, Louis shoves his shirt into a side pocket in his bag and then sets off down the trail as Harry scurries after him to catch up. He won’t admit it, but taking the shirt off was clearly the right choice. For one, it feels nice no longer having the sticky damp cloth clinging to his skin, and two, Harry can’t seem to stop glancing over at him. He can feel Harry’s gaze burning into the side of his face, but every time he turns to look at him, Harry snaps his head away and focuses on the trail in front of them, chewing intently on his lower lip.

They cross under the waterfall twice more as they follow the winding path, racing through it each time just for fun and laughing as they drip on the other side. By the time they hear the water in the distance a fourth time, Louis is starting to feel a bit tired, and if he’s feeling tired he can only imagine how Harry must feel, despite how chipper he is.

“Why don’t we stop here for a break?” Louis asks, gesturing at a cutoff in the path where a few rocks surround a crooked tree. Harry shoots him a look of relief and plops down on one of the rocks without a moment’s hesitation, stretching his feet out in front of him and sighing contentedly.

“Here you go,” Louis says, offering Harry a bottle of water and laughing when Harry goes to take a sip, spilling water all down his front instead. He gets the hang of it eventually though, and Louis has to force himself to tear his eyes away from the way Harry’s full lips wrap around the bottle, busying himself instead with digging through his bag.

“I brought us some snacks,” Louis starts when he finally comes across the paper sack he had packed for them. “I wasn’t sure if you can even eat human food though? I mean I assumed you could, especially in here,” he rambles, gesturing at their surroundings, “but I wanted to be safe so I just brought some fruit and-”

“Lou,” Harry says cutting him off. “It’s fine. I can eat people food, we just don’t have access to it normally.”

“Okay, good,” Louis sighs as he reaches into the sack and pulls out a banana. “Wouldn't want you to starve.”

He passes the banana to Harry, who takes it and eyes it skeptically, blinking up at Louis in confusion.

“What is this?” he asks, sniffing the banana and turning it over in his hands.

“It’s a banana,” Louis replies. “A fruit. You’ll like it, it’s sweet.” Harry seems convinced enough and goes to take a hesitant bite.

“No!” Louis shouts, startling Harry into dropping the banana and nearly toppling off his rock as he scrambles to try and catch it. He stares at Louis, wide eyed and clutching the banana to his chest. “Sorry,” Louis laughs, “it’s just you don’t eat the peel, that would be awful. Here, let me.”

Harry passes the fruit to Louis, observing curiously as Louis peels it for him and hands it back with a smile, nodding at him to try it. Louis watches as Harry brings the banana up to his lips slowly and gulps when Harry gives it a small, tentative lick. Apparently, Harry decides he likes it, and proceeds to shove half the banana down his throat at once and Louis nearly chokes, eyes widening at the sight.

“Oh god,” Louis groans, covering his face with his hands and questioning why he thought it was a good idea to give Harry the most suggestive food known to mankind. Harry, with his full pink lips and apparent lack of a gag reflex. Maybe mermaids don’t need those, he thinks as he peeks over at Harry, who is happily munching away at his snack, completely oblivious to Louis’ struggle.

He finishes and turns to Louis with a grin. “Bananas are my new favourite food,” he informs him, giving his tummy a happy pat and leaning over, eyeing Louis’ lunch sack hopefully. “Do you have another?”

“No,” Louis says, snapping himself out of his daydreams in which Harry’s lips are wrapped around something that is decidedly not a banana. “But I think you’ll like these.”

He passes Harry the basket of raspberries he had packed, who takes them eagerly and pops one into his mouth right away, chewing for a moment and then nodding enthusiastically. “I love people food,” he announces, grabbing a handful of the berries and tossing them into his mouth.

“I’ll have to bring you some more fruit next time,” Louis muses, transfixed by the way the raspberries are starting to stain Harry’s lips a deep, vibrant red.

“Yes please,” Harry sighs pleasantly as he finishes off the last of them and leans back against the rock, letting his eyes fall shut.

They sit there for a while in peace, listening to the waterfall crashing around the bend and the wind rustling the leaves on the trees. Louis can’t help but sneak a glance at Harry every few minutes, taking in the way his eyelashes fan across his cheeks and how his features appear even softer as he rests. He thinks he could get used to this, spending the entire day with Harry not even doing anything in particular, just being together, and feels a pang of sadness when he remembers that before long they’ll have to part ways for the night. It’ll only be a few hours before they’re back here again, but he wishes that those few hours weren’t necessary.

Louis sighs heavily, aware that he’s in way over his head, and gives Harry a gentle tap on the shoulder, smiling softly when Harry looks up at him, blinking blearily and smiling back sleepily.

“We should probably keep going if we want to make it to the top,” Louis says and Harry agrees with a nod, sticking his hands out for Louis to help him up. They stretch out their limbs and continue down the path, with Harry sticking so close to Louis’ side that their shoulders brush with every step.

By the time they reach the waterfall again they’ve completely dried off and Louis huffs when he realizes that there is no path through this one. Instead there are a few small rocks leading across a pool of water that has accumulated behind the waterfall, swirling rapidly before dropping over the edge to join the rest.

Louis turns to see Harry chewing on his lower lip and eyeing the rocks a bit uncertainly. “They’re not that far apart, I don’t think it’ll be a problem,” Louis says, stepping up to the edge of the pool and judging the distance. “Do you want me to go first?”

Harry nods and Louis gives his hand a squeeze before letting go and hopping across the rocks easily.

“Just take them slowly, it’ll be okay,” Louis calls to Harry, able to sense his apprehension from across the way. He watches as Harry cautiously sticks a foot out onto the first rock and shifts his weight, stepping carefully onto it with the other as well. He wobbles momentarily but then regains his balance, looking up to Louis proudly.

“You’re doing great,” Louis reassures him as he takes another careful step, and then another until he’s hopping across the rocks with relative ease. He reaches the final rock right in front of Louis and pauses, the gap twice the size of the rest.

“Uhm,” he whispers nervously, looking to Louis for guidance.

“It’s alright babe, you’ve got this. I’m right here,” Louis says, opening his arm out to Harry. “Come to me.”

Harry takes a deep breath and then jumps, arms flailing wildly as he hurtles forward, just barely making the other side and Louis rushes forward to catch him before he topples backwards into the pool.

“There we go, I’ve got you,” Louis says gently as Harry clings to him, their bodies pressed close enough together that he can feel how quickly Harry’s heart is beating. Without loosening his grip around Louis’ shoulders, Harry leans back, staring at Louis with intense, unreadable look on his face. His eyes flicker down to Louis’ lips and then back up again, a small, nervous smile tugging at the corners of his lips, and before Louis can even brace himself Harry is leaning in again and pressing their lips together.

It’s soft and tentative at first, Harry waiting patiently for Louis’ brain to catch up and react and oh, Harry is kissing him, it’s actually happening. He needs to respond before Harry gets the wrong impression and pulls away.

Louis’ brain finally jumps into gear and he kisses Harry back softly but determinedly and he can feel the way Harry smiles against his lips as his body relaxes in relief. He pulls Harry in closer by his waist until there’s not an inch of room between them, deepening the kiss and relishing the small, pleased noises Harry lets out when Louis nips at his bottom lip.

Days and weeks of dreaming and imagining what it would be like to kiss Harry come nowhere near the real thing, and now that he’s started he never wants to stop. It’s heady and intoxicating and he can’t get enough of how responsive Harry is, how eager he is, how he still tastes like the raspberries he’d eaten earlier, how Louis can feel that Harry wants this just as much as he does.

He slides his hand up to Harry’s hair, weaving it through his freshly dampened curls and Harry moans, pulling away from Louis’ lips to press his head into Louis’ touch, begging for more. Louis takes a chance and tugs ever so lightly, swallowing hard at the gasp Harry lets out as his eyes flutter open, pupils dilated and wanting.

In a swift motion Louis spins them around and walks Harry backwards, pressing him against the rock wall behind them and surging forward to capture his lips again. It’s more intense this time, more desperate and needy and the sounds around them fade to a faint buzz as their senses are overcome with nothing but each other. They kiss until they have to break away, breathless and overwhelmed, foreheads pressed together as they pant into each other’s mouths.

“Been wanting. To do that. Since the day I first laid eyes on you,” Harry gasps between breaths, pulling back a few inches to gaze at Louis in awe.

Still a bit stunned, Louis lifts a hand to run his fingertip across Harry’s lips, swollen and brighter than ever. “Why didn’t you?” he asks, well aware of how much he had been wanting the same thing since the moment he saw Harry emerge from the water. “Up until now, I mean.”

“I didn’t want to scare you away,” Harry says bashfully. “Didn’t want to come on too strong, in case mermaids move faster than humans. And I wanted to make sure you liked me, first.”

“Well, in case you still can't tell, I do like you,” Louis says, pinching Harry’s soft hip and smiling as Harry squeaks. “I like you a lot.”

“I like you too,” Harry giggles. “Very much a lot.”

“I’m glad we’ve got that settled then,” Louis says, beaming as Harry leans in for another kiss.

*

An hour, two water breaks, and a dozen kisses later, they make it to the top. The view is even more breathtaking than they had anticipated, despite the mountain being one of the smaller ones within the city. They find a nice little ledge to sit on and let their legs dangle off the side, pleased to finally be able to take a proper breather. It hadn't been a very difficult hike by average standards, but it had been a lot for Harry to take on so soon and Louis was impressed by how well he had done and how little he had complained along the way.

“So, was it worth the walk?” Louis asks as Harry tucks himself into his side, humming happily when Louis instinctively raises a hand to thread his fingers through Harry’s now fully dry curls. They’re more wild than ever - fluffed up from the humidity and falling down in waves over the scarf Louis had used to tie them up earlier - and he looks like a cherub.

“Definitely,” Harry answers, twisting to blink up at Louis with a flirty smile. “For more reasons than one.”

Louis laughs, shaking his head fondly and leaning down to press a kiss to Harry’s forehead. “Yeah, I agree.”

They turn back to gaze out at the view and watch as a flock of tiny birds flutter out of an oak tree near the foot of the mountain, flying out in a great formation that undulates and drifts across the sky like a heavy dark fog. It’s mesmerizing and calming and for a moment Louis is able to stop wondering how this is all happening and just appreciate the beauty of it.

He’s found himself wondering how constantly lately, between Harry and his transformation and this place, this magical, impossible place, filled to the brim with life. None of it makes any sense and none of it should even exist, but it does and despite not understanding it at all, Louis is happier than he’s ever been in his life. He finds that he doesn’t really care how much sense anything makes when Harry is pressed against his side, alive and real and so, so beautiful.

Louis feels Harry stirring beside him as he fidgets a little in order to reach over and grab Louis’ hand, the one not currently buried in his hair, and holds it between his own, playing absentmindedly with Louis’ fingers.

“Lou,” he whispers, breaking the silence that had fallen between them. Louis looks down at him but Harry’s eyes remain focused on their hands as he speaks again. “We’re going to keep coming back here, right? To Atlantis, I mean? You and I?”

“Of course,” Louis begins slowly, “it’s only our second day here, we still have loads and loads to explore and-”

“No,” Harry interrupts timidly. “I mean...after we’ve explored everything and seen everything. Will you still want to come back even after that?”

He’s not talking about Atlantis at all, Louis realizes, he’s talking about them. Harry doesn’t want them and this thing developing between the two of them to stop. Louis’ heart flutters as he tries to contain the giddiness and hopefulness he feels threatening to overpower him as he processes the fact that Harry wants this too, wants them, possibly just as much as he does.

“I’d come back every day for the rest of my life, if you asked me,” Louis admits, feeling nervous all of a sudden. He sits frozen in place, wondering if he has said too much too soon, as Harry wiggles between them, sitting up to level his eyes with Louis’ and fixing him with a serious but gentle and somewhat awestruck look.

“Me too,” he breathes out, before leaning forward to kiss Louis gently. Louis kisses back, trying to pour everything he’s feeling but can’t quite find the words to say just yet into it and hoping Harry understands.

If the look on Harry’s face when they pull apart is anything to go by, he definitely understands and Louis smiles at him, tucking a stray curl behind his headscarf and thinking, yeah, this is only the beginning.

*

From then on out Louis’ life is a whirlwind of Harry Harry Harry. Not that it hadn’t already been, considering Louis is positive Harry has not left his thoughts for a single moment since the day he met him, but it’s different now, even more intense and all consuming. It’s different in how he knows that they’re on the same page, how he no longer has to worry about misinterpreting every flirty smile Harry shoots him, how he’s confident now that if he leans forward to kiss Harry, Harry will respond with equal enthusiasm.

And he does, every time. It’s a miracle they even get anything else done at all with how much time they spend kissing each other senseless. A few days in Harry’s lips start to chap and Louis brings him chapstick, which only intensifies the problem with the way it makes Harry’s mouth shine and look all the more appealing.

They do manage to continue exploring a good portion of the city though, thanks to their unquenchable curiosity and an impressive amount of restraint. Harry’s walking improves rapidly and they’re able to cover more ground each day, finding new paths and pockets of the city to explore. The abandoned buildings and ruins that make up the city are all very simple, stone-crafted structures, with very few remnants of furniture or household items remaining. Stone-made tools and pottery shards are amongst the few items that seemingly hadn’t decayed with time like the rest and Louis wonders what these dwellings looked like when they were occupied and thriving.

They work their way through the land, giving names to the mountains, bridges, statues and buildings they come across. Harry insists on naming some of his favourite trees as well and Louis loves the way he addresses them by their names whenever they pass by, speaking to them as if they can understand him. Which, perhaps they can. It wouldn’t shock Louis at this point. He’s starting to think nothing would.

Eventually, Harry decides that he wants start a map of all the places they’ve discovered and he arrives the next day with a large bundle of material tied up with bits of seaweed. Instead of producing a pen to write as Louis had admittedly somewhat naively expected, Harry unwraps the map material to reveal a small stone pot. The pot is filled with a smooth jet black ink that Harry explains is squid ink as he dips his index figure in and places it on the center of the map. Closing his eyes, he begins to hum a quiet, eerie melody that sends chills down Louis’ spine. It’s beautiful though, and Louis is so entranced by the sound that he nearly misses the way spidery lines of ink have started branching out from where Harry’s finger is pressed to the page.

Louis stares in awe as the tendrils of ink swirl and twist themselves into intricate drawings and delicate words. He watches as mountains, trees, buildings, and rivers form on the page, all perfectly to scale and more detailed than he could have managed in hours. After a few minutes of intense concentration, Harry opens his eyes, peering down at the map in front of him and giving a satisfied nod.

“What…” Louis starts, momentarily at a loss for words. “How.”

Harry blinks up on him, still coming out of the trance-like state he had slipped under moments ago, and smiles happily. “Artsong,” he explains at the look of confusion on Louis’ face. “It’s one of our oldest kinds of magic. I wasn’t sure it would work in here, I’ve never tried it out of the water before, but it seems to have worked alright.”

He looks back down at the map, examining it closely and scrunching his nose. “Could have been better.”

“Harry, it’s absolutely beautiful. That was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Louis says, shaking his head. “What other hidden magical talents are you keeping secret from me?”

Harry shrugs. “It varies from mermaid to mermaid, kingdom to kingdom. There are kinds of magic passed down through knowledge, others passed down through blood. Mostly just simple things like what you just saw, growing plants, changing the weather, and so on. Most of it is song-based. Some mermaids can shapeshift into dolphins but that’s very, very rare. Oh, and our tears have healing powers.”

“Oh I’ve heard of that before,” Louis says thoughtfully. “I always assumed it was a myth. Well, I mean I assumed mermaids were a myth too, so...”

“Not a myth,” Harry laughs. “It’s good to know that’s what people think now, though. Back when it was common knowledge to humans it caused us a lot of trouble. People were hunting mermaids left and right to capture them for their tears.”

“That’s horrible!” Louis gasps in shock.

“It is,” Harry agrees solemnly. “That’s a huge part of why we don’t interact with humans anymore. It’s just not safe, never has been.”

Louis feels a wave of sadness sweep over him. He knows humans have a tendency to care very little about creatures other than themselves, that they think the earth is theirs to do with as they please. It hurts knowing that someone like Harry and his people, so gentle and full of wonder, have been harmed by the selfishness of humans.

“Hey,” Harry says gently, raising a hand to rest softly against Louis’ cheek. “It’s not your fault. And I know not all humans are like that, not even close. It’s just easier this way, you know?”

“Yeah,” Louis sighs. “I just wish it didn’t have to be that way.”

“Maybe some day it won’t. I mean, look at us.”

Harry is beaming at him, eyes bright and full of hope, and Louis can’t help but smile back. “Maybe,” he whispers, leaning forward and pressing a chaste kiss to Harry’s lips. “How did you learn to do this then?” he asks, pointing down at the map in hopes of changing the subject.

“Oh, Zayn taught me!” Harry chirps. “He’s the best there is, you should see some of his work, it makes mine look like flounder scratch. I mean it,” Harry insists at the skeptical look Louis shoots him.

“I guess he’ll have to prove it to me then, because this,” Louis says, pointing at one of the trees Harry had created, “is gorgeous.”

“Uhm, actually…” Harry says, shuffling his feet in the way he has taken to doing when he’s nervous, “I was meaning to talk to you about that.”

“About what?” Louis questions kindly, already sure that Harry’s nervousness is unnecessary.

“Meeting Zayn?” Harry asks with a tilt of his head. “I know this place is ours, and I don’t want to spoil that or anything, but Zayn has been asking about it a lot, and about you in general, and I was thinking maybe you might like to meet him? It doesn’t even have to be here, he could -”

“Harry,” Louis says, interrupting his rambling. “I’d love to meet him. And don’t be silly, of course he can come here. It would make it even more special, wouldn’t it? Sharing this place with the people we love?”

The wind is knocked right out of Louis’ chests as Harry launches into him, hugging him tightly. “Sorry,” he says, pulling back a little and sweeping curls out of his eyes. “I just. Thank you. For understanding.”

Louis wraps his arms around Harry’s waist and pulls him close again, pressing their chests firmly together. “Of course babe. It means a lot to me that you want me to meet your friends,” he says, smiling at the way Harry’s cheeks brighten pleasantly. “And that apparently you talk to them about me,” he adds and Harry flushes harder.

“Only to complain about how annoying you are,” Harry grumbles in embarrassment as he tries to squirm away, giving up only moments later in a fit of giggles as Louis peppers his face with kisses.

“I’m sure,” Louis teases as Harry calms down. “Want to bring him around tomorrow, then?”

Harry nods eagerly and leans in to capture Louis’ lips in a kiss.

*

Zayn is absolutely beautiful. Actually, beautiful doesn’t even do him justice. He’s like a living marble statue that the masters could have only ever dreamed of carving. His hair is a silky jet black and his dark eyelashes are longer than Louis has ever seen on a human, giving his eyes an intense quality that makes it hard to maintain eye contact without blushing. While Harry’s features are soft and full, Zayn’s are sharp and dashing, making him appear classically handsome.

Louis would be lying if he said he didn’t pout a little at the way Harry had beamed at Zayn as he introduced himself to Louis.

He seems friendly though, if not a bit quiet, and Louis tries to focus on this and be fair about the situation as he swims along behind Harry and Zayn.

By the time they reach the river entrance Harry is chattering away non stop, filling Zayn in on their recent discoveries and describing all the places he wants to show him.. Zayn is humoring him, an amused but fond expression on his face that Louis can definitely relate to.

“-and the views from the mountaintops are amazing, you’re going to love them,” Harry finishes breathlessly. “But we might not be able to climb those today, you’ll have to learn to walk first like I did.”

Zayn raises an eyebrow, flipping his stunning midnight blue and violet tail out of the water and splashing Harry playfully in the face.

“Walking?” Zayn questions. “Can’t be that hard, I’ve seen humans do it loads of times.”

“Seeing it and actually doing it are very different things, trust me,” Harry says nodding his head wisely. “I learned well though, right Lou?”

“Yes babe, you did great,” Louis replies, ignoring the indecipherable look Zayn shoots him. “Let’s see how Zayn does.”

They swim through the river, Louis and Harry helping Zayn onto the riverbank when he starts to struggle with the loss of his tail, no longer able to keep his head above the water. Louis hurriedly passes out the clothing he brought for everyone, keeping his eyes fixed determinedly on a shrub to their right. Zayn at least seems to understand the importance of clothing and doesn’t put up a struggle like Harry did, slipping easily into his shorts as Louis breathes a sigh of relief.

Once they’re all dressed, Louis and Harry go to help Zayn up, who doesn’t seem to struggle staying upright at all.

“Look at that, you’re already doing better than Harry over here,” Louis teases as Zayn stands in place, examining his legs in awe.

“Heeyyyyy,” Harry whines. “Standing isn’t the hard part, walking is-”

He stops talking, eyes wide as Zayn takes a hesitant step, followed closely by three more.

“You were saying?” Zayn says with a smirk at which Harry folds his arms across his chest and huffs.

“Beginner’s luck,” he mumbles and Louis can’t help but laugh at his pouty face.

“You’re cute when you’re grumpy,” Louis whispers, bumping their shoulders together as they stand and watch Zayn continue down the path, picking up speed as he goes.

“It’s not fair, why is he always so effortlessly good at everything? It took me an entire day to walk that well!”

“It did,” Louis agrees, pulling Harry closer by his hip. “But you were infinitely cuter.”

Harry peers over at Louis, eyes narrowed. “You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”

“I am, and it’s working,” Louis says happily, giving Harry’s nose a quick kiss and grinning at the way his pout instantly starts to fade. “Anyway, it’s true. You’re cute always.” Before Harry can protest, Louis leans forward to kiss him again and Harry responds instantly, sighing into Louis’ mouth.

“Oi, you two,” Zayn calls from up the path. “I didn’t come here to watch you guys suck face and make mooneyes at each other all day.”

Harry breaks the kiss, giggling and keeping their foreheads pressed together. “We should probably show Zayn the city,” he whispers against Louis’ lips.

“Mmm, probably,” Louis hums, giving Harry another quick peck. He can practically feel Zayn rolling his eyes from where he stands and they laugh as they pull apart, walking over hand in hand.

*

Zayn is, as expected, completely blown away by the city. He marvels at the variety of life and at the complexity of the its layout, rattling off facts and other information that Louis doesn't understand how he knows.

“So how do you reckon all this exists?” Louis asks him when they’re sitting on a rock together taking a break, watching Harry prance around collecting flowers in a field a few yards off. He’s really taken a liking to Zayn after realizing he isn’t nearly as intimidating as he seemed at first. He’s actually quite sweet and goofy and also incredibly protective of Harry, always keeping an eye on him and giving him his full attention whenever he speaks, a trait that is guaranteed to win Louis over.

“Hmm,” Zayn hums thoughtfully, gazing up above them. “It’s definitely all connected to the crystals, you know the ones in the cave where we came in?”

“That’s what Harry and I assumed,” Louis agrees.

“I’ve read a bit about crystals, and the powers different ones are rumored to have. Never anything even close to this though...something powerful enough to keep an entire ecosystem alive and thriving, underwater. That’s unheard of.”

“They’re why you can walk here, right? How you and Harry were able to grow legs?” Louis asks.

“Yeah, definitely. Which is remarkable in and of itself,” Zayn muses. “The ability to transform a living creature without direct contact? Incredible. I might take one on our way back out, study it a bit.”

“Do you think the city’s former occupants were mermaids, then? Turned human by the crystals?”

“It’s possible,” Zayn starts, “I doubt humans could have made it down here on their own, no offense.”

“None taken,” Louis laughs.

“The architecture is nothing like ours though,” Zayn continues, lost in thought. “Not any style from around here, at least nothing from the past few centuries. So either it’s a style that predates our records, which is unlikely, or they were built by another species entirely.”

Louis turns to stare at him curiously. “A species other than mermaids?”

Zayn nods in return. “I’ll definitely have to look further into it. I might head back over to that village we passed earlier actually, take a longer look around and see if I can find anything that might explain more of this.”

Their conversation is interrupted by a happy yelp in the distance and they both turn to see Harry hovering over a bush staring intently at the flowers covering it. Louis watches fondly as Harry edges closer and closer, only to leap back moments later as a flurry of butterflies erupt from the bush. He can hear the joy in Harry’s laughter as he twirls in circles with his arms spread wide open, butterflies swirling around him.

“He really likes you, you know.”

Louis jumps a little, having momentarily forgotten that he’s not alone. He turns to see Zayn staring pointedly at him, expression alarmingly serious.

“I know-” Louis starts.

“No I mean,” Zayn says, sighing heavily. “He really, really likes you.”

“I really like him too..”

“He thinks you’re his lifebond,” Zayn interrupts and Louis stills.

“His what?”

“His lifebond. It’s kind of like the mermaid equivalent to a soulmate I suppose, but more...visible.”

“How do you mean?” Louis asks, feeling his heartbeat speed up to twice its regular pace.

“When a mermaid falls in love, like true love, they form a bond for life,” Zayn explains. “Not all of them of course, but some. At first it’s just a feeling, an awareness of sorts. But after a certain amount of time, it varies depending on how strong the bond is, it starts to make a physical appearance, most commonly in the form of a scale or two changing colours to match.”

“So Harry thinks,” Louis croaks out, clearing his throat and trying again. “Harry thinks I’m his...that he’s got that with me?”

Zayn nods and Louis feels dizzy, very grateful he’s sitting down. “Do you think he’s right?” he asks Zayn breathlessly.

“I don’t know, Louis,” Zayn laughs humorlessly. “It’s impossible for me to know for sure. Harry’s my best mate though, he’s always been a hopeless romantic in theory. But this is the first time I’ve seen him like this. First time I’ve seen anyone like this, actually,” he adds thoughtfully. “The question is, what do you think?”

Louis swallows heavily, looking out at where Harry is still gleefully chasing the butterflies around the field. He feels his heart swell with affection in the same way it does every time he looks at Harry. The answer is obvious.

“Yes,” he all but whispers, skin tingling at how right the word feels. He believes it wholeheartedly, believes that he and Harry met for a reason and found this place together for a reason, despite how wildly impossible it all seems, even to him. “Yes,” he repeats again, louder and confident.

Zayn stares at him for so long Louis thinks he’s not even going to comment. “I believe you,” he says finally. “Don’t you dare prove me wrong.”

Louis opens his mouth, about to assure him that he won’t, when he hears Harry calling him excitedly from the field.

“Lou! Lou, Zayn, come here, look!” he shouts, standing very still with his back turned to them. They get up to walk over, exchanging a curious look when Harry holds out a hand behind himself to stop them.

“C’mere. But slowly,” he warns as they carefully edge around him to find a giant butterfly perched right on his belly. It sits there slowly opening and closing its brilliant purple and blue mottled wings while Harry gazes down at it with stars in his eyes. “It likes me.”

“It has good taste,” Louis says and Harry looks up at him, smiling dopily.

“Ugh. Too much cute for me,” Zayn says with a fond roll of his eyes. “I’m gonna go check out that village. You two try not to elope with that poor butterfly while I’m gone,” he says, smirking as they both blush.

“Uhm. Sorry about Zayn. He can be kinda...” Harry trails off, waving his hand in the air helplessly.

“It’s alright, we bonded back there on the rock,” Louis says, watching the butterfly on Harry’s tummy shift a bit. “He seems really great, actually. I can see why he’s your best friend.”

Harry is visibly relieved. “Oh good. I know he can seem a bit-”

“Intimidating?”

“Yeah,” Harry laughs. “But he’s really a great big softie. And he knows it.”

“He cares about you a lot,” Louis says thoughtfully. “That much was obvious.”

“He does,” Harry nods before pausing and narrowing his eyes at Louis. “Wait. What did you guys talk about?”

“Oh you know, just stuff,” Louis says casually. Harry doesn't seem convinced and Louis rushes to change the subject. “Anyway, I had an idea I thought I might run by you.”

This successfully distracts Harry, whose skepticism is replaced by curiosity. Louis fidgets, growing a bit nervous. He had been thinking about asking Harry this for a few days now, and his talk with Zayn had made him much more confident that it was a good idea, but still. Having Harry’s full attention on him always makes him giddy.

“I was just wondering if maybe you’d want to like. Spend the night here tomorrow? With me?” he asks, hoping he sounds less anxious than he feels. “I mean we don’t know what happens here at night and I thought it would be cool to find out. Plus it would give us a lot more time to explore, we could get farther than we have before. And we wouldn’t have to… you know…”

“Say goodbye?” Harry finishes for him.

“Yeah,” Louis says breathlessly, looking up to see Harry staring at him as if he’d just told him Christmas was coming early.

“I’d love that,” he says softly, moving to take a step forward before remembering the butterfly sitting on his belly.

“Really?” Louis asks, barely attempting to contain his excitement.

“More than anything.”

Louis grins, feeling relieved despite having been 99% sure Harry would say yes. “Excellent. It’s a date, then,” he says, loving the way Harry dimples at his words. “I’d kiss you right now, but,” he trails off looking pointedly at the butterfly as Harry giggles.

“Come on little friend, it’s time to go,” Harry coos at the butterfly, gently easing it from his stomach to his finger and holding it up into the sky. The butterfly stretches its wings twice before lifting off and fluttering away. They watch it fly until it’s out of sight and Harry sighs happily, nudging Louis’ shoulder with his own.

“Soooo,” he sings expectantly. “About that kiss...”

*

Louis gets to Atlantis the next morning a few hours before Harry, having convinced him the previous day after they’d left with Zayn that yes, he could find his way on his own by now and no, he wasn’t frightened by sharks anymore. In fact, he and the one from the first day had become rather good pals by now, if you could consider a friendly nod in passing as being pals. Which he did, thank you.

The swim had proven to be easy enough, even if he does prefer doing it with Harry. Navigating the cave by himself was well worth the effort as well, considering now he has some time to set up for later tonight. He's determined to surprise Harry and make this as special as possible so he’d woken up at the crack of dawn to pack everything and is now setting off for the spot he’d picked out earlier with bags of supplies hanging off his shoulders.

It doesn’t take too long to get everything ready and once he’s done he surveys the scene, giving it a nod of approval before heading back down to the river to meet up with Harry who should be arriving any minute.

When Harry pops out of the river looking as beautiful as ever, Louis feels his breath catch in his throat. Despite having spent the majority of the past month together he still hasn’t grown used to how stunning Harry is, especially fresh out of the water with his curls dripping and his eyes glowing bright as he scrambles over and launches into Louis’ arms, giggling and steadying himself as he kisses him deeply.

“Hi,” he whispers when they pull apart, smiling widely at Louis. They’re still so close Harry has to cross his eyes to focus on him. He looks absolutely ridiculous.

“Hi yourself,” Louis replies and reaches up to gently brush a strand of wet curls out of Harry’s face. “Here, I brought you something. Put these on first though.” He passes Harry his shorts and Harry rolls his eyes but puts them on anyway, stumbling as usual as he tries to get his legs through the holes.

Once he’s done, Louis passes him a bundle of fabric tied up messily with a bow. He goes to open it excitedly, pulling off the bow and unraveling a long, light purple scarf covered in little blue and pink butterflies.

“Lou, it’s beautiful,” Harry says in awe as he lets the silky fabric slip across his fingers. “Butterflies! I love it,” he says earnestly, leaning in to give Louis a hug. “Thank you so much.”

“I thought you needed something nicer to tie your hair up than that ratty old thing I gave you,” Louis explains. “Want me to...?”

Harry passes Louis the scarf and ducks his head down instinctively. Louis knows he’s perfectly capable of tying the scarf up on his own, but prefers when Louis does it.

Louis finishes tying off the scarf, letting his hands linger in Harry’s hair a bit longer than necessary before stepping back and observing his work. The scarf looks beautiful in Harry’s dark curls, the bright pink of the butterflies matching the shade of Harry’s lips perfectly. Louis thinks he must have subconsciously noted when he picked it out.

“You look lovely,” he says giving one of Harry’s curls a playful tug.

Harry closes his eyes, preening at the compliment, when his stomach suddenly lets out a loud growl. His eyes snap open in embarrassment as he slaps a hand over it.

“Someone’s hungry,” Louis laughs while Harry stares down at his belly bashfully.

“Maybe a little.”

“Good,” Louis says. “I’ve got a little something planned for us, come on.”

He leads Harry away toward the hill with the spot he had set up, and after a short hike they arrive at a stone gazebo on the top. Harry stops dead in his tracks, pulling Louis to a halt beside him.

The floor of the gazebo is filled with soft pillows and blankets, forming a little nest for the two of them to sleep in. There is an array of fruits, breads, cheeses, and other treats spread out on a picnic blanket in front and a bucket of half melted ice filled with various drinks. Around the top of the gazebo Louis had hung a string of wildflowers, tied together with ribbons dangling down around the structure at different lengths. It looks like a fairytale and if the awe written across Harry’s face is anything to go by, Louis’ efforts had not been in vain.

“Lou,” Harry breathes out quietly. “You did all this...for us?”

“Mhm,” Louis hums, wrapping his arm around Harry’s waist and giving him a gentle squeeze. “Wanted to make tonight a bit special.”

Harry turns to him and fixes him with a look so sweet and open that Louis’ knees nearly buckle. “This is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me,” he says in complete sincerity.

“You deserve all the nice things in the world, love,” Louis says softly and Harry looks as if he’s about to melt. He guides them over to the gazebo, ducking underneath the flowers and settling into their nest. Harry wiggles around in the blankets, hugging a pillow close to his chest.

“Feels like sitting in clouds,” he giggles, scooting in closer to Louis. “What is that?” he asks, pointing at the chocolate strawberry cake Louis had somehow managed to bring all the way down without crushing it.

“That’s for later,” Louis says, reaching for a bowl of fruit he’d set out. “This is for now. I brought you some new fruits you haven’t tried yet.” Harry tears his eyes away from the cake reluctantly but immediately perks up at the fruit.

“This one looks like a sunset,” he observes, grabbing a peach from the bowl and holding it up in the air. “It’s fuzzy!”

“That’s a peach,” Louis explains. “You can eat all of it but the pit in the center.”

Harry throws him an amused look. “You’ve called me a peach before.”

“Yes, because you’re sweet and pretty,” Louis says simply. Harry blushes a little and doesn’t question it further, opting instead to take a large bite out of the peach.

“This,” Harry states between bites, “is amazing. Definitely tastes better than me.”

“Mmm I beg to differ,” Louis hums, reaching for a bunch of grapes as Harry finishes his peach.

“Open up,” he says and Harry instantly opens his mouth, waiting obediently for Louis to toss the grape and giggling as he misses spectacularly. They go through the entire bunch of grapes, throwing them back and forth with Louis aiming more for Harry’s nose than anything. Harry decides he loves bread and that brie is his favourite of the cheeses and is positively delighted by the way the carbonation in the sparkling cider that Louis has brought tickles his tummy.

After they’ve eaten, Louis suggests taking a walk down the other side of the hill to a path he’d seen from afar that leads into a jungle-like maze of plants. Vines drip down from the trees and the flowers they come across are tropical and vibrant and Harry is delighted when he comes across a bright red hibiscus nearly the size of his face.

Eventually the path opens up to a clearing and they find themselves standing in front of a beautiful lagoon. The water is crystal clear and the waterfall feeding into it is small and quiet, trickling gently off the rock behind it and hardly disturbing the pool of water at all.

“So,” Louis says, turning around to face Harry while walking backwards toward the water. “Fancy a swim?”

Before Harry even has time to respond Louis is shucking his shirt and shorts off in one fluid motion, leaving Harry gaping behind him as he dives gracefully into the lagoon. He beckons for Harry to join him, snapping him out of his daze as he hurries to untie his scarf, setting it carefully on a rock before slipping out of his shorts and wading into the water. He tries to swim out to meet Louis but struggles, still not used to swimming with legs instead of his tail.

“No fair,” Harry whines, kicking his feet furiously to keep his head above the water while Louis swims in circles around him. “I’m supposed to be the good swimmer in this relationship.”

Relationship. Louis doesn’t even try to ignore the way his skin tingles at the word. After his talk with Zayn yesterday he’s been meaning to bring up the topic up, just waiting for the right moment to do so. Now seems as good a time as any.

Taking a deep, calming breath and swimming up beside him, Louis offers Harry an arm to support himself.

“Well, I can’t let my mermaid boyfriend be better than me at everything now can I?” he says casually, carefully watching for Harry’s reaction while his heart threatens to pound right out of his chest. It takes a moment for his words to sink in while Harry continues his attempts to stay upright, but once he processes what Louis said he stills immediately, allowing Louis to support him completely as he turns around and into his arms.

His eyes are wide and hopeful, dancing with the reflections of the lagoon and so, so green. He nibbles his lip as Louis pulls him in closer and Louis doesn’t know where to look, every inch of his entire face open and trusting and breathtakingly beautiful.

“Boyfriend?” Harry whispers shyly and Louis nods without hesitation.

“If that’s okay with you?” he asks, already knowing what the answer will be.

“Yes,” Harry nods breathlessly. “More than okay. The most okay.”

The words have hardly left his mouth before Louis is surging in to kiss him, licking at Harry’s lips and sighing when Harry immediately opens his mouth, allowing Louis to deepen the kiss. Harry clings tighter to Louis and wraps his legs around Louis hips as the two of them float together in the middle of the pool.

When they eventually break apart, Harry tucks his head into Louis’ shoulder, nuzzling at his collarbone while Louis rubs gently up and down his back.

“I love you, Lou,” Harry whispers quietly but confident, lips just barely brushing the skin right below Louis’ ear and sending shivers down his neck.

“I love you too,” Louis says and he can feel the way Harry smiles into his skin at his words. “Very, very much.”

When Harry pulls back to look at him, smiling at Louis as if he hung the moon and stars, Louis knows he’s never been more sure of anything in his life.

*

By the time they make it back to their hilltop nest the sky has started to change colour, shifting from a bright blue to a deep periwinkle that fades to a pale pink near the horizon. It makes everything look soft and calm and sleepy, casting far less light than the blue sky but still just enough to illuminate their surroundings.

Louis fishes out some of the candles he’d brought anyway, in case it gets darker, lighting one up and nearly dropping it in shock at the squeak Harry lets out beside him.

“Is that...” Harry starts, his eyes widening comically as he stares at the small flame. “Louis, is that fire?”

“Yep,” Louis says, holding the candle out for Harry to observe more closely. “You’ve never seen it before, have you?”

“Not in real life, no,” Harry shakes his head, mesmerized by the way the flame is dancing about. “Just pictures. I didn’t expect it to look so...alive. It’s beautiful.”

“It is,” Louis agrees as he sets the candle far enough away that there’s no risk of either of them kicking it over and reaches to light another. “It’s dangerous though, make sure you don’t touch it.”

“I won’t,” Harry promises. “I’ve heard of it burning down ships. But the fire is bigger then.”

Louis laughs as he sets the last candle out, having created a nice little ring of light around the gazebo. “There we go, now I can see you,” he says, admiring his work and smiling over at Harry. “Are you hungry?”

“A little,” Harry replies and Louis reaches over for the cake he’d brought, Harry’s eyes following him curiously like a hawk. He watches while Louis cuts a piece and passes it over to him, giving it a quick sniff before digging right in.

“Oh,” he moans, eyes falling shut in bliss as he chews. “This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life. What is it?”

“It’s chocolate cake, with strawberries,” Louis laughs, taking a bite of his own slice while Harry gobbles down the rest of his.

“Why does anyone ever eat anything else?” Harry questions once he’s finished.

“You can’t live on cake alone, you’d get sick,” Louis explains, chuckling at the way Harry is already eyeing the rest of the cake longingly. “A well-rounded diet is very important.”

“But it’s yummy,” Harry pouts, jutting out his bottom lip and Louis gives in, slicing him a second piece. Harry takes it gratefully and they sit there eating in comfortable silence, watching the sky gradually continue to dim.

“Louis!” Harry gasps, staring up above them, fork frozen in front of his mouth. “Louis, look!”

Following Harry’s gaze, Louis looks up to see what had caught his attention. Not far above them, floating lazily in the sky, are dozens of small, glowing specks of light. They vary in colour from blue to purple to green and the longer they watch the more come into view.

“Oh wow,” Louis whispers in awe, the sight unlike anything he’s seen before.

“What are they?” Harry asks, his eyes following how the lights are moving in slow patterns with no particular destination.

“I have no idea,” Louis says shaking his head. “They almost look like fireflies, but I’ve never heard of fireflies existing in other colours.”

“They’re beautiful,” Harry hums, leaning in to rest his head on Louis’ shoulder. It’s almost completely dark out now, but with the candles and the tiny lights now filling the sky they can see just fine. Between the beauty of their surroundings, the soothing sound of waterfalls in the distance, and the steady breathing of Harry besides him, Louis has never felt more content.

“Thank you,” Harry says, breaking the silence a bit later. “For doing all of this. This is the most perfect night of my life.”

“Mine too,” Louis agrees, wrapping an arm around Harry and tucking him closer.

“I wish it never had to end,” Harry whispers.

Louis turns to look at him and feels his heart clench at the hint of sadness and longing in his eyes. He feels it too, the overwhelming desire to suspend this moment in time, to never have to leave and go back to reality. But he doesn’t want Harry dwelling on it right now, not when this night is meant to be special for him.

“Hey, no, don’t be sad,” Louis says, determined to cheer Harry up. “We can do this again, you know. As much as you want.”

Harry tilts his head up at Louis, smiling softly. “I’d like that. A lot.”

“Then we will. All the time,” Louis decides. “I don’t want it to end either,” he adds quietly.

“Let’s just move here,” Harry says dreamily. “We can live in one of the old dwellings, plant some fruits, and only leave when we need more scarves. I think my parents half expect me to run off with you anyway, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.”

“Wait, your parents know about me?” Louis asks, a bit surprised.

“Erm, yeah,” Harry says bashfully. “They could tell something was up when I kept disappearing every day and I can’t really keep anything from them for long.”

“Oh,” Louis says processing this new knowledge. “How do they feel about me being, you know. Not a mermaid?”

“Well, they were shocked at first of course. And rather cross too, considering I had been deliberately disobeying them,” Harry grins sheepishly. “But they accepted it pretty quickly. Mermaids value love above all things. And my mum said she could tell.”

“Could tell?” Louis questions even though he knows.

“That I’m in love,” Harry says quietly, turning to bury his face in Louis chest and he can probably feel how fast Louis’ heart is beating.

“Me too,” Louis whispers, pressing a kiss into Harry’s curls and Harry sighs, wiggling in closer.

“I don’t want to always have to leave you, even if it’s just for a night,” Harry mumbles into Louis’ skin. “I want to keep you.”

“You can,” Louis says, tilting Harry’s chin up gently and locking eyes with him, their faces inches apart. “I’m serious about this, about you and I. We can make it work. We will make it work.”

“Good,” Harry breathes, lips brushing against Louis’. “You’re all I want.”

As if to prove his point, he leans forward and kisses Louis firmly and doesn’t pull away, just kisses him harder, begging for more. Louis is more than happy to comply, pulling him closer until Harry is seated in his lap, straddling his legs and kissing him deeply. He’s so responsive to Louis’ every movement - whimpering when Louis nips at his bottom lip and keening when he pulls gently on the curls at the base of his scalp - that Louis can hardly think straight.

He leans back, falling gently into the sea of pillows and Harry follows him down, refusing to allow their lips to part even for a second. It’s even better like this, with his hands free to roam up and down the smooth skin of Harry’s back while Harry shifts on top of him. The feeling of Harry surrounding him and encompassing all of his senses is intoxicating. Nothing else matters but their bodies pressed together and the complete lack of space between them.

He can feel himself starting to get hard and tries his best to push it to the back of his mind, focusing instead on kissing Harry breathless, but the noise Harry lets out when Louis bites his lip roughly causes Louis’ hips to buck up involuntarily.

Harry stills, breaking their kiss to lock eyes with him. Louis is about to apologize, realizing that Harry has never done anything like this before and not wanting to make him uncomfortable just because Louis can’t control himself, but Harry doesn’t give him the chance.

“Do that again,” Harry pleads with a sense of urgency in his voice. Louis raises an eyebrow at him questioningly, his hands drifting down to Harry’s hips.

“This?” he asks, slowly grinding up against Harry again and gasping when he feels that Harry is just as hard as he is.

“Yes, yes that,” Harry whimpers, eyes falling shut. “More of that.”

“Harry,” Louis says, trying to compose himself long enough to say what he needs to say. “You’ve never...I don’t want to push you into doing anything before you’re ready. This is all new for you-”

“Louis,” Harry interrupts, opening his eyes and fixing Louis with an exasperated stare. “You’re not pushing me to do anything I don’t want to do. I want everything with you.”

“Are you sure?” Louis asks, needing to be positive Harry means it.

“I’m sure,” Harry says, nodding his head vigorously. “Please, just make it feel like that again,” he begs, grinding their hips together desperately.

“Okay,” Louis rasps, trying to keep his head from spinning with how overwhelmed he feels because Harry wants this, Harry wants him.

“Okay,” he repeats as he reaches down to tug at the waistband of Harry’s shorts. Harry gets the point quickly and helps Louis pull them off, gasping as cool air hits his cock. Louis groans at the sight of it, already completely hard and straining up against Harry’s belly.

Harry stares down at himself before looking up at Louis in shock. “Lou is this...normal?” he asks, clearly confused.

“Yes,” Louis assures him, reminded again of how new this all is for Harry. “Completely. Here, see.” he says, reaching down for his own shorts and Harry scrambles back allowing Louis to ease them off, his cock slapping against his stomach as it’s freed. This puts Harry at ease and he crawls right back up to Louis, gasping when his cock brushes against Louis’ thigh.

“C’mere,” Louis says, pulling Harry down into a kiss and lifting his hips up to rub their cocks together lightly.

Harry whimpers into his mouth and kisses him harder as Louis repeats the motion, again and again until Harry pulls back enough to whisper, “More.”

Louis hums in response before pressing their hips together harder and Harry moans, letting his head fall down onto Louis shoulder as he pants heavily. Louis sets up a steady pace, grinding up against Harry until he’s a whimpering mess above him, trying feebly to bring his hips down in time with Louis’ in search of even more friction.

“Wait,” Louis pants, stilling his hips and laughing breathlessly when Harry whines loudly at the loss of movement. “Sit up a bit babe, this will feel even better.”

Harry perks up at this, pushing himself up off of Louis’ chest and looking at him expectantly, pupils blown wide and face flushed. Louis reaches a hand down, stopping inches before Harry’s cock and meeting his eyes carefully. “Is it okay if I…” he trails off as Harry nods.

“Anything, Lou,” Harry says firmly. “I trust you.”

Louis nods once, smiling at Harry softly as he wraps his hand around his cock and watches the way Harry’s eyelids flutter at the sensation. He swirls his thumb around the head, collecting the precome that had accumulated there before stroking down firmly. Harry’s jaw drops open and he lets out a soft “oh” as Louis repeats the motion, building up a steady rhythm that has Harry gasping above him, his arms shaking as he tries to hold himself up.

Harry looks absolutely stunning falling apart on top of him. His lips are bitten bright red and his eyes are shut in bliss, eyelashes casting faint shadows across his face. Louis struggles to remain focused, determined to make this as good as possible for him as he twists his wrist around the base of Harry’s cock, quickening his pace and relishing the desperate moans that slip past Harry’s lips.

“Lou, Louis, I-” Harry gasps out, hips bucking up wildly to meet Louis’ hand.

“It’s okay love, go ahead,” Louis encourages, seeing the way Harry’s stomach is tensing up and knowing that he’s close. “Let go.”

He strokes up once more, rubbing his thumb across the head, and then Harry’s coming with a long, drawn out mewl, body shaking with pleasure as Louis gently works him through it. His arms finally give out and he collapses on Louis’ chest, completely worn out and Louis is so worked up from watching Harry come undone that all it takes is a few small thrusts against Harry’s leg before he’s coming too, pressing his lips against Harry’s shoulder to muffle his moan.

Harry stays sprawled over Louis, panting heavily while Louis rubs soothing circles into his back, still coming down from his own release.

“That,” Harry says, voice spacey and content, “was amazing. Incredible. Phenomenal.”

“Thank you for fueling my ego,” Louis teases, giving Harry’s bum a light pinch.

Harry squirms until he’s laying with his arms folded across Louis’ chest. “Why didn’t you tell me that being a human could feel that good?” he pouts. “Can we do it again?”

“Oh my god, you’re insatiable,” Louis laughs. “We’re both going to need some time to recover, babe.”

“I don’t mean right now,” Harry says rolling his eyes. “But in the future. Next time.”

“Of course,” Louis assures him. “And we can do other things eventually, too.”

“Other things?” Harry questions, the excitement and curiosity in his voice making Louis chuckle. “You mean there’s more than that?”

“Mmm,” Louis hums, nuzzling at Harry’s ear playfully. “A lot more. Even better things.”

Harry gives him a disbelieving look. “Better? How?”

“You’ll see. I’ll show you everything, if you want.”

“I want,” Harry says, mid-yawn. “I definitely want.”

“Me too,” Louis replies, just barely stifling a yawn himself. “Right now I think it’s time to sleep, though.”

“But ‘m not tired,” Harry argues, his drooping eyelids giving him away. Louis just stares at him skeptically until Harry giggles, finally rolling off Louis and immediately cuddling back into his side. He blinks at him expectantly until Louis leans in to give him a soft kiss, humming pleasantly after they pull apart and resting his head on Louis chest.

“Night Lou,” he mumbles, words already slurring together with sleep. “Love you.”

“Goodnight baby,” Louis says softly as Harry’s breathing starts to even out, his body relaxing completely against Louis’. “I love you, too.”

Harry hums in response and Louis reaches up to pet his hair soothingly until Harry falls asleep, a content smile lingering on his lips as he drifts off.

Louis follows not long after, with a smile to match Harry’s and a warmth in his heart.

*

Morning comes far too soon, the brightening sky waking Louis up against his will. He groans quietly and tucks his head into Harry’s sea of brown curls, squeezing his eyes shut and pulling the sleeping boy closer into his arms. Harry snuffles in his sleep and Louis squints an eye open, realizing he’s never had the chance to see what Harry looks like in the morning. He pulls back enough to be able to focus on him.

Harry looks, unsurprisingly, as beautiful as ever. His face is soft and relaxed and his skin is smooth, rejuvenated from a full night’s sleep. His lips are parted slightly, enough for his steady breaths to pass through quietly, and his eyelashes flutter delicately against his cheekbones every now and then. He looks so much younger like this and suddenly Louis realizes he doesn’t actually know how old Harry is. Frowning, Louis wonders if mermaids document age in the same way as humans, or if they even age the same as humans in the first place. What if Harry is actually hundreds of years old, despite looking younger than Louis?

Even after having spent the past month in each other’s pockets, there’s still so much he doesn’t know about Harry and about Harry’s way of life. And it’s exciting because he’s more sure than ever now that he’s going to have the opportunity to learn so much more about him, to learn anything and everything Harry is willing to share.

Harry shifts slightly and Louis’ thoughts come to an abrupt halt, turning his attention back to Harry as he slowly awakens. He blinks his eyes open slowly, a sweet smile spreading across his face as he registers where he is and meets Louis’ gaze.

“Morning,” he rasps, voice rough with sleep and lack of use.

“Good morning, sunshine,” Louis says fondly, leaning forward to plant a kiss on Harry’s cheek. “You sleep well?”

“Mmm,” Harry hums as he stretches out his limbs like a cat. “Best sleep of my life. Best night of my life,” he says, peering up at Louis coquettishly through his eyelashes.

“I’m sure,” Louis smirks, threading his fingers through Harry’s curls. soft and springy after a night’s sleep.

“I mean it,” Harry insists, leaning into Louis’ touch instinctively. “It was perfect. Still is perfect. Everything is perfect with you.”

Louis’ heart has become prone to fluttering wildly in his chest every time Harry says something like this, something honest and earnest without a hint of self doubt. Harry is so open and eager in his affections and it makes it easy for Louis to be as well, keeps him from worrying that maybe he’s saying too much too soon, feeling too much too fast.

“I’m so glad I found you,” he murmurs as he looks at Harry, drinking in every minute detail of his face, determined to remember this moment perfectly, always. “Best thing to ever happen to me.”

Harry’s smile is blinding as he beams at him, eyes dancing with joy. Louis wants to dedicate his entire life to making Harry smile like that as frequently as possible.

“Oh!” Louis says, suddenly reminded of the thing he’d been meaning to give Harry. He sits up, Harry’s eyes following him curiously as he reaches over for his bag and digs around until he finds a small leather pouch. “Here, this is for you.”

Harry sits up and takes the pouch from him, tipping the contents gingerly into his hands. A smooth string of rope falls out with a small, glowing blue crystal tied securely in the middle. “Is this one of the crystals from the cave?” Harry asks, holding the necklace up in front of him so that the crystal captures the light, casting small rainbows across his skin.

“Yeah, I made it last night,” Louis says. “You don’t have to wear it if you don’t want. Zayn just mentioned you liked necklaces and things and he said that a crystal would be a nice addition to your collection, so I figured why not...”

“Of course I’ll wear it, I love it,” Harry insists, sliding over to Louis and gesturing for him to help tie it around his neck. “Now I’ll always have a little piece of our place with me,” he says happily once the necklace is secure.

“Always,” Louis echoes, as Harry leans in for a kiss.

*

The day goes by much too fast and before either of them are the slightest bit ready, it’s time to head off. They leave everything up at the gazebo, figuring it won’t be long at all until they’re back and knowing there is no chance of anyone else coming along and taking anything.

Once they reach the river leading out of the city, Harry stops, turning back to look toward their hilltop with a longing sigh.

“Hey, no, none of that,” Louis says, giving Harry’s hand a firm squeeze. “We’ll be back again tomorrow, right? And we can spend the night again soon, too.”

“I know,” Harry says, “but it’s still hard to say goodbye.”

He’s not looking at the city anymore, but staring intently at Louis instead with a hint of sadness in his eyes that Louis feels too. He can tell that it’s only going to get harder and harder to leave from now on and honestly he isn’t sure how they’re going to manage, but he knows that they will.

“It’s not goodbye for long,” Louis reminds him as he leads them down into the river. Harry nods, leaning over to kiss him softly before they wade into the water and swim out.

*
As soon as they leave the city and start to swim back out into the cave, Louis realizes that Harry is no longer by his side. He turns around in confusion, only to see Harry clinging to the rock pathway with horrified look on his face.

“Harry, love, are you okay?” Louis asks worriedly, swimming back over to where Harry is frozen in place. “What’s wrong?”

“My tail,” Harry squeaks. “Lou, it didn’t grow back.”

“What do you mean it didn’t...oh,” Louis gasps, looking down at where Harry’s tail should be only to find his legs still in its place.

Harry looks like he’s on the verge of a panic attack so Louis moves quickly to help him out of the water and onto the rock ledge, hoisting himself up to sit beside Harry.

He takes Harry’s face in his hands, holding him gently and resting their foreheads together. “It’s okay love, it’s going to be alright. Just calm down. Breathe with me, yeah?”

Once Harry has calmed down enough to think clearly again they pull apart and Harry looks down at his legs with a frown.

“I don’t understand,” he starts, kicking a foot at the water as if to make sure it still works. “Why isn’t it growing back? Was I in there for too long? Is this permanent?”

“I really don’t know,” Louis says, shaking his head. “I mean I guess that’s possible but it doesn’t seem very likely, considering how long we’ve spent there in the past.”

“What else could it be though?” Harry asks. “We didn’t do anything different from the usual. Aside from sleeping there together.”

“No, not that I can think…” Louis trails off as his eyes fall on the crystal hanging around Harry’s neck. “Wait, Harry. This is going to sound crazy, but can you take off your necklace for a second?”

Harry brings his hand up instinctively, clutching his necklace safely to his chest. “My necklace? Why?”

“Because,” Louis says calmly. “I’m pretty confident that those crystals are the reason you were able to change into a human in the first place. And I think that it might be what’s keeping you one now.”

“Oh,” Harry whispers, looking down at his necklace with wide eyes and the carefully pulling it off over his head.

Sure enough, the moment the crystal is no longer touching his skin, his tail starts to grow back. Relief washes over Harry’s face as he flips the tip of his tail in and out of the water happily.

Louis watches him, his mind racing a mile a minute as he begins to make sense of the situation and its implications. Harry freezes suddenly, turning to stare at Louis and if the look on his face is anything to go by he’s just arrived at the same realization as Louis has.

“Louis,” he says breathlessly, “do...do you know what this means?”

Louis nods, his heart threatening to pound out of his chest. “Yes,” he manages to rasp out.

Before he can even attempt to say anything else, Harry is leaping into his lap, nearly knocking him backwards with the force of it. His tail makes it hard for him to stay in place, so Louis reaches out and wraps his arms around Harry’s torso to keep him from sliding back into the water as Harry leans in to kiss him hard. He falls back slowly, bringing Harry with him until they’re lying on the the rock path together, a pile of tangled limbs and tail.

When they finally pull apart in order to breathe, Harry’s eyes are sparkling brighter than Louis has ever seen before. “I can be a human whenever I want,” Harry all but whispers against Louis’ lips. “Outside of Atlantis. In your world.”

“You can,” Louis responds in awe. “I can take you places, show you things. We can do everything together, Harry.”

Harry looks like he’s about to cry with joy and Louis doesn’t feel that far off himself. It’s overwhelming, so much to take in all at once, that the one thing keeping them apart is no longer an issue. They can be together now, properly, both in the water and on land.

“Zayn knew,” Louis says as the realization hits him. Harry raises a puzzled eyebrow and Louis recounts the conversation they’d had about the crystals back in the city. “He figured it out, better than we did at least. And that’s why he told me to give you that necklace. He must have known what it would do, or at least he had an idea.”

“Leave it to Zayn to figure that out on his own,” Harry says with admiration. “I owe him one.”

“Me too,” Louis laughs. “I owe him everything, really.”

Harry giggles, resting his chin on Louis’ chest and flipping his tail out of the water.

And that’s when Louis sees it. A single, unmistakably blue scale glittering near the very bottom of Harry’s tail. The other part of his conversation with Zayn comes back mind immediately and his heart stops beating for a moment as he realizes that the blue of Harry’s scale perfectly matches the blue of his own eyes.

He’s Harry’s lifebond. His soulmate. Harry had been right and Louis had been right. They were meant to be, all of this was meant to be. Louis feels like he’s floating, everything too surreal and incredible to be true.

“What is it?” Harry questions curiously at the look of wonder on Louis’ face. Louis considers telling Harry about the scale, but decides it’s best to let him discover it on his own. He wasn’t even supposed to know about Harry’s original suspicions, Zayn having told him in confidence. He’s sure it will only take a matter of minutes anyway, once Harry is back in the water.

“I’m just thinking,” Louis says, smiling up at Harry. “About us. About our future.”

“Our future,” Harry sighs dreamily.

“Mhm,” Louis hums, gazing up at the beautiful, wonderful boy on top of him and wondering how he ever got so lucky. “Our forever.”

“You and I, forever,” Harry says happily, before ducking down to capture Louis’ lips in a kiss.

Louis kisses him back with everything he’s got, elation bubbling in his chest as it finally truly sinks in that this is going to work, that they are going to work.

They’re going to be able to have a proper life together. A normal future shared between the two of them. Or, well, as normal as any future between a mermaid and a human can possibly be.

Because despite all odds, despite coming from completely different worlds, fate clearly had a plan for them all along.

*