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True Love's Gold

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Harry Styles has seen a lot of beautiful sights in his life. Hidden vistas and sunlight on ocean water and Louis’ skin bruised from his mouth. His mum crying tears of happiness at her wedding and the look on his bandmates’ faces when they took to the stage to claim their first international award. Stadiums full of people singing his own words back to him like the lyrics saved them in some way. People and nature and fashion and art, a million little things that have taken his breath away over his twenty-two years.

He's not sure a single one of those moments can compete with this: Louis Tomlinson down on bended knee in front of him, smile wide across his face and velvet ring box in hand.

“Hazza,” he says, and that's cute because normally the guy proposing goes the whole formal route, the full name before the question. This is sweet, though, a little less stilted. Harry and his racing heart approve.

“Lou,” he replies, mouth dry. He can’t believe it, he can’t—they were chatting with their friends just moments ago, and everything happened so fast. Liam was teasing Harry about his magazine shoot and the collar pictures seen ‘round the entertainment world, and Harry was flushing and fidgeting and saying, Lay off, Lima. Louis got that for me.

(To which Liam replied, completely straight-faced, “That's what I assumed, but I never needed it confirmed. So thanks for that.”)

Louis had lit up like he’d been waiting all night to talk about the subject, though. Speaking of things I got you, he’d said, and then moved off of Harry’s lap and dug that fateful little box out of his pocket and Harry’s mind hasn’t stopped spinning since.   

“I found this in one of those poncey vintage stores you like so much the other day,” Louis continues, and Harry grins giddily. Maybe Louis is going to do a whole bit on how Harry is like this hidden ring inside the box, classic and timeless, maybe, or perhaps he's going the Aladdin route, you're a diamond in the rough and all that. He always has had a way with words.

At this point, though, Louis could probably recite those limericks about the man from Nantucket for an hour and Harry wouldn't move a muscle, because Louis is captivating and perfect and he's finally proposing in front of all their friends and-

And… he's not saying the words. He’s not saying any words, simply smiling and kneeling there by Harry’s flimsy folding chair.

There are supposed to be words, right? Heartfelt declarations, promises of forever, to love and cherish et cetera et cetera. Harry’s never been proposed to before—well, okay, that's not strictly true, but he's pretty sure sobbing fans holding HARRY WILL U MARRY ME signs at concerts don't count in his real proposals tally—but he's watched a hell of a lot of romantic comedies, and all the proposal scenes have one pretty big piece of dialogue in common:

Harry, will you marry me?

Louis and Harry are still staring at each other in silence, and Harry still hasn't heard the words. It's all he's wanted for years, five little words from the best person in the universe, and yet here he is. Proposal-less.

What the hell. Is- is it stage fright? Surely not. If Louis Tomlinson can sing in front of the Queen of bloody England, he can recite five words to his boyfriend. Is it a drama thing? Purposefully building the tension? Because Harry is loath to correct Louis’ proposal technique mid-proposal like this, but he's already got the attention of everyone in the vicinity. Gemma’s eyes are so wide they look in danger of falling out of her head. Liam has Niall’s coat sleeve in a white-knuckled grip; Niall, meanwhile, is pressing a fist to his mouth like he's trying to hold in screams. Lottie's paused with a bottle of champagne halfway to her mouth, shock written across her face.

If Louis wanted the dramatics, he already got them.

Louis flips open the top of the ring box and there's a lovely silver and black piece nestled inside, five or six round black gems circling the band. Louis has excellent taste and this is no exception—it's right up Harry's alley, will fit in beautifully with his other rings, but…

Well, to be honest, he sort of assumed his engagement ring would be... dunno, different? That it would feel different, that Harry would see it and it would somehow sum up all of Louis’ feelings about them and their future together and he would have all those feelings right there on his finger for the world to see. Love and devotion spelled out with gemstones and precious metals.

Of course, in this proposal scenario he'd concocted in his mind, he also wouldn’t be waiting on the edge of his seat as Louis dragged out the suspense for as long as possible. By this point in his daydream, he’s already yelled “Yes!” and tackled Louis to kiss him senseless. Sometimes, Daydream Louis doesn’t even have time to get the ring box open before Harry’s got him on the ground.

It is good to know, though, that, despite the differences in their proposal ideas, Harry and Louis are still basically on the same wavelength, because Louis is looking as weirded out as Harry feels.

“Do you not like it?” he whispers, though from the dead silence here in Jay’s backyard, Harry’s sure everyone hears anyway.

“No, Lou, that's-” Louis’ face flashes in alarm, gaze flickering down at the ring like it's betrayed him. “No! That's not what I meant,” Harry corrects hastily, also in a whisper. “It's gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous.”

And even if it wasn't, why is Louis acting like that would affect Harry’s decision? Louis could propose with a bit of plastic in a vaguely circular shape and Harry would say yes. He could hand Harry the twist-tie off a loaf of bread while asking and Harry would treasure it forever. Hell, he could do the whole thing sans ring entirely and Harry’d be over the moon.

Louis’ face clears, smile peeking back through like the sun from behind clouds. “Good,” he says, raising his voice a little. “Because I thought you could wear it to your magazine launch.”

“Wear it to my…” Harry trails off, and then he gets it. He can see it as it hits the audience to their little tableau, too; it's like all the air in this little bubble of Doncaster releases and they can finally all take a deep breath at the same time. Harry doesn't look at any of them, but he especially doesn't look at Gemma, afraid that his face will echo whatever expression is sure to be on hers.

Because Louis isn't proposing.

Yet again.

Maybe Harry should've put that together before this very moment. Their closest friends and siblings are here, sure, but their mums are right inside the house, mere steps away; if Harry knows Louis, and he does, he would've had them front and centre for the big question. There’s no speech, no fireworks, no string quartet. Louis is a man of grand gestures, romance pouring from him like rain—of course he wouldn’t propose while wearing sweatpants and three-day unwashed hair, tipsy off of champagne and after a day of doing nothing. Louis isn't even down on one knee, he's just regular kneeling, no romantic symbolism after all.

It seems obvious, now, but tell that to his hammering heart.

“Yeah,” Harry says slowly. His head’s churning like tyres on ice, trying to find purchase and getting nowhere. “The magazine launch. Of course I'll wear it, Lou.”

Louis beams and pulls the ring from the box, sliding it onto Harry's pointer finger, the only one empty on his right hand. It fits like a dream, settling in next to his knuckle. A perfect fit.

He leans up to kiss Harry, a short, sweet peck on the lips, and then he’s standing and brushing the grass off the knees of his sweats. “Heading inside for a drink. Need anything?”

“No, no I’m fine,” Harry murmurs.

“Okay.” Louis reaches for Harry’s hand, squeezes it. His brow has that little dip in the middle, the one that says he’s trying not to frown. “Everything alright?”

“‘Course, babe.”

The smile like a sunrise is back, and Harry echoes it to keep Louis from worrying; one more kiss, then Louis is off to find more to drink.

In his wake, silence sneaks in. Harry knows everyone is looking at him, and they’re his favourite people in the world, but that does not mean he wants to talk to them right now.

“Haz,” Niall asks cautiously, “you okay?”

The thing is, Harry doesn’t want to mope. He knows Louis isn’t doing this maliciously, stringing Harry along and making his heart race out of control every time he announces they’ve got reservations at a nice restaurant or takes Harry's hand and says, “Hey, let’s go for a walk under the stars,” or when he just gives Harry that smile that means he’s thinking in terms of forever. The onus here is on Harry, looking for signs and clues where Louis isn’t leaving any. It doesn’t mean the disappointment doesn’t sting, though.

So, yeah, he’s moping.

“Fine,” he answers Niall.

And then he pouts until Louis gets back.

“Nice night for it,” Louis says as he settles back into Harry’s lap, cold beer sweating in his hand and dripping onto the blanket wrapped around him and Harry. The evening air is on the edge of chilly, but between the blanket and the little bonfire in front of them, Harry’s comfortable.

“It is, yeah,” Harry says, nosing behind Louis’ ear and pressing a kiss there. “Let me have a sip.”

Louis snuggles back against Harry’s chest, passes Harry the beer, and launches into a discussion across the fire with Liam about his new demos and working with Wiz Khalifa. Harry lets the sound of their voices wash over him and tilts his head back, watching a plane overhead work its way across the sky.

This is technically an afterparty—they’re all in the backyard at Louis’ mum’s place, the sounds of the actual party dying down inside as they huddle around the fire and sleepily pass bottles around. The crowd tonight was half Jay and Dan’s friends and half Louis and Lottie’s; the older group has trickled back to their homes over the last hour or so, while Jay pushed the rest of them outside with a knowing smile on her face, saying, “You lot have a good night, I know it’s early for you yet. We’ll clean up in here.”

Louis had protested, so had Harry, but Lottie was leading the way outside with a couple of unopened bottles of champagne and it was technically her party they were abandoning, so they followed her lead.  

Speaking of.

“Hey, Lotts,” Harry says, lifting his head once more. “Where did you say your new place is?”

Lottie takes another swig of champagne and passes the half-empty bottle back to Tommy. She’s doing a remarkable job of not looking at Harry pityingly like he can see Gemma and Fizzy and Niall doing from the corner of his eye, but that might be because she’s had more to drink tonight than Harry and Louis combined. She’s probably having a hard time sitting up straight, let alone remembering that Harry just thought he was being proposed to when he really, really wasn’t. “Not far from yours and Lou’s,” she answers. “Fifteen minute cab ride, maybe?”

Louis breaks off from his conversation with Liam and turns toward his sister. “Dunno why you couldn’t just live at ours,” he mutters, a little petulantly. “We’re not even in London that often, we wouldn’t bother you.”

This isn't the first time he's made it clear that Lottie could've lived at their place instead of paying her own rent; when Lottie announced she and Tommy had found jobs in London and a flat they liked enough to put a deposit down, Louis immediately began peppering her with the idea of the two of them living at Louis and Harry's house instead. Lottie is too much like Louis to accept handouts, though. Even from her well-meaning older brother.

“We’re not going to mooch off of you two,” Lottie says, rolling her eyes. “Plus, if anyone lets slip any information about where you actually live, I don’t want to be there when everyone and their mother decides to stake out the place.”

Those are perfectly valid reasons and Louis knows it, but he still harrumphs into the lapel of Harry’s sheepskin jacket. “Alright, alright,” he allows, voice still laced with grumpiness. “I just worry about you, that's all. Moving in together is hard.”

Harry can't help it, even though deep down he still wants to mope—he chuckles, his hand swiping up and down Louis’ spine, the warmth of his skin bleeding through his jacket.

“Oh please, Lou,” he says, laughter prickling at the edges of his words, “I was younger than them when we moved in together, and you were way more of a disaster than Lottie is now.”

“Harold Eustace Aubergine Styles-”

“You know full well that's not my name. I don't think Aubergine is anyone's name.”

“-I can't believe your cheek.”

“Believe it, babe,” Harry grinned, burying a grin in Louis’ hair. When Louis starts wriggling like he's going to make an escape, Harry winds an arm around his waist and tugs him back against his chest. Louis pretends to fight for a little longer, but gives up after a second or two.

“He’s not lyin’, Tommo,” Niall says, his fingers never faltering on the guitar strings he's been plucking at for the past hour. “We were all a bit of a mess, but you were the worst.”

“I am a delight to be around at all times, Neil, and I won’t hear otherwise,” Louis sniffs.

“Remember when he tried to heat up that pizza in the oven and forgot about it?” Liam asks, sounding almost wistful. “Nearly burned down Princess Park, didn’t he.”

“And when we came to visit and he tried to hide the bong in the kitchen by saying it was a ‘new age cooking device’,” Fizzy grins, making air quotes around Louis’ dubious phrasing.

“And all the times we had to call the cleaning crew to come in for overtime because his room was such a tip,” Harry adds.

“Oi,” Louis says in affront, poking at Harry's hip. “Like you were such a treasure back then. Remember when you nearly gave about a dozen different delivery men heart attacks, opening the door with your willy out because you refused to wear clothes?”

That's a weak counter argument, and everyone knows it. “Like you ever complained about me being naked,” Harry retorts, smug.

“I complained when those delivery men started refusing to bring us food because of you.”

“Is that why you always had your takeaway sent to mine?” Liam asks, brow furrowed like he’s just solved a five year mystery in his head. “I assumed you just never remembered your flat number!”

Fizzy breaks into giggles and Niall joins her, laughter rolling around the group for a few sweet moments. Even Louis laughs along, tipping his head sideways to rest on Harry's shoulder.

“Ah,” he sighs, a little pensively. “Sometimes I miss back when things were simpler.”

“When the biggest fight we had with management was to let us sing Grenade instead of Kids in America on the X Factor tour,” Liam says.

“And interview days with Sugarscape were our favourites because they brought snacks,” Niall chuckles.

“Liam tried to steal my hairstyle,” Harry grins.

“Zayn got his first tattoo before checking with management and that's how we found they weren't covered by our contracts.”

“We went to America and had to convince Liam the palm trees weren't fake.”

“Niall hooked up with that girl in LA, remember? And the next morning she took all the money from his wallet while he was sleeping.”

“Aye, better than you two getting caught with your trousers down in every city we were in for more than an hour.”

“So, see,” Harry says with a grin to Lottie and Tommy, who are both giggling, “if the two of us made it out of all that together, you two have a good shot of doing the same.”

“Advice from the relationship masters,” Gemma says musingly, her first words since the not-quite proposal. She’s a pale spot in the darkness, firelight catching in her hair, and her boyfriend Michal’s arm is draped over her shoulders. “Teach us your ways, wise ones.”

“I do have advice, yes,” Harry says, drawing himself up as best as he can with Louis still curled in his lap. “Don't-”

“If you say eat yellow snow, you're sleeping on the sofa tonight,” Louis warns.

“In that case, I have no advice to give,” Harry says.

“Come on, though,” Fizzy says. She's been nursing a beer for the past hour, taking tiny sips and fighting the automatic wrinkle of her nose at the taste, but her eyes are clear when they cut to Harry and Louis. “Give the rest of us a chance to find what you have. How do you do it?”

It's funny, because that isn't the first time they've been asked this—people in the know about their relationship always seem to ask, eventually, even if it’s asked as a joke. In a world where the public image of happiness is more important than private actual happiness, the idea of hiding a years-long relationship is too much for most people. Harry and Louis have become very good at deflecting; answering in short, sweet quips or lighthearted teasing. Can't believe he kept you around this long, some friend of a friend with a badly-hidden crush on Louis will joke to Harry at a party, clapping his shoulder like there's anything for them to be in solidarity about. Well, I still look good naked, Harry will half-grin back, swanning away to join Louis wherever he is. But they've never answered seriously, for some reason.

It’s not like it’s a five-step program they can just teach someone, though, he’s sure of that. What works for them won’t work for others, and the number of times one of their friends tried to take a page from their playbook and failed miserably is almost too high to count.

(Once, the band and crew were staying in a Barcelona hotel before a show, and when Harry stepped out into the hallway to find the ice machine he came across Liam instead, sitting forlornly outside of his, presumably, locked hotel room door.

“Lose your key?” Harry had asked, confused. “The desk downstairs will get you another.”

“Nah,” Liam sighed. “Soph locked me out.”

“Why?”

“Well, it’s sort of your fault.” Harry spluttered at that, and Liam raised a hand to wave that away. “Not like that. I mean, we were arguing and I wanted to make it up to her, and so I told her she could do my laundry.”

“Oh, god, Liam,” Harry groaned, covering his face with his hands.

“It works for you and Louis!” Liam protested, voice going high like it did when he was agitated. “Why wouldn’t it work for us?”

“I like doing laundry, you idiot!” Harry answered weakly. “It gives me time to think and I like taking care of people. When Louis lets me do his laundry instead of doing it himself, it’s because he knows I’ll feel like I’m taking good care of him.” He shook his head, and Liam looked even more sheepish. “Does Sophia like doing laundry?”

“Um… no?”

Liam, needless to say, slept on Harry and Louis’ sofa that night.)

But, Harry thinks, maybe there are a few universal relationship needs. Love and trust, of course. Patience, a whole lot of patience. He barely catches the word communication before it slips off his tongue, which would have been embarrassingly ironic regarding the very communication mishap by which he was blindsided earlier.

Luckily, Louis doesn't seem to have the same shortage of advice.

“Put work into it like you would with any other important thing in your life,” he says simply, “and play to your strengths and avoid your weaknesses.”

“Okay, but what does that mean?” Liam asks.

“I mean…” Louis trails off for a minute, lip caught between his teeth in thought. “I mean that relationships are just like anything else, different people are good at different things. Take me ‘n Harry, for example—he’s good at confrontation, which works well because I’m a passive aggressive little shit sometimes,” he grins, squeezing Harry’s hand. “And I’m good with picking out the people who want to use us or hurt us, while Harry’s trusting enough to give everyone a couple of chances even if they don’t deserve it.”

“What’re your weaknesses then, go on,” Lottie prods.

“Well…” Louis trails off, shrugging a little. “I've got a lot. Harry could probably answer better than I could.”

“How about picking up on hints,” Niall suggests, and Harry nearly chokes on the mouthful of beer he’d been stealing from Louis’ bottle. Besides Harry’s sputtering, the yard is silent, though even Gemma’s lips are twitching at this point.

“Yeah, I s’pose,” Louis agrees easily, which is even worse.

“Like that time,” Lottie giggles, “when Harry was trying to tell you he wanted that camera for his birthday, and he dropped hints for months and you still bought him a car.”

“Hey,” Harry pouts. “I do love that car. And I got the camera eventually.”

“Yeah, after you walked up to this one,” Liam laughs, thumbing over his shoulder at Louis, “handed him an advert for the camera, told him where it was sold, and said, ‘I want one.’”

“Alright, alright, so I’m not great at picking up hints,” Louis laughs, and normally Harry loves when Louis plays along with the teasing, but right now he just wants to clap a hand over Louis’ mouth. “It’s worked out for us, though. Now, instead of guessing what I think Harry wants, I just take him with me and we pick out something together.”

Which is true—if Louis has one vice associated with the fortune they’ve earned, it appeared when someone told him that with enough money, any shop can be private. He calls ahead, the place closes to the public for a few hours, and Harry spends those hours trying on things to buy as Louis sips complimentary champagne and gives his opinions.

“Now,” Louis continues, tracing an absent finger along the back of Harry’s neck and preening just the slightest bit, “we get to spend more time together, I get to spoil him, and there’s no risk of buying the wrong thing.”

“Like those bunny slippers you bought him for his birthday that year.”

“Niall, I’d hate to have to murder you, here in my own mum’s home, but I’ll do it if I have to.”

The fire burns low as one by one everyone drifts off to bed in twos and threes. Gemma trails a hand over Harry’s shoulder as she and Michal head to their car, and Liam sends him a knowing, supportive nod before he heads inside to the guest bedroom where he and Niall are staying tonight. Harry loves them, he does—not just any group of people would’ve worked so hard to keep the conversation away from Harry’s mistaken excitement over a non-existent proposal. Harry owes them a lot for not making it more awkward.  

Harry and Louis are the last to go, and Louis laces their fingers together as they toss a little dirt on the fire to smother the flames before they creep quietly up to Louis’ room to fall into bed.

When Harry finally closes his eyes, the last sight that follows him into sleep is the new ring on his pointer finger, glinting in the beam of moonlight cutting through the room, a stark contrast to the empty finger on his left hand.  

The thing is, Harry should no longer be surprised by random gifting of rings, not anymore. It’s tradition: when Louis Tomlinson has been away from Harry Styles for too long, he buys Harry a ring.

Despite how it seems, that doesn’t actually happen all that often. Between private planes and deliberately misleading social media, the two of them often aren't where the public, or even their sleuthiest fans, think they are. Still, circumstances do arise where they have to be apart more than a few days, and they both have their own ways of coping with it.

(Namely, Harry spends excessive amounts of time texting and Snapchatting and calling Louis, possibly tweets some lovesick lyrics, and bugs Jeff/Glenne/Niall/Nick/Liam/Gemma/who ever is with him at the moment by showing them Instagram memes until they snap and take his phone away.

Louis spends money. A lot of money. All on Harry.)

So it’s not really a surprise anymore when they’re reunited and Louis pulls a little wrapped box out of his pocket, but the fun of the tradition is honestly enough to replace the fun of being surprised. Harry never knows what type of ring he's going to get, after all. Sometimes it's a big, bejewelled piece with a massive centre stone, pink or blue or green sitting pretty next to his knuckle, and sometimes it's a vintage gold band with a worn crest, and sometimes it belonged to someone famous before it came into Harry's possession. And it's not like jewellery-giving is relegated only to when they’ve been apart, it's just that Harry's guaranteed to see a little velvet box every time his feet touch Heathrow or LAX tarmac for the first time in months.

It's tradition, see. Harry adores traditions, they're like inside jokes spread out over a lifetime; and sometimes they're nonsensical, sometimes they've evolved and adapted over time, sometimes they're slightly embarrassing, but they're always, always fun. The sorts of memories that crash over a person when they’re thinking of years past and years to come.

For example: every year on Christmas Eve, Harry and Gemma used to get individual Christmas cards from their nan, crisp five pound notes tucked inside both of them.

Even after Harry went on X Factor and came out of it with a band and a multi-million pound record deal, even after Gemma moved away from home and went to uni and got a job of her own; even though Nan had to ring Harry up every December to ask which of his houses around the world he’d be staying at leading up to Christmas, he and Gemma still got their cards and five pounds every year until Nan passed away.

It was tradition, after all.

And the ring thing is sort of like that... only not. Because instead of five pounds straight from a bank drawer into an envelope, these are thousand-quid pieces of jewellery hunted down by an incredibly thoughtful man who wants Harry to be happy more than anything else in the world.

So it started during the break between the UK and Australia legs of the Up All Night tour, when Harry and Louis were home in London for just a few days before jetting off for another non-stop round of promo.

Harry woke up that morning in late January and rolled over, throwing his hand out and patting across the blankets to find Louis was missing, gone from his side of their bed. Harry shifted onto his back and blinked slowly awake, eyelashes catching and fluttering as the ceiling overhead came into view. He yawned, stretched his arms overhead, and looked to Louis’ side of the bed to see if his phone was gone or if it was still charging and he was planning on coming back to bed.

He was distracted from that, though, because resting in the divot Louis left in the sleep-mussed sheets was a small black box.

Harry’s heart didn't even give his brain a chance to start coming up with an alternative reason. Immediately, it started to pound an arrhythmic beat again Harry's rib cage like it could burrow its way out and present itself to Louis on its own.

But then his brain did come online, shouting over his racing heart and flipping stomach to be heard. Surely not, he thought, slightly hysterically as he stared, wide-eyed, at the box. Rings have lots of meanings, not just- not just that. They’d been dating a little over a year and Harry was absolutely sure Louis was his forever, but. Well, he was seventeen . That’s a lot to throw at someone who couldn’t even legally drink yet.

As it turned out, Louis hadn’t been proposing without even being in the room, and had instead been arranging Harry's breakfast in bed on the tray before he brought it in.

“Good morning, sunshine,” he'd beamed, which, combined with the fact he was even awake at a time he was usually dead to the world, confirmed exactly how much coffee he'd already had that morning. He settled the tray over Harry's lap and clambered up onto the bed beside him, bouncing slightly with glee. “I didn't know what you'd be in the mood for, so I made one of everything.”

Harry flicked his glance down at the small mountain of pancakes, eggy bread, pastries, hash browns, bacon, sausage, eggs (scrambled, poached, Benedict, and sunny-side up), fruit, and four different glasses full of orange juice, apple juice, milk, and water, and of course, a cup of tea. “You made all this?”  

“Ah, well, someone did,” Louis said, stealing a bit of bacon. “By the way, did you know if you offer enough money, any restaurant will deliver?”

Harry laughed and speared a slice of kiwi with his fork. The breakfast was fantastic and the morning was blissful, but Harry's eyes couldn't stay away from the little velvet box still resting on Louis’ pillow. He knew every time Louis caught him looking, too, because Louis would ask, innocent as ever, “What are you looking at?” and Harry would have to avert his gaze and mutter, huh, what? Oh, nothing and pretend he couldn't see Louis’ smug look.

Once Harry had ingested enough food to feed a small nation, Louis lifted the tray from his lap and replaced it with the tiny ring box.

“This is for you,” Louis said, a little unnecessarily. His eyes, like Harry's, were stuck to the box, and he looked nervous. “You may not like it. I don't- I don't really know if it's your thing. But when I saw it I thought of you, and- and I was just really sad you were gone for so long.”

“You didn't have to do this, Lou,” Harry murmured, sliding his thumb to feel the soft velvet.

Louis grinned, still fidgeting with nerves. “Oh please. I’ve missed you, and I show my affection through buying things for people I love. You’re getting anything you want today.”

Harry stopped strong over the velvet and wiggled his eyebrows at Louis. “Anything, eh?”

Louis rolled his eyes, but a tell-tale red flushed across his cheeks. “Later, you insatiable boy. Open your present.”

Harry, his heart still thumping erratically, slowly opened the box. The ring inside wasn’t what he expected—not that he woke up this morning thinking he’d be getting one at all, but it certainly wasn’t this. It was jet black, rounded a little on the edges like it was an actual circle of some sort of cool, heavy material, not just a black veneer over cheap, thin copper.

“It’s onyx,” Louis said quietly, watching Harry intently. “I know you’re interested in things with energies and meanings, and the lady who sold this to me said… hold on, I wrote it down.” He scrambled for his bedside table, nearly upending the empty stack of breakfast plates, and found a wrinkled receipt covered in pen scribbles. “Onyx finds those that need courage and defence against negativity,” he reads. “It also calls to those in new relationships to give them strength, harmony, and a good foundation.”

“Lou,” Harry breathed, gingerly pulling the ring from its place and sliding it onto the third finger on his right hand. It was a little too big, so he slipped it off and tried his middle finger instead, where it fit like it was made for him. He’d never really worn rings before, but something about it felt right. Like his fingers were meant for symbolic stones and silver and gold.

He didn’t have any words, so he threw himself across the bed and thanked Louis with his lips instead.

(He wore the ring out in public on Valentine’s Day a few weeks later, a nod to Louis even though the day was dedicated to interviews and signings and they couldn’t even sneak a private meal together. No one from management noticed the ring until the band had already been papped, and then Harry had to deal with the backlash from the fans freaking out about what they assumed was Harry’s Valentine’s present from Louis; all told, it was worth it to see Louis’ smile when he pulled it from his bag that morning and slipped it on.)

And so it began.

Over the next few years, Harry would wake to find velvet boxes perched on his chest while he slept, Louis breathing quietly beside him, still out cold after a transatlantic flight back to Harry. He’d find rings in his coat pockets, tucked in his luggage, waiting on the bed at the LA house when Harry arrived and Louis was still in England (Harry never did figure out how Louis accomplished that, and Louis just smiled and twinkled at him when he asked).

Louis likes the tradition because it gives him a way to show Harry he was thinking about him while they were apart, a sort of forget-me-not silver and gold gesture. Harry likes the tradition because he likes the idea that it’ll go on forever, that when they’re eighty and eighty-two, they’ll look back on it as their history told through Louis’ little gifts.

Also, he really, really likes rings.

(Now, four years and a couple dozen rings later, he’s ready for one ring in particular, one to fill the empty finger on his left hand. And he’ll wait as long as he needs to get it.)

(But also, if it were to happen soon, that would be even better.)

“I’m just saying,” Gemma says a week after the bonfire party, and even though Harry can’t see her, he recognizes that tone in her voice. A little exasperated, smiling despite her better judgment; the Harry special, if you will. “If Louis doesn’t know you want to be engaged, you can’t really be angry that it hasn’t happened yet.”

“I’m not angry,” Harry groans, flopping backwards onto the bed. The sheets are rumpled and bunched under his back, an awkward cotton fault line he can’t get comfortable on, and he frowns and wiggles until the little ridge of cloth flattens out. “I’m not! I just want to be married. So bad, Gems, you don’t understand.”

“We’ve been on the phone for an hour, Harry, and you’ve said that no less than twelve times. Also, I’ve known you your whole life. I think I do understand,” Gemma says. “But I thought you two were waiting until you were fully out before getting married? I seem to remember you promising that it would be bigger than Kim and Kanye plus Kim and that basketball player put together.”

“I… okay, I might have said that,” Harry allows. “And we do want to wait to get married when we can be open about it. But he could still propose soon! If we got engaged I could start on the wedding planning, since that's about eighty-seven percent of marriage anyway.”

“I think all married couples ever would disagree with you there, Haz.”

“I just want to be married,” he groans again, flinging a dramatic arm over his eyes. “I want babies and a big wedding and I want to change my last name and to be called his husband.”

“Harry, I know-”

“Gucci has a permanently open space in their schedule to design a wedding outfit for me. They don’t do that! But they’re doing it for me and I have to keep them waiting.”

“You've spent thousands on their terrible Hawaiian vacation dad shirts and made them actually cool to wear in public, I think they'll happily wait for you as long as you need,” Gemma says, and this time Harry can hear the eye roll.

“And we liked that venue! Remember, the one in Cheshire? It's booked for two years, we have to plan that in advance if that’s where we want it to be. Oh, god,” he gasps, “what if we can't find anywhere to get married because we waited too long?”

“You own five multi-million pound houses,” Gemma says loudly. “And you'll probably buy a couple more before you two settle down. You've got space somewhere, and you're being ridiculous.”

“Yeah, but-” Harry says, then sighs. “Gem.”

“Yeah?”

“What if he doesn't… want that anymore?”

“Harry,” Gemma admonishes quietly. “Of course he does. Louis loves you so much I honestly don't understand it. It baffles me, how two people who have seen so much ugliness in this world can still look at each other like nothing is more important than what they have.”

“I know he loves me,” Harry says, wiping at his face. He's not crying, not yet, but tears are prickling at the edge of his vision and threatening to spill over. “I've never doubted that. But marriage is scary, and not everyone wants that. Maybe he changed his mind.”

“He didn't,” Gemma answers immediately. “I mean, we haven't discussed it recently, but I'm sure his feelings haven't changed. He wanted to marry you when he was eighteen and you were a poodle-haired baby face, I doubt your relationship getting stronger has scared him off the concept.”

Harry rubs a hard thumb along his brow. “Maybe.”

“No, not maybe. Definitely.” Gemma doesn't often use anything but the tough love approach, but gentleness curves naturally around her words. “He wants to marry you, H. Give him time.”

“Okay, okay, I know he does,” Harry says, exhaling slowly. “But does he know?”

“If that's your issue, then stop tiptoeing around and tell him.”

“No,” Harry says, and if gentleness is inherent in Gemma, stubbornness comes naturally for Harry. He even crosses his arms, resolute. “I don't want him to feel forced into anything, it has to be his idea.”

“You are ridiculous,” Gemma sighs. “But okay. So what you need is a way to make him come up with the idea of proposing to you without you straight up telling him.”

Harry lets his arm fall across the bed so he's spread-eagled, phone warm against his ear. “I guess so, yeah.”

“Alright,” Gemma sighs again. “Here's what you do.”

Over the next few days, Harry doesn't drop hints so much as throw them.

When Louis gets home that evening, it's to find Harry draped across a chaise longue in their living room, glass of wine in hand and a stack of wedding magazines (everything the newsagent’s down the street had to offer, including a few duplicates) open on his lap.

“Hello, darling,” Louis says, kissing the side of Harry's head and leaning over his shoulder to look at the page Harry's on (or, okay, the one he's been paused on for twenty minutes waiting for Louis to get home). It's an advert for a high end wedding dress, sold at some boutique in London and probably costing more than any person should pay for some scraps of lace and satin. The opposite page has a close-up of a massive engagement ring, the diamond glinting almost mockingly. It's the two most wedding-esque pictures he could find side-by-side, just in case the bouquets or place settings or invitation sets on other pages didn’t quite scream this is a magazine about weddings!!! enough. “What’re you doing?”

“Oh,” Harry says, nailing nonchalance even though he practised this line in the mirror multiple times. “Just some light reading.”

Louis hums, tracing his finger over the picture of the woman wearing the white dress, posed artfully on a grand staircase. “Don't think that’s quite the right fit for your figure, babe,” he grins, then walks away, calling, “Want a top up on your drink?”

Harry barely resists setting the stack of magazines on fire.

The next day, Louis exits the shower dripping and delicious with a towel wrapped around his waist to see Harry sitting at his vintage, Old Hollywood-inspired vanity. He's got his custom jewellery boxes out and he's trying all his rings on one by one, sliding each one onto his left hand and holding it up to the light admiringly.

“Going somewhere?” Louis calls, stepping into their closet and leaving the door open so he can still see Harry trying on every single ring he owns.

“Mm, no,” Harry answers, wiggling his fingers. His newly applied white fingernail polish glints in the light, and this ring—the gold one with the green stone Louis bought him in Jamaica last year—settles perfectly next to his knuckle on his ring finger. He twists his wrist side to side to see the way the gem catches the spots of light from his candles. “It just... it looks nice, doesn't it?” He peeks over his shoulder at Louis, who's tugging on a pair of sweatpants and watching Harry with a bit of a smile.

“It does look nice,” Louis agrees, crossing the room to take Harry's hand in his. He kisses over the ring, then the back of Harry's hand.

“Looks right, doesn't it? Having something there?” Harry pushes.

“Got the most gorgeous hands in the world, baby,” Louis says, kissing his hand again like he's a gentleman suitor from a black and white film. “Anything would look good on your finger.”

Harry’s sigh of frustration is so heavy when Louis leaves the room that he blows out four of his candles.

He leaves his laptop open on engagement ring shopping sites, and Louis just politely minimizes the windows and opens his own tabs when he needs to order a pizza or google something weird. He invites their friend Amanda over for tea one day to help her plan her own wedding, and every few minutes when Harry holds up a fabric swatch or a sample boutonniere and calls for Louis’ opinion, Louis gives it… to Amanda.

“That’ll look good with Josh’s tie,” he nods at the pin as Harry’s head thumps against the table in exasperation behind him. “Excellent choice.”

Gemma starts responding to every single one of Harry’s texts—regardless of subject—with i don’t care, talk to louis. Liam lets Harry complain to him for hours on Skype, pretending he’s not doing other things while Harry whines about his problems. Niall thinks the whole thing is hilarious, texting Harry links to articles titled So, you want your man to propose? and 15 ways to get him ready for the aisle! and follows each of these up with pages of laughing emojis. Harry tries everything, literally everything he can think of short of grabbing Louis by tattooed forearm and yelling, “PROPOSE TO ME BEFORE I COMBUST.”

He does snap once and just says it, throwing all caution to the wind. It’s during sex, of course, the double-edged blade if there ever was one—the most potent weapon in Harry’s arsenal and also the easiest way for Louis to get under his skin.  

After dinner one night he shoves Louis to the bedroom and tosses him onto the bed, crawling onto his lap and enjoying the way Louis stares up at him like he's the brightest spot on the sun. He keeps his hips rolling just enough to keep Louis breathless, and wraps his arms around Louis’ shoulders so his mouth is right next to Louis’ ear.

“Haz,” Louis chokes out, hands clenching at Harry's waist. “Baby.”

“Make me yours,” Harry murmurs, scratching a hand through Louis’ hair, tugging a little to make Louis’ mouth fall open. “Come on, Lou. Write your name all over me.” A little line of sweet bites up Louis’ neck, shiny with spit. “Mark me up. Make it permanent.” Harry brings Louis’ hand up to his mouth, sucks on two of his fingers and rubs his arse teasingly over Louis’ cock.

“Harry,” Louis groans weakly. Harry gives one last nip to the ends of Louis’ fingers and lets them drop from his mouth, and that hand immediately finds its way to the small of Harry's back, keeping him as close as possible. Harry leans forward and kisses Louis’ temple, right behind his ear.

“Put a ring on me, babe,” he begs. He's desperate and needy and so in love with this man, he doesn't care if it sounds desperate. “Please.”

Louis pulls back a little, his eyes wide. He traces the bow of Harry's top lip with a shaky finger, mesmerised. “Okay,” he whispers, and Harry's heart thunders its approval. And then Louis smiles, smiles wide and sparkling and full of something that makes Harry shiver; he reaches toward his bedside table and Harry goes a little woozy.

Is this it? Did he have a ring all along, waiting for the right moment? Did all Harry's planning pay off?

“What's your word, baby?” Louis asks as he's rummaging through his drawer, twisted away from Harry.

It's been drilled into Harry so many times that he doesn't hesitate, doesn't even stop to link the question with the previous conversation. “Kumquat,” he answers promptly, his spine straightening unconsciously like it always does when Louis uses that voice, in the bedroom or otherwise.

“Well done, darling,” Louis says, and finally turns back to Harry; in one hand he's holding Harry's new collar, the one that's barely been broken in yet. In the other hand is-

“A cock ring?” Harry croaks.

“You ask for a ring, I give you a ring,” Louis murmurs, taking Harry's mouth in a deep kiss. “Have to make my boy happy.”

Harry doesn't get to broach the topic of a different sort of ring again that night, and it isn't until halfway through the next day, when Louis smirks as Harry perches gingerly on the edge of his chair during brunch, that he remembers that his original goal hadn't been to get Louis to fuck him to four orgasms.

To be fair, he had been a little distracted.

Another week passes, and still Harry is unengaged. Disengaged. Engagement-less. However you say it, that’s what he is, and he’s about at the end of his rope. Niall invites the two of them out for lunch at his local and spends the entire time dropping heavy-handed hints about rings and down-on-one-knees and their friends that are getting engaged and married and they've been together almost as long as you two have, Lou, whaddya think o’ that? The moment Louis leaves the table for the loo, Harry lets his head thump to the table in defeat as Niall breaks into laughter.

“Whew, you weren’t kiddin’, were ya,” he laughs, wiping at his eyes. “Tommo’s one o’ the smartest guys I know, but he doesn’t have a clue what’s goin’ on.”

Harry groans and nods, forehead squeaking against the grain of the wood. “Maybe I should just propose to him,” he mumbles.

“Get your face off the table, lad, I can’t hear ya,” Niall says.

“I said,” Harry repeats glumly, rolling his head to the side, “maybe I should just propose to him.” Niall raises an eyebrow, and Harry takes that as permission to continue. “I mean, it’s not like we’re a man and a woman and one of us is societally obligated to ask the other. Even though that’s misogynistic. Whatever—I could ask him. I could.”

“Yeah, and you sound so thrilled about it,” Niall scoffs. “Do you really want to do that?”

“No,” Harry grumbles.

“Why not?”

Harry sits up, rubbing at his forehead and running his hand through his hair; he tries to tug on the ends like he used to, then remembers his long hair is gone and drops his hands, feeling weirdly unsettled that he can't finish the gesture. “Erm, well.” He shrugs a little, traces a set of initials someone carved into the tabletop. R.L. The knife must have dug hard into the table to leave its marks, a solid dent in the wood, and… now Harry's empathising with a dead slab of pine.

Cool.

He clears his throat and tries again. “We were on the X Factor Live tour, yeah? And me ‘nd Lou snuck off the bus because he wanted to sleep under the stars.” Try as he might, Harry can't keep the smile from pulling at the edges of his mouth, tempting him into nostalgic joy. “We were in Brighton, I remember, and it was so cold, so we didn’t last the whole night out there, but it was beautiful and romantic and we could see the pier all lit up and everything, and…” A bigger smile now, and those same butterflies in Harry's stomach that fluttered for Louis back in Brighton are still there, still flitting away just remembering how Louis looked under coastal starlight. “And Louis said, ‘Someday, I’m going to ask you to marry me.’ He already knew, we were only a few months in and he already knew we were a forever thing.”

Niall takes a sip of his beer, eyes steady on Harry. “What did you say to him?”

“I said,” Harry says, smiling down at his hands, “that whenever he asked, I’d say yes.”

Niall nods, and over his shoulder Harry can see Louis up at the bar, getting another round for the table and chatting with the bartender. “In that case,” he says, “I think you should hold on a little longer.”

It sounds simple, coming out of his mouth, and Harry knows it is. He’s made it into this checklist item that needs to be crossed off, but it’s not like that. A forever thing, that’s what they are, and rushing forever seems a little pointless.

He nods back and exhales slowly, trying to do that thing his yoga instructor is always telling him, retaining the positive and expelling the negative. He feels a little better as Louis slides back into the booth next to him and throws his arm comfortably over Harry’s shoulder.

He feels a lot better when Louis kisses the spot behind his ear and murmurs, “Love you,” before turning to Niall and saying, “So, Neil, what’s this about an album ready by the spring?”

Harry mulls over Niall’s words as September slides into October, as Niall heads back to the U.S. following golf’s (apparent) siren song, as Liam treks back to LA to put in some more work on his album. Louis has to do a stint in California as well but then comes right back to Harry, tanned and rested and talking all about a new property he and his stepdad are interested in for an investment and some writing he did with Liam.

It makes sense, Niall’s advice; Harry knows that, and he knows that as much as Niall teases and Gemma rolls her eyes and Liam coddles they all want what’s best for him and Louis, and that includes Harry not driving himself mad wondering when it’s finally going to happen.

Still.

Harry’s got one more plan. A last ditch effort, a Hail Mary with one second left on the clock.

It’s the sixth, and it’s the night of Harry’s big magazine launch; technically, as the cover model he’s the one throwing the party, though the Another Man staff handled every detail and he just has to show up. A suit’s been sent over by Dior, a car’s been scheduled for nine o’clock sharp, and he and Gemma have manicures planned for that afternoon just to make sure everything is perfect. Louis has his own plans, the Tomlinson-Deakin brood coming up to London for a day of shopping and spending time with their big brother (and to keep Louis’ mind off the fact that he can’t  go to the party to support Harry, but they aren’t talking about that).

“Meet back here before you leave tonight?” Louis asks after they treat the girls to lunch, pressing a kiss to Harry’s mouth as Daisy seizes one arm and Phoebe tugs on the other, trying to drag Louis out the door. Louis has to strain a little against them—try as he might, Louis can’t deny that his almost-youngest sisters have nearly caught up to him in height—but his eyes are bright as he waits for an answer.

“Yeah, babe, of course,” Harry grins. He shoots the twins a wink, pushing Louis their way. “Don’t run him too ragged, ladies. I do still need him in one piece.”

“We’ll be good,” promises Daisy, but her grin is entirely too much like Louis’ to be comforting.

“Bye, Haz,” Fizzy calls from the car, and Lottie waves as Louis is shoved into the passenger seat. Louis blows a kiss and then they're gone, the house quiet in their wake.

Harry putters about until it's time to leave to meet Gemma, whistling along to the record spinning in the background (Fleetwood Mac, always, unless he’s in a particular mood and Stevie and Lindsey can’t scratch his itch) as he rinses off the lunch dishes and folds laundry. They have a housekeeping service that comes once a week, but really Harry and Louis only keep them on retainer because of the times their schedules might change and they suddenly have to leave without tidying up; otherwise, Harry runs a clean house. Cleaning has always been a good de-stresser for him, and when he moved in with Louis it only compounded.

In fact, Harry might admit that it’s a little bit of a thing for him, cleaning up after Louis. He likes the domestic aspect, Louis’ seemingly careless orders tossed Harry’s way in that voice, the one he could use to get Harry to do just about anything. And then there are the days when Harry's collar is involved, when he kneels at Louis’ feet during footie matches and waits to be told what to do, when Louis picks out a lacy lingerie set and has Harry do the chores in corsets and thigh-highs as he watches, pupils blown wide and legs spread wider.

Harry spent an entire day once cleaning the house with a vibrator inside him, and when Louis thought he deserved a reward he'd flip a switch and send Harry convulsing as waves of pleasure rolled through him, until finally neither of them could stand it any longer and Louis fucked him twice on the floor, once on top of the washing machine, and once in the bathtub-

An alert on Harry’s phone startles him out of his incredibly vivid memory, and he can feel the flush of his face as he tugs a sweater on over his head and jogs out to his car, hoping the blush will die down before he meets Gemma.

No such luck; she gets out of her own car in the private car park behind the nail salon and surveys him over the top of her sunglasses. “You know what,” she says, raising her palm to Harry before he can even formulate an excuse about a hard workout or an overactive heater in his car or something. “I don't want to know.”

“Thank you,” Harry says, clearing his throat. “Shall we?”

They have a private room booked for them, just in case, and it's easy to let the nerves about the night ahead settle as the manicurists get to work on Harry's cuticles. He and Gemma gossip about the ladies in their mum’s wine club and the people from Holmes Chapel who keep trying to get in touch now that Harry and Gemma are both rather famous, and the time passes quickly as they sip cucumber water and a horde of determined women make them camera ready.

“You said you wanted all black, am I correct?” one manicurist asks, holding up a bottle of inky black varnish he and Gemma had picked out together.

“Yes, that would be great,” Harry nods, and she sets to work, expertly striping Harry's nails with colour. He watches as she finishes his right hand and sticks it under a heat lamp so the first coat can dry, reaching for his left next.

“Wait,” he says when she's halfway through with his left hand, her brush paused as it hovers over his ring finger. “Can you- can you skip that one?”

Gemma makes a noise in the back of her throat but doesn’t say anything, and the manicurist acquiesces without hesitation, moving to his pinky instead. “Do you want a different colour on that one instead?”

Oh. Harry hadn't even thought of that—he could do red, to match Gemma’s lipstick tonight, or gold to match the watch he’ll be wearing. Or… oh. He could choose blue, a single bright blue splash of colour on his most significant nail, blue like oceans and skies and Louis Tomlinson’s eyes, and it would be another in a long line of fun little nods to the fans following their relationship, an ode to his own baby blue-

“Haz,” Gemma warns, like she can read his thoughts. “Be careful. Don't want one gesture to drown out a whole night.”

She's right. She's always right. If Harry was to show up with that blatant of a message for anyone to see, it would be all the fans—and, likely enough, even some of the low-level media—would talk about. It would definitely overshadow this project he's so incredibly proud of, and would miss the point he was trying to make by leaving the nail polish off in the first place: a message for Louis, and Louis only.

“No,” he says regretfully, tucking that idea away for a later date. “Just a clear top coat, thank you.”

Later, there’s dinner at this little bistro where the servers know Harry’s order by heart and they box up a slice of chocolate cake for him to take home to Louis, and there’s a hair and makeup team arriving at the house to make sure Harry and Gemma look presentable, and there’s the sound of a half-dozen Tomlinsons piling back into the house accompanied by the sounds of shopping bags and laughter. Lottie and Louis come join the fun upstairs, Lottie helping one of the makeup artists with Harry’s concealer—”His skin tone’s hard to work with, I know,” Lottie reassures her, and Harry feels a swell of pride at his almost-little sister, how competent she is among people twice her age—and Louis just lounging on the bed, watching people swirl around the room like the mice getting Cinderella ready for the ball.

“Lou, baby, can you pick out a couple of rings for me?” Harry asks as a man from Dior loops a silk tie around his neck, knotting it low against his chest.

Louis springs to his feet and manoeuvres through the room, finding Harry’s jewellery box under a couple of makeup cases. It takes him a few minutes to pick through all of Harry’s choices and find what he wants, holding some options up next to Harry’s suit to see how they look together and buffing a couple on his shirt like they aren't quite up to snuff for tonight. Finally, though, he makes his way over to Harry with a handful of metal and jewels, grinning. He should look out of place in this room filled to the brim with high fashion, his soft sweater and faded black jeans miles from suits and heels and silk, but he’s got that skill of adaptation that lets him blend in despite all that and he doesn’t have an ounce of discomfort in his movements.

“Let me see your hand, then,” he says, and takes his time sliding three of Harry’s rings on one by one: his Grateful Dead bears one, the thumb ring Stevie Nicks gave him, a small silver band on his pinky. He grabs Harry’s left hand next, and Harry’s almost forgotten his little last-minute decision until Louis pauses, the newest ring he gave to Harry at the bonfire party slid halfway on his finger.

“Babe,” Louis says, frowning softly. “You missed a nail.”

The moisture in Harry’s skin immediately evaporates, or at least that’s how it feels; he coughs, his throat dry, and tries not to look like an idiot when he just hums instead of responding. “Uh. Mhmm.”

“Do you want me to paint it for you?” Louis asks, tilting his head up to look at Harry, brow still furrowed.

“Um,” Harry coughs again. “No, Lou. Thank you.”

“Are you sure?”

Harry sucks in a breath. It's now or ever, isn’t it? This is what he wanted, for Louis to notice, for a chance to say it was all on purpose. “Yes,” Harry says, stressing the word and catching Louis’ eye. “I’m very, very sure.”

Louis stares at Harry for a long moment, his eyes clear but unreadable, and it sort of feels like the world’s stopped spinning. Harry's pulled the pin from his last grenade and heaved it as far as he can; the fire and smoke of action are imminent.

But... if Louis has cottoned on, Harry doesn’t think he’ll let Harry know right now, not with all these people around; the grenade is thrown but it’s suspended in midair, stopped before its fall. Louis wouldn’t want their private life to become a spectacle, especially not since the beauty teams are professionals but are also glancing around the room like they’re scraping up gossip about Harry Styles and his hidden relationship, a secret romance their incestuous industry circles would die to hear about. Louis won't want to give them anything they haven't earned, especially something as large as this; Harry's not sure of many things, but he is sure of that.

Of course, if Harry's gesture has once again flown overhead, these mental gymnastics and the will he-won't he chase of thoughts around Harry's head will all be for naught.

After another silent moment, Louis squeezes Harry’s hand and steps back, frown smoothing out into a small, quirked smile. “Is this some artsy fashion thing I wouldn’t understand?”

And that's it. The checkered flag waves; the final buzzer sounds. Harry's last ditch effort has failed.

He sighs, but maybe he’s not that surprised. If making Louis try on tuxedos the last time they went shopping wasn’t enough to tip him off, maybe nothing will get through to him until he has the thought for himself. He gives Louis a small smile, bends to kiss his cheek. “No,” he tells him, and it’s almost a little funny. Someday, when they are married, he thinks they’ll look back on this and laugh.

He can’t wait to get there.

“It’s just a me thing, I think,” he finishes, kisses Louis once more, and turns back to the team trying to get him ready on time.

Lottie, who overheard the whole thing, smacks Louis on the back of the head; when he squawks, “What was that for?!” she replies, “Because you’re an idiot,” and then flashes Harry a look he takes to mean I’m sorry he’s like this.

Harry just grins; Louis is sweet and passionate and romantic and smart and knows Harry better than anyone on the planet. If his greatest weakness is missing a couple of hints Harry throws his way, he thinks they'll make it just fine.

Still, at the party a few hours later, after a red carpet walk and a round of speeches and thank you s and posed pictures with Gemma, Harry laughs ruefully into his glass of something cinnamony and full of whiskey.

Gemma nudges him, laughter there in the corner of her eyes too. “What is it?”

“That's it, then,” he says, smiling. “I gave it my best. He's got to figure it out on his own, now.”

“Harry-”

“I'm okay,” Harry reassures her, and he really is. He's struck with some sort of bone-deep, cosmic irony, and he can't stop smiling even though his insides feel like they've been replaced with marshmallow—not a bad sensation, really, just not something he'd ever thought he'd have to deal with. “That's that. We’ll get married someday, just not as soon as I'd thought.” He's struck by giggles again. “It is what it is, after all.”


“Sure, Haz,” Gemma says, and Harry nods. He's right, and that's all there is to it.


What he doesn't see, however, is Gemma pulling her phone from her purse and texting three short messages to four specific people, one right after the other.

One to Nick Grimshaw: Louis is going to need your help picking out a ring for Harry soon. It's a secret. You in?

One to Lottie: I hear Prada’s good this time of year. Think you can keep Harry distracted with shopping long enough for Louis to get the message beaten into his thick skull?

One to Liam and Niall in their group message (set up specifically to complain about Harry and Louis): It's gone on long enough. You two ready?

She gets four answers back:

Yes, followed by about a dozen suspicious eye emojis,

yes, obvs !!! accompanied by a request for all the gossip Gemma hears at the party tonight,

YES!!!! I'm ready lets go lets doo thisss, and

it’s about damn time buddie

That finished, she clicks her phone lock and hunts down the hors d'oeuvres tray she’d been eyeing; the cavalry has been called. Harry's part is done, yes, and now so is Gemma’s.

But it's not nearly over yet.


Here's the thing about Louis Tomlinson: he honestly, genuinely didn't expect to find Harry Styles so early in his life.

To be clear, that doesn't mean he never expected to find Harry Styles; he might not have known his name until he read it off the X Factor contestant badge pinned to Harry's shirt, he might not have known his future would be wrapped up in gangly limbs and wild curls, but he always knew they were headed towards each other even before they knew the other existed.

Because Louis, see, he believes in fate.

Maybe that’s not the proper name for it in his head, but he thinks it all means basically the same thing: fate, destiny, soulmates and true love. Perfect fits, perfect matches, two halves of a whole. He believes in it because he was looking for it, and then he found it, and now he keeps it, close to his heart to keep him warm on hard days.

It’s hard not to believe something when you’re living it, day in and day out.

But, back to the original point: Louis expected someone like Harry—he never, not in a million years, could have ever actually dreamed Harry up, Disney prince eyes and baby deer legs and a laugh that sounded like coming home, but he knew someone was going to come into his life who was sweet and kind and beautiful, and then there Harry was like a self-fulfilling prophecy—but he didn’t expect him quite so early.

He loves their love story; truly, he does. It’s pretty well known already, something like an urban legend in corners of the internet, oops and hi and an X Factor bathroom, but he’d spend the rest of his life making sure every single other person on Earth heard about it if he could. He loves that he and Harry are each other’s firsts in so many ways, especially the ways that matter.

But he sort of… well, if he's being honest, he sort of planned on having a few bad relationships before he found his other half.

Not that he's begging for relationship drama or heartbreak or something else melodramatic and unnecessary—he and Harry have their fair share of arguments, but they're too intense for anything like on-again-off-again, and they're too in love for anything like doubt.

He doesn't want indecision or drama with Harry; if the rest of his life goes the way the last six years with Harry have gone, he’ll never have another complaint.

(Okay, that's not true. Louis loves complaining, it's his third favourite hobby. But the sentiment stands all the same.)

No, meeting Harry at eighteen and moving into a multi-million pound multi-storey flat with him within months of starting to date was not how he expected his life to go. He thought he'd go to uni, have a couple of bad relationships that taught him all about himself while he learned what he valued and didn't care for in a partner. He planned to sleep around a little—though, seeing the way his perpetually single friends bang on about the whole thing, he's glad he missed that step in the process—and then find him, the Harry-shaped person he didn't know the name of yet when he was daydreaming up his future.

When Louis met his soulmate, he planned to have his life together. He'd be the perfect boyfriend because he'd know exactly what to do, what to say. He'd have the experience needed for a first kiss that wouldn't be sloppy and awkward; he'd be able to hold his boyfriend’s hand without going all clammy with nerves. He'd be fantastic at sex, what with all the practice he'd planned on having.

That is not what happened.

Instead, Louis met Harry and he knew, it clicked, and he didn't have a bit of experience besides his awkward short term relationship with Hannah and a couple of drunken snogs from sixth form parties he sort of remembered the next morning.

So his and Harry’s first kiss was sloppy and awkward and Louis accidentally bit Harry’s lip and made him bleed, but it was also wonderful and fumbling and sweet and Harry smelled like powder makeup and happiness. They could’ve played it off as adrenaline rush from performing on the X Factor stage in front of millions, but they didn’t. Harry pulled back and wiped his mouth with his sleeve and smiled so hard his lip split open again, and then followed their second kiss, and then their third.

And Louis still can’t hold Harry’s hand without getting giddy and his heart doing all sorts of flip-flops and skipping, even though it’s been years of Harry’s hand wrapped around his as they stumble into adventures together. Harry knows it, too, the smug git; he gets all puffed-up and dimply and prods at Louis because he can, why’re you so red, Lou? Why’re you trying not to smile, Lou? Why’re you acting like a twelve year old with a crush, Lou? Loooouuu?

And the sex—god, Louis wasn’t anywhere near prepared for the sex. He doesn’t know how he did it, but Harry somehow took Louis, tore him into little pieces, rearranged him from the inside out, and put him back together just by breathing, “Lou, please.” Louis was so utterly unprepared to handle Harry Styles that he almost feels like he should be embarrassed about it, except no one would be able to blame him because there isn’t a soul alive who doesn’t get shaky-kneed in front of that particular wave of charm. He was a goner, pure and simple, from the moment Harry bit his lip and looked up at Louis coyly through his eyelashes.

And now they’re here; this isn’t the path Louis thought it would take, but they’re here anyway, and there’s a reason Harry’s favourite song to slow dance to is that old Shania one: look how far we’ve come, my baby.

Louis can’t imagine anything better than what he has with Harry, can’t imagine a future better than one where they’re together. Someday he and Harry are going to get married, whenever Harry’s ready and they can be open and free about it; someday they’re going to have an absolute brood of children, little ones to spoil so rotten and to teach and love and to watch as they grow up with little pieces of Harry and Louis inside them. Louis has called Harry’s family his own for years now, but that’ll be official someday.

He's spent the last six years feeling like he was playing catch up: he made a decision at age eighteen to try his luck on a talent show, and he hasn't stopped running since. Six months after being put together, Louis’ band was offered a contract for more money than he'd ever thought he'd see in one sitting. A year later, they had a worldwide number one and a sold out tour.

In an X Factor bathroom, he bumped into someone who would literally change the course of his life, who would take him and shape him and let himself be shaped by Louis as well. Louis wasn't ready but fate was, ready to tie them together for forever.

Louis hasn't caught his breath in six years; he hopes that never changes.

Looks like we made it, that’s Harry’s favourite line when he pulls Louis close, a slow sway at the end of a long day.

And they did.

Lottie, for some unknown reason, is on Harry and Louis’ doorstep bright and early Monday morning, holding three Starbucks cups and beaming widely.

“Good morning!” she chirps when Louis peeks out from behind the door, squinting a little against the early morning sun. She shoves one of the cups into his hands and breezes by him, kicking off her shoes and making her way to the kitchen.

“What's this, then?” Louis rasps, opening the lid to his cup and giving it a sniff. The coffee inside is so bitter the smell makes his eyes water.

“It's the strongest stuff Starbucks is legally allowed to sell,” Lottie says, handing one to Harry as well. “Or, at least that's what they told me.”

“Yes, okay,” Louis says, sending Harry a confused look as Lottie hops up on one of the stools by their breakfast bar. Harry shrugs, rubbing sleepily at his eyes and taking a sip of his coffee. “Thanks. But…”

Lottie drinks from her own cup, tilting her head in question.

“Uh. Why’re y’here, Lots?” Louis asks.

“Not that we’re not happy to have you,” Harry chimes in.

Instead of answering, Lottie pulls out her phone and flaps her hand at them idly. “Drink your coffee, you'll need the caffeine.”

Louis blinks, still muzzy from sleep. “Do we have plans?” He takes a drink of his coffee and coughs, eyes burning from the bitterness and nose scrunching from the taste. Harry opens the fridge and pulls out a bottle of milk, passing it to Louis without a word.

“We don't have plans,” Lottie tells him, turning to Harry. “You, however, are taking me shopping.”

Harry eyebrows fly upward. “Am I?”

“Oi,” Louis complains. “What about me? I like shopping.”

“Oh, uh,” Lottie says, her hand twitching around her cup. Louis frowns; Lottie is a lot like him, maybe too much so, and they both have tells for when they’re not entirely comfortable—Louis laughs, and Lottie fidgets. He’s distracted from that train of thought by her next words, though. “You're having lunch with Niall and Liam.” There's a little line between her perfectly filled-in brows. “Aren't you?”

“Not... that I'm aware, no,” Louis says slowly. “Then again, the two of them making plans with me and then forgetting to tell me is not new.”

“Hey,” Harry objects as he puts the milk away again. “Why am I not invited to lunch?”

“Because,” Lottie answers, tossing her hair over her shoulder, “you're taking me shopping.” Louis is about to protest all these plans being made without them and she must be able to sense it, because she puts a manicured hand over his mouth and cuts him off. “You two are in sufferable. You can spend one day apart, and we make plans without your consent because if we didn't, you two would never leave your bedroom.”

Louis grins behind her hand, and Harry walks over to slide a palm around Louis’ waist. “We weren't in bed when you got here,” he points out, though he's smirking too.

“To be fair,” Louis says, pulling her makeshift muzzle away from his mouth, “we were only down here to get tea and honey.”

“Since when do you put honey in your tea?” Lottie asks suspiciously.

Harry presses his grin into Louis’ shoulder. “We don't.”

It takes a second, then: “Oh, ugh. Keep that to yourselves,” Lottie huffs, smacking his shoulder. “C’mon, finish your coffee and put some clothes on, we’ve got things to do.” She swats at them until they’re running up the stairs, giggling like kids being told off by Mum. Harry heads to the shower and Louis steps into their walk-in wardrobe, tapping his lip as he stands in front of his wall of clothes.

His phone rings as he’s picking an outfit, Liam’s face flashing on the screen.

“Hello, person who makes plans for me without my permission,” Louis says as he answers, phone snug between his ear and shoulder as he chooses a sweater.

“Hello… Louis,” Liam says after a moment. “Sorry, I couldn’t think of an answer for that. So you heard about lunch?”

“The lunch I’m being forced into against my will?” Louis says loudly, because that’s just how his voice is sometimes and he’s long given up trying to control it. “Apparently I have no choice.”

“You always have a choice, you big drama queen.”

“So if I said I didn’t want to go?”

“Well, no, you have to go,” Liam says. “Sorry mate, that’s just how it is today.”

“I could’ve had plans,” Louis grumbles, turning to Harry’s side and picking one of his sweaters instead. Harry steps out of the bathroom in a billow of steam and wearing just a towel right as Louis is pulling it on over his head, and he sends Louis an approving wink. The elbow patches on the sleeves hang down almost to Louis’ wrists, but he shrugs and decides to go with it; it’s comfy and smells like Harry’s cologne, so that’s all he really cares about.

Liam laughs. “Did you have plans?”

“I always have plans,” Louis sniffs. “I’m very famous, Liam, and everyone loves me and being around me always.”

Liam and Harry both snort at the same time, and Louis turns to shoot a glare at Harry. “Sorry, Lou,” he whispers through a grin, kissing Louis’ cheek as he rubs a towel over his wet hair. “Help me pick an outfit?”

“Guys?” Liam asks, but Harry continues pressing kisses to Louis’ face and neither of them are paying him a bit of attention. Louis tries to hold his frown, but it doesn’t take long before he breaks and giggles despite his best efforts. Harry fist pumps like he’s won something and tugs Louis over to his side of the wardrobe again, pulling out shirts for Louis’ approval.

“Anyway,” Liam says, and Louis shakes his head at the two options Harry holds up first. “How does noon sound?”

“Time s’it now?” Louis asks, as Harry holds up another two shirts—a denim shirt so worn Louis doesn’t think it’d survive a strong breeze without ripping right off of him and a sweater so bright pink that Louis honestly wonders if Harry’s fucking with him—and Louis bats the choices away, stepping up to the rack of options himself and running a hand along the sleeves.

“Half ten. Niall’s already at my place, we can swing by and pick you up?”

“Sure, Liam, come kidnap me from my home in broad daylight, it’s fine.” Louis’ hand lands on a familiar material and it catches his attention, and when he pulls the leather jacket out he immediately hands it to Harry to put it on.

“Great!” Liam says in his ear. “See you soon.”

“Yeah,” Louis says, then tosses his phone aside without hearing if Liam’s got anything else to add because Harry is a massive dork and has put the jacket on with no shirt underneath, arms spread for Louis’ approval. “That should not be as attractive as it is.”

Harry smiles widely. “Like what you see?”

Louis finds himself running his hands over Harry’s stomach and groaning—loudly, because again he can’t help it—as he leans up to catch Harry’s mouth in a kiss, when Lottie shouts up the stairs, “That doesn’t sound like you’re getting dressed, it sounds like the opposite!”

Louis pulls away reluctantly with one last pull on Harry’s lower lip, resting his forehead against Harry’s leather-clad shoulder. “I hate her.”

“She’s literally your carbon copy,” Harry laughs, kissing Louis’ forehead. “And she’s right, since apparently we have places to be.”

Louis huffs but grabs a pair of black jeans, pulling those on and heading back downstairs. Lottie’s still in the kitchen, fingers flying on her phone screen as she texts away.

“Need anything while we’re out?” she asks, lifting her eyes just enough to catch Louis’ before dropping back to her phone. When he opens his mouth, she cuts him off. “No, I will not buy you tea, you have a grocery service that will deliver that for you—I mean non-essentials. We’re heading to Prada and Gucci and Sephora, for sure, want us to pick up anything specific?”

“Nah,” Louis says, hopping up on the counter and dangling his legs as he sips at his now-lukewarm coffee. “You two know what I like, if you see anything just grab it.”

Lottie smiles, and Louis regrets that a little bit almost immediately—she’s been angling to get him into some YSL leopard print for months now, and Harry certainly won’t stop her.

“Alright, ready?” Harry asks from the doorway, decently dressed now and straightening his plain white shirt under the leather on his shoulders. Louis still wants to run his hands all over him, but it’s a little easier to ignore that urge when Harry’s fully clothed. (Sort of. Well, okay, not really. But Louis is good at silencing that voice after years out in the public eye.)

“Yeah, definitely,” Lottie says, nabbing Harry’s keys and heading to the garage. “Don’t take too long on the goodbyes, you won’t be apart that long.”

Louis waves her off and spreads his legs a little so Harry can fit himself in between his knees, hands warm on Louis’ thighs. “You look amazing in this,” he murmurs into Louis’ neck, nosing aside his own too-big sweater and kissing Louis’ collarbone. “Shouldn’t let you leave the house at all.”

“You’re the one leaving first,” Louis points out, letting Harry slide him forward a little more until they’re slotted together. Lottie interrupted what was looking to be an excellent morning spent in bed doing nothing but each other, over, and over, and over; Louis is a little achey for it now, knowing what he’s missing.

“Mm, but she’s your sister,” Harry says, taking Louis’ earlobe between his teeth. “Think we can be quick?”

That’s all the prompting Louis needs; he unzips Harry’s fly so fast the metal gets hot, and he works Harry’s cock out of his pants with little finesse and a lot of need.

“Jesus,” Harry breathes, biting at Louis’ shoulder and fumbling for Louis’ button and zip as well. His hand is cool and big and perfect when he wraps it around Louis, and Louis’ breath hitches as his legs spread wider.

Louis’ wrist doesn’t like the angle but Harry likes it a lot, his hips jumping as Louis pulls at him, hand getting more and more slick to ease the slide. Louis hides a moan in Harry’s neck, clamping down with sharp teeth and sucking a bruise at the curve of his neck, and Harry positively gasps.

“Lou, I’m not gonna-”

“Wait for me,” Louis murmurs, a command that doesn’t sound commanding but is all the same; Harry nods pitifully against his shoulder, whines scratching at the back of his throat. His hand shakes around Louis’ cock, but it’s still the best feeling in the world as he stirs up sparks in Louis’ blood.

“Okay,” Louis whispers as he feels the heat build in his spine, his muscles tensing in anticipation. “Ready, love?”

“Yes, yes,” Harry mumbles immediately, “Lou, please-”

“Okay, darling, okay,” Louis says, and when the heat is at its apex he gasps, “Now.”

Harry comes immediately, shoulders hunching as he stripes Louis’ hands, cupped beneath to catch it all. The bliss on his face is enough to knock Louis over the edge and follow him into orgasm, back arching as he comes over Harry’s fist, the world free-falling around them as pleasure pulses through him.

“So good, baby,” Louis pants, kissing Harry’s shoulder. “So, so good.”

Harry haphazardly slides his hand around without lifting his face from Louis’ chest until he comes across the rag left in the sink for dishes, still a little damp. He wipes Louis’ hands and kisses his clean palms, then hurriedly does himself as well. There’s an echoing beep from a car horn in the vicinity of their garage, and Harry grins ruefully at Louis, his pupils wide and muscles loose and sated.

“You look like you’ve just been fucked,” Louis says.

“I look how I feel, then,” Harry chuckles, leaning forward to kiss Louis. It’s sweet, even tinged with a little leftover heat, and Louis doesn’t let him go until Lottie lays on the horn again.

“Have a good day, baby,” Louis says, zipping Harry’s trousers for him and nudging him towards Lottie’s insistent beeping.

“You too, love. Tell the boys hello.” Harry blows a kiss and then he’s gone, leaving Louis breathing heavily with his cock still out, laughing at himself, this day, and the gorgeous, silly boy who just walked out the door.

“So, lads,” Louis says, leading the way to a booth far from the front door of the little restaurant, so it’s less likely the three of them will be spotted. Niall’s got a hat on—and not his ridiculous newsboy cap, a real hat—and Liam’s wearing an Adidas sweater instead of his usual stuff, but they can never be too careful. “How’ve you been?”

“Good,” Niall says quickly, then doesn’t elaborate any more.

Louis acknowledges the short response with a nod and checks his texts (Harry and Lottie have been live-texting him their trip so far, since Lottie can't put it on her social media. The most recent picture is a close up of the bruise Louis left on Harry's neck not an hour ago, accompanied by christ lou he's not going off to war, you didn't have to tag him before releasing him. Louis sends back three of the little emoji girl with her hand raised in a half shrug; Lottie's fluent, she’ll get his meaning).


“Yeah, yeah, good,” Liam agrees just as shortly in the silence, then he goes quiet again as well. Louis shoots them a weird look as they settle in on the same side of the booth across from him, Niall’s beer and Liam’s water perched innocently in front of their identically crossed arms resting against the table.

“Alright,” Louis says slowly. “How’s studio work been? Ni, I got that clip you sent the other day, that song is genius.”

“Yeah, s’been good,” Niall says.

“Right,” Louis says, and now he’s frowning. “Payno, who’ve you been recording with lately?”

“Oh, couple of people,” Liam shrugs.

“Alright, what the hell,” Louis says in frustration. “You two invited me out, so if you weren’t wanting to be sociable then there’s really only you to blame-”

“Lou,” Niall interrupts, his face grave. “This is an intervention.”

Louis snorts, assuming Niall’s joking. “That’s rich, Ireland,” he says, gesturing to Niall’s half-drained pint next to his own glass of water.

“Not for that,” Liam says, and if Niall is serious and wary, Liam sounds like a therapist, soothing and soft. Louis’ frown deepens.

“Then what’s this all about?” Louis asks.

“Lou,” Niall says again. “When are you going to propose to Harry?”

Louis’ mind short-circuits like he's just stuck a fork into a toaster; he tries to set his glass back on the table to wrap his mind around what just came out of Niall’s mouth but he misses, the drink tumbling to the ground and shattering on the floor. “Shit, shit,” he mumbles, getting to his feet and trying to push the shards of glass into a little pile. A waitress makes her way over with a broom and sweeps the debris up easily, reassuring Louis that it’s fine, it happens all the time, and she’ll bring him a fresh drink. Louis fumbles back into his seat, still dazed.

“What?” he finally asks, voice weak.

“We just want to talk about your plans,” Liam says slowly, hands up like he’s approaching a cornered animal. “Or, you know. Your lack of plans.”

“Are you waiting for the right moment?” Niall asks bluntly, and Louis’ head spins from the abrupt back and forth; it’s like being caught in the world’s most invasive version of good cop-bad cop. “Because let me tell you, mate, it’s time. It’s been time. For a while now.”

“What?” Louis asks again, slumping back against the booth. “What is- where is this coming from? Haz and I are fine-”

“We know,” Liam says, laying his hand over Louis’ on the table. Louis stares at it, utterly lost. “You two are still absolutely great, there’s nothing actually wrong-”

“He’s been dropping hints for ages now, Tommo,” Niall cuts him off. “He really wants to be engaged, and we don’t want anything to happen to you two just because you’re too oblivious to catch it.”

“What do you mean, dropping hints?” Louis squeaks. His stomach is turning unpleasantly, hand sweaty under Liam’s against the wood of the table. “Why didn't he just tell me? We talk about everything, surely this would've come up.”

“He wanted you to have the idea on your own,” Niall says, voice a little gentler. “Doesn't want you to feel forced into anything.”

“You do want to get married, yeah?” Liam asks.

“God, yes, of course,” Louis answers. “What hints did he drop? How did I miss all this?”

“Hell if we know,” Niall shrugs. “We kept waiting for you to catch on, but you never did.”

“‘We?’ Who's we?”

“Oh, you know. Us two, Lottie, Fiz,” Liam says, listing off names on his fingers. “Nick is gonna help you pick out a ring, I think. Ed’s on standby if you wanna write something up to propose with. Oh, and Gemma, she's who kicked this off after the magazine party night.”

“The magazine party…” Louis trails off, then it hits him, a memory dropped on his head like a piano in an old cartoon. He remembers, just a few days and also somehow a lifetime ago, holding Harry's hand, sliding on his rings, and frowning down at a single unpainted fingernail. His left ring finger, to be precise. “Oh, shit, his fingernail.”

“That was his last try to get you to notice,” Liam agrees. “Thought that maybe if he drew all his attention to one place in particular, you might… well. You might catch on.”

“I just… I don't know how I missed it,” Louis says, a dozen different scenes flashing through his head in terrifyingly clear hindsight; Harry leaving stacks of wedding magazines around their house (including, Louis thinks with a wince, one literally left on his pillow), taking him tux shopping with no real explanation as to why, asking his opinions on boutonnieres and slow dance songs and- “Fuck,” he says, dropping his head to the table, “that's why he was so weird when I gave him the last ring, the one at the bonfire.”

“He wasn't the only one,” Liam chuckles quietly. “All your closest friends and family were there, and you got down on one knee and everything. You had us all fooled.”

“Okay, let's go back to how you missed all this, because I feel like we gotta clear that up before you start spiralling and doubting everything,” Niall says, frowning a little. “You do know why this happened, yeah? Tell me you do.”

Louis, his face still against the table, shrugs miserably. He feels like the worst boyfriend in the world; how could he be so wrapped up in the band’s future plans and his own business ventures and not notice that Harry's been trying to tell him something for months?

“Hey,” Niall says, snapping in front of Louis’ face. “No pity party here. You're literally in this situation because your communication is too good.”

Well, that’s surprising enough to make Louis lift his head. “What?”

“Look,” Niall explains. “You and Harry somehow hit the jackpot on your first real relationship. Most people have to learn through failing what you two seem to already know.” Liam nods earnestly next to him, still grasping Louis’ hand. “Like, for instance, most people don't magically already have perfect communication skills with their first boyfriend, but you two do.”

“He's telling the truth,” Liam adds. “Remember, like, a week into you and Haz dating and you sat down and had that discussion about where you saw the relationship going and what you were willing to give up for it?”

Louis is about to ask how he knew about that when he remembers Liam was there, watching awkwardly as Harry and Louis confessed their feelings in the X Factor bedroom the band had been assigned; all three of their bandmates were with them, because Louis and Harry knew that whatever they decided would have effects on the others as well, and they weren't exactly shy with their intentions toward each other.

“Just so you know, that's not exactly normal,” Niall continues for Liam. “You two have better communication than people who've been together twenty years.”

Well, yeah, Louis wants to say, but that's because they had to. If they wanted the relationship to make it, there couldn't be any secrets. They couldn't just seem like a united front, they had to be one against everyone who sought to tear them apart.

Until now, at least.

“So the problem here is that we communicate too well?” Louis asks sceptically.

“Exactly,” Liam nods. He points to himself and Niall, eyes wide and earnest. “We've been thinking about this for ages, trying to figure it out. You're so used to not having to guess what Harry needs because he tells you that subtle hints aren't going to work on you.”

“So he’s been waiting all this time for me to get my act together,” Louis says glumly.

“He’s not in some sort of limbo waiting for you to pay attention to him,” Niall says, rolling his eyes. “You have a healthy, loving relationship. He tried to make a point to you without telling you, and it didn’t work. But now you know what he wanted you to know and we’re all on the same page, and now you can do something about it.”

“Like what?” Louis asks.

Niall stares at him for a long moment as though he’s not sure Louis is joking or not, and then when Louis just shrugs in confusion he drops his face into his hands in defeat.

“Alright, Tommo,” he groans. “You need more help than we thought.”

“You’re lucky you have us,” Liam smiles, and then the second prong of the intervention begins.

Harry and Lottie are still shopping when Liam and Niall drop Louis back off at the house. They ask him if they need to come in with him, but he waves them off; he feels like a cup trying to hold an ocean, so full of thoughts and worries and plans that he can’t quite make sense of it all yet. What he really needs is a few hours in a dark room and a ceiling to stare up at, just a little while to process what he now knows.

So, Harry wants to get married.

Looking back, it’s not like it’s much of a surprise Louis didn’t get the hint before this, though he is frustrated at himself for missing it. But it’s like the others pointed out at the bonfire that night as they joked about Louis’ terrible sense at picking up clues: he wants more than anything to make Harry happy, but sometimes he gets a little turned around on what exactly would do that.

And it’s not like he doesn’t know Harry; he knows him backwards and forwards, quite literally inside and out. He knows the minute tics of his facial expressions and the way his voice sounds at every moment of the day. He knows he likes chamomile on winter mornings and green tea in the spring. He knows his deepest fear is being remembered as something he wasn’t, as the image from the tabloids that clings to him like oil, like paint, no matter how much he resists. He knows instinctively the nights Harry wants to curl around him and do his best to ward off anything that might have followed them into bed, anything negative stuck to Louis like a shadow; he also knows when Harry wants to be held, wants his head on Louis’ chest and Louis’ hand in his hair, when he wants to feel small and vulnerable and protected in that vulnerability.

Louis knows all of this, and he knows that Harry knows if he wants something from Louis, the easiest path is just to ask. They’ve always been so open with each other, since they burrowed under the blankets at the bungalow and whispered secrets into each other’s ears as their bandmates slept nearby, since Louis kissed Harry for the first time and Harry immediately told Louis he loved him, since they sat in a meeting hand in hand and stood up to the men telling them to break it off for the good of the band, that everything would be smoother if they could just be good boys and date pretty girls.

This is the first time Louis can remember not feeling like he and Harry are completely in sync, and try as he might Niall can’t completely spin that to Louis’ benefit: they have great communication, sure, but he has to admit that some of the blame here lies squarely on his shoulders.

Louis’ phone buzzes, startling him out of that train of thought. He unlocks his phone and holds it up over his face.  

It’s from Lottie, a video of Harry posing in an outrageous outfit of a mustard yellow turtleneck and some sort of red leather trousers. His face is flushed from laughter, the sound of his loud cackle clear through Louis’ speakers, and Louis feels the uncontrollable smile spread across his face as Lottie points the camera at herself and asks, “What d’you think, Lou? Have we found a winner?”

When the video is finished, Louis spreads his arms and legs out so that he’s starfished across their bed, letting out a long, slow exhale. That might’ve been exactly what he needed, proof that Harry wasn’t sulking or hiding ill feelings because of Louis and the lack of a ring on that certain finger. He sits up, wiping at his face and ruffling his hair; enough is enough. He has something to plan.

First things first—he can’t propose without a ring. And it can’t be just any ring, not when he’s spent the last five years hunting down rare, special jewellery just because he wanted to.

“Shit,” he murmurs to himself. “Made things a little harder on meself, didn’t I?”

you said nick is helping with a ring? he texts to Liam, not bothering with a joint message to him and Niall because he’s sure they’re still together discussing the aftermath of their lunch.

Yeah hes waiting for u whenever your ready, Liam answers almost immediately.

Louis sends off a text to Nick as well, checking if he’s available soon for a bit of shopping.

Anything for you, darling, Nick sends back with a truly unnecessary and nonsensical bunch of emojis.

So, the plan is in motion. He’ll find a ring, something perfect and beautiful and exactly right, and then he’ll…

Well. He was given a lot of ideas by Niall and Liam on how to go about the actual proposing, but he’s not exactly sure where to start. Besides, some of their ideas were a little… far-fetched, to say the least.

For example, just because Louis and Harry have done a bit of stargazing in their time doesn’t mean they should pay to go aboard any type of spacecraft just so that Louis can propose; despite the hope in Liam’s eyes, Louis shot that down quick.

“On stage woulda been really cool,” Niall had said when they’d moved into discussing logistics. “I mean, if it wasn’t for the whole you have to pretend you don’t know each other even though you’re in the same band thing. But otherwise, that would’ve been perfect.”

“Yeah, being publicly closeted might put a damper on a public proposal,” Louis had agreed, deadpan.

He wasn’t sold on the idea of going to Old Trafford and proposing at a United match either, and not just because that would be just as public as a concert. He didn’t really like the idea of a skywriter, and he decisively vetoed Niall’s vote for a choreographed flash mob. He wants it to be special, but doable; romantic, but not nauseatingly cliché. He wants it to be the perfect mix of them and their love, a culminating firework explosion of everything they mean to each other.

Really, how hard could that be?

Louis’ phone buzzes again; this time, the video is of Harry twirling around in a slinky, satiny gown of some kind, waltzing Lottie around the shop as the charmed Gucci stylists watch on. Harry’s laughter is loud and ringing and wonderful, a echo in Louis’ head.

He’s getting ahead of himself; he’ll get a ring, and then he’ll worry about the whens and hows. All that matters is the boy of his dreams and the word yes, anything else is interchangeable.

That decided, he watches the video a few more times before Facetiming Lottie and demanding to be handed over to Harry, who is breathing heavily from his dance around the room, the gown slipping down indecently low on his chest.

“Hi, Lou,” Harry beams. “D’you like my dress?”

“Might need to be altered a little in the bust area,” Louis laughs, flicking his glance down at Harry’s nipple peeking over the top of the material, and Harry notices and blushes pink, covering it with his empty hand, “but otherwise yeah, baby, you look like a dream.”

Harry grins, and he hands the phone back to Lottie to try on something else for Louis’ opinion. They spend another couple of hours like that, Louis reclined across their bed and showering Harry in compliments, Lottie threatening to end the call every time Louis suggests Harry takes the phone with him into the changing room. Once Harry has a suitably tall pile of new clothing and Lottie’s done her own shopping, Harry kisses the screen and waves, letting Louis know they’ll be back at the house in twenty minutes.

When Harry comes crashing into the house with armloads of bags, he finds Louis still sprawled across their bed and drops down on top of him with a content oof.

“How was your day?” he asks, nuzzling into Louis’ neck.

Weird. Strange. A little life-changing.

“Good, I think,” Louis answers honestly.

Later, Harry tries on the gown for Louis one more time, and it only rips a little when Louis pulls it off of him with his teeth.

“Hello hello,” Nick says as Louis slides into the passenger seat of his car, sliding his ridiculous tortoise-shell sunglasses down on his nose so he can look at Louis over the top of them. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” Louis says, and Nick laughs as they pull away from the house.

Harry’s not home, because if he knew Nick and Louis were hanging out without him he’d immediately assume they were either going to a) prank him, or b) spend the whole time gossiping about him, and he would’ve insisted on coming along, which would sort of ruin the purpose of the surprise ring shopping trip. Luckily, he’s meeting a few of his Dunkirk friends for brunch, and Louis is in the clear.

“So, do you have any ideas on where you’d like to start?” Nick asks, tapping down the volume of the radio.

“Uh,” Louis says, then grins apologetically at Nick. “I thought that was your job?”

Nick groans, but he’s smiling as he shakes his head. “You are an absolute menace, Tomlinson. And you’re the one proposing here, not me.”

“Yeah,” Louis says, fidgeting with the radio buttons just for something to do with his hands. “I am.”

Nick shoots him a sideways glance as they stop at a traffic light, the rain outside the window a subtle patter in the background. “Hey,” he says, uncharacteristically serious. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“God,” Louis laughs, tossing an empty Starbucks cup at Nick, “stop looking at me like I’ve just found out my dog’s ran away. I’m fine, I just...”

“You just,” Nick prompts, weaving through traffic but still focussed entirely on Louis. Louis takes a breath and lets it out, then does it again. There’s a maelstrom in his head and he’s not quite sure what it wants, but it’s been spinning since Niall and Liam sat across from him in that booth at the restaurant and he’d really like to get to the bottom of it.

“I just… wish that I’d realised all this before everyone else did and had to fill me in,” Louis shrugs, fingers rubbing the seam of his jeans. It’s not the eye of the storm or what he really wants to say, but it’s a big piece of debris that’s been lodged in his mind and it’s the first thing he can think to say. “It’s embarrassing, innit?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Nick says. “It was an assumption on our part that you two would already be engaged, I think, more than anything else. And, of course,” he grins at Louis, “Harry’s been gagging to be an old married man since he was just a tot himself.”

Louis chuckles too. “Yeah, he has.”

“But you’re ready for this?” Nick prods, serious once more. “This isn’t just you doing what you think you need to do, this is what you want?”

“Yeah, of course it’s what I want,” Louis answers immediately. “I didn’t know when, but I always knew I’d propose.”

“Sap,” Nick says.

“Only because it makes you itchy when I talk sweet, darling,” Louis grins.

“Keep your endearments to yourself, Tomlinson.”

Louis laughs as Nick slides the car into an empty spot in front of a boutique, the window display all minimalism and strangely posed mannequins. “There won’t be much vintage stuff in here,” Nick says, “but what they’ve usually got is unique, so I figured we’d start here first.”

Nick’s not wrong—everything inside the shop is the sort of thing that only someone like Harry Styles could pull off, weird half-jackets and multicoloured trousers and boots with spiked heels. The jewellery selection isn’t large but, one of the women behind the counter assures them, it’s guaranteed no one else will have it.

“I sort of like that one,” Nick says, pointing out a large, square gold ring.

“It looks like something he’d wear now,” Louis agrees. “But I don’t think that’s really what I’m looking for. It’s got to be different.”

“Different how?” Nick asks, examining a different ring that looks like two cats wound around each other in the shape of an ampersand.

“Different like- like people should see it and know, you know?”

“No, I don't,” Nick says honestly. “But if this is the sort of thing where you'll know it when you see it, I suppose we should keep looking.”

So the little minimalistic store with the wild fashions is a bust. That's fine. Nick drives them to a high-end resale shop next, but despite several pieces that Nick holds up hopefully for Louis’ approval, still nothing feels right.

“It's vintage Ferragamo, it’s perfect,” Nick argues, brandishing a signet ring shaped like a dragon. “No one would have something like this, it's his size. What's wrong with it?”

“Mate, it's a fucking dragon,” Louis snorts. “Your ideas are terrible. Why are you here again?”

“To keep from a repeat of the bunny slippers incident,” Nick shoots back.

“Who told you about that? Was it Niall? I’ll kill him,” Louis says. “And Harry liked those slippers, you lot can all fuck right off.”

Nick hums sarcastically and waggles the ring at Louis again. “This is it. Buy this one.”

“No,” Louis insists, swatting Nick’s hand away. “I can't propose with a dragon ring, not for me own self respect to remain intact.”

“Oh,” says the shopkeeper delightedly. “You're looking for engagement rings! No wonder none of these seem right.” She whisks away the tray Nick was picking over and returns with another, this one full of delicate silver bands adorned with glittering diamonds.

Louis’ nose wrinkles as he picks one up, inspecting it. It's pretty, but there's no personality to it. Just a bit of sparkle meant to show off how much money you can afford to throw away on useless shiny rocks.

“Well that's a cheerful outlook,” Nick says when Louis voices that opinion, and Louis looks up to see the shopkeeper glaring at him like he’s insulted her life’s work. Which, he supposes, he sort of has. Nick grabs Louis’ sleeve and they back away, while Nick mutters under his breath, “C’mon then, to the next place before we’re found by the police after being murdered with tiny useless diamond rings.”

There are a few more boutiques near them that they pop in to try and find some hidden treasure, but to no avail. Every place has plenty of rings that Harry would like, or even some that Louis is tempted to buy, but none are exactly what he’s looking for, and so he refrains. Nick offers his opinions but doesn’t say a word when Louis leaves each shop empty-handed, which just proves that this is bigger than a random choice Louis has to try to guess correctly: this is about gut feelings, and recognising when fate prods you in a certain direction.

Still, after hours of searching, Louis is about to walk into the nearest Goldsmiths and just ask for whatever costs the most and hope that works. He sighs and presses his forehead to the jewellery retailer’s window, staring down at the rows of boring little diamond rings glinting up at him.

“You know,” he says, only slightly despondently, “this would be so much easier if he wasn’t… you know, the way he is.”

Nick laughs, a loud bark, and leans up against the window next to Louis to light a cigarette. “You wouldn’t have to worry about it being a conflict-free diamond,” he agrees.

“It wouldn’t matter if it was mass produced, either.”

“You could just pop his size into Amazon and see what you get.”

“I do have a Prime membership, I’d get it next day.” Louis looks up and meets Nick’s eyes, and they burst into tired laughter. A few people walking past them on the street startle away from them, avoiding eye contact like they’re being paid to do it, but Louis and Nick pay them no mind.

“Please,” Nick scoffs lightly, handing Louis the cigarette to take a drag. “If he wasn’t the morally upstanding and quirky as hell space pirate we know him to be, we wouldn’t love him nearly as much.”

“Yeah,” Louis says, exhaling a thin cloud of smoke. “You’re right.”

“Of course I am,” Nick says. “Now come on, Tomlinson. We have a ring to find.”

In a stroke of inspiration, they try Gucci next, where Harry and Lottie had visited not three days before. Harry's favourite consultant, Sandra, meets them at the door with a smile when they arrive.  

“Louis!” she says warmly. “Did something not work out for you? Harry seemed very pleased with his purchases.”

“No, that's not it, actually,” Louis says, then looks around to make sure no one nearby is eavesdropping. Louis likes the staff at this particular shop, but as with all entertainment locales gossip is the main form of currency, and this is one thing Louis doesn't want getting out. “Could we do a private consult?”

Sandra is a consummate professional, and her eyebrows only raise a little. “Sure,” she says, then, a little quieter, “just the two of us, or…?”

“Who, Nick?” Louis asks, turning and giving Nick a faux once-over. Nick rolls his eyes but waits for Louis’ answer anyway. “I suppose he can come, he is here to help.”

When Sandra nods and leads the way to her office, Nick pinches Louis in retaliation. Louis pinches back, of course, and they only barely stop their immature cat fight when Sandra turns back around to welcome them into the private room.

“Now, Louis,” she says, settling behind her desk, which is covered in purchase orders and fabric samples. “How can I help?” Her eyes widen in anticipation. “Are you finally going to let us style you for a red carpet?”

“I wish,” Louis says apologetically; he and Harry have already made an informal deal with Sandra, that she and her team will be able to have Harry and Louis’ first joint red carpet appearance outside of band obligations. Until then, she's dead set on getting Louis into one of her suits for a solo event, and while Louis would be happy to let her it's not really ever up to him. “It's actually a gift. For Harry.”

“Ooh, intriguing,” Sandra smiles, pulling out an iPad to type notes. “A new suit, maybe? There's a bold new green we’re working on for the spring collection, I'm sure we could swing that as an early teaser.”

“Not quite,” Louis says, though he files that away for later. “I was wondering if it was possible to do a custom jewellery piece.”

“Well, that’s new,” Sandra says, tilting her head in thought. “For any occasion in particular?”

“Yeah, um,” Louis says, and then grins bashfully. Nick snorts, but Sandra’s professional mask slips just enough for him to see the genuine happiness underneath.

“Oh, Louis, how wonderful,” she says, clapping her hands. “We’d be honoured to design a ring for Harry, of course. The only issue…” she trails off.

“What is it?”

“Well, our jewellery designers don’t often work on a commission basis, and I’m not sure how quickly they could get something back to you,” she says, biting at the corner of her perfectly-lined lip.

“Oh,” Louis says, slumping back. It’s not like he’s expecting to propose to Harry tomorrow or anything, but he isn’t exactly wanting this to stretch out for months or another year. “Okay, that makes sense. Of course it would take time.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, but Louis waves it off; it’s not her fault that the internationally renowned fashion house she works for can’t immediately cater to his whims, and it was a long shot anyway. “However…” she spins her chair, opening a desk drawer and pulling out a little book of business cards. She rifles through it and pulls out one card in particular, sliding it to Louis across the desk. “This is not a business recommendation,” she clarifies, “but it is a personal one. I’ve worked with her before and she’s wonderful.”

Louis glances down at the name on the simple card—Ruki Himura, no other description listed—and notices the address isn’t too far from where they are now.

“Thank you,” he says gratefully, and Sandra smiles.

“Absolutely. Just make sure to keep this in mind next time you’ve got an event to go to,” she says, raising her eyebrows meaningfully.

“If I get any say at all, I absolutely will,” he tells her, and though they both know that isn’t happening anytime soon they let it pass uncommented. Sandra is playing the long game, after all; she won’t get to work with Louis while he’s still contracted with the band’s stylist, but after that he’s fair game and they both know she’ll work to make sure he chooses her.

“We’ve got time to go try this place today, if you’d like,” Nick says, gesturing to the card in Louis’ hand as they leave the shop. “Or, Harry will be home soon if you want to be there when he gets back.”

“No, I…” Louis says slowly, rubbing his thumb over the card. Something in his gut is telling him to go, to at least check it out, and that’s what they’re waiting for, right? A gut feeling. “I want to go.”

The shop is tucked away between a small art studio and a tailor’s, and Louis almost thinks they have the wrong place at first. The gentle rain makes it hard to see, but as Louis and Nick jog to the dry spot in front of the door Louis thinks maybe they aren’t so lost after all.

It’s not a jewellery shop, like Louis assumed; instead, it seems to be a hodgepodge of pretty, sparkly things and old books, the windows crammed with gilt-framed art pieces and origami flowers made from newspaper pages. There’s a little leather satchel stuffed with what looks to be worn, faded band t-shirts and silk neckties, earrings and bracelets threaded through the sleeves and pinned to the fabrics to add some shine. In the centre of the window display is an old typewriter, and the light from the bare lightbulbs clustered over it bounces off the luminescent teal paint.  

It’s like Harry in shop form, and Louis immediately loves it.

Inside, it’s warm and quiet, a record player somewhere in the back playing soft classical music. Candles flicker on shelves of knick-knacks and glass figurines, and there’s a single armchair near a fireplace with a Virginia Woolf novel resting on the seat. Deeper in the shop it’s a little more organized, racks of old clothes and worn, beautiful pairs of shoes, stacks of books in alphabetical order, and, along the very back wall, a long, low case of jewellery and other precious items.

“Wow,” Louis hears Nick murmur under his breath, and he agrees; there’s so much to look at in the case that it’s brighter than the rest of the shop around them, lights underneath the glass shining off of gems of every imaginable colour, a rainbow of choices stretching from wall to wall.

“I don’t even know where to start,” Louis breathes.

“That is because that is not your job,” says a voice behind them, startling Louis into letting out a squeak. They spin to find a small, impeccably-dressed woman staring suspiciously at them, her sharp, straight fringe a blunt line above her eyes, the single streak of turquoise hair tucked behind her ear the only indication that she might be the mysterious Ruki rather than the shop’s accountant. “Who are you?”

“Oh, sorry, hello,” Louis says, sticking out his hand. Ruki takes it and gives him a firm shake, and his knuckles ache a little when he pulls back. “I’m Louis Tomlinson, Sandra from Gucci recommended your shop to me.”

“Ah, yes,” Ruki says, nodding once. “Sandra is an excellent customer. She must like you.” She looks Louis up and down, her expression inscrutable. “We’ll see.”

Nick coughs a laugh but straightens up as Ruki turns to him. “Ah, hello,” he says brightly. “Nick Grimshaw.”

“Right,” Ruki says, and Nick goes pink when her eyebrow raises like she’s unimpressed. She turns back to Louis with an almost militaristic about-face. “You’re here to buy something?”

“Yes, I’m looking for a ring,” Louis says quickly, “an engagement ring, but it doesn’t have to be a typical diamond one. Just something unique and…” He shrugs a little. “Perfect.”

Ruki hums, stepping closer to the case. “Not for him,” she says, gesturing to Nick, and it’s not a question. “For your boyfriend.”

“Yeah,” Louis says, “it’s a surprise for him. How did you-”

“You don’t want a diamond,” Ruki interrupts brusquely. She takes Louis by the shoulders and steers him to a different section of the jewellery case, and his heart jumps in his throat when he realises she’s pushed him directly in front of the blue-turning-green section the gem rainbow.

“How did you-” he says again, then, “Yeah, this is... this is it.”

He crouches to get a better look, and his eyes can’t even seem to land on one ring long enough to take in the details. It’s a glittering spectrum of everything from navy to seafoam, periwinkle to jade. Clusters of tiny emeralds around a single diamond, sapphires as big as Louis’ knuckle. Stones that look unpolished and rough hewn like they were just pulled from the earth, others so smooth Louis itches to run his finger over them.

“Lou,” Nick whispers, and he looks just as awestruck. Maybe Sandra called ahead to warn Ruki they were coming and what sort of thing they’d be looking for, but somehow Louis doubts it. She just knew; his stomach flips again at the thought.

Harry’s ring is in there, somewhere.

Ruki pulls a small, discreet set of keys from the pocket of her jacket and fits one into the case’s lock, opening the top. She flutters her fingers over the little piles of rings and mutters to herself— No, that’s not right. Where is- no, not that one. Ah, yes, here we go —until she’s chosen a few options, nodding to herself before handing them to Louis to inspect.

The first ring is a light, piercing blue, set in bright gold. “Light azore stone,” Ruki says. “Made in the 1920s. Two owners, both dead, so it’s mine now.” The second is bright green, just a little darker than lime, and set in a thick silver band. “Peridot, 1970s, but reset in a new band recently.” The third and final ring feels warm in Louis’ fingers, like maybe the lamps have been shining directly on it for hours. He passes the other two rings to Nick so he can get a better look, and his breath catches.

“Pacific opal,” Ruki tells him quietly, like she knows. And maybe she does.

“This is it,” Louis says.

“Yeah,” Nick echoes over his shoulder, sounding choked. “Yeah, that’s. Louis, that’s it.”

The gem is cloudy, opalescent as the name suggests, its facets sharp-edged but still somehow sweet and dainty. The band is delicately carved but thick across the bottom, a shiny, light white gold. In certain light, it’s blue like the sky over the Caribbean, sea waves on white sands, Harry’s favorite shirt, Louis’ eyes in pictures where he’s happy and crinkly-eyed and staring, usually, right at Harry. But he tilts the ring and suddenly it’s green, like mint chocolate ice cream, the room in the Malibu house they’ve never discussed with actual words but they somehow both know will be a nursery someday, Harry’s eyes right when he opens them for the first time in the morning, right before he leans over for a good morning kiss.

Louis tries not to let every single thing he’s ever uttered in interviews or on Twitter stay lodged in his mind, but there are some things the fans cling to that he just can’t shake; he laughs, just a little, as he stares down at this ring. This perfect, perfect ring.

“Bluey-greeny-blue,” he whispers, and knows that’s what Harry will see too. It’s them, it’s blue and it’s green and it’s Harry and it’s Louis, swirled together and compacted into a precious stone Harry will wear forever.

He looks up at Ruki, who’s watching for his reaction, and grins so widely his cheeks ache. “I’ll take it.”

It only takes about three seconds for to Gemma answer, which is probably a good thing because Louis isn't sure he'd be able to handle more than that.

“I figured it out,” he says in a rush as soon as he hears the click that means someone answered. “Gems, listen. I figured it out.”

There's a pause for a second, and Louis knows that means Gemma is pulling the phone from her ear and checking to make sure Louis really is the one calling her.  

“Okay, Lou,” Gemma says placatingly once she's apparently decided everything is as it seems. “You figured it out. What, exactly, did you figure out?”

“Something's been off, Gem. Since this whole thing started, when Liam and Niall told me Harry wanted to be engaged, something felt wrong.” It's that maelstrom, still swirling away against the walls of his head, but he knows its purpose now. He knows what’s been eating at him, picking at his thoughts.

“Wrong?” Gemma asks sharply. “It feels wrong to think about marrying my brother?”

“No, that’s not-” Louis stops for a second as Harry grunts in his sleep and rolls over, burying his face in the pillow. “Hold on, Harry’s sleeping, let me just-”

“It’s, like, three in the afternoon,” Gemma says.

“Yeah, well,” Louis answers distractedly, the door clicking softly behind him as he steps into the hall. “Give ‘im a blowie and he’s out like a light.”

“Why,” Gemma protests weakly. “Why would you say that.”

“Sorry, sorry, I’m just-”

“Yeah, actually, let’s go back to what you were saying before. You feel like it’s wrong to ask Harry to marry you?”

“No,” Louis stresses, letting his head thud back against the wall. “That’s not what I meant. I just- I thought I’d have more time.”

“If you’re not ready for this, then you don’t need to be proposing,” Gemma says sternly. “I know we told you Harry’s ready, but that doesn’t mean you have to be.”

“But I am!” Louis says. “That’s not what this is.”

“Explain it to me, then,” Gemma says, and there’s a little ice in her voice now. “Because it doesn’t sound good, Lou.”

“Okay, look, it’s like… When someone gets pregnant, they have a whole nine months to think about what that means, yeah? Like to get ready for their life changing and to wrap their head around the idea of a tiny baby before they actually have to do the… you know, the babying thing.”

“The babying thing,” Gemma repeats, but Louis keeps going.

“So it’s like that, yeah. It’s like, normally people get nine months, but I feel like someone just walked up to me and handed me a baby and I didn’t get my nine months.”

“Lou, you’re freaking out about something you’re entirely in control of,” Gemma cuts in. “You didn’t get your nine months, so just wait and get used to the idea before doing anything.”

“No,” Louis says. “Everyone else is What to Expect When You’re Expecting and I’m I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant!”

“That doesn’t-” Gemma groans, “Louis, that doesn’t make sense!”

“It does, it does!” Louis insists, though he’s pretty sure she’s right and it really doesn’t make any sense. “The baby’s here, Gem!”

“This metaphor has been stretched beyond its limits,” Gemma says. “Okay, breathe for me.” Louis inhales, but he does it too fast and coughs. “Okay,” Gemma says, clearly trying not to laugh. “Try again.”

So Louis breathes, in and out, and his racing heart slows. Gemma doesn’t say anything else as he slides to the floor, cradling his phone against his face.

“It’s not that I’m not ready to get married,” Louis says after a quiet moment. “I do. God, Gem, you know that. It’s just that from the beginning of this, I feel like I haven’t been in control of it when normally I would be. It’s like it’s not my choice, even if it’s the same choice I want to make.”

“That’s exactly what he was trying to avoid by not just telling you,” Gemma replies, just as quietly. “He didn’t want you to feel forced into it.”

“I’m going to propose,” Louis insists. “I am. And I’m going to do it soon. But I have to make sure it’s how I want to do it, and that it fits me and Harry. I want to be the person calling the shots.”

“Okay,” Gemma says. “And I’m sorry it felt like you were ambushed with this.”

“It’s not that,” Louis reassures her, “and I’m glad I know. I’d rather feel a little out of control but know what Harry wants than assume I know what’s happening when I don’t.”

“So,” Gemma says. “What’s next?”

Louis taps his fingers along the back of the phone. “Now… now it’s time to plan a proposal.”

The restaurant is exactly how Louis pictured it, like something out of a film. Louis knows that there’s a reason the flowers on their reserved table are roses when everyone else has carnations, that the wine is perfect because he ensured it would be beforehand, that the pianist in the corner is playing all of Harry’s favourite songs because Louis is paying him to do so.

It’s easy to forget, though and to be swept up in the atmosphere; all the work Louis did to make sure this night was perfect is worth it, because Harry’s eyes are sparkling in the candlelight and he’s rubbing his thumb over the back of Louis’ knuckles like he just can’t let go.

“Tonight was absolutely perfect,” he whispers to Louis. “This was a wonderful surprise, Lou, thank you.”

“Only the best for my boy,” Louis smiles, squeezing Harry’s hand back in answer.  

It’s almost a crime against humanity that Louis had to go to such lengths to make sure they weren’t seen tonight, out on what is obviously a date, because Harry looks more gorgeous than Louis can ever remember seeing him, which is something special in and of itself. His white shirt is ruffled and delicate and makes him look like Mr. Darcy if Mr. Darcy wore leather on the weekends; it’s unbuttoned halfway down his chest, a little scandalous but no more than Harry usually is. His suit jacket and trousers are immaculate, and the subtle chain of the dainty necklace resting in the dip of his chest glints in the low light. He hadn’t hesitated when Louis told him to find something pretty to wear tonight, and the result is striking.

The servers clear their empty plates away and there’s only one last thing to do, the reason they’re here in the first place; Louis tries not to fidget in anticipation as their waiter, Eric, approaches the table again. He exchanges the tiniest of glances with Louis, then pivots just the slightest bit towards Harry, giving him the majority of the attention just like Louis asked of him.

“How was your meal this evening?” he asks, white gloved hands clasped neatly in front of him.

“Incredible,” Harry says. “Honestly, everything was perfect.”

“We’re so glad to hear that, sir,” Eric nods graciously. “Now, how about dessert?”

“Yes,” Louis cuts in before Harry can say anything. “Definitely, dessert sounds great.”

“Lou,” Harry says, and Louis jumps as he feels Harry’s booted foot running softly up his shin. Harry’s eyes are dark, now, full of the kind of promise Louis usually can’t want to take him up on. “Maybe we should just head home?”

“Um,” Louis stammers, because this is not how this was supposed to go. Harry’s engagement ring is stuffed inside a piece of cake somewhere in this restaurant—they have to get dessert. “But-”

“Lou,” Harry says, a little more insistently. He’s not saying anything explicit but he doesn’t have to, the way he’s biting his lip and looking up at Louis through his eyelashes saying quite enough.

“Uh,” Louis says to Eric, who looks like he’s trying really hard not to grin. “Give us a minute?”

The moment the waiter is gone, Harry leans forward, necklaces swinging. “Take me home, baby,” he murmurs, cheeks flushed a little with wine and happiness. “Please. C’mon, Lou, I’ll make you a dozen cakes when we get there, just take me home.”

“Harry,” Louis groans. He can’t believe his romantic gestures were literally too romantic; he probably should has seen this coming, but he definitely didn’t. “Just get something small, love. We can split it and then do whatever you want to do when we’re done.”

“What I want to do,” Harry says lowly, “is get you out of that suit. Now.”

“Jesus,” Louis breathes, clenching his fist against his thigh. “Harry, I really think you should order some cake.”

“Hello,” says someone at the edge of their table. It’s a different waiter, smiling down at them. “My name is William. Eric is taking his break, but he said you two were considering dessert?”

“No thank you, just the bill, please,” Harry says, at the same time Louis says, “Yes, he’ll have the chocolate cake.”

“Louis,” Harry protests.

“Harry,” Louis insists. “You’re getting that damn cake.”

Harry’s eyes widen, and Louis worries he’s pushed it too far for just a second, but then a tiny smirk appears at the corner of Harry’s mouth. “Okay,” he tells William. “I’ll have the cake, please.”

Louis lets out a quick breath of relief; crisis averted. They’ll eat some cake, Harry will find the ring, and things will continue as planned.

Or not.

William gives a little bow and leaves, then there’s a soft scraping sound as Harry slowly slides his chair around the table so that he’s closer to Louis. Under the edge of the tablecloth, he lays his warm hand on Louis’ thigh.

“I didn’t know that’s what we were doing,” he whispers in Louis’ ear. He rubs at Louis’ thigh, trailing light fingers along his inseam. “But you know I love it when you tell me what to do.”

Christ, that wasn’t- Right, okay. Louis can do this.

“I’m glad you decided to finally listen,” Louis says, and it only comes out a little bit like a croak.

Harry lowers his eyes and murmurs, “Sorry,” but he’s not fooling Louis one bit: he loves this, and if Louis isn’t careful Harry’s going to end up dragging Louis to a bathroom and he’ll forget about the cake and the ring all together.

Louis traps Harry’s hand against his thigh as it starts to move upward. “Be good,” he warns, and Harry wiggles in his seat.

“But-”

“Ah, look, cake!” Louis says loudly, and William smiles as he sets a slice of classic chocolate cake between Louis and Harry, as well as two delicate dessert forks. It’s impressive, Louis thinks as he inspects the cake, how they manage to get a ring in there without making it look obvious. But, then again, they’ve probably done this before.

“Enjoy, gentlemen,” William says with a little bow. Louis’ heart rate picks back up again as he and Harry dig in; he has to be careful, making sure to feel with his fork for anything that might be the ring, and a couple of times he spins the plate as nonchalantly as he can when he thinks he’s found it, only for Harry to dig in at that same spot just to find chunks of chocolate fudge instead.

“Okay,” Harry admits around a mouthful of dessert. “This was a good idea.”

“Good, glad we agree,” Louis says, wiggling his fork a little to see if he can spot some silver among the dark cake. No such luck.

“Yes, yes!” a woman cries dramatically at a nearby table when Harry and Louis are about halfway through their dessert. She pulls something from her own dish and it glints in the low light, even from where they’re sitting. “Of course I’ll marry you!”

“Oh, that’s so sweet,” Harry says, putting a hand to his heart. “Look how nervous he looks!”

The man across from her does look nervous; in fact, he looks completely stunned.

Almost like he didn’t know that ring would be there.

“It’s a little big,” the woman is saying, sliding the ring onto her left hand and holding it up admiringly. “But that’s fine! We can get it resized.”

“I-” her date says wildly, “I don’t-”

The ring flashes again in the candlelight, blue-green-blue, and Louis’ stomach drops when he suddenly realises why Harry hasn’t found his ring in their piece of cake yet.

“Oh my god,” he says weakly.

“It’s not really my style,” the woman continues. “But it really is lovely.”

“Ooh, I wish we could see the ring from here,” Harry says, craning his neck to get a better look.

“Um,” the man tries again. “Honey, that’s- I don’t think that’s-” She’s not paying him any attention, still cooing over the ring even as it slips off her small finger. “Waiter!” he calls desperately.

Louis watches, along with the other diners at the nearest dozen tables, as William approaches and bends low so the man can speak in his ear. William’s brow furrows, and then the woman stops.

“Wait,” she says at full volume. “What did you say?”

“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” William tries placatingly, but her face is red now.

“What’s going on?”

“Honey, it’s not a big deal, but I wasn’t proposing,” her date tries, and that’s when all hell breaks lose.

“I have to- bathroom,” Louis stammers, but Harry’s engrossed in the drama and just nods, eyes wide as the woman gets to her feet, yelling shrilly.

“What do you mean, you’re not proposing?!”

William has backed away from the table, look of terror on his face, so it’s easy for Louis to catch him by the lapel and yank him around a corner where Harry won’t see them.

“Sir,” William says desperately. “I’m sorry, I can’t help you right now, I’m dealing with a crisis-”

“Damn right you are,” Louis hisses. “That’s my ring!”

William goes, if possible, even paler. “Oh no.”

 “I don’t know why everyone kept apologising to us on the way out,” Harry says cheerfully as the valet pulls their car around a half hour later. The ring is back in Louis’ pocket, sticky from cake and handed over clandestinely by the hostess at the door, and Louis is, in a word, exhausted.

“Well, I’m sure most people weren’t expecting tonight to go this way,” Louis replies.

“Nonsense,” Harry grins. “It’s dinner and a show, what’s not to love?”

Louis just stares upward at the night sky, wondering if anyone has ever been killed by sheer irony.

“Explain to me again,” Harry says a few days later, his feet up on the dashboard in Louis’ Range Rover. “Where are we going?”

“If I told you, Harold, it wouldn’t be a surprise,” Louis answers, grinning over at Harry. The picnic basket stowed away in the back of the car makes a sound as it slides a little, but Louis isn’t worried; if he and Anne were able to pack the basket and smuggle it to the car without Harry noticing, he definitely won’t notice it now.

The restaurant idea was nice for a proposal, but not exactly groundbreaking. Classic, but overdone. This will be better, because it’s personal .

That’s the plan, anyway.  

“I’ve been all over Cheshire in my youth,” Harry tries again, barely containing his smile as Louis reaches over to take his hand. “I know all of these fields. I am the Cheshire expert. So I know there’s nothing out here.”

Louis just hums mysteriously and keeps driving, ignoring Harry poking him in the side as if that’ll get more information out of him.

His phone buzzes and Harry snatches it before Louis can get to it, wagging his finger in Louis’ face. “Uh-huh,” he says. “No texting and driving.”

“Haz,” Louis warns, trying to reach for his phone and turn off the road onto a hidden gravel path at the same time. Harry avoids him, twisting in his seat to hold the phone out of reach.

“Gemma asked ‘are you there yet?’” Harry says, frowning down at the screen. “Are we where? Where’s there? Why does Gemma know?”

“Haz.”

“Lou, this is killing me,” Harry groans. “What’s going on?”

“Harry.”

“Just tell me!”

“Harry.”

“What?”

“We’re here.”

Harry stops his dramatic posturing and sits up, his eyes wide. Louis grins widely to himself as he slides the Range into park, the quiet murmuring of the radio and the hum of the engine the only sounds in the world.

“Baby,” Harry breathes. “What is this?”

Louis gets out of the car and walks around the back to grab the picnic basket, then opens Harry’s door and holds out his hand. “Come on,” he says, and Harry turns his awestruck gaze to Louis. He takes Louis’ hand and lets Louis tug him over to the scene in front of them, his steps heavy like he can’t quite pay attention to where his feet are landing.

There are a couple of quilts spread out on the ground in the middle of this field, antique lanterns holding the edges of the blankets down and letting off a soft glow even in the early afternoon light. Decorative pillows are strewn about, and rose petals dot the scene.

Louis sets the picnic basket in the middle of the blanket and turns back to Harry. “Surprised?” he asks, taking both of Harry’s hands in his and bouncing excitedly on his toes.

“Lou, I…” Harry trails off weakly. Their setup is at the top of a rise, hills tumbling in all directions, trees swaying with a light breeze. The sky looks wider than is possible overhead, like the earth could fall right into it if they weren’t paying attention; nearby, a stream bubbles its way through the field. “Yeah,” he says finally, “I’m definitely surprised.”

“Good,” Louis nods. “Come sit.”

He unpacks the light lunch in the basket and uncorks a bottle of champagne, leaving the little black ring box tucked out of sight until the very end. Louis made sure to clear their whole day so they have nothing to do except be here, with each other, for hours and hours if they wish. Harry accepts his glass with a kiss, long and lingering and perfect.

“My mum made these,” Harry accuses when Louis unwraps their sandwiches. “You’ve been conspiring!”

“Guilty,” Louis laughs. He piles a couple of pillows and leans back against them, and Harry lays his head on Louis’ chest, sighing in contentment.

“This was a brilliant idea,” Harry says, rolling his head to kiss Louis stomach over his sweater.

“Well, I’m brilliant meself, so that’s fitting,” Louis says, and Harry chuckles. They lace their hands together and talk about nothing and everything as patchy sunlight pours over them: Gemma’s new writing projects and Lottie’s nail polish experiments and potentially repainting the living room at the London house and Harry’s nerves about Dunkirk leaking prematurely and the way those clouds overhead are twisting and billowing across the sky. They trade bites from their sandwiches and Louis feeds Harry strawberries, and they drink straight from the champagne bottle because there’s no one there to tell them not to.

Louis isn’t sure how much time has passed—an hour, maybe two, maybe three; he couldn’t begin to tell—but his stomach is suddenly flipping and now, more than anything, he wants to pull that little box out of the picnic basket and ask Harry what he’s been dying to ask.

“Haz, sit up for a minute,” Louis says, nudging Harry softly. Harry complies easily, rolling onto his hands and knees and stretching like a cat, sticking his arse into the air and curving his back. Louis giggles and pushes Harry with his foot until he falls over, chuckling into the blanket. He opens one eye and smiles sweetly up at Louis, and this is it. It’s time.

“Harry,” Louis says quietly. “I love you more than anything.”

Harry sits up, eyes bright and warm. “I love you too, Lou. More than I ever thought possible.”

“Me too, love, and I just wanted,” Louis stops, takes a deep breath. Smiles; gets a smile in return. Here it goes. “I just wanted to ask-”

The hair on the back of Louis’ neck stands and he gets a chill up his spine; not a second later, there’s a loud, ear-splitting CRACK.

Harry looks up, and his eyes go wide for an entirely new reason. “Lou,” he says.

Another shiver, a feeling like the air is suddenly sharper, and one more massive CRACK. This time there’s a flash of light, burning a white line into Louis’ vision. Rolling thunder echoes over the hills, accompanying the sharp bursts of lightning.

Louis looks up, and he sees what caught Harry’s attention. The sky overhead is an angry grey, roiling and dangerous.

“We should probably-”

Before he can even finish his sentence, the clouds open with a vengeance; cold rain pelts down at them, a downpour of epic proportions.

“Here!” Harry shouts over the rumble of thunder and the pounding of falling water against dry earth, shoving the basket into Louis’ hands. “Hold this!”

Lightning flashes and a tree nearby sizzles, one of the branches falling to the ground with a thud, blackened and burnt. Harry shrieks and gathers their sodden blankets, empty food containers, and an armload of pillows, and shoves it all into the basket in Louis’ hands as well as he can. Some of the lanterns have rolled down the hill from the onslaught of rain, but Harry scoops up the rest and then they’re running to the Range Rover, tossing everything into the boot and ignoring what sounds like glass shattering in favour of throwing themselves into the front seats.

For a moment, they stare at each other in stunned silence. Harry’s hair is soaked, rain dripping in rivulets down his nose and off his chin. His jeans and flannel shirt are waterlogged, sticking indecently to his skin. Louis is sure he doesn’t look much better.

Then… Harry laughs. He laughs, and laughs, and Louis joins in because he can’t help it. He thunks his head against the steering wheel and, just for a second, wonders what fate has against his proposal plans.

Rain thunders against the car as Louis turns the key in the ignition, pumping up the heater at least until they aren’t shivering anymore, though giggles still wrack through them periodically.

“This is going to sound like a line from a porno,” Harry says after a moment, “but don’t you think we should get out of these wet clothes?”

Louis, instead of answering, sneezes, and that decides it for them.

Harry pulls Louis’ sweater over his head and fumbles with his own buttons; goosebumps erupt over Louis’ skin at the touch of Harry’s fingertips, but that really doesn’t have anything to do with the cold. Sodden socks and jackets and shirts get tossed into the backseat haphazardly, and the occasional lightning flash catches them as they strip, bare skin revealed with each article of clothing peeled off of them.

Looking back, Louis doesn’t remember how he ended up in Harry’s lap, but suddenly he’s naked in a toasty warm car and Harry’s moaning in agreement as their hips slide together, slick wet skin against slick wet skin. The rain is a backdrop for their hitches of breath, the window next to them fogging over to hide them from the world outside.

“God, I knew this was a good idea,” Harry mumbles as he digs in the glove compartment for the bottle of lube they keep there, a necessity after multiple times being caught in the heat of the moment with nothing to use. He clicks open the cap and slicks his fingers, circling Louis’ rim and pushing in without preamble.

Harry,” Louis cries out against Harry’s shoulder, his teeth leaving imprints when he bites down. Harry hums deep in his throat, fingers working in and out of Louis—they’re experts at the quickie after long years spent in tour buses and hotels with thin walls, and Louis doesn’t know if he’s ever been more grateful for that. “‘nother,” he says into Harry’s throat.

Harry complies, sliding the tip of his middle finger in as well. He sucks bruises across Louis’ chest and pushes deeper, deeper. Louis loses his breath at the stretch but catches it again as Harry brushes over his prostate, a jolt that makes him gasp for air.

“One more?” Harry asks, and Louis shoves his hands into Harry’s hair and pulls. Harry whines and tips his head back in response, eyelashes fluttering.

“Can you be good?” Louis pants, already reaching for the lube. Harry nods frantically, pupils blowing wide even as Louis watches it happen. “Then no, I don’t need it.”

Louis slides his hand over Harry’s cock until he’s slick enough for Louis to take him, and then a few more times just to see the way Harry keeps himself from squirming at the touch. He holds his breath and lowers himself down, squeezing his eyes shut as he bears down. Harry’s making choked, quiet noises and clenching hard at Louis’ hips, trying so hard not to do what he wants and let his hips fuck up into Louis.

It takes an achingly long time but then Louis is there, bum settled against the cradle of Harry’s hips, the feeling of his cock inside him inescapable to the point of mindlessness. For a moment he lets himself just feel, every minute shift of Harry’s hips rippling through him like electricity in a live wire.

Then he lifts his hips, and slams back down.

“Lou-” Harry shouts, his muscles tensing so hard the veins show under his skin, but though his hands are clenching punishingly hard into the skin of Louis’ hips, his lower body stays completely still. Just like Louis taught him.

Louis leans forward to bite at Harry’s lips and their mouths crash together, heat and fire as Louis works himself on Harry’s cock, his thighs burning as he slides up and down. There’s a thudding ball of need building in the pit of his stomach, twirling up his spine, and he chases it as thunder crashes outside their little bubble, as Harry’s moans grow deeper and louder and needier, as Louis starts to lose control of his limbs and his head falls back in ecstasy.

“Now, baby,” Louis chokes out, and Harry lets out a wild groan as he's finally able to do what his body was screaming at him to do: he uses the grip on Louis’ hips to pull him down, thrusting up into Louis so hard he sees stars. The angle isn’t perfect but Louis is close enough that it doesn’t matter, little ah-ah-ah s punched out of him as Harry takes control.

Louis comes first, painting Harry’s torso with come; Harry follows soon after, collapsing forward against Louis.

And the storm still rages on outside.

They sort of forget the situation they’ve found themselves in—dishevelled, naked, damp from rain and sticky from come—until they pull up outside of Harry’s mum’s house to drop off her picnic basket and blankets. Louis doesn’t think anything of it, assuming they can struggle back into their wet clothes… until he sees Anne rushing out of the house to meet them, umbrella bobbing brightly through curtains of rain.

“Oh, shit,” Harry says in panic, scrambling for something to cover them up with. “Why is she coming out here?!”

Louis can’t exactly say well, she probably thinks we’re engaged, as well as clothed so he just keeps his mouth shut and tries to cover as much of himself as he can with Harry’s discarded shirt.

“Hi, mum,” Harry says weakly over the rain when Anne makes it to his window. She takes one look at Harry, completely nude and barely covered by the edge of a blanket he’d managed to drag over him, then Louis, in a similar state, then flicks her glance down at Harry’s empty left hand and laughs so loudly she startles away some birds hiding from the rain under the awning of the house.

At a Script concert a few nights later in Manchester, Louis thinks he’s finally got it right.

It’s perfect, if he does say so himself. It’s not a proposal cliché, like the restaurant. Weather won’t be a factor, like with the picnic. It’s a meaningful place for both of them. He’s not pulling Harry on stage or having the band say anything at all, so there’s no public aspect to contend with.

Harry’s got his arm around Louis’ shoulders as they sway to I’m Yours, a simple guitar and a chorus of voices floating up from the crowd around them. It’s Louis’ favourite part of live shows, the emotion of the audience and the way they can pour it back tenfold.

Danny sings though I may not look like much, I’m yours, and Louis reaches for his pocket, for the ring nestled in its case.

Only to remember he left the ring in his other jacket pocket.

“Shall we take bets?” Louis asks Lottie and Liam as they lay out on towels under a Jamaican sun. Waves crash in the distance against a rocky outcrop nearby, and gulls cry overhead. The shrieks of Louis’ youngest siblings echo off the empty cliffs. “Maybe this time I’ll drop the ring in the ocean. That would be fun.”  

“Don’t be morbid, Lou,” Lottie says, holding up her phone to take a selfie, throwing up a peace sign and making a kissy face like Louis’ tribulations aren’t enough to give her full attention to.

“No, no, I mean it,” Louis says, not bothering to lift his face from his towel. “It would be a nice change of pace.”

“Nothing’s going to go wrong, Tommo,” Liam says soothingly. Louis wonders if he’s been listening to self-help podcasts or something, because he definitely didn’t always used to talk like that.

“That’s what you think,” Louis mutters. “Obviously, the problem here is that I’m cursed.”

“The only thing you’re cursed with is melodrama,” Lottie says, poking Louis with one of her long fingernails.

“Good one,” Liam chuckles.

Louis hates them both.

“Hey,” Niall says, jogging over and kicking sand all over Louis as he falls onto the towel next to him. “Aren’t you supposed to be doing something? Like, oh, proposing to someone?”

“Oh, right,” Louis says, rolling over and cracking one eye open. “Niall, wanna get hitched?”

“You aren’t man enough for me, Tommo,” Niall replies easily, patting him on the back. “Why don’t you try that line on someone else, eh? Like that lad over there with the smallest swim trunks in the world.”

“They are small, aren’t they,” Lottie comments, her nose wrinkling as they all look over at Harry on the far side of the beach, who’s trying to teach Daisy and Phoebe how to do yoga and wearing tiny pink shorts that put his oft-celebrated old yellow trunks to shame.

“Go on, Lou,” Liam says quietly. Louis feels for the distinctive lump of the ring box in his pocket—he learned his lesson after the concert, after all—and gets to his feet. When he looks down, Niall, Liam, and Lottie are all sending him supportive, gentle smiles. Which, naturally, means Louis has to shake like a dog to get the sand off of himself and so it rains down on the other three, making them squawk in outrage as he bounces away, cackling.

It’s a private beach, the shoreline and waves theirs alone, but Louis still searches instinctively for the shine of a pap’s camera along the cliff, or out in the bay. Nothing, though, and he’s glad; there are moments between him and Harry that he’s always ached to share with the world and loathes that he has to keep it hidden, but this is something he really only wants to keep between them and the people closest to them.

He passes Gemma building a sandcastle with Doris, and she winks and nods approvingly as he catches her eye and taps his hand against his pocket. A few feet further, he comes across Jay and Anne, sunning themselves and drinking margaritas.

“Is it time?” Jay asks, straightening her shoulders. Her eyes are wide and excited under the brim of her sunhat.

“Yeah, but don’t follow us up there,” Louis laughs, a tiny bit self-deprecatingly. “This is usually about the time things go wrong.”

“Nothing will go wrong,” Anne says serenely. She reaches out and squeezes Louis’ hand. “Go get him.”

Louis takes a deep breath and turns, squinting a little against bright sand. This is the time it all goes right. It has to.

“Hazza,” Louis calls as he approaches Harry and the twins, all three in various interpretations of the Warrior pose, or at least that’s what he thinks is happening.

Harry opens one eye and smiles, then releases a breath and, in a calming voice, says, “And relax.”

Daisy takes it literally and flops to the sand, starfishing out. Phoebe lets out her breath slowly, perfectly, earning a smile and a thumbs up from Harry.

“Hey,” Harry says, leaning forward to steal a kiss. “What’s up?”

“Wanna take a walk with me?” Louis asks. “There’s apparently a way to get up on top of the ridge over there.”

Harry brightens, which shouldn’t even be possible. “Yeah, Lou, sounds great.” He takes Louis’ hand and leads the way to the jagged section of rocks rising out of the water, sea spray glittering in the air before the wind carries it away. Harry and Louis wade into the water, stopping to spot seashells or point out starfish, water gently sloshing against their shins as they approach the outcrop.

There are little footholds littered up the side of the shortest rock, some natural and some looking man-made, like an earth-grown rock climbing wall. Louis gestures for Harry to go first, and Harry grins and fits his fingers into the slotted space just above his head and starts to climb.

Before Louis follows, he turns around to see every single person on the little beach staring at the two of them. Niall and Gemma have paused in their volleyball game, Fizzy isn’t paying a bit of attention to the baby twins as they run circles around her; if Louis listens closely, he’s pretty sure he can hear the clicking of the massive camera his mum’s pulled out of nowhere.

“Stop it,” he hisses, though he knows they can’t hear him. He flaps his arms so they get the message anyway. “You’re going to ruin it, nosy sods!”

If anything, the clicking from his mum’s camera only increases, and Fizzy has wrangled the twins so even they’re watching.

“Did you say something?” Harry calls from about ten feet up, pausing as he looks for the next handhold.

“Nope!” Louis answers, waves his arms agitatedly at his audience once more, and starts the slow ascent behind Harry.

It takes about ten minutes of manoeuvering and some creative swearing to get to the top of the rock, but once he’s there Louis thinks it’s all worth it. The crash of the waves is louder here, like the rock is crumbling into the sea and taking them with it, but the spray is cool on Louis’ face and the scenery in any direction is beautiful beyond belief. Harry’s standing facing out towards the open ocean, the water fading from turquoise to cool cobalt the further it stretches towards the horizon. His silhouette against the view is like art come to life, the smudges of his tattoos and wayward hair and pigeon-toed stance in sharp detail, little rainbows shining in infinitesimal bursts of sunlight on the mist around them.

Louis is glad, looking at the scene, that they’re here. Maybe even that the other proposals failed, because this is too utterly perfect a moment to overlook.

His hands scrape against the rocky surface as he gets to his feet, and Harry turns at the noise; the sun halos around him and it steals Louis’ breath like something out of a dream. Everything lined up exactly how it should. This is where they’re meant to be, and who they’re meant to be. The panic of finding the perfect ring and planning the perfect proposal pales in front of this: two boys in love in front of the entire ocean, blue green water and a ring to match, ready to start forever as soon as they can.

But then the world falls away, and Louis forgets where they are and what they’ve seen, because the most beautiful sight in the world is the way Harry’s eyes widen as Louis slowly sinks to one knee in front of him, digging a small black box out of his pocket.

Tears are already tickling at the corners of Louis’ eyes but he doesn’t care; Harry’s got a shaking hand covering his mouth and his smile’s never been so wide.

The roar of the waves seems louder, but Louis doesn’t mind shouting over them: “Harry Edward Styles.”

And that’s as far as he gets.

A massive, thundering wave sweeps over them out of nowhere, crashing against the surface of the rock and driving the breath from Louis’ lungs as it washes over him. He sputters and coughs and wipes his fringe back frantically, clearing the water from his eyes enough to see Harry still on his feet in front of him, looking just as drenched and shocked as Louis feels.

“Oh my god,” Louis says blankly. “It happened again.”

“What?” Harry asks, water still dripping steadily off of him. “What happened again?”

“This was supposed to be the time it worked,” Louis says, his voice rising. “This was supposed to be it-”

“Louis, what on earth are you talking about?”

“I can do it again!” Louis says in a rush. The ring box is still clenched in his hand, thank god, though a little more waterlogged than before. “Look, you haven’t seen the ring, we’ll just go somewhere else and I’ll try again-”

“What?” Harry laughs incredulously. “Louis, no, what are you-”

“It was supposed to be perfect,” Louis says.

“It was perfect!” Harry cries.

Louis’ panic gently derails for a second, falling by the wayside as confusion takes its place. “What?”

“Louis, did you plan this whole trip to propose?”

“Well, yeah, I had to,” Louis explains, still completely lost. “Because the the waiter at the restaurant tried to give your ring away-”

“My ring? Hold on, that was mine?”

“And then the picnic was hit by the flood Noah had to build an ark for-”

“You were going to- at that picnic? Oh my god, Louis.”

“And at the Script concert, and that night we went out driving at midnight and stopped at that park, and two mornings ago when you woke up and told me that you’ve never been as happy as you are now, and-”

“Louis,” Harry says, dropping to his knees too so he’s even with Louis. “Oh my god, baby, I’m so sorry none of those worked out, but this was absolutely perfect in every way. We’re in paradise, with all our favourite people… who seem very worried about us,” he chuckles, waving down at their families and bandmates, who are clustered near the bottom of their rock, peering up at the two of them. “We’re okay!” Harry calls down.

“Did he propose yet?” is the answer they get back via Niall, and that’s what does it. A tiny giggle bursts out of Louis like a bubble, then another, and then he’s bent over double, laughing so hard his stomach aches. Harry takes a moment but then he gets there too, the ridiculousness of the moment crashing over them harder than the wave did just a few minutes ago.

“Let me try again,” Louis says through hiccuped chuckles, his breath coming weirdly and his cheeks achy from smiling. He’s pretty sure he’s crying, and he’s very sure they’re happy tears.

“Lou,” Harry laughs softly, cupping Louis’ cheeks. “There’s no need. Of course I’ll marry you.”

“I was going to read poetry,” Louis says. “Hold on, maybe I can…” The notecards he pulls from his pocket are like the subjects of a Dali painting, the ink smeared across the sodden paper. “Or not.”

Harry laughs again, burying his face in Louis’ chest. “I don’t need poetry. I don’t even need a ring. I just need you and me and forever, that’s all.”

“Well, I got you a ring anyway,” Louis says, and finally slides the box open.

This time, there are definitely tears.


Harry doesn’t walk another red carpet until the following summer, and it’s the one for the London premiere of Dunkirk. He knew he’d be the focus of a lot of attention, what with the media latching onto him as the big unknown potential next to Tom and Cillian and Mark, but even he couldn’t have predicted the sheer onslaught of noise as he steps out of the limo and onto the red carpet.

Of course, some of the frenzy may have something to do with the person holding his hand, his palm warm against Harry’s, his blue eyes bright.

The camera flashes are blinding, the shouts from the assembled press and paps almost overwhelming. Harry smiles, though, because with Louis standing next to him it’s manageable in ways he’d never thought possible when he did this alone, the heat of his familiar body against Harry’s like an anchor. Harry’s in Gucci, a deep emerald green from their spring collection that Sandra had been saving for him since she first saw it, and Louis is in Gucci too, dark navy against his tan skin, because they had a promise to keep, after all. 

Harry wraps his hand around Louis’ as they move forward, and tomorrow Harry will post on his Instagram a picture of the moment as it was captured by a red carpet photographer: Louis' small hand tucked in his, Harry’s on the outside so the whole world can see a bluey-greeny-blue ring on his left hand, and a single fingernail painted bright blue.