The day that Louis Tomlinson's life was changed irrevocably began in an excruciatingly embarrassing way; with a mad dash after the mailman in nothing but his underwear. Okay, yes, he tended to be very comfortable with his body, but this was a bit much. He had been waiting for biscuits to finish baking when the mail truck coasted past his driveway.
Normally, that wouldn't be a problem. No mail meant no bills that would further bury him, but this time around he had check due on the very day. Louis watched it from the window as it headed down the street. Most would tell him it was because he didn't have any mail, that there was no need to do anything rash.
But the mail truck driver happened to be Mr. Ford, an elderly man with only a few wisps of white hair left and a memory that failed him by the hour. Often, he forgot his entire route. Despite kind implications from neighbors (and some ruder suggestions) that all focused on his retirement, he refused.
Louis watched him a moment more, as the truck sped up. Obviously one of those days. Then he flung open the door and gave chase.
Previously mentioned, Louis didn't have a problem with anyone seeing him, but the neighbors did. Mrs. Olsen from next door, looked up from watering her garden and shook her head.
"Put some clothes on kid!"
"Sorry!" Louis waved at her, vowing that he would explain later.
Mrs. Olsen made some great pies for the holidays, and he would hate to miss one this year.
The mail truck had rounded the corner, heading back towards town, when Louis finally caught up, slapping his hands against the side to catch Mr. Ford's attention.
"Louis?" he asked when he finally pulled over. "You've forgotten your pants, son."
"I didn't forget," Louis huffed. His sides hurt too much to explain any more than that.
"I see. What did you need?"
"My mail. I have to have something today."
'Or I'm fucked,' he added silently.
Mr. Ford shrugged his skinny shoulders and rifled through his bag in the seat beside him. A few cars passed by, occasionally honking. Two women with high ponytails and wedged heels strolled past, pushing fancy baby strollers. They both turned and raised arched eyebrows at him before giggling and hurrying away. A young teenage girl rode her bike by, staring unabashedly. At the corner, she turned around and rode by again.
"I don't have anything for ya, kid. I'm sorry," Mr. Ford said eventually, placing his knobby hands back on the steering wheel. "Maybe tomorrow, eh?"
"That's impossible!" Louis cried.
Becca Norton had promised to mail her the check for doing her infant son's portraits last week. If he didn't receive this money, he would have to wait for today's gig to come through with some money, which could take a while in the long run, between resizing and touching up the photos and then ordering.
The electric bill had hung on his fridge for two weeks, beside the insurance and a list of groceries he needed that got longer and longer by the day.
"I really am sorry."
"Me too," Louis muttered as Mr. Ford pulled away.
The teenage biker glided by again, mouth hanging open.
The situation didn't feel funny anymore. Without the money, he could lose his ratty, rented home. As terrible as it was, he had managed to get it all on his own. The mangled porch and the overgrown yard didn't matter. The fact that half the windows didn't open didn't matter. What mattered was that he had worked and bought it on his own, essentially made his own living from a photography business and working at small bookstore. A major accomplishment, given his rocky background.
And he was about to be in danger of losing it.
On the walk back home, he ignored the odd stares and muttering from the busy-body neighbors. After all, he had a wedding to get ready for. Weddings were usually difficult gigs, mainly because of potential Bridezillas. They either wanted more pictures of certain aspect of less. He had yet to find a perfect median.
"I wanted pictures of the decorations," some would say.
"What am I going to do with a picture of the flowers?" others would snap.
He had to work at getting the right sense of equality so each factor of the wedding had the same value in the puzzle of the day. He had to chalk it down to just the right balance. Not that he would dare call it a system. To him, art didn't have a system.
This particular bride had seemed really easy going though, and had ordered his most expensive package, so he wanted this to be his best work yet. At home, he pulled out the same outfit he wore to all his wedding deals-black skinny jeans, white TOMS, a button up white shirt, and his black suspenders. It was the outfit he had bought on a rare day, a day when his wallet bulged from cash. A teen girl and her jock boyfriend had wanted a series of couple pictures, and Louis had obliged, thinking it no big deal.
Then, she revealed that her father actually owned all the big name hotels in the area. When she scribbled down a check and handed to him, Louis had actually thought she added too many zeroes.
"I think you misplaced a decimal," he said, wary.
"Who cares?" she laughed. "It's just money. You want it or not?"
Her laughter stung him, even though he should have been happy and grateful. For years he had wondered what would happen if he became rich. Tucked away in his dresser drawer was a list of all the things that he would do. Once, he had read in a magazine that people were happier in the long run if they spent money on experiences rather than material items. Sometimes, his dreams got away from him and he would think about how he would travel with nothing but a suitcase full of clothes and his camera bag.
He would capture every aspect of the world, click by click ,film by film.
Of course, his car gave out that month, and the beginning of his dreams looped back to a continuation of his struggles. The outfit had been one of the few things he had bought, because his best friend, Linda, insisted he needed something decent to wear and his customers might fork over more.
So it was with crossed fingers that he grabbed his keys and drove to Elizabeth Groves, a fancy park famous for the grandest weddings in all of London. Today, Miranda Jacob was marrying Ian Wallace, and with any luck Louis would still have a house by the end of the month.
When he pulled up to the fancy gardens, his first impression was a resounding 'wow'.
Literally hundreds of cars were scattered in the parking lot and overflowing into the street, which had been blocked off. People were bustling about, the men nervously checking their watches and pulling at their ties while the women fluffed their hair. White teeth flashed in the sunlight, sparkles cast reflections that danced on the asphalt, and children chased after each other, miraculously devoid of any dirt.
Gulping, Louis clutched the wedding schedule in his hand. The thing had been printed in gold script onto stiff, cream paper and lined with lacy material accentuated with rhinestones. Miranda had been the eager, daddy-gives-me-money girly girl on the phone, but how would she be in person? Crazy? Relaxed? Bridezilla? God, he couldn't deal with anymore of the last one.
He would never forget one time when he turned the wedding photos in and the bride had damn near refused to pay him because he got a shot of her spanking new mother-in-law. His protests about her being a bridesmaid didn't yield any sensible results, either.
Just a hearty scream of, "I had no choice in that matter!"
Her new, and clearly stressed, husband wrote him a check and apologized for her while rubbing at his temples. Louis wished them the best of luck.
So when he was ushered into a small cottage in the gardens, where the women got ready, he was pleasantly surprised to find Miranda everything he hoped for in wedding gigs.
"You must be Louis Tomlinson," she said cheerfully, her arms wrapped around her dress while the bridesmaids furiously worked to solve the mystery of the corset. "Sorry we had to meet like this."
"It's fine," Louis laughed. He fiddled with the camera strap, trying to think of something else to say. "I've been in much more awkward situations as a photographer."
"Oh I'm sure you have. One time, at my cousin's wedding-wait let me back up. Margret is a drinker when she's nervous. But not alcohol. Soda. So she had been guzzling Pepsi and right in the middle of the ceremony she turns her head and lets out this huge burp. Just as the photographer was creeping close to get an angled shot."
Louis visibly cringed.
"That's terrible. I think I would have died."
"Oh no," Miranda waved her hands, and the dress slipped down a little. "Margret just started laughing her ass off. I was the maid of honor and I nearly pissed myself laughing as well."
One of the girls tugging at the corset made a face, but Louis already knew that he would get along with her.
He really just appreciated that Miranda was the perfect, magazine bride; Classic features, blond hair piled on the crown of her head, full red lips, and a ballet dancers body.
His eyes drifted to her fingers. which flashed with diamond rings that probably cost individually more than he made in months of working at the book store. Miranda noticed him staring and smiled wanly.
"I know they're a bit much. Ian likes to show off everything that's his. I guess I count now."
The words would have been bitter, but the lift of her lips implied that she was proud of that.
"Oh whatever," the same girl that had made a face now rolled her eyes. "Sorry about Miranda," she deadpanned to Louis. "She's almost as stupid about boys as her gay best friend."
Embarrassed, Louis coughed. What the hell was he supposed to say to that?
"Harry isn't really stupid about boys anymore," another girl said, pulling at her earrings. "Considering he refuses to date much of anyone. Remember how he hid in his room when you tried to set him up with nice man at the movie theatre, Mir?"
"They liked the same music; I thought it was destiny. Oh whatever," Miranda rolled her eyes, but she didn't come off bitchy. "Now, Louis, I would like to apologize about Naomi. She didn't have a good morning."
Naomi, the girl with the scowl, pinched her face into a distasteful frown, but didn't comment. An odd sort of friendship, Louis acknowledged. Anyone can share common interests and get along, but people like this interested him.
"I would love some individual pictures of me and him," Miranda mused, still referring to Harry. "The boy flinches every time a camera gets near him, though."
"Good luck getting him to smile," Naomi hissed.
Louis felt a situation spiraling way, way out of control, so he cleared his throat and tried to change the subject to something more relevant as to why he was standing with a bunch of girls with their dresses only half zipped.
"In much older photos it was actually practical not to smile. I can get some serious shots in between the wedding and reception hours. Or after the reception, if you want."
Miranda twisted the rings on her fingers, her dress now being secure enough that she didn't have to hold it.
"Probably just after the reception. Before me and Ian drive off to the beach."
She fluttered a hand to her chest and sighed romantically.
Naomi rolled her eyes once again, and Louis wondered if he would be able to get a picture of her without her eyes raised skyward.
"Well I'm going to head down to the gazebo," he said. "I just wanted to meet you all beforehand. Wave me over if you need anything at any time."
The girls all nodded and began cursing the corset, insisting it would have to be done all over again. The idea provoked a groan from Miranda, and Louis found himself chuckling as he joined the flow of guests to the gazebo that was nestled in between two large oak trees.
Miranda's wedding was on the top five lists of the most beautiful he had ever attended. She glided down the idle, arm around a handsome father in an expertly tailored suit. Her mother could have been her twin, save for the feathery crinkles around her eyes.
Miranda gave a resounding 'I do' to a man with angular features and a brooding expression; Ian Wallace. When the time came to kiss, Ian's eyes fluttered open once, as if he were distracted. That, however, wasn't Louis's business. What happened beyond the wedding didn't quite exist to him. Everything that mattered took place tonight.
The reception took place under an enormous white tent. Outside, the trees were swathed with gorgeous lights that gave the whole area a soft, golden glow that sunk itself into the skin of the guests and made the whole party appear ethereal.
A live band switched from mellow music to upbeat cover songs, drawing guests from the dark corners of the place and up from their tables. They all crowded onto the dance floor outside, laughing and stumbling, tipsy off wine so expensive it made Louis sick to even look at it.
He had circled the place twice before resigning himself to the fact that he was out of immediate things to photograph. With a lot less hesitation than he should have, he made a beeline for the first empty table he saw, settling in the chair and sighing with pleasure to be off his throbbing feet.
From his table he watched them all, wondering what it would be like to have glamour and money and real diamond jewelry. Maybe someday someone would pass him on the street or see him at his own wedding (if that were to ever happen) and that someone would wonder about him.
As of now, Louis didn't think anyone could care less.
All the guests were loud and he didn't know quite how to speak to them, and if you weren't giggling and loud and if you didn't know how to talk designers, you didn't exist here.
A woman had stopped him and asked if his shirt was from a fancy French clothing series that he couldn't even repeat.
"No, of course not," he'd said without thinking. The woman, affronted, scurried away. That was about as much talking he had done outside of the chat with the bride and her court.
He tinkered with his camera and avoided the awkward stares he was getting. It felt like everyone knew everyone, so he stood out like a black lamb. Suddenly, he wished he had more things to take pictures of. Anything, really.
"Do you mind if I sit here?" a slow, deep voice asked, drawing him out of his brooding thoughts.
Louis leaned back against his seat and looked over his shoulder, following the progress of one of the groomsmen as he walked around the table and hovered over a chair.
"Of course not. I'm Louis. The photographer."
He held up the camera to make the point.
"I know. Miranda has been talking about your work for a few weeks now."
"That's sweet. I appreciate the business."
They lapsed into silence, out of things to discuss. Louis checking over the shots he had taken and trying to decide what he needed more of.
"My name is Harry."
Surprised, Louis looked up from his progress. He hadn't thought it would be offered.
"You don't talk much do you?"
"No," Harry replied eventually. Something in his face became sad. "I'm not shy though."
Unsure of what to do with that, Louis nodded and turned back to his camera. He felt very shy himself under Harry's attentive stare, but he didn't say anything. Not many people could make him feel shy after all. They sat in silence for several minutes, Harry scanning the crowd almost apprehensively and Louis taking a few candid shots from his seat.
After about ten minutes of cold silence, Ian, the groom, breezed by and stopped when he saw Harry sitting virtually alone. The first thing that Louis had learned was that the photographer never really counted.
"Harry, why aren't you dancing?"
Harry's eyes flitted from Ian to the peach tablecloth.
"I….I haven't been feeling well lately."
"Dance," Ian said firmly. "Don't sit in here and sulk all night, for pity's sake."
Miranda called for Ian to join her at the head table, where she had been fanning herself with the lacy schedule and beaming at everyone who made eye contact with her. After he left, Harry let out a ragged sigh.
"I guess I'd better dance," he mumbled. Louis couldn't help but to notice a blush had crept over his cheeks.
"You say that like it's torture,"
"To me? It is. I'm the world's worst dancer."
Something in his expression felt very vulnerable, a something that reminded Louis of a kicked puppy. Before he could stop himself, he was saying, "I'll dance with you."
Harry peeked up, through his lashes. The crowd milled around them, chattering, and the opening chords of a slow song were struck up outside the tent. The silence felt strained, like Harry was searching for a polite way to turn Louis down.
"Okay," he finally replied, his eyes unfocused. Louis straightened up in surprise. "We can dance. But I'm sorry if I step on your feet."
Harry led the way outside, weaving around people and keeping his eyes lowered. Louis struggled to keep up with his long strides, but once outside he found Harry waiting for him at the edge of the dance floor that had been lain out on the plush grass.
"I hope it's not awkward for you to dance with me," Harry muttered. The way he said it implied he had a problem in the past with people feeling awkward around him.
The wheels in Louis's mind began to turn, however, and he found himself cracking up. How could that have not clicked sooner?
"You're Miranda's best friend?"
"I am," he agreed, and for the first time, he smiled. Wide and flashing his teeth. His greens eyes sparkled in a way that made Louis recall dew kissed grass. "She likes talking about me."
"No, it doesn't bother me at all," Louis answered the question, and he meant it. So what if Harry was gay? It was just dancing. He danced all the time with people. That didn't mean anything. Together this time, they weaved their way to the heart of the dancer floor, around an elderly couple doing a crazed salsa to their own tempo and around a younger girl arguing with her boyfriend in mid-dance.
Gingerly, Louis took Harry's hand and faltered. Shoulder or waist?
Harry smiled ruefully and placed his hand Louis's waist, where it seemed to send a strange singing sensation all through him. While sitting, Louis had felt like Harry had been average height. Even seeing him walking didn't make him think much. But right in front of him, with their hands twined together, Louis felt like he had to crane his neck up to see him.
Harry kept him at a distance, but the guests around them were peering over curiously anyway. Naomi danced by, angular eyebrows raised and ignoring the fact that her dance partner was staring directly down her dress front.
"I'm afraid I can only spare one dance," Louis sighed, squeezing Harry's hand a little. Beneath the sleeve of Harry's jacket, Louis's fingers brushed against a thick bracelet.
"I do have a job to do, and I've left poor my camera alone at the table. I don't want Miranda killing me for slacking."
Not that anyone would steal his camera when they could go buy better new ones at their leisure.
"I doubt she would kill anyone. She's in very good mood tonight."
"You would imagine so. Most are happy to be married."
"No need to be sassy," Harry laughed. His nose scrunched up adorably. "I wouldn't let her kill such an amazing photographer."
"A broke photographer," he said under his breath. The second the words escaped him, he regretted it. Like a near stranger at a wedding wanted to hear the woes of the photographer.
"Broke?" Harry asked. His eyebrows knitted together. "But your work is rather popular."
"Maybe, but someone didn't send the check on time. I'm late for rent….again."
Harry bit his lower lip and cast a thoughtful look through the sea of faces.
"I wish I could help…."
At that moment, Miranda and Ian swept out of the tent. Miranda raised her bouquet triumphantly in the air, letting out a wild yell.
Everyone broke out in applause, making a path for them towards the center of the dance floor where they would start the first dance. The briefly cheerful and open Harry quickly receded as he stepped away from Louis.
"I'll see you later."
"But…" Louis's protests were lost in the cheering, and Harry's lean figure was swallowed among the crowd. Despite the brief interaction, Louis missed his presence the second he was deprived of it. Something about him felt reassuring.
The remainder of the wedding passed by in a frenzied blur of flashes and laughter. Louis took the bridal party photos, and then a short thirty minutes later Miranda and Ian were preparing to zip off in a limo. Just before she left, however, she sidled up to Louis and slipped an envelope into his jacket.
"A friend told me you might need this."
She winked a heavily lashed eye, and then she was gone, ushered through a shower of rice and bubbles and away to her honeymoon. Louis, on instinct, fumbled to take a few pictures before he even bothered to open the envelope.
Money slid out and into his hand, enough for three months of rent, as well as a note.
'A friend said you needed this. A down payment. I'll get the rest to you when I return from the beautiful beaches of Costa Rica! Xxxx.'
Louis's mouth moved as he read the words, heart quickening with mingled gratitude and reluctance to believe something this good could be happening.
Across the thinning dance hall, he caught sight of Harry standing alone with his hands jammed in the front pockets of his pants. When they made eye contact, Harry offered a small smile before turning and heading away, towards the parking lot. Alone.
Louis felt a pressure on his chest, and he knew he was fucked right then, when he felt the overwhelming urge to chase after and thank Harry.
Maybe to ask for another dance.
"Eat up, Darla."
Louis placed on open can of tuna on the floor, trying to urge his white kitten to come and eat. His best friend, Stan, had gotten him the animal a month ago, when it became apparent a girlfriend wasn't in Louis's foreseeable future.
"You need some kind of pussy," Stan had said, thrusting that kitten at Louis rather unceremoniously.
But it had been a week since Louis had danced with Harry at the wedding and all he could think about was the boy with the curly hair, how his pale skin had been stark against the sheen of his hair and his lips had been some shade of pink Louis had never seen on someone before.
Okay, he didn't mean to turn into a walking mother fucking cliché. This was how all those romantic comedies went; Person A meets mysterious Person B, they dance, are separated, then find their way back to each other through circumstances that usually don't exist and go on to date and marry.
Louis had learned long ago that love didn't work for him, and that was okay. The day before his mother passed away of her heart complications, she had almost agreed with him. He had been sitting by her bedside, slicing bananas. Even as she slipped, she insisted on a rhythm of regularity to denote the fact that nothing would ever be the same.
"Are you sure these are still good for you, Mum?"
"It's a bit late for that," she replied, with not a single trace of bitterness. "Listen, son. I want to ask you something very serious, okay? And please don't be sarcastic, baby. I need to know this in all honesty."
"All right," Louis agreed, focusing on slicing the fruit. His heart was breaking at the thought of joking right then. "Ask away."
"Do you think that you might have settled for loneliness out of fear for heart break?"
The knife slipped and sliced a thin line in Louis's thumb. A drop of blood fell into the bowl, landing dead center on the banana slice on top. Like a target.
"If you keep that mindset, I'm scared this will be all you'll ever get, darling. Don't send me away with that thought in mind."
He put the ceramic bowl on the bedside, pushing her romance novels aside to make room. Gently, he took her hand, unflinching even though they were like holding ice cubes.
"I swear that I will find someone again. I don't know when, and please don't rise out of the grave and kick my ass when it isn't immediately. But I swear it will happen."
Love had always been an ill-conceived notion for him, a cat chasing a mouse in an endless circle, the hammer constantly missing the nail. Love existed on the surface and always made people look happy, but if you watched carefully, you could see fault lines. The cat hadn't caught the mouse. One nail wasn't holding the house completely together. There had always been something missing. Rarely had he encountered honest, true love. A sad thing, considering that he worked as a wedding photographer.
Those weren't his problems until his mother made him swear on finding love. Now, he almost felt tempted to make a profile on a dating website. Almost, but not quite.
With his rent paid, and more money on the way, however, Louis didn't have much to do. The website became more and more insufferably tempting, and he had to restrain himself to head over to the library and give it a go. He didn't even receive any calls to set up for appointments, and Candy, his boss at the bookstore, didn't need him for several days due to the drag of people avoided books in favor of pools.
For once, he was stress free and had nothing to do but relax.
So for a week, he watched movies about love and ate gallon after gallon of ice cream.
Stan stopped by, holding a basketball, but shook his head at the sight of Louis. He had been wearing the same outfit for about five days; pajama pants-with no shirt- beanie, fuzzy socks combo. It felt too good to change out of. When Stan let himself in, Louis was watching Friends with Benefits with a bowl of cheese popcorn in his lap.
Louis shrugged, digging in the bowl for the cheesiest pieces at the bottom.
"I don't get to relax often. And the bookstore has been slow so I got to take the week off."
Stan turned and took the basketball with him without even staying to poke fun at him. Louis felt glad the sunlight was shut out. Darla drifted in out of the living room, occasionally mewing at him for food, but she eventually gave up on him too. Usually Louis got up to feed her only when he worried his bladder might burst.
On the week mark since the weeding, his phone went off, the sound foreign and alarming.
Darla, who on the sixth day had given up and shared Louis couch-and food-hissed at it and fled under the covers.
"Why?" he groaned, but when he answered the unknown number his voice changed to false, jovial tone.
"Louis Tomlinson Photography! How may I help you?"
Darla hissed again, batting at his socks under the nestle of blankets.
"Louis? It's Miranda! Have you gotten the film all developed?"
He had. The very day after the wedding. He had sat at the kitchen table and flipped through them, finding his eyes drawn to Harry. The fact that he thought so much of a virtual stranger pained him, but he hoped whatever feeling Harry had sparked in him would be squashed with time and no talking. However, there was sole picture that Louis had captured, before they had sat together. Someone must have bumped him, because the shot was blurry, but Harry clung to the edge of the frame. He had discarded his black blazer and gripped a wine glass in hands, the veins straining and stark in the dim lights.
The best part was that Harry had his mouth open in laughter, and the differences it wrought in his features were so strikingly drastic that Louis felt like he was glimpsing the person he had only witnessed a shadow over. Whoever he had been talking to must have been an old friend, or maybe just someone who told a good joke, but Louis wanted in on the secret.
"Yeah, I got them developed," he finally replied.
"Great! Can you bring them by? Ian is at work all day so we can take our time picking out the ones that we might could make bigger."
She sent her address, to which Louis programmed into his GPS system. Stan had wired the thing to sound like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh and refused to change it back, so now all his turns and miles were relayed to him in a morose tone that made him feel like he might actually not want to take that turn down Turnpike Lane. Eeyore just sounded so…negative.
But hearing his slow, mournful voice, Louis didn't find it annoying nor funny anymore. It sounded a lot like Harry. The thought sobered him as he drove into the light traffic. At first, he was concerned over finding Miranda's home, but once he turned on the street he knew there would be no mistaking it. Louis did a double, then a triple take, and pulled into the driveway.
The surrounding houses were all nice, but this one….
It stood three stories, with a balcony on the second floor. A wrap around porch was overflowing with pastel flowers in hand painted pots. The backyard was bordered by a white picket fence, with the gate hanging open to give the neighbors a glimpse of the rock-lined pool and hot tub. A few rocking chairs moved with the breeze. The house summed up every little thing Louis knew of Miranda thus far; extravagant to the point where even amazing things seemed bland.
His car looked out of place next to her sleek, expensive cars, but the old woman across the street was already staring, so he hurried onto the porch and rang the doorbell. A loud BONG rang thought the house, echoing away and into the distant rooms. Nervous, Louis shuffled the photo album he had thrown together. It was a base plate, really. Just something to have all the photos on display. The more important job came after this meeting; resizing and framing.
Miranda flung open the door a moment later and beamed. Her thick hair was wound into a bun directly on top of her head, reminiscent of a ballerina's. She wore cut off shorts and a baggy t-shirt that hung off her slim shoulders.
"Louis!" she cried, like they were long lost friends. "I'm so excited! Come in, come in!"
She opened the door wider and ushered him into a wide hall with shoes ranging from stilettos to TOMS neatly lined up by the door. The walls were a cream color, and the tiles shiny and devoid of any stains or wear. Not just a very clean house, but a very new house.
Louis followed her into the kitchen area, trying not to be so obvious in his staring. The kitchen was located near the back of the house, with good reasoning. The dining room and the kitchen were separated by a counter, and the dining room walls were nearly non-existent. Instead, they were covered in floor-to-ceiling windows that gave a pleasurable view of a wide expanse of green grass and a tire swing. Not to mention the pool with dark blue water that rippled in passing breezes.
"You can just take a seat at the table! We were making breakfast when I got the fabulous idea to call…."
She went on, but Louis's attention was drawn to something in the kitchen. A squeak of cabinet doors, a light slam, and then someone was righting themselves, a jar of peanut butter in hand. It couldn't be. That fucking cliché.
"Hello," Harry greeted, placing the jar down. The only article of clothing he wore was a pair of plaid boxers, a fact that made Louis feel as if all his nerves were on end. The same something he had felt while dancing returned, skittering underneath his skin and fogging his brain. All he could think was that he needed to say something, and he should really stop being so stupid. For one, he didn't really think he was gay, the past experience be dammed. A second thing, he knew nothing of Harry, except that he was quiet but not shy and sad but not exactly depressed. A weed among roses, personality wise, but the way he moved and smiled and when he laughed made Louis feel like he'd been struck by lightning.
Things weren't adding up.
"Do you know each other?" Miranda asked, whipping her head back and forth between them. A keen interest gleamed in her eyes.
"We danced together," Harry explained, but in Louis's ears it sounded like something way more personal had happened between them. And maybe something had, because Miranda perked up and slid into a seat.
"Come sit, Harry. Bring the toast."
Harry obeyed, whistling a soft melody. Louis looked away as Harry moved around the counter and sat down beside him.
"So I got some really great shots of you and Ian dancing," he said hastily, trying to stop the devilish smile curling around Miranda's delicate features.
Harry, however, didn't seem to notice the effect that he was having on Louis. Instead, he innocently scraped butter over a bagel, whistling something that sounded suspiciously like 'Jailhouse Rock' by Elvis Presley.
"That's great," Miranda crowed, flipping through the album. "I would like this one in a bigger size. Maybe big enough to go over the fireplace?"
She tapped her manicured nails on a picture of her kissing her father's cheek at the end of the isle. Louis's eyes flitted to the edge of the picture, where the groomsmen stood in a line behind Ian. The beginning of a smile crinkled Harry's eyes in the shot, but Ian, just next to him, had an impatient scowl.
"I like that one," Harry agreed before taking a mouthful. "These are brilliant, Lou."
Miranda raised her eyebrows and grinned at the nickname, but Louis felt a twist in his stomach. It was a bad idea for Harry to warm up to him. He knew that much for himself. If Harry put any more effort into building up the feeling in his stomach, Louis might do something entirely stupid. Something he hadn't done in a long time and shouldn't be thinking of.
Like ask him on a date.
"I got a really nice one of Harry and Naomi. I was surprised I could get her smiling," Louis said hurriedly, flipping the pages. "See? There are some people staring at me, but I was hoping it didn't ruin the shot."
"Oh no. I love it. The lighting is just so brilliant. And of course, Harry looks as cheeky as he used to."
Harry nodded in sullen agreement with her. The shot was him sneaking up on her with cake in hand. Naomi was laughing at whatever her date was saying. Again, Louis felt a pang to know the different sides of Harry. Quiet, forlorn, brooding. And then sneaky, charming, and outgoing. Two different people, it seemed, taking turns in certain moments.
Right then, Harry was a muted version of his happier side. He smiled, and teased Miranda over how she thought every picture was the best yet, but he seemed tired all the same. Maybe he had just woken up. Louis tried his best not to wonder too excessively on Harry's sleeping pattern. Trivial things like that were none of his concerns.
"I think I want to order this package," she said, circling one on the print out sheet. "With these."
She pulled out ten photos and slid them over. Then, she cast a shifty glance over at Harry before standing up with a flourish.
"Excuse me for a moment."
With a few strides, she had exited the room to some unknown corner of the house. Harry and Louis sat regarding one another of the tub of butter, waiting for the other to begin speaking first. Louis thought surely he would lose this one, but to his surprise, he won. If they were playing some game at all, that is.
"I'm sorry," Harry said eventually. "She tries to set me up with guys, I'm just going to go ahead and warn you. And I think I would like to be your friend so I would hate for this to be awkward."
"Oh no, no," Louis replied, putting his hands up. "It's okay. It's no weird at all. So do you have an um…boyfriend?"
Something sad flashed in Harry's eyes, but it was gone as soon as it came.
"No. I haven't had much luck with guys at all, I'm afraid. The last relationship I had was out of the normal, so I don't tend to count it." He paused, staring down at his lap with a painfully adorable shyness. "I've never been on an official date."
From the corner of his eye, Louis saw Miranda peek around the corner, then slip away again. Clearly not yet satisfied. And the way she watched them, breath held, struck a chord in him. If his mother still lived, would this be her? Desperately trying to fix him up with someone? And what would she think of Harry?
Examining him, Louis knew she would approve. With his gangly limbs and light skin, bright lips and halo of dark curls, he could have been a male rendering of Snow White. His mother had always thought people with that combination of looks were very blessed.
Then, he did something very, very stupid and ultimately life-altering.
"I could take you out," he said before he could stop himself. Dammit all, he knew this would happen. Stupid Harry and the stupid feelings he evoked.
"A date?" Harry's eyes were wide as teacup saucers.
"No! I mean, maybe. A not-date date?" Louis threw his hands up again in an 'I give up gesture'. "It's whatever you want it to be."
For a moment, Harry chewed on his lip with a thoughtful expression that implied he might be thinking about the best way to turn Louis down, and Louis wanted to crawl under the table, but finally Harry said, "I would love to go on a not-date date with you, Lou."
The stupid nickname again. Sending pleased shivers over him.
"Great." Relief flooded him. "I can't wait."
Miranda flew back into the room, white teeth flashing in the streaming sunlight. Something about the way she fell into her seat implied that she had been listening the entire time and was waiting for them to relay the events she already knew.
"Did I miss anything?" she asked, turning pointedly to Harry. "Anything big, or maybe important to the best friend I've ever had."
"No, we were just discussing economic problems in the third world countries," Harry replied, face somber.
"Harry! Don't joke!"
"It's not a joke. Those people really need help."
"I'm going on a not-date date," he relented, shaking his head. The somberness gone, his face flooded with light, Harry might have been an oil painting. Smooth skin, shifting and stained with filtered colors from the windows and flush with happiness. His curly hair bobbed as he laughed gleefully at Miranda's expression.
"Thank you, Louis," Miranda told him fervently. She grasped at Louis's arm, well-manicured nails digging into his skin. "It's about time someone decent took Harry out. A few months back he spent all his time staring at his phone with the worst expression-"
Harry shook his head at her, like he was scolding a child. Though something felt off again. Louis wondered if he could ever keep up with his flurry of emotions, or if he would just be playing a constant guessing game with which Harry he would be dealing with. That is, if they were to hang out beyond this one not-date date. Which was unlikely, right?
The two of them shared a troubled stare before Harry grinned.
"It's been awhile," he said.
Awhile sounded a lot deeper and painful than it should have.
"You've lost your mind," Stan said. "It's gone. Abandoned. I'm going to get it a plot down at the cemetery right now."
"It's not a date," Louis repeated, though it all sounded really stupid. Even to his own ears.
"Oh really? Really?" Stan leered at him. "Tell me, what will you be doing on this not date?"
Louis felt his face heat up, but he clenched his teeth with determination. No way would Stan win this one.
"I'm packing a picnic and then we are going to the beach to fly kites."
His response did not even justify an 'I told you so from Stan'. Not that the lad could have said much of anything over the peals of laughter that echoed around Louis's bare kitchen. Darla, curled up at Louis's feet, hissed and scampered away, back into Louis's bed where she routinely slept on all of his pillows and left him scooting down at night so that his feet hung over the edge.
"This isn't funny, Stan. I'm worried about what this means." After a moment of internal debate, he added gently, "You know that."
"God, what are you even talking about right now?" Stan dodged the subject entirely, leaving Louis with mingled relief and disappointment. "Can we just focus on the fact that you actually said you were 'packing a picnic'?"
"You prat," Louis seethed, but it was hard to stay mad at his best friend. Louis just wished it was hard for Stan to be that annoying and easy to deal with the fact that he was. "Are you not more concerned on the fact that I'm taking a guy on a not-date date?"
"Who cares if you asked a guy out?"
Louis's face reddened at the phrasing. Never in all his years would he picture himself in the situation of asking anyone out. Girls always made the first, desperate move. He had never had to do anything. But the point was Louis did care that he had asked a guy out. Not technically, but still.
"Don't play the sage-like friend who cares naught that his best friend since childhood suddenly might have a sort of interest in a guy." Again, he didn't bring up the past. Stan knew that Louis wanted to pretend it didn't exist, and he went along with it. Louis could have hugged him.
"You just said 'naught'. Is this a new gay vocabulary that you picked up over there? Does Harry have flashcards with gay lingo on them?"
"STAN FOR GOD'S SAKE."
"An app, then?"
"I'm not gay," Louis said, exasperated. The words sounded like utter bullshit though, even to himself, so he allowed a small smile that was not much more than a tightening of his lips. Stan, however, let out another series of laughter and snorts that wouldn't be polite to exhibit in public.
"Yeah. Okay. When is this date?"
"Our not date-date-" Louis began primly.
"Yeah, the date," Stan interrupted.
"-is Friday," he pressed on, clasping his hands in his lap so that he wouldn't punch him in the face.
Stan leaned back in his chair, seemingly lost in thought. In the silence, Louis checked his phone, hoping for a distraction. The piece of crap had been duct taped, glued, and thrown in the lake (by Stan of course) but it still functioned okay enough.
To his surprise, he had a new message. From an unknown number, which in itself was unusual, as he didn't socialize much. Curiously, he dug his nail into the spot where the 'open' button had once been (he couldn't remember what had happened there) and balked when he read it.
"Uh oh. You are not making that face right now."
Louis started guiltily, and that made it so much worse.
"That's your lover isn't it? What phrasing is he using to describe his feelings for you? Share, I beg of you."
It was Harry, but Louis didn't want to admit it. He was more than delighted however, that Harry had gone out of his way to text him. Which he found frustrating, really. Getting so excited over a boy that he was certainly not going on a date with.
"Get out of my house."
"This shit hole isn't worthy of the title of 'house' but that's beside the point because you can't make me."
He ignored his friend and typed out a message to Harry, asking what was up. For a second he debated whether or not to add a smile at the end, but the sly grin Stan gave him from across the table caused him to chicken out.
The agonizing wait for the message was spent with Stan shaking his head at him and cooking with a concentrated air about him, like making a toast was a science he needed to delve into. His tongue poked out from the corner of his mouth.
"He answered," Louis moaned.
"That's common courtesy. What does it say?"
Reading the message felt like watching a bad scene in a horror movie, where you know the blond girl with the jock boyfriend would die because she always does, but you still feel the need to cover your eyes because you don't want to see it.
He trailed off, a goofy smile spreading across his face and crinkling near the corners of his eyes. The smile felt foreign on his face, but good too.
"Well?" Stan prompted, carefully measuring the perfect amount of butter.
"He can't wait for Friday. He thanked me for getting him out of the house."
Stan glanced at him noncommittally, but had to do a double take when he saw that smile.
"You're already a goner," he said. It was the first thing in the entire visit that he said without a trace of sarcasm.
Besides Stan, Louis had no real friends in his life besides the kindly lady next door. That might be odd, seeing how he didn't particularly care for the company of others. In high school, he had been a member of the football team and had even received offers to come and see about playing professionally. However, his senior year, something in him changed.
The same people he laughed with during lunch his entire laugh got on his nerves, and schoolwork became a meaningless jumble of nonsense that could be put off and done at another time. All the adults shook their heads at him, talked about what a waste he was. But he'd been through something serious, so they could all bug off, for all that he cared.
When all the money he had ever saved landed him in the current rented house, he took to brooding outside, trying to place the moment where it all went wrong and shying away from the obvious problem. Then, the elderly woman popped up from over the fence. A few stray leaves clung in her silver hair, but she made no attempt to brush them away. The laugh lines around her mouth rippled out as her eyes swept the length of him with a motherly concern.
Louis immediately felt an ache in his chest, for she reminded him of his grandmother, who had always been the one who understood him after his mother had enough troubles of her own for him to bother her with trivial things.
"You seem sad," she remarked.
Louis later discovered that she was a 'seem' type of person. Everything seemed to be something, but nothing seemed to be everything.
"I'm a bit confused," he admitted to her. "Everyone is waiting for me to go to college, but I don't think I want to."
The woman smiled serenely, introduced herself as Linda, and invited him in for lemonade.
It was in her house, stacked with books and coated with cobwebs, that he spied the first Polaroid camera.
"I didn't know these existed anymore."
"Take it," Linda said. She swatted the silver threads of hair away from her face and regarded him with keen interest. "I think you might really come to love it."
Louis hadn't loved anything for a long, long time. As ridiculous as it might have been, he was scared to pick up the camera. Loving something lead to losing something. Inevitably. But it was under Linda's glazed stare that he picked up the camera and took a single shot of her sitting alone at the scuffed wooden table.
"A natural," she said.
Later, as he clung to the camera, she brought up the topic of her niece's bookstore.
"If you don't do something soon, Louis, you will lose that house. You shouldn't have put all your eggs in one basket."
"I like my basket."
"Too many eggs though. That poor basket is about to bust. I can talk to her, and maybe get you a job. She'll pay you decent. And I'll tell you what else. I'll pay you to clean my house every now and then."
That was the moment when Louis looked up and saw stars in the sky instead of just a thick blanket of blackness. One moment, one greeting, and he had a job and a hobby. A future, maybe. Even though his photography business wasn't exactly booming, and his photographs were acclaimed by his clients but not desirable due to his background, he had something.
Thursday, before Louis's big date (not date), he found himself crossing the scraggly lawn and climbing the creaking steps to Linda's house. She had told him to stop knocking ages ago, but even then he hesitated at the door.
"Come on in," she called from the other side of the screen door. Somehow, she always knew he was there. "In the living room!"
Since the first time Louis had visited, not entirely too much had changed. Despite the eight month stretch of cleaning and attempting to organize, not much could be done from the gloomy atmosphere that clung to the wooden walls like a second skin. The books, some molding, were still stacked precariously high in the corners of the room. The chairs still had rips that spilled stuffing onto the tiled floors before they mixed with dust bunnies.
The house would never be truly clean, but Louis liked it the way it was.
In the living room, the small television sat on a stack of Webster's dictionaries. On the fuzzy screen, a wrestling match ensued.
"I hope the Tank takes him out," Linda remarked from her recliner. "I'm sick of the ego on him."
"Go Tank." Louis lifter a hand from his back pocket and put his first in the air.
"Well go on, tell me."
"Tell you what?" Louis let his hand fall and proceeded to pretend he didn't know what she was talking about. How she already knew what was going on was beyond him, but fell under no pretense that Linda did not know every single thing about all their neighbors.
"You leave your windows open and I had to water the tulips yesterday. You have a date?"
Telling Linda he might be bisexual (gay still felt a little too strange in his mind at the moment) made him feel perturbed. Not that she was entirely judgmental. So okay, she laughed at the fact that Mrs. Olsen, who made those delicious holiday pies, bragged on everyone about her homemade recipe, but had drunkenly confessed to Linda that she Googled the ingredients. She laughed at Berry Tompson from down the street, who paraded his wife around like a trophy, and always wormed it into the conversation that she was a beauty queen, but he had a passionate affair with a waitress half her height and twice her weight.
The point being, Linda knew terrible things and she knew wonderful things from the creases of books yellowed from leaky roofs. She knew just what to say to everyone, and even when she laughed and joked, she did care.
So Louis told her, because he knew that she knew what to say to make everything right.
"I am going on a date. With a boy. But I'm not so sure it counts as a date."
Linda quirked a thin eyebrow and sipped her tea.
"What's his name?"
"But…is that all? Louis sputtered. "I expected a bit more of a reaction from the woman who broke her table chair trying to be the Tank…"
"I wasn't trying to be him. I was reenacting the scene that won him the championship. But why would you ever think I would make a big deal of it?"
This was exactly what Louis needed to hear. The world might not all be this understanding, but one person changed everything. One of the few people who mattered.
"I don't know…it's just different. I never pictured this being me."
He flopped into one of the overstuffed armchairs beside her, the act spilling out a few tufts of stuffing onto the floor. Running a hand through his hair, he thought back on how casual Stan was, how he teased him just as much as he would have if it had been a girl. Yeah, this might be okay.
"You think because one thing has shifted that there is an earthquake in your world? Louis, darling, it's okay to be afraid of something you don't understand entirely. But the best part about falling in love is that you understand together. Everything you know about the world will be linked to that person's reasoning. You will become blind without them."
"Who said anything about love?" Louis mumbled, but Linda's words had the desired effect; he ceased the wringing of his hands.
"I said something!" Linda said waspishly. "I am old, child. I know stuff. And besides that…"
With a heavy grunt, she heaved herself from her armchair and disappeared into her bedroom. A moment later, she returned and settled onto the arm of the chair Louis sat in.
"I speak from experience."
He handed her a wedding photo, of two girls in lacy wedding dresses holding bouquets over spilling with flowers that did not correspond but looked nice all the same. Their hair was choppy and short, reminiscent of the style of the late twenties. Louis knew Linda was old, but the year marked in the corner was 1945, which pushed his perspective of her. She appeared so spry, so youthful in her snappiness.
The two women in the photograph clung to each other, and the shorter girl, the one with black hair, looked at her new bride with a look of love so pure it appeared to be a ray of sunlight through a clear window. Filtered with unnamed colors and spilling light into the surroundings.
"I though gay marriage wasn't legal back then?" Louis asked.
"Oh it wasn't. But Beatrice was always a rebel." Linda said 'Beatrice' like a Preacher might cry out the word of God.
With a shaking fingertip, Louis touched the black haired girl's face through the glass, tracing it over the beauty mark under her eye. The one that Linda still flaunted today.
"I never knew," he whispered.
"But you can always learn," Linda replied. It felt like the subject tipped over into a deeper meaning, something that stirred long forgotten feelings and hopes in Louis. If the flash of the old camera had been a milestone, this, a dusty old photograph, would be another.
"Be gentle with him," Miranda told him as she flitted through the kitchen. "Don't do anything too drastic, Harry likes making the big moves, but he'll probably be blushing the whole time. And you'd better not try to bring up anything major!"
Louis sat at the kitchen table, back in Miranda's beautiful home. Ian, her new husband, sat brooding over the morning paper while his coffee cooled.
"Where are you taking him, exactly?"
"The beach," Louis replied. This was worse than anything he had ever experienced in the dating world. Miranda might be able to take on any over-protective parent any day.
The sound of Ian's voice-loud and booming like thunder-caused both Miranda and Louis to jump with alarm.
"Ian," she scolded, recovering quickly enough, "Harry is really excited. He even came over here early for fashion advice. Isn't that cute?"
"Adorable," Ian grumbled. Something about his manner told Louis that Ian did not think it anything close to adorable. Perhaps he was just as uneasy about this as Louis had been the day before.
The patter of feet upon stairs shook them all out of the odd funk, and they dutifully turned to a shy Harry making his way down the stairs. The outfit was simple and versatile, as Louis had not given him any details on where they would be going.
Harry wore a loose white t-shirt and boarding shorts. On his feet were slide on shoes, dark gray. Even though the heat was sweltering, he wore a beanie the same color of his shoes.
"I hope this is okay," he said after he greeted Louis. "We-I mean I-wasn't sure what we would be doing."
"It's a surprise," Louis stage-whispered. "But you'll love it. And you look absolutely fine. You ready to be going?"
Harry nodded, fiddling with a brown leather bracelet around his right wrist. Miranda beamed at the both of them before promptly shooing them out of the door.
"Have fun, be safe, call me tonight when you get home Harry, and you'd better drive slow Louis and don't let him be eaten by sharks-whoops. I just gave something away. BYE!"
"Good God," Harry muttered after the door had slammed. "She's awful. I apologize."
Louis felt unsure of what to do with his hands at the moment. Some inconsolable corner of his heart yearned to take Harry's own hand in his, but that was too much too fast. It was just that it had been so long since Louis had linked himself to someone he wanted to remember what it was like. Resolutely, he stuffed his hands in his pockets.
"Let's get going then, huh?"
The drive down to the beach did not pass in tense silence-Harry dominated the music and rolled the window down so everyone on the boardwalk was forced to listen to Coldplay. A goofy smile graced his face, one eerily similar to the one Louis himself displayed when reading Harry's text messages.
"You have a great stereo!" Harry screamed over the music. All the traces of shyness were gone, and he buried himself beneath the sounds of guitars and wrapped his own voice in the melody so that it almost faded away from the car. Louis noted at his lovely singing voice, and when the music finally ceased when they were parking, he felt the urge to compliment him on it.
"You have a wonderful voice. You could be a singer, I think."
For a few painful seconds, Harry stared at him as if he had admitted something scandalous and little known. Shaking his head, he stepped out of the car and walked around to Louis's side. Confused, Louis stepped out and waited for something to be said-something to defuse the oddity hanging between them.
"No one's ever heard me sing."
Harry tipped his head towards his chest, and something about the way he said it implied that he didn't mean to be caught singing at all that day.
"That's a shame then. You're really good."
Louis shrugged and opened the trunk. Just as he moved to pick up the picnic basket, Harry's cool fingers wrapped around his wrist. Then he looked up, lips parted in the beginning of a sigh. Harry's demeanor changed once again-from elated and lost in music, to confused and lost, to now serene and sad.
"What is it…?"
"Thank you Louis. I mean it. This means a lot."
Harry let go of Louis and pulled the beach bag out, looking everywhere but at him. All the same, the sun almost glared down at the red tinting his cheeks.
The nickname rolled off his tongue in a way that felt familiar, like he had repeated it over and over growing up. Harry turned slowly to stare at him before a smile broke over him. This time, Louis didn't have to worry about where to put his hand because Harry slung the beach bag over his shoulder and grabbed him.
"I'll race you to the beach," he whispered, so close to Louis's own lips that his skin broke out in goose bumps.
"That's an unfair race. I have a giant basket."
Louis tried not to blush as he peered up at Harry through his eyelashes.
"All's fair in love and war," Harry mumbled. His breath smelled sweet, like orange juice that Miranda might have forced him to drink along with his breakfast and mixed with a minty toothpaste.
Louis didn't have time to fantasize about Harry's mouth anymore, because at that moment Harry took off down the beach, laughing as the wind whipped around his shirt. A few parents pulled their kids out of his path, glaring, but Louis didn't care. He took off, his footsteps falling over the prints that Harry left behind.
In a more secluded spot on the beach, Harry fell into the sand with a sigh and placed an arm over his eyes.
"Regretting wearing that beanie?" Louis huffed after he finally caught up. Who knew the giant could run so fast?
"My sister gave me this beanie," Harry sniffed. "Now make yourself useful and stand a little to the right; the sun is blinding me."
Shaking his head, Louis settled in the sand beside him.
"They're called sunglasses, your highness. Are you hungry now?"
"Noooooo." Harry moaned. It sounded oddly sensual, and Louis found himself trying to think of anything but the sound. "Miranda made me eat this enormous breakfast and three glasses of orange juice."
That certainly didn't help. The orange juice theory happened to be correct, and Louis's thought looped back around to Harry's mouth, how soft his lips looked and how they formed and moved around a beautiful voice.
"Are you hungry though? I might could force something down."
The subject needed to me changed before Louis's thoughts grew any dirtier. Already he knew the words and the faint smell of orange juice would keep him up late tonight.
"No, I'm okay," he managed to reply in a faint voice. "We can fly kites, and build sandcastles."
"Sounds perfectly cheesy and very enjoyable."
Harry's sandcastle was an ultimate fail of crumbling towers and sloping hills, but he stuck a stick at the top in a proud sort of way. Louis joked about how the castle reflected the king, and that resulted in Harry stomping all over Louis's (much more fabulous) castle.
The sun burned on overhead as they let loose their kite lines. They kept an easy flow of chatter and teasing-and Louis met yet another color in the prism of Harry Styles; Red-the color of passion. Harry spoke of bands so underground they could only preform for the devil himself, but Harry adored them. He reeled off songs and lyrics liked he had a book of them propped in front of him.
"So you want to be a singer?"
"Always, yes. I used to sing at all the birthday parties. The elderly loved me."
So Louis tried to match his fire and told him something only Linda knew.
"I write songs sometimes. Not very good ones, mind you. But I do write them. Maybe one day I'll sing one for you."
"You can sing?"
"Fair enough. Probably not as well as you."
Harry pursed his lips and followed the drifting of his kite overhead.
"That's not fair."
"Saying I can sing better. I sing what I love and how I feel and that's unique to me. People don't hear a certain strain of notes and vocal cords when I sing-they hear what I love. And no two people can love the same thing with the same amounts. So if I were to hear you sing I would hear something to unique to you. No love is better than the other if they are true love."
Their eyes met, and maybe they weren't speaking of songs or voices being equal but it didn't matter just then because Louis realized-with all the gentles of a roaring truck slamming into him-that he truly liked Harry. Enough to want more days with him, more not-date dates and more time and more something.
More of this.
As they put away their kites and settled on the checkered blanket, they went over the more formal affairs of relationship building. Names and schools and dates (Louis talked of girls and Harry talked of two boys he'd seen) gone wrong and a few mentions of family things. They talked like they had been talking their whole lives, and the pauses were all comfortable and spent only trying to think of more things to figure out about the other. No snag appeared until the sun began to set and the food had been eaten.
"Did you go to college?" Harry asked him, lying in the sand with his hands behind his head.
"No, but I had a chance to. I'm a mean football player."
"I wasn't ever very good at sports. I'm rather clumsy. If I tried to even kick the ball I'd probably trip."
"That's okay. Clumsy is an endearing trait."
"Not really," Harry said sulkily. "I'm always covered in bruises."
"Oh," Louis laughed before he could stop himself. "Is that why you've kept your shirt on even though it's hotter than hell out?"
"What?" Harry sat up sharply. "What are you talking about?"
"It's no big deal. I'm clumsy sometimes too. It's not like I would say anything."
Harry blinked owlishly at him before shaking his head and standing up.
"I….yeah. Sorry. Have you seen my phone?"
Louis dug around in the beach bag and found it in the folds of a towel. Just as he picked it up, it let out a shrill ring. However, when Louis handed to Harry to answer, he stared at it blankly.
"Harry. Your phone?"
Harry's eyes filled with an unusual sadness before he reluctantly reached out, took the phone, and answered it.
"Hello? Yes. No, of course not. I will. Now? Listen, I understand that-. FINE."
Although Harry turned towards him with a smile, when the phone conversation ended something had shifted.
"I have to go."
"I'm really sorry. I'll call you, okay?"
Louis expected something as a farewell, but Harry simply gathered his stuff into his arms and strode across the beach until he vanished into the parking lot. Alone with picnic basket, Louis replayed the day in his head-trying to imagine what might have gone wrong or caused him to be uncomfortable. The shirt thing was odd, but Louis had known really self-conscious people before. He'd had those problems himself.
He stayed alone on the blanket until the sun set, but eventually he stopped waiting for the phone to ring and he gathered up his stuff and walked away as well.
Painfully and obviously alone.
The next day, he had to go back to work at the bookstore. The place was owned by an energetic girl that might have been a rewind of Linda, but maybe slightly odder. Her name was Candy, and she wore bright neon like she was stuck in the nineties and glasses almost bigger than her rounded face.
When Louis dragged himself into work, she popped over the counter and scurried towards the back to do inventory. No wonderful reunion or anything, but Louis knew she wouldn't have even noticed he had been gone for an entire week. In the sitting area, a common customer sat wedged on a sofa with a big textbook in his lap.
"Want a drink?" Louis called to him. The boy-whose name was Liam-glanced up, blinking feverishly. He had been staring at the book for a few hours at the least, Louis knew.
"That would be lovely. Did you just come in? And have you seen Niall?"
"Yes to the first, and kind of to the second. Niall is waiting for the diner to open, I heard."
"Zayn?" Liam pressed, his tone edging towards panic.
Just as he said this, the boy entered the store, slouching and gnawing on his bottom lip.
"Zayn!" Liam cried out in relief. "I need you to help me study. God, mate, where have you been all night? You look trashed."
"Things didn't go right," Zayn snarled.
The three boys who tended to dominate the sitting area-Niall, Liam, and Zayn-were the closest things he had to friends his own age. They had all gone out for drinks before, but Louis wouldn't exactly call it a friendship. Not like the one he had with Linda.
"She turned you down?" Liam asked in disbelief. He abandoned his textbook, prodded along by the burning curiosity and striking wonder that someone had turned down Zayn Malik. Louis had heard enough about Zayn to know that he messed around with a lot of girls, but none had ever denied him.
"She turned me down," Zayn repeated wretchedly. All the anger drained away from his face as he sat next to Liam. "Turned me down flat. Told me she didn't like man-whores and that I should stop trying because it made me look desperate. What am I even supposed to make of that?"
"That maybe you should stop trying to sleep around?" Louis suggested.
Zayn's head snapped up, like he forgot Louis was there, but he didn't seem mad. Just dazed.
"Seems pretty black and white to me."
Liam coughed to conceal his snort of laughter. When Zayn glowered at him, he fumbled to cover his mistake.
"I was just…I agree with Louis. You're better than all this, you know? It wouldn't hurt to settle down with a nice girl and be in a relationship, would it?"
"Tell me you're joking," Zayn said hollowly. "Tell me you didn't say the R word."
"Relationship," Liam said, stressing each syllable. "And you need to get out of this funk you've been in lately. What makes this girl so special?"
Liam looked aggrieved for his friend.
Zayn covered his eyes with his hand and took deep breaths in and out. The process reminded Louis of when he was younger and his mom was yoga-obsessed. She taught him breathing exercises that calmed you and steadied your heartbeat. The thought of Zayn and yoga, however, was laughable at best.
"Liam. Let me repeat. This. Girl. Turned. Me. Down."
"Do I know her?"
The textbook sat temporarily abandoned on the low table in front of them, but Liam's eyes darted to it every few seconds. Abandoning the cash register, Louis settled in the seat across from them while Zayn became lost in thought. Probably trying to remember the girl's name.
"She was…tall. Dark hair. Tan skin."
"Were you looking in a mirror?" Liam teased.
"She had the biggest pair of boobs I have ever seen on such a thin girl…."
"That rules out the mirror," Louis pointed out.
Then, Zayn snapped his fingers with a new clarity.
"I remember! Because her friend called her away before I could seduce her properly. Naomi. Her name was Naomi."
The name didn't strike anything with Liam, but Louis pressed his hand to his mouth to cover up his bubbling laughter. It had to be the same Naomi. Their town wasn't exactly massive, and the physical description matched. Along with the turning down Zayn flat part. She wouldn't put up with someone like him. Louis could tell that, and he had barely spoken with her.
"What's so funny?" Zayn snapped. "This is serious. My ego is hurt, Tomlinson."
"It will recover, and it's funny because she was at one of the weddings I photographed."
Liam had been in the process of reaching for his book when Zayn sprang up and crawled over the table, a maniacal gleam in his eyes. The gesture frightened Liam enough so that he snatched his textbook out of his friend's path and huddled in the corner of the couch.
"Tell…me…how…to…talk…to…her," Zayn huffed, grabbing Louis's shirt when he made it across the table. "I need to know what I did wrong."
"If you acted anything like this you probably creeped her the fuck out," Louis said. He tried to pry Zayn's fingers from his shirt, but he merely tightened his vice-like grip.
The bells above the door chimed, and a snicker interrupted them. Liam looked up with raised eyebrows before carefully opening his textbook to the bookmarked page. It was obvious Zayn wouldn't be helping him with anything.
"Am I interrupting something?"
"Yes!" Zayn cried.
"No," Louis said, struggling to get away. "I'll be with you in a moment...sir."
He made it off the couch and to the counter, only to see Harry Styles examining a paperback book with little interest.
When Harry met his eyes, Louis knew that the visit wasn't for the books. Harry beamed and set the book down in the wrong section before striding over with purpose. His skin was tanner from their day at the beach, but his nose had burned. Louis was disgusted with how adorable he looked.
"I was waiting for you to be done. I didn't know you knew them?"
"Harry!" Zayn cried. "I'm having a crisis!"
"Naomi turned him down," Louis clarified.
"How do you know Naomi?" Harry frowned.
"YOU KNOW HER TOO? DOES EVERYONE KNOW THIS MYSTERY SNOB BUT ME?"
"She's Miranda's best friend. I see her when I go over there. Did you try to shag her?"
Zayn moaned at the word and buried his face in Liam's neck. The only response Liam gave, however, was a sympathetic pat on the head before returning to his book.
"How do you know them?" Louis laughed before turning back to Harry.
"Friends from high school. We don't get to hang out all that much anymore. Anyway, I went by your house and some old woman carrying roses in a hat told me you were working here."
"Linda." Louis said her name with a great deal of affection. "But how did you know where I lived?"
"Phonebook," Harry replied, rubbing the back of his neck in an embarrassed sort of way. "I almost Googled you, but that might have been too stalkerish."
"I'm flattered, but I don't think Google would even acknowledge my existence."
"Right," Harry laughed, then coughed before going on. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry for rushing off the other day. Something important came up. But I enjoyed our not-date date, and I would like to go on another sometime soon. I can't promise anything immediate. But soon. Can we exchange numbers?"
"Even Harry can get laid!" Zayn moaned. While Harry and Louis had been conversing, the dark haired man had somehow ended up sprawled in the floor. Liam made the best of it by using his back as a footstool.
"Shut up, Zayn!" Harry said in the loudest voice Louis had heard him use yet. "Anyway…is that okay, Lou?"
"Yeah, yeah of course. Text me anytime you want. I'm not very busy, as you can see. Even when I'm at work."
They exchanged numbers, Harry raising an eyebrow at the state of Louis's phone, and chatted until Niall came in carrying a grocery bag.
"Hello Harry," he greeted. Niall was blond and Irish, and when the four of them had gone out to drinks, he drank about six times as much as Louis and remained 99% more sober. "Didn't know you knew Louis here. Can I ask why Zayn is curled up on the table?"
"He moved again?" Harry asked with little interest. He peered over his shoulder and noted Zayn, curled in a fetal position over a stack of Glamour, Southern Living, and Vogue magazines. "How about that. What's in the bag, Ni?"
"Potato chips. I'm obsessed. It's the food of the week."
"He has a food of the week every week," Harry explained to a confused Louis. "Last week it was grapes. The rule is he has to eat the food every day as a replacement to one of his major meals. So like last week he ate just grapes as his dinner."
"Who the hell made this up?" Harry asked, bemused.
"One game of truth or dare in the tenth grade, and he takes it to heart. It's a bit ridiculous, but he's never missed a week. I don't know how he's not fat with all the junk he eats and beer he drinks."
"Would anyone like potato chips?" Niall asked, sitting in the chair Louis had recently occupied. "Zayn? I hear they heal broken hearts."
Instantly, Zayn made a mad grab for them before tearing open the packaging and scarfing them down.
"I don't feel better," he said after a few minutes. He didn't look much better, either.
"That's coz I lied," Niall replied seriously. "They're just really fattening."
The group all laughed as Zayn made a mad dash for the bathroom, his cheeks still bulging with another mouthful. A few customers slipped in, but only two bought anything and they found the books well enough. One girl kept a steady stare at Harry over the newspaper stand, and Louis had to push an irrational sense of jealousy from his mind. He and Harry weren't anything-not yet anyway. They had been on a date that wasn't a date and Louis was still tangled up in the fence bordering on straight and not-straight.
He hated giving a label to emotions, but it went deeper than that. No other guy had ever made him feel this way, nor any other girl. Perhaps the problem wasn't sexuality after all, maybe it was the fact that everything felt odd and new and all the songs that sang of love and the books were happily ever after were attainable finally made a speck of sense.
Not that Louis would call this love. But the maddening feelings were refreshing in the oddest way.
But he was getting ahead of himself. With Harry, he had a spark. Not a full blown inferno, but a tiny flame to be nurtured until it could burn brighter.
"I'm afraid to give him Naomi's number," Harry whispered an hour or so into his visit. "She really was disgusted by him. Came over to Miranda's raging about him."
"What's her problem?" Louis snuck a look over at Zayn, who had finally resigned himself to curling up into Liam's lap while Liam provided answers to the questions Niall asked from flashcards.
"She liked me."
Harry's mouth turned down as he became lost in memories.
"A lot, actually. Damn near killed me when I had to tell her I swung the other way. But what was I supposed to do? Date her, pretend to like her and care, and then hurt her?"
"That wouldn't be fair," Louis said, in agreement with him.
"I suppose. Listen, I have to go, but I'll text you, yeah? Thank you for talking to me today. It only made me surer about things."
Then, Harry leaned over the counter and for a heart pounding moment Louis parted his lips in expectation. But instead, Harry kissed him on the cheek. The action felt so tender and sincere that Louis couldn't find himself dejected over the fact that it hadn't been an actual kiss.
As the door swung shut behind Harry, Louis felt the flame grow a little higher.
"Glad Harry found someone," Zayn grumbled.
"Didn't know you were gay," Niall remarked, shuffling the flash cards. "Not even when we went out for drinks. I suppose now you're technically in our group, so we should hang out more. Tell me, do you have any pretty, desperate friends for Zayn here?"
A wail arose from Zayn before he lunged up and over the table, tacking Niall. A wrestling match ensued, one too amusing for Louis to break up. When Candy emerged from the back with a stack full of gothic, vampire books in tow, he feared he would be in trouble for letting it go on.
Instead, she watched for a moment before muttering, "My money is on blondie," and scurrying to the upper level.
Over the next few days, Louis became attached to his phone in an almost unhealthy way. Well, maybe a majorly unhealthy way. From the first text message from Harry-a simple goodnight- to the in depth conversations they shared about life and music- Louis began to really like Harry more than he thought himself capable of.
The first text was simple:
Night, Lou : ) good seeing you today!
The second text Harry sent had a picture attached, over large breakfast platter overflowing with scrambled eggs and toast and jam and a glass of orange juice, which made Louis think to how Harry's breath had smelled on their first date which in turn led to thoughts of the two of them kissing.
Going for it.
Fifteen minutes later, he sent another picture of an empty platter with scraps of food and a tiny splash of orange left in the glass. In reply, Louis sent a picture of his plastic cereal bowl filled with Lucky Charms.
Having a Niall-approved breakfast, Louis sent along with it.
Before long, they barely had conversations encased in words, but instead opted to explain things in pictures. When Louis asked Harry what he was listening to, Harry sent a screen shot of his music player. In response, Louis downloaded the song: Fall For You by Secondhand Serenade. When he listened to it, he got chills and his mind strayed to Harry and what the song might mean to him.
Lately, he'd wondered silly thing like that about Harry. So many little things made up a single person-their preferences for sandwiches (Harry liked thinned crusts but not entirely cut off) and the way they slept (Spontaneously at best for Harry) and their oddest hobbies (Harry had a thing for hanging upside down and reading books). But no matter how many odd things he learned, Louis couldn't get enough of Harry, which disgusted him-mainly because he swore never to be so obsessed with someone- and fascinated him as well.
By the fifth night, they had overcome all sense of shyness and began sending goofy self-pictures. Louis made for the first move on that one by sending Harry a picture of him wearing glasses and reading a book of classic poetry. Linda had taken it with his phone-trying to play 'The Pissed Birds' game- and she had been amazed that she had actually done something sort of right by accessing the camera.
Louis sent it- along with, Linda caught me in a moment of weakness. Don't tell anyone I read.
Then, Harry sent a picture of himself smiling and holding a book near his face. The same book Louis had been reading.
Can't compete with the glasses, I'm afraid, but don't mind if I read along with you. Xxx
A week and half after their messages began, Harry had still not mentioned a date again, and Louis felt too skittish to ask. From the moment they first danced at the wedding, he had been terrified this would happen, that he might actually come to like someone only to be hurt. His mother had been right about what she said; love terrified him. Love was surrendering everything you were to another person, and Louis didn't have all that much to give.
Would Harry even want someone like him? With a stack of bills as his table centerpiece, a busted television, ratty skinny jeans and frayed suspenders, and next to no money? Who would he even take Harry to meet, besides Linda? Both his parents were gone. Not to mention putting himself out there would be hard, harder than anything else. But it was with his mother in mind that Louis resolutely decided that if Harry didn't ask within another couple of days, Louis would request another date.
That night, he lay in bed with Darla curled up on his chest. The phone sat silent on his nightstand, but he had developed a patient habit of waiting for Harry to answer him, to find something interesting enough to take a picture of.
The book he read over Darla was new to the bookstore, and Candy had pressed him in the most convincing way until he just absolutely thought he would go raving mad without buying it. It was slim, in a way that Louis thought the writer must not have had much to say, but upon opening he was delightedly surprised to find it a book of poems. Crush, by Richard Siken.
"They're gay poems," Candy had said bluntly. "Thought you might appreciate them."
Then she scampered away, howling with laughter.
As he read, the dull lamplight turning the pages the color of cream, Louis found a line that tugged at his heartstrings. Once he read that a writer wanted nothing more than to write a line that made people think the whole story was just for them. It was not, though, a single line. But it struck him so that with trembling hands he took a photo of the page and sent it to Harry, who had not yet responded to his picture of the milk carton and cookies that he had made as a bedtime snack.
Look at the light through the windowpane. That means it's noon, that means
Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.
These, our bodies, possessed by light.
Tell me we'll never get used to it.
The first line recalled the memory of Harry smiling at him in Miranda's kitchen, how the light made him seem to be a painting, and how Louis's heart skipped a beat and an itch crawled beneath his skin, the itch to know Harry and dance with him again and demand an explanation for the instant and maddening attraction. Maybe the relationship would be the ruin of them, but Louis could think of a better way to be torn apart, so filled with a warm blanket of feeling and emotion that Harry brought forth with the simplest of gestures. And no, Louis never wanted to get used to it. He never wanted to stop feeling so intensely, so sharply. Never did he want the feeling of shock to cease coursing through him when he realized that, for the first time in his life, he might get to keep something he loved.
Harry didn't reply that night, but he showed up the next day at the bookstore, striding in with a mission. First, he disappeared around back, towards the fiction section.
"Harry?" Louis called after him, nervous. Something in the expression Harry wore frightened him.
Just a few seconds later, he appeared again, with Richard Siken's Crush in tow.
"How did you know which book it was?" Louis asked, his voice coming out small and timid.
"I Googled it," Harry replied with no trace of humor.
He slapped the book down and leaned across the counter. This time, he didn't aim for the cheek, and Louis felt grateful for that because all the expectations building inside him could finally be met when Harry's lips crashed against his own, and Louis finally knew what he wanted from Harry all along. This feeling, being consumed by satisfaction from an aching need and a thousand butterfly wings fluttering against his ribcage. Yes, he understood that they both needed to take things slow, but to finally have a confirmation evoked the most calming sensation within him.
When the broke apart, both short of breath, they were both startled by the sound of Candy cackling.
"So you enjoyed the book, aye?"
Her laughter echoed throughout the store, but Louis ignored her and focused on Harry, and the lingering taste of mint toothpaste and a hint of orange juice lingering on his lips. Once Linda told him that the lips were the most sensitive part of the body, and that joining them with someone you loved only made sense. And now, his lips were burning and tingling like he had just taken several shots of the finest damn alcohol known to man.
"When can we do that again?" Louis demanded, to which Harry laughed.
"Very soon. This time I mean it."
And this time, Louis believed him.
After a late night phone conversation with Harry-discussing where they should go for a date-Louis found himself unable to sleep. He thumbed through Crush a little more, heart jumping when a poem mentioned green eyes, but the book had the opposite of the desired effect on him. Instead, his mind went into overdrive, thinking of all that could go wrong this time. What if Harry had to rush off again, or what if this was all one big joke on him? Foolish Louis, thinking he could be happy?
A little after midnight, he was jolted from a daydream by a knock on his door. Linda had been known to drift over in the dead of night, especially when her television gave out and she wanted to watch reruns of the wrestling matches-but Louis still felt a pang of nervousness as he edged the door open.
On the other side, wrapped in a thin jacket with the hood up, stood Miranda. She jingled her car keys in hand nervously as he invited her in. Once he got over staring at her in surprise, that is.
"I can't stay. Really. I just came to ask you something. In all seriousness."
"In all seriousness," Louis echoed.
"Right. Well-um. Look, it's like this. Harry hasn't had the easiest life. I want you to know that. Me, him, and Ian were best friends growing up, so we try to look out for each other. But once we reached high school things got weird and Ian started hanging out with the worst sort of people. It was just me and Harry, and then Harry got these new friends as well-"
"Niall, Zayn, and Liam," Louis guessed. He propped himself against the doorframe and gestured for her to go on.
"That's right. I figured he told you. But a year after we graduated, Harry just seemed so happy and we started seeing each other again all the time because the other boys were so busy working on college stuff and joining frat parties. Everything was great. Then, Ian came back from a tour in Iraq-his dad sent him off to military school after he got in trouble with that group-and Ian just appeared so different to me. More of a man than ever. I think Harry thought he was losing me though, because he sat down and told me the worst of things."
She visibly shuddered, holding tighter to her coat as the wind kicked up.
"I didn't know what to do with him. Of course at this point, we all knew he was gay, but then he told me about a relationship he was in that was going very, very wrong, and he just sat around staring at his phone. He lived with me for a while, and I could hear him crying in his room at night."
Louis's heart ached at the thought of the Harry that Miranda was describing, but he wanted to hear every detail he could. Harry wasn't going to lose him just by being a complicated person.
"Then you came along, and he's the happiest he's ever been. Like, ever."
She laughed lightly.
"And I don't want to see that change. But Louis….understand that you need to take things slow with him. He's been badly hurt, and he's scared. The night before your first date he was blowing up my phone asking what to do and say. He spent an hour working on his hair and it ended up looking the same as when he first arrived."
At that, Louis had to chuckle, and the feelings of pain and worry subsided.
"Promise you won't hurt him?"
"I promise," he vowed instantly, and he meant it. If anyone did the pushing away in the relationship, it would be Harry. Even then, Louis would pursue him. He had fallen too far down the rabbit hole to return to the drab reality he had once called his life.
After she left, Louis sat on the porch steps, picking at the pale blue paint and thinking about what Harry could have told Miranda that warranted such an urgent and late visit. Why had she come at such an hour, anyway? Nothing he knew of Miranda added up to late night wanderings. He fiddled with his phone for a minute before he realized he had received a message. Probably while Miranda was talking to him.
To his disappointment, it was from Liam and not Harry.
Zayn ran into Naomi almost an hour ago at the bar. Haven't seen him sinceeee. Guess he won?
Maybe that's where Miranda had been. He wondered if Ian knew she was out at a bar in the middle of the night.
As long as he doesn't show up at the store tomorrow crying about it, Idc!
Liam replied with a smiley face, and Louis surmised the conversation had run its length, which wasn't all that bad considering he and Liam had very rarely ever texted or talked outside the store. Thinking of Zayn alone in a room with Naomi made him yearn to be with Harry. Then, he decided there really wasn't much stopping. After the decision had been made, he set himself into a flurry of action to negate the emotion rolling around in his stomach.
First, he showered and dressed in his best I-Don't-care- clothes, then debated whether or not to put his contacts in. It had sounded like Harry liked his glasses, though, so Louis kept them on. Then, he grabbed his client contact book from the shelf beside the television and found Miranda's number.
She replied quickly, he would give her that.
In the message that held Harry's address, she placed a single word, stressed in all capitals like Louis hadn't had it drilled in his head less than thirty minutes ago.
If she thought that he was driving over to attempt to have sex with Harry-even thinking the word had Louis's face flushed-then she was wrong. Louis didn't even want answers. All he wanted was another kiss, and to talk to Harry like he had on the phone except face to face this time. He wanted to see Harry smile dreamily as he described all the things he loved. He wanted the proximity and the smell of his tantalizing cologne. And he wanted to kick himself for not just making a bigger move sooner.
Programming the address in, he let the moping voice of Eyore guide him through the sleeping town and past the clubs that pulsed with sound tangible even through the glass of his window. Liam and Zayn were probably at one of them, with Niall drinking some poor high school jock under the table. Louis could have turned around and found them, could have been a normal person for once, but instead he pressed down on the accelerator. His car roared through the streets, meeting no one neither coming nor going.
In the nicer apartment developments, Louis pulled up to a red stone building with a green roof. Outside were no cars, but Louis knew Harry had a car because he had driven it to the bookstore. Not that he had watched Harry leave. He had just been enjoying the view.
Was he not home? Had he joined the other lads at the clubs?
Well, it was worth a shot at least. Steadying himself with a deep breath, Louis stepped out and approached the door, hands jammed in the front pocket of his hoodie. After knocking twice, his head filled with the sound of his heart pounding against his ribcage. Maybe Harry was asleep. What if he got the wrong apartment? Eeyore had never led him astray, but what if?
Three seconds later, he spun around and started towards his car, only to be stopped by the sound of the door swinging open.
"Loooooooouuuuuuuis!" Harry cried, loud enough to wake the whole neighborhood. Loud enough to be heard inside one of those clubs.
Louis turned sheepishly, and then froze. Harry stood in the doorway, hovering in the small square of light provided by the doorframe. He wore nothing but baggy pajamas that hung on his hips in a dangerously low sort of way. In hand was a half-drunk bottle of whiskey.
"You're wasted," Louis said, feeling his heart slowly sink for some reason.
"Just a weeeeee bit!" Harry hiccuped and stretched his arms out. "Come in! I was just about to send you a picture but I can't find my phone. Think I dropped it in the loo."
"The loo?" Louis repeated. Torn between staying with a drunk Harry-which was wickedly tempting- and leaving and going home before something happened that shouldn't-not as tempting- Louis backed towards his car.
"Don't go!" Harry cried, stumbling out of his home and falling onto the sidewalk. "So clumsy…" he mumbled. "But don't go. Please don't. I like you here. Makes me forget about stuff. Come in! Have I told you I lost my phone? Wanted to call you right away, but couldn't find the damn thing. Was trying to use it last while I was pissing. You don't think I could have dropped it in the loo, do you?"
"Can't say for sure. But I'll come in, if you promise to lie down."
"Can't promise nothing. Never any good at promises."
All the same, Harry stretched his arms towards Louis again like a needy child would reach for his mother.
"Pathetic," Louis teased him. He supported Harry through the door and kicked it closed behind them. Inside, he found the apartment to be small in quaint in the most charming of ways. The walls were a bright yellow, the titles warm brown. All the furniture matched in its sleek, dark oak bases. The plasma screen television was showing a football game.
"Thinking bout you," Harry slurred, his head lolling onto Louis's shoulder. That in itself was a major testament as to how much he was dragging the floor, as Harry was a considerable amount taller than Louis. "Do you still have that football uniform? I'd like to see it."
"Fraid I don't. Let's get you to the couch. Hand me that bottle would you?"
Harry dutifully handed him the bottle after taking another generous swig. He had passed the point of wasted, really, but Louis didn't even have the name for the state he was in. Sure, he liked to go out and have a drink every now and again, but Harry sitting up alone and drinking until alcohol consumed him didn't add up without any justifiable reasoning.
"Why are you alone tonight, Hazz?" Louis asked tenderly. To his surprise, Harry curled into a ball on the couch, head pressing against his bony knees. Then, he began to cry. Not silent weeping, but large, breath stealing sobs that racked his body together.
"I didn't want to be. I tried to call you. But I dropped my phone in the loo. Thought about getting it but then I forgot for some reason. I hope none of the pictures are ruined. I really like that one of you gardening with Linda. Nice shot of your arse. Who is Linda, anyway? She's your neighbor, I know, but how did you become friends?" Even as he asked the friendly, more routine questions, he sobbed.
Before Louis could even answer, Harry rubbed his face into his pillow, scrubbing away the tears. Then, he began to snore lightly.
Like he hadn't been in the middle of something at all. Like Louis was a book that could be marked and returned to later.
On the television, one of the teams began celebrating a victory as the crowd stood up and cheered. Gently, Louis got up and moved into the kitchen. Harry might wake up soon, and if he did he would need a painkiller or something for the massive and unavoidable headache sure to follow a drink of such intensity. A glass of water wouldn't hurt, either.
He returned with both, sat them on the table, and settled in at the opposite end of the sofa, flipping the channels until it came to rest on a lifetime movie about an aspiring piano teacher and strict lawyer with no room in his life for creativity. The lawyer ultimately pushed away his wife, and became bitter about love. Another cliché for Louis to hate. The thing was, though, he watched the stupid movie, becoming embarrassingly interested as the pair met at a park. The lawyer on his lunch break and the piano teacher strumming guitar after a jog.
"They're going to fall in love," Harry whispered. When Louis had returned with the glass of water and painkillers, he had turned all the lights off, so that the light from the television flickered across Harry's dreamy features.
"I didn't know you were awake," Louis replied, not bothering to reply to the drunken talk. "You feeling okay?"
"They always fall in love," Harry repeated insistently. "Always."
That said, he heaved himself up and crawled the length of the couch, until he was snuggled into Louis's side.
"If you say so, Hazz. How are you feeling?"
"Love it when you call me Hazz," Harry slurred. "I feel like the world is spinning though. Really wish it would stop. I haven't felt this sick in a long time. I usually don't drink so much, you know."
"I didn't know. But you should sleep. I can make you breakfast tomorrow."
At this, Harry began to cry so hard that his shoulders jerked and dug into Louis's side. Something about the way he curled tighter into his side told Louis that alcohol had brought some terrible thought or memory forward. The most that could be done was to hold onto him until he felt okay again, until a sliver of sanity fell back into place.
"You can talk to me. You can tell me anything," Louis said, rubbing circles into Harry's back, trying to ease the body-wracking sobs. "I mean it."
But once Harry began to talk, Louis wish he had just kept his mouth shut. The confession was something that no sober mind would conceive.
"We didn't have breakfast after my dad died," Harry began. His voice was thick with pent-up emotion. "Mum was too sad to get out of bed. I was so young… not even six yet."
A deep sigh escaped him, ghosting over Louis's arm.
"She met a new man a year later. At a coffee shop. He always wore suits and his hair gel made the bathroom stink in the mornings. But he told my mum she was beautiful and that's all she wanted anymore. It wasn't enough when I said it because I was born thinking she was beautiful and I didn't count. Once he moved in, things got really bad because if Mum didn't make the breakfast right he would hit her and she would cry and have to pick up broken plates and I knew when woke up to sit in the living room until all the glass was picked up. And I knew mum wouldn't ever buy paper plates because she wanted to prove she didn't always break things."
"Harry…." Louis tried to interrupt. His stomach was churning, and he didn't want Harry to wake up in the morning and regret saying all this.
"Isn't that sad?" Harry asked, raising his head and looking Louis in the eyes. "That Mum dealt with broken glass and she wore band aids on her fingers and everyone in the whole damn town thought she was just so clumsy? She dealt with at all because sometimes her new husband would look at her and tell her she was beautiful."
"It's very sad," Louis agreed hollowly. "Where is your step-father now?"
"I'm getting there. I'm sorry I don't know how to tell this story very well. Miranda is the only one who has ever heard it."
His eyelashes fluttered as he laid his head back into Louis's side. For a moment, that's all that he could focus on. A heartbeat so close to his own, an overwhelming tenderness to protect Harry and his faceless mother, and a sick feeling that the story got worse.
"Something happened with me. I started seeing all these therapists and Mum cried harder than ever. Samuel-my step-father-he moved out and I was confused because I thought my Mum finally stood up to him but one day over breakfast she took my hand across the table and asked if I understood what happened, and I said 'No, not until you reminded me.'"
"And?" Louis prodded when Harry became engrossed in silence. A few tears slid down his flushed cheeks.
"He would always volunteer to tuck me in. Wouldn't let Mum do it anymore. But I didn't like what he did."
Louis's heart stopped.
"Did he…? Don't answer that. I changed my mind."
"Therapists said I would have a lot of problems later on unless I accepted the problem and worked with it as I grew up," Harry went on, not answering Louis's question but at the same time confirming the worst. "I hated people touching me. I tucked myself in at night. And then Sam came back and sat on the edge of my bed. I got so scared because that's always where he started out at night before he ended up…on me. And Mum told me that Sam had been seeing someone, too. That she was giving him another chance."
Slowly, Harry untangled himself from Louis and scooted away, back to his own corner of the couch. The space where he had curled himself into Louis instantly felt cold.
"Things were okay. He stopped coming into my room at night. Then, when I turned twelve, Mum wanted to throw a big party. I told her not to, that no one cared about me but Miranda and Ian. And Miranda was away at the beach and Ian was in trouble because he got caught smoking. But Mum insisted….and we sat around the table and waited until the ice cream melted and no one ever showed up."
In his pocket, Louis's phone began to vibrate, like someone was calling him, but he was absorbed in the moment, and he let it go. All he could think of was Harry, his curls framing his round and childish face, sitting at the head of a table with a party hat on. No one but his mother and step-father to keep him company.
"I'm so sorry," Louis whispered. His voice broke, and it broke because he was sorry, more than he ever had been about anything in his life. When he and Harry danced at the wedding, he never would have guessed that all this had transpired. Louis didn't do well with people, and he didn't handle problems very well. He had skeletons of his own, sure, and he had never been keen to deal with everyone else's. But this was Harry, and Harry had taken everything he was from the moment he led him onto the dance floor. "Tell me everything you need to," Louis decided. No matter how much it hurt him, it had to be hurting Harry a lot more, after all.
"Samuel was angry. He said I should have more friends, and that he didn't want to have a son like this. And Mum…she told him that shouldn't matter because I wasn't his son anyway."
From across the couch, Harry smiled began chewing on his thumbnail. "He got so mad, but I started laughing and crying at the same time because it was the first time she had said something back to him."
The smile slipped away.
"And then he started beating us. That beating was the worst we ever got, and I stayed in the hospital for a little while. Mum told them I was climbing a tree and I fell out. Miranda had to sign my cast because Ian had detention so much that we hardly ever saw him. No one else wanted to sign it though, so she signed it again, bigger so that it took up all the spaces. And I didn't feel alone anymore."
"Miranda said that you drifted apart for a while….did she…guess?"
Harry placed his chin in his hand, now brooding.
"I thought she might put things together eventually. How I would flinch away when she tried to hug me and how I couldn't go places without asking my step-father first. I met Liam, Niall, and Zayn, and Samuel liked them because they didn't get in trouble like Ian and they weren't loud girls. Like Miranda. But one night, near the end of my final year of high school, he got really mad because I accidently let something slip at dinner."
"What was that?" Louis asked after Harry didn't answer right away.
"I meant for just Mum to hear. I told her how Liam was in love with Zayn and Zayn didn't know, that he always talked about girls and how much he liked being with them. And I told her that I knew Liam really loved him because he didn't get mad or hurt when Zayn talked like that. Liam just wanted him to smile because that's what he loved best. And Samuel told me guys like that went to hell. Then he accused me of being one."
Harry let his head fall against the couch and he closed his eyes. Louis could see his eyelashes glued together by tears, and the crinkles by his eyes as he tried not force out the next part.
"He came at me with a knife. Mum didn't even know what to do. He just attacked. So I started running, but I fell down a bunch. Everything went black and I woke up at the hospital and Mum told me Samuel had killed himself. Do you know how long that has haunted me? He didn't seem the type to off himself, but they said he hung himself in my room, before the police could even get there. I guess there are just some people who really never make any sense, that all their personality traits don't click and they're just patchwork people that are being unraveled every day. I think I killed him, Lou. By being the way I was. He hated when I smiled, but he yelled at me for crying. He beat me for not having friends, but when I got them he wouldn't let me go out. And when I tried to take a boy to the prom, I ended up in the hospital for a week. But when I decided not to go the next year, he told me that only social outcasts didn't go to prom. And the only relationship with a male I've ever had went terrible. We only got to have single date. A dinner on the roof of this pretty skyscraper. It was actually this enormous billion dollar hotel, you see. Designed to be ecofriendly and stuff. But I couldn't let him see what Samuel had done, and he grew impatient with me."
With great deliberateness, Harry straightened up and reached over his shoulders to pull at his shirt, sliding it off his body. Even with the dim lighting, Louis could see them when he turned. The jagged lines, crisscrossing over Harry's smooth back, winding over his shoulder blades like rivers climbing hills.
"Why did you tell me this?" Louis asked with as much gentleness as he could muster. "I'm glad you did, but I don't want you to regret it later."
"I won't. I wanted to tell you from the second I sat down across the table from you."
Harry tossed his shirt to the floor and crawled back across the couch, laying so that his head fell into Louis's lap.
"I saw you taking pictures, and how you smiled when you were working. I thought that people didn't love life like that anymore. You didn't know a single person, but you were content. And then you turned around, I guess you were trying to think of what to photograph next, and I just saw your eyes for the first time."
"Well I am beautiful," Louis teased. His attempt to lighten the mood proved successful as Harry shook against him, rocked with light laughter.
"You were. But your eyes…I just stopped right where I was and I felt like I missed a step going down the stairs, or that I was at the apex of a roller coaster ride. And then you noticed me and I couldn't make my mind work right. I thought, 'I could really fall in love with a guy like that'."
"I won't object to the notion." Louis ran a hand through Harry's curls, marveling at how silky they felt against his fingertips.
"I tried to. I stayed far away for as long as I could. Then I saw you sitting alone and I felt sad. You were just playing with your camera….and it reminded me of my twelfth birthday party. I didn't understand what happened to me, but I felt so worried at that moment. I was scared that you were waiting for something that was never going to show up. I wanted to wait with you."
"That was nice. But your social skills are a bit rusty."
"They are," Harry replied amusedly. "I was having a bad day. But that day can't take all the blame. I've always sucked at talking to people."
Soberness began seeping into his voice, but Louis wasn't scared of losing him to rationality. If all their feelings had been mutual thus far, then surely the maddening urge to be in one another's life would be as well.
"Thank you for telling me everything, Harry. I'm glad you trusted me."
"Thank you for staying even after I told you all that," Harry replied simply. He rolled over, so that he was squinting up at Louis. "You can kiss me now."
But Harry gave him the saddest puppy eyes he had ever witnessed, and how could he say no to that?
"Okay, we can kiss now."
The football game changed to an infomercial, and then the infomercial into an early morning talk show, but they didn't pay it much attention. Miranda had said to take it slow, but the way Harry kissed him was with a fierce and desperate need. All the vulnerability spilled into his touch, and Louis wanted Harry to know someone cared, that someone would give him whatever he needed.
Despite being up all night, neither felt particularly sleepy. Louis found Harry's phone, not in the loo, thankfully. But close.
They both headed out in pajamas at around eight, with messy hair and kiss swollen lips. At a quaint diner, Louis finally checked his phone and found three messages from Liam.
"Liam messaged me. Zayn and Naomi disappeared last night."
"Uh oh." Harry narrowed his eyes as he squeezed a generous amount of syrup on his pancakes. "That doesn't sound like her."
"She really hurt Zayn by rejecting him." Louis decided not to mention that disappearing with a guy all night sounded exactly like the Naomi he'd learned about through other people.
"She probably did." Harry lifted one shoulder in a lazy shrug. "But Naomi is very familiar with what a gay men acts like at this point, and she probably doesn't want to encourage Zayn's ideas that he is, in fact, straight."
"You don't think he is?"
Harry gave him a 'duh' kind of look, but didn't comment further.
"I mean, he really seems to like girls. You know him better than I do, but still."
"You must understand how his parents are. They would be devastated if their son was gay."
"Why is that? There isn't anything wrong with love, right?"
"I'm beginning to think there is. Love is such a powerful force. And a drug. And a cure. It is the most versatile thing in the world. The most beloved and the most feared. What do you do with something like that, something so scary? Look at what my mother did with it. And look at what you've done with it."
"Linda. I doubt you can see it but she loves you very much. Like her own son, I'd bet. And you gave an old woman comfort again, right?"
"And love gave her a reason to smile again. What would I do with something like that?"
Louis took a sip of his tea, trying to buy himself time to think, but once he really put it to thought, the answer sprang at him like it had been waiting.
"I think you'd enjoy it as it grew."
A tentative smile broke out across Harry's face, and Louis took his hand across the table. It didn't matter what the world thought of them at that moment because right then the world fell away and earth was a carnival ride made for two.
"Shoot me," Niall cried as means of greeting. He stumbled into the bookstore, falling ungracefully onto the couch facedown.
"Pow," Liam said calmly from behind his book.
It was a few weeks after Louis had sat with Harry, after he had revealed everything. Things had been going surprisingly smooth, something that Louis wasn't very familiar with. But he took it in stride, and enjoyed every day as it came.
"What's the matter, mate?" Zayn went to sit beside him, but changed his mind and opted to sit on him instead, as if that might be more comforting. Louis had long ago stopped questioning the logic of the group.
"That's not helping me at all." Niall's voice was muffled from the cushion. "I'm havin' a serious crisis and my best mates don't even care!"
"We can't help until you tell us what's wrong," Liam said sensibly. "Speak up."
They waited, Harry flipping through a book on modern poetry and Louis playing with his curls. They had been his weakness right from the start, and now that he had an entitlement to them he couldn't keep his hands away.
"I got banned from Nandos."
The reaction was instantaneous. Liam's textbook slipped from his grip, revealing his startled face. Harry placed a hand over his mouth, and Louis's fingers froze. Zayn slipped off Niall's back and knelt by him at the couch.
"Niall…I'm….I don't even know what to say."
"Tell me I'm dreaming. Or that I'm dying. Anything but the truth."
"We'll get through this," Zayn soothed, grasping Niall's hand. "We can go get you food; we aren't banned."
Niall let out a wail at the word.
"Wait, how did this happen?" Louis asked. "Aren't you one of their best customers?"
"Was," Niall croaked. "I was one of their best customers. Not anymore. They're furious. I didn't even do much wrong."
"Much?" Harry snorted softly, but Louis could tell he was concerned for his friend's well-being.
"They were short on staff," Niall began, rolling onto his side so that they could see his face. "And were taking forever with my food. I'd already had my food of the week-pie, ya know-but I was so hungry. So I went into the kitchen-"
"Oh Niall. You didn't." Liam placed a hand over his eyes.
"-and I told the cook I needed my food. Turns out they hadn't even started on my order. So I started cooking it myself."
"Niall!" Zayn groaned.
"I was hungry!" Niall cried defensively. "So hungry. So I start cooking it, and the big bloke says he's going to tell his manager, and I say, "Go ahead, we're friends!""
"I'm guessing you aren't as good of friends as you thought you were," Louis said.
"No….he told me that I needed to get out of the kitchen before they banned me. So I was going to leave…"
"But?" Liam prodded after a moment of tense silence.
"But I had to wait for my food to be done. So I refused to leave and they threatened to call the police on me. So I finally agreed to leave and I thought I would just eat elsewhere. Even if it wouldn't compare."
"I don't like where this is going," Harry whispered.
"And I was going-I swear! But then I noticed them just finishing up a customer's food. And it was my favorite meal! So I kind of, well, took it."
The whole group groaned simultaneously.
"The manager wasn't happy. He told me I was banned. I didn't even get to eat my food…"
They all stared as Niall curled himself into a ball and stared vacantly ahead, clearly devastated. Even though Louis couldn't exactly relate to Niall's love of food, he couldn't imagine being banned from, say, taking pictures at public events. To an extent, he could relate.
"We can order your food," he offered. "We wouldn't let you live without Nandos."
"Yeah, we're here for you."
Zayn slid into his original seat beside Liam, and now that Louis knew about them (Well, Liam) he couldn't help but notice how Liam shifted the most infinitesimal amount so that he was closer, as if he were drawn to Zayn's presence.
"Thanks," Niall sniffed. "So Harry, how is Miranda? I saw her vacation pictures on twitter."
"She's happy as hell. Doesn't ever want to come back, I don't think. But Ian will be dragging her home in the next day or so."
Ian had been called away on a business meeting, and Miranda had insisted on going to get some sun. She deemed it fate that the meeting was to take place on a beautiful beach, and she finally wore Ian down until he agreed to take her. Not that they saw much of each other; Ian paid for her to basically live at the spa. She didn't have much objection to that.
"She seems really happy," Niall sniffled. "How's that friend of hers? Naomi?"
Zayn stiffened at the mere mention of her, and Liam frowned. He carefully bookmarked his place and set the textbook down.
"Zayn, when are you going to tell me what happened that night?"
Harry and Louis exchanged quizzical looks. The night after Naomi and Zayn disappeared - the same night that Harry told Louis about his childhood - Zayn had been sulky and even depressed. He vanished for a few days at a time, and came back paler and more of a mess than ever. Also, he picked up that nasty smoking habit again.
"Not ever," Zayn snapped. Liam appeared affronted.
"I'm sorry I'm concerned. You just seem really….upset."
"That's none of your business."
Zayn moved a considerable amount away from Liam, until he had almost joined Harry and Louis's huddle. The previous Nandos drama was pushed aside as everyone looked back and forth, between Zayn and Liam. From behind the front desk, Candy's wide eyes peered over with obvious curiosity.
"I can't be worried about my friend?" Liam demanded, crossing his arms. The way his voice strained made it clear that he was fighting down anger.
"You can. But you can't pressure me into telling you something that's not your business. See that difference?"
"You are my business, Zayn," Liam said, with such immediate softness that Zayn's cheeks flushed.
"I have to go. Tell Miranda I said hi, Harry."
With no formal farewells, he fled the store and left the spotlight on a hurt and confused Liam. After a few tense seconds, Liam picked up his book and resumed studying for his chemistry test, and Niall flipped through a fashion magazine while muttering about random Nandos meals under his breath. Harry and Louis slipped away, the suffocating tension in the room besting them.
"Where are you two going?" Liam asked before they could even make it out the door.
"To get Niall some food," Louis replied without missing a beat. "Before he eats that magazine."
"Did I say you could leave?" Candy snapped from the desk.
"You can." She resumed counting the money, so Louis and Harry hurried away before she could change her mind.
As they walked, they swung their joined hands back and forth, talking lightly and avoiding the subject of what had just happened because it hurt a little to think about. People stared as they passed by, but no rude comments were made. The past few weeks had been blissful and easy, filled with dates and movie nights with stale popcorn at Louis's house and rich movie popcorn at Harry's. Harry kept his feet in Louis's lap until the movie was over and then he changed it so that all of him was in Louis's lap.
Their lips could never meet enough. The first few kisses were always soft and teasing, but they became wild and passionate within minutes, like the sea crashing against cliffs. Still, sometimes Harry would sleep over and Louis would wake up to find him staring up at the ceiling. Sometimes, he would wake up and hear Harry crying in the bathroom. The night that Harry drunkenly confessed to him, his armor had clattered to the floor. So why did things still feel a bit off? Why did it feel like Harry still held him at arm's length?
Louis was too scared to even consider doing more than kissing.
Still, the weeks had been the best of his life, and Louis appreciated the silly, cheeky Harry and the ways that Harry laughed over silly thing. And those things might have been stupid to Louis before, but when Harry laughed they were instantly funnier. Whether they stayed the night with each other or not, Louis always made a point to try to talk to him in the morning, to hear Harry's thick, sleepy voice.
Linda had a picture of them by her bedside, right next to the picture of herself and Beatrice.
And for once, he felt that he hadn't let his mother down. She would love Harry, would adore him, in fact. The way that Louis could picture her loving him made it that much easier to fall for him.
He thought of all this as they held hands, walking the few blocks to Nandos and enjoying each other's company. But they knew they had to discuss what happened, no matter how odd it might be.
"What happened with Naomi?" Louis finally asked.
Harry bit down on his lip, a habit he had when he was trying to think of what to say.
"She agreed to let Zayn come back to her apartment. She decided to call his bluff."
"I don't want you to think badly of Naomi, but she was never one to be hesitant to shed her clothes. And they were in bed, and she honestly didn't expect anything to happen with him."
"He started crying."
"Zayn? Crying? Are you joking?"
"I'm afraid not. I think it even caught Naomi off guard. She told Miranda that they were just lying there naked, and he cried into her shoulder."
Harry didn't answer for the longest time, but he it wasn't because he didn't know what to say. It was because the truth was hard to force out.
"Zayn told her that her eyes were almost the same color as Liam's. And he cried for a while before she just asked him why he wasn't honest with himself. I'm surprised at this point in Miranda's story. Naomi, you must understand, is not a compassionate person. So he told her that he wished that she had been Liam, and he just left."
"Just like that? Does she even know who Liam is?"
"She knows of him. From listening to me speak. She could easily put two and two together. So he came back the next day and told her that he really liked Liam, since the third grade deal, and that-"
"Third grade deal?" Louis interrupted. "What's that about?"
"Zayn didn't get any valentines. He was kind of….distraught. This might be hard to process, but Zayn wasn't that popular as a kid. So anyway, Liam sent him one and told him that he would always be there for Zayn, even when no one else was."
"Awwwww." Louis placed his free hand over his heart. "That's adorable."
"I agree. But he told Naomi that he couldn't feel that way, and that he was sorry that she had to hear all of it. And he left."
A car flew by, honking, but the both of them ignored it and rounded the corner to the street Nandos was on. The sun shone overhead, warming their skin and causing their palms to sweat a little. Sure it was gross, but Louis didn't feel like surrendering Harry's hand just yet.
"Why is it so bad for a guy to love another guy?" Louis wondered aloud. "I mean, I guess I had my moments at first, but now I think I was just being foolish about everything. Why is it so bad for people to want to be with someone who makes them feel alive?"
"I guess," Harry answered slowly, "because everyone else is so fixated on the fact that we're all dying that they envy people who forget that for a little while."
"Very morbid," Louis said approvingly. "But I see what you mean. So is the glass half empty or half full with you right now?"
"I don't drink out of a glass, Lou. You know how clumsy I am."
"Dammit Harry. I get to make meaningful metaphors as well. Okay, how's this: is your paper cup half empty with orange juice or half full?"
"Trick question," Harry replied breezily. "I never stop drinking half-way."
"Fine," Louis concurred. "I'll take that as you are very delighted to be spending the day with me, even though the world is falling apart around us and Niall can never set foot in Nandos again and Zayn is behaving like a prat."
Harry stopped and spun Louis around, crushing him to his chest and burying his face in his hair.
"You are quite right."
Now, people stared at them in earnest.
That night, Harry decided to stay over. Miranda would be back tomorrow, and then she would steal Harry away for God knows how long, so they decided to make the most of the last day of just them. When they arrived back at the bookstore with Niall's Nandos, Liam had already left.
"Looked like he was going to cry. Which is really odd, for Liam if you think about it….hey! Gimme my food!"
That was the end of that.
At Louis's apartment, Harry dumped a bagful of movies he had picked up from his own house and rifled through them. A few days ago, Harry had explained that his father had left him a generous sum of money after he passed away, and he had received it all after he turned eighteen. That explained the nice, modern apartment and the cute designer clothes. Not that Louis would ever refer to clothes as cute.
"What do you want to watch tonight? Comedy, horror movie, or a romance?"
"Man, it's so hard." Louis plucked his guitar from next to the couch and began tuning it. He hadn't been able to play much lately.
"It's not that hard of a decision," Harry scoffed. "We just pick which one appeals to us the most. Duh."
"But think, Hazz. Niall makes our life a comedy, and kissing you before you brush your teeth in the morning equates to the horror…"
Harry threw the only available object at him that wasn't a movie - his beanie.
"Ouch. That hurt," Louis replied robotically.
"You jerk. Have you tasted your morning breath?"
"I'm teasing, Hazz! I love your morning breath. Really. I just adore it."
"So funny, Lou", Harry pouted.
"And we have the romance," Louis concluded, changing the topic back to the movies. "We are a walking chick-flick. No, even worse. A big fat cliché."
"I think I'd be the horror," Harry said softly. His eyes became distant as he went away to the sad corners of his mind that Louis had not been allowed into just yet.
"You wouldn't be anything less than perfect," Louis insisted. He strummed a chord and hummed softly. "And I mean that. With a voice like yours?"
Despite the weeks that they had spent together, Harry rarely sang around him. Their first date must have had him feeling particularly elated for him to slip up and sing. That worried him, at first. Maybe Harry wasn't happy with him. But eventually, he filed it under those secrets things that just made Harry himself and even though he would never understand them, he would love them all the same.
"Yeah, yeah. When will you let me read your lyrics?"
"Soon," Louis promised, not sure if he meant it or not. "I promise. Let's pick horror for tonight."
Harry shuffled all the movies into a slightly neat pile and plucked a horror movie about demons in the woods. The cover promised it to send chills up your spine, but Louis figured they would just end up laughing over the poor effects.
"Did you get popcorn?" Harry asked, crawling onto the couch and snuggling into Louis's side.
"I forgot. I'm really sorry!"
"I brought some, just in case. Be right back."
Harry kissed Louis's forehead with such sweetness that he closed his eyes and was engulfed in a warm contentment. Soon, the whole apartment smelled of butter and salt. The night had fanned away the heat until coolness lay in sheets around them. They had opened all the windows, so the sound of grasshoppers kept them grounded to reality when they found out that the horror movie did, in fact, have amazing effects.
"You picked a scary one," Louis accused. He covered his face and laughed nervously when a girl was shredded by a chainsaw. "Shut the windows. No, bolt them."
"It's not that bad," Harry said faintly. He looked ready to puke as he said so. "I hate the sound of chainsaws, though."
"God, why is she so stupid? Walk away from the sounds of your friends dying!"
On screen, a petite blond girl crept into the room where two of her friends had been massacred. She rushed forward to her boyfriend, who was, surprise, a jock, and began to weep over his lifeless body.
"He's going to get her!" Harry whimpered. "I liked her, too!"
"You liked her? Why?"
"She wears striped shirts."
"Hazz…." Louis's laugh changed to a light scream as one of the demons sprang from the shadows and began clawing at the blond girl's skin. Both boys clung to each other, peeking out from one another's hands and behaving, for lack of better comparison, like teenage girls.
Just as the demon began to bite into the girl's arm, the doorbell rang. Louis screamed and kicked out, sending the popcorn bowl flying into the air. They broke out into nervous laughter that subsided when they realized one of them would have to answer the door.
"It's your house," Harry whispered. "Go on, answer it."
"You're the guest. And you said we shouldn't be ashamed of how much we mean to each other. Please, go show how comfortable you are at my house and answer the door."
"HARRY. I INSIST."
"I insist that you don't insist."
They shrieked and clung to each other again as a head popped up by the window. After a moment, Louis could make out the distinct and wild mane of gray hair belonging to Linda.
"Linda! You scared the hell out of us."
"Open your dammed door! I made a pie for you and you aren't even appreciating my gesture."
Louis sprang up and dashed to the door, this time not even hesitating. Linda could be scarier than any demon, he decided. Once inside, she hugged Harry and placed the pie on the table. Though she raised her eyebrows at the popcorn scattering the floor like confetti, she didn't comment.
"What possessed you to make us a pie?" Louis asked, digging out forks. Harry paused the movie and stretched. Forcing himself to look away from the strip of abs showing, Louis pulled a chair out for Linda.
"It's going to storm, sweetie," Linda replied, ignoring the chair. "I just wanted you to have some comfort food."
"Storm? How bad?" Harry asked with polite interest.
"Very badly. Jeff says so, and you know how I feel about Jeff."
Jeff had been the weatherman for over ten years, and he was famous for actually being right in his predictions. Before Linda had revealed herself to be a lesbian, her obsession hadn't been too strange. Now, it really was odd.
"Jeff is usually right," Harry agreed, and Linda beamed in a way that told Louis that Harry had just won her everlasting blessing for the both of them.
"Indeed he is. But I have to get back home and settle in with my new books. Candy just keeps insisting I read the series where the cat solves mysteries."
"Darla would approve." Louis laughed as he imagined that series. It was surprisingly a best seller, and had several dozen novels so far.
"Where is she anyway?"
"Hiding. She doesn't like me very much," Harry pouted. "And I'm a cat person. It doesn't make sense."
"Darla hates everyone," Louis tried to reassure him, but once he said it he realized it probably didn't help much. "Sorry. Do you want me to walk you home, Linda?"
"No, I'm fine. I'm only 93. See you boys later."
She winked and departed as Harry whispered '93' under his breath with wide eyes.
"She's older than she looks," he said after she had shuffled across the yard. "She has a lot of energy for someone so far in her years."
"Don't ever call her old," Louis cried, running to the window and making sure she couldn't hear them. "Do you want your life to be over?"
"Not entirely. It's going so well right now."
Louis felt his heart skip a beat, but he merely kissed Harry's lips and went to cut them a slice of pie. After Linda nearly gave them a heart attack, they changed it to romantic comedy and settled into silence as the storm approached outside.
"Does she make you these amazing pies every time a storm comes through? I'm jealous!"
"I'd rather have no storms and no pies."
"How could you think that?"
"I hate storms," Louis mumbled. "A lot."
Harry stopped eating, confused at the abrupt sad tone.
"Care to share?"
"It's not something I like talking about….really."
"I vomited my feelings out to you before we were even officially dating. In fact, all it took was one date for me to tell you everything that took me years to tell Miranda."
"And why was that?" Louis mused.
"Because I knew I wanted you to be a permanent part of my life, and you would have to know the truth before you decided to stay."
He opened his mouth as if he wanted to say more, but instead he shook his head and reclined against the armrest.
"So, I think it's your turn to be honest. You know the storms aren't going to be life or death, right?"
"I know, I know. But my dad…."
"Your dad," Harry prodded when he didn't go on.
"I lost him when I was younger."
The playful smile slid off Harry's face, only to be replaced by a look of absolute pity and understanding.
"I've always hated storms, so when it got bad my dad would read my stories. The same ones I have now. Poems that talked about storms like they were poetic and beautiful. But I was a kid, and he was my father. What else was I supposed to think? So then one night, we finishEd all the poems and stories he had. And a storm was coming. I panicked, and even though he offered to read me some over again, I panicked and cried anyway. I don't know why I was so childish and selfish."
"You were just a kid, Lou."
"It wasn't much of an excuse. He offered to go buy a new book before the storm moved in. And just after he left, it started raining terribly, and I watched by the window even though I was terrified because I finally realized the poems didn't matter, that I was only okay because Dad was with me."
Louis blankly stared at the movie onscreen, how happy and fun life seemed for them, how everything went right in the end and tragic pasts weren't explored because good times were all about the present. And once those good times were in the past, it was always about recreating them for the next day, and the next. If every day wasn't just as fun as the last, it became irrelevant. People stopped appreciating simple things like popcorn and homemade pie and wrapping yourself in someone you loved.
"He didn't even make it the bookstore. He wrecked on the way. Just a few miles down the road, actually."
Harry stood up after a minute and vanished into Louis's room, only to return a moment later with Crush. He settled down beside Louis, and muted the movie. As the first crack of lightning flashed in the sky, Harry began to read, and Louis settled himself into Harry's shoulder. He thought to himself that Harry's body was made for him, given how his head fit perfectly into the slope, and their bodies curved in just the right ways.
Harry began to read from the first underlined part he saw, voice rich and slow and thoughtful and everything Louis had started falling for.
"'In these dreams it's always you: the boy in the sweatshirt, the boy on the bridge, the boy who always keeps me from jumping off the bridge. Oh, the things we invent when we are scared and want to be rescued….'"
And how fitting these lines were. But Louis didn't need to invent any salvation, because Harry read aloud to him until he drifted away, the sounds of the storms distant and his belly full with pie and popcorn.
This was real, and that was okay by him.
By the time Louis awoke, Harry was gone and had left a freshly cut slice of pie and a glass of orange juice on the table for him. Crush was neatly closed and bookmarked to whatever spot Harry had left off reading beside the plate. Checking his phone, he saw that Miranda had texted him, as well as Candy saying she didn't need him to work today.
I stole Harry. If you want him back, come to the cook out tonight at six o'clock sharp!
Miranda's message was followed by a devilish smiley face, utterly fitting. Smiling, Louis sat down and ate his pie-breakfast and relished at the sweet smell of damp grass and cleanliness that followed heavy summer rains. As much as he hated storms, the beauty afterword almost made it worth it.
Louis sipped his orange juice, trying not to gag. Even after he had insisted to Harry that apple juice was preferable. While he ate, he skimmed through the book with little interest. Instead, his mind wondered to what Harry would wear tonight, and how they would kiss and all that they would talk about.
Then, the phrase 'green eyes' jumped off the page at him. Since receiving the book, he had been reading random poems, one every now and then. Once he read a single poem, he would spend days thinking over it, thinking of what his father would say about it.
This poem, 'A Primer for the Small Weird Houses' had not yet been read.
He slammed the book, but his mind had already memorized them. They were burned into his memory now, and even though he and Harry did their best to avoid any mentions of is step-father, or his mother for that matter, the lines made him think again. Back to the image of Harry alone at the table, waiting for friends that would never arrive.
The green-eyed boy in the powder-blue t-shirt standing
Next to you in the supermarket recoils as if hit,
Repeatedly, as if hit by many men, as if he has a history of it.
This is not your problem.
You have your own body to deal with.
Louis had definitely not reached this poem yet, but it had already been underlined. Had Harry done it? No one but the two of them (and Candy for a second) had touched the book. And if it had been Harry, which was the only rational explanation, what was he trying to tell him?
Louis didn't finish his meal, opting to instead take a jog with his camera. It felt like it had been forever since he had taken pictures. Before, the lack of business would have unsettled him, but Miranda's generous payment had tied him over for a good bit.
He left his phone at home, for once wanting to be alone.
For the cookout, Louis dressed in a pair of cut off sweatpants and one of Harry's band t-shirts that he had left one night when they stayed together. Complete with his worn, gray Toms, Louis effectively looked like he didn't give a shit.
Miranda would kill him.
After he returned from his jog, he checked his voice mail and was pleasantly surprised to find a new potential customer wanted to do an anniversary photo shoot next month. Things were really looking up.
Once he pulled up at Miranda's house, Harry sprang off the porch and dashed to his car, stumbling and laughing.
"LOOOOOOUUUUUISSSS! It's been…..like….ten hours since I last saw you."
"Have you been drin - HAS HE BEEN DRINKING?" Louis raised his voice to address Niall on the porch, surrounded by a group of college kids.
"He might have had a little sip or two," Niall said, right after taking a swig of an enormous and half-empty bottle of beer. "Wasn't my fault."
"I still blame you and all your kind!"
"Don't discriminate against the Irish, mate!"
Harry buried his face into Louis's shoulder and muttered drunkenly. The way his lips brushed against his already heated skin felt too good to be a public event.
"I wasn't talking about the Irish, Niall," Louis replied, trying to keep his voice level. "I was talking about blondes!"
"You won't deign to tolerate a blond, but you'll tolerate leeches?"
Niall nodded to Harry, whose lips were at his shoulder.
The college girls erupted in giggles, while the men smirked and took a few sips of beer that were very prissy compared to how much Niall downed in one go.
"I love leeches," Louis said defensively. His voice strained under the feeling of Harry's teeth grazing his collarbone. "I fucking love leeches. In fact, come on, Hazz, we are going in."
"He'll sober up soon! He always does!" Niall called after him. Louis rounded the corner of the house to go in the back way. No way would he walk past all those college kids with Harry attached to him the way he was.
"I missed you a lot," Harry mumbled. "So much. I can't seem to remember what I did with my life before you walked in. I think I was just sad all the time."
Around back, Louis cursed to find Miranda, Naomi, and Ian huddled around a table. They laughed and sipped fancy wine, Miranda occasionally glancing at the party going on in the yard.
"Harry? Are you alright? Louis, is he all right?" Naomi asked when it became clear Harry wasn't in the state to answer. She straightened up and stared as Louis lugged him up the porch.
"He's…fine…" Louis panted. "I swear. Just a bit drunk."
"Wish I was," Ian grumbled. Miranda turned on him promptly with an uncharacteristic snarl.
"You just go right ahead and drink, then. I don't know what's gotten into you since we got back, but I'm sick of it."
Naomi grimaced and scooted her chair away as they began to bicker under their breath, lest the guests think their marriage not as perfect as the house, or the party, or anything else in their lives for that matter.
"Have you seen Zayn?" Naomi asked. "He begged me to come here with him. Like a date. But he ran out on me."
Harry began to giggle.
"I like the way you smell."
The way Naomi looked at the pair of them implied that she wanted to wring their necks.
"Please get him away from me. I hate it when he drinks. He just spits out whatever truth his mind comes up with."
"You have no idea."
Louis helped him inside and up the stairs, having to all but lift him over a girl passed out with a hairbrush in hand. At least she cared about her appearance, drunk or not. The party raged mostly outside, but the doors down the main hall upstairs were almost all shut, with ties hanging on the door.
"For the love of God," Louis uttered.
How did Miranda end up with a party like this? She should have been the blouse-wearing wine sipping housewife hosting an elegant cookout with picnic tables and classical music playing softly from the house. Though, that may have been how it started. Parties of this degree did tend to follow Niall.
"You're pretty cute," Harry all but shouted to Louis. "I like your jaw."
To emphasize this, he took Louis jaw in hand and shook his head from side to side. "So….yum."
"Harry….you really shouldn't drink so much."
"Just a sip….just a tiny sip of whatever Niall was chugging. Didn't think I would feel like this."
"If Niall was chugging it, you shouldn't have even considered it. Now…here. This room doesn't have a tie on it."
Louis wrapped an arm around Harry's waist and leaned to support him, then used his free hand to open the door. Inside, all was pitch blackness, with the curtains drawn and the lamps out. At first, Louis assumed it was as empty as it looked. Until he saw two shadows moving on the bed.
He became speechless, which, unfortunately, didn't happen for Harry.
"Zayn? Is that you? Miranda is going to be pissed when she finds out you left Naomi down there for…."
He squinted into the darkness and past Zayn's startled doe eyes.
"Is that Liam?"
Louis slammed the door and stared blankly at the knob, not comprehending how Zayn had arrived with Naomi but had ended up upstairs having (his mind would need bleach after this) sex with Liam. Unsure of what else to do, he balanced on his right foot and removed his left shoe, placing it so that it covered the doorknob. A temporary marker, but at least no one would walk in on them.
"You got cute feet. I usually hate feet," Harry said. He slipped out of Louis grasp and fell to the floor. Before Louis could even become concerned about him being hurt, he reached out and poked at Louis's feet.
"Harry, please stop. I'm worried about you."
Prying Harry from the floor, he resumed his search for an empty room, which seemed more and more fruitless by the second.
"You shouldn't be worried about me. I have no secrets except for that one. But yoooooooou mister-" he poked Louis' chest. "-have one that I found out about."
"And what is that?" Louis asked, unconcerned.
"I know allllllll about Darla. Not that cat that hates me. Your ex-girlfriend."
Louis froze, so fast that Harry tried to keep walking and stumbled forward. There was no way he could have found out. Who the hell could have told Harry about Darla? He hadn't told anyone, not a single person except for Linda…
His heart seized.
Would Linda really gossip about him like that? She couldn't, wouldn't even. She loved him and kept all his secrets. Or did she? Was Louis just another neighbor to gossip about? As improbable as that seemed, the doubt crept into the spaces between his ribs, blanketing his heart.
"You're mad at me," Harry accused. "Oh, come on. Darla didn't deserve you. Not that I do. But please don't be mad. Please."
Harry's aim was off, but after he grasped Louis's face and squinted, he managed to kiss him sloppily on the lips.
"I really like you. More than I like almost anything. I think I could fall in love with you, you know? And it's only been a month and a half since we first danced at that wedding, and love is a serious word, but I feel really sick because you're mad at me."
"I'm not mad at you."
So he wasn't. He was mad at Linda.
"I want you to tell me about Darla when I sober up. I mean, I'm just tipsy now, but still. I want you to tell me in your own words."
"Okay," Louis relented, praying that Harry would forget that conversation.
At the very end of the hall, they found a mercifully empty room. Louis guided Harry to the bed before shutting the door and locking it. He didn't bother trying to put anything on the door; he didn't want anyone assuming anything.
"You only got one shoe on," Harry giggled, pulling the comforter up to his eyes.
"I know." Louis managed a small smile. The mention of Darla had really thrown him off. "Are you feeling okay?"
"I'd be better if you'd come lie next to me. I can't smell you from here."
"I think you're a bit obsessed with my smell."
Louis kicked off his shoe and slipped into bed with Harry, heart swelling with affection at the trusting way his boyfriend looked at him.
"I love your smell. One night when you fell asleep I just thought about everything I could keep of you if something were to happen. I could keep your laughter and the way your voice is slow like mine when you're sleepy. And the way you smile at me when I talk like everything I say is worth something-"
"It is," Louis interjected, wanting to stop that thought of his before it could take root in Harry's mind.
"Did I mention the way you smell? It's wonderful. Like roses and fresh rain and a hint of that cologne you wear. But I think what I would want to keep most is the way you kiss me. Like you actually care about me, like I'm not just some fling. You kiss me like you might love me one day and isn't that what every human spends their whole life waiting for? To be in love?"
"Can I kiss you now?" Louis asked. It felt necessary to ask someone in the state he was in. "Because I do care about everything you say and I care about you, and I don't just think I could fall in love with you, Harry Styles. I know that I will if you just don't disappear from my life like everyone else. Let me hold onto you. And I can tell you that I love all that orange juice you drink and even though I can't stand to drink it myself I love tasting it when we kiss. I love the way your curls are perfect no matter what, and the way you laugh at things that aren't even funny because, despite my first impression, you aren't a sad person. You are a very happy and wonderful person with a sad and terrible past. But if you think for a second that I don't care about you, and if I have for a single second made you even doubt that what you say doesn't matter, then I'm kissing you wrong."
"Okay," Harry relented. He hadn't exactly sobered up, but he had a wicked gleam in his eyes. "Show me the right way to kiss."
So Louis did. He pulled Harry to him and crushed their lips together until it was indiscernible where one mouth ended and the other began. They kissed with an almost fierce desperation, but Louis had a mission, and if Harry wanted to feel love, he wouldn't object.
"Get on with it," Harry groaned, his fingers digging into Louis's back.
Louis pulled Harry's shirt off and splayed his fingers over the abs he had looked longingly at just last night. How fast that they had irrevocably come to change one another's lives, and how fast things changed from sad and okay to this moment where Harry's head fell back against a crisp white pillow and whispered Louis's name into the darkness.
"This wasn't supposed to happen," Louis said, voice strained. He hadn't imagined his first time with Harry like this. He didn't want Harry to be drunk, or even tipsy as he claimed to be. "Harry, we can't until you've sobered up. I want you to be sure."
"I trust you, really. But…"
Harry sat up so that he was inches away from Louis.
"I understand that I'm messed up. That there are parts of me that can't be loved, as much as I wish they could be."
"You are a bloody git," Louis grumbled. "What are you even talking about?"
He moved his hands over Harry's ribs and to his back, where he traced the scars with his fingernails, light as a moth's wing.
"These are parts of you Harry, and they do matter and they do count, as messed up as they are. And I care about them because they're you and they're who you are."
"You aren't playing fair," Harry groaned. This time, his voice sounded strained and desperate. "You can't be this perfect. Have you any idea what could happen if…"
"If what?" Louis asked, dipping his head and kissing Harry's shoulder blade.
"Nothing. I'm sorry.
Harry fell back against the bed, his expression perfectly peaceful, and Louis didn't question it. From the window, Louis could see the distant lights strung up in the trees, and could hear laughter floating up to them. They could all take their happiness, real and fake, and keep it away, on the right side of the glass. As messed up as he and Harry both were, they had each other. And the way that Harry's skin felt against his own was real and pure happiness.
Even in the moment where his fingers lingered on Harry's belt, his mind jumped away to a distant place, summoning thoughts of all the protests against gay people and how they were abominations. Maybe they were jealous of this simple happiness, and maybe they thought any love that wasn't theirs was wrong. But Louis knew that nothing had ever been so perfectly right in his life, and they couldn't take it away from him.
And then everything went horribly wrong.
It started with a touch, a single grazing of Harry's thighs, to cause him to stiffen beneath Louis.
"Are you okay, Harry?"
"Fine. I just…haven't….go on."
Louis hesitated before he worked Harry's pants down, leaving his striped boxers. He recalled Harry saying how he liked stripes, and smiled. Louis leaned down to kiss a trail down his stomach, lips lingering at the hem of the fabric. No protests came, so he slipped his hands underneath them, face flush at the new sensation, but he could hardly enjoy it before Harry jerked away.
He rolled out from underneath Louis and curled himself into a ball, almost defensively. As if (and he wanted to vomit just thinking it) Louis might harm him.
His voice wasn't even a whisper.
"Don't. I can't do it, Louis. It hurts."
"Hey, we don't have to do anything you don't want to. I mean it."
Dejected as he was, Louis wouldn't dare touch Harry when he was in his current state. To have something to do, he retrieved Harry's shirt and handed to him, keeping a safe distance.
"I'm sorry, Lou. It hurt though. Samuel…."
"I know Hazza, I know. You don't have to mention him."
Shaking his head, Harry reached out his arms for Louis.
"I didn't mean it. Don't be mad at me. Someday we can, I swear. Not now though. Please not now."
"Not now," Louis repeated firmly, wrapping his arms around Harry and kissing his head.
"Samuel was gentle too. But after my twelfth birthday party he was so mean. He never cared about if I wanted to stop, even though I always did. Why wouldn't he just stop like you did?"
"I'm sorry," Louis whispered to him. "I really am. Why don't you rest? I'll go downstairs and get you a drink and some food, and we can hide in here all night if you want."
"I like that idea," Harry agreed in a small voice.
"Okay." Louis kissed him and pulled on his single shoe. Everyone else would probably be too drunk to notice he was missing the other one. "Stay up here, and keep the door locked. Until I come back, that is. Then let me in."
"I'll miss you," Harry cried as Louis shut the door.
"Yeah, you too babe."
He shut the door and scratched at the back of his neck, wondering when his life had turned so strange. When he passed down the hall, he noticed his shoe missing from the door to the room where Zayn and Liam had…occupied.
He didn't dare try to go in, though. He really didn't want to see two of his friends naked like that. Again. His mind shuddered at the word.
Outside, the party was just picking up tempo, and the dances were erratic and nothing short of horizontal sex. Wherever Miranda happened to be, Louis could be sure she wouldn't approve. Unless she was with Ian. If that was the case, she probably didn't care.
Louis turned and scanned the crowd, but he couldn't pinpoint the voice until Liam appeared beside him and grabbed his shoulder with unnecessary roughness.
"Shit Liam! A little warning."
"I called your name." Liam gave him a withering look. "Twice. We need to go in and talk. Grab some food and let's go."
Liam hovered over him as he loaded potato chips, pie, and a few hamburgers onto a paper plate. He wordlessly offered Liam a drink to carry before they headed back inside. The party had shifted more to the front, where he could hear the sounds of the crowd chanting Niall's name.
"He's doing a keg stand," Liam answered Louis's unspoken question. "And I bet he could still walk a straight line afterwards. There's Zayn."
Not that it was necessary to point him out. Zayn sat alone in the living room, wringing his hands. His t-shirt had been discarded, leaving him in frayed muscle shirt and baggy sweatpants. Marks littered his neck and his lips were red.
"Hi Louis," Zayn said in a gruff voice.
"Let's go upstairs. Where is Harry?" Liam asked, glancing nervously at his friend.
"Upstairs. He's not feeling all that great. He had a drink of whatever Niall brought so that should sum things right up."
"Here's your shoe," Zayn said in the same off voice.
"Thanks….walking around has felt kind of weird."
Together they headed up the stairs. The girl who had been previously unconscious was now sitting upright and brushing her hair. Louis recognized her as one of Miranda's bridesmaids.
"How's it going?" she asked brightly.
"Real nice," Louis replied, repressing a snort of laughter. Weirdest party ever.
Upstairs, Louis banged on the door until Harry finally stumbled from the bed and unlocked it. For a split second, Louis was worried. What about, he was unsure, but he just started thinking that leaving Harry alone and drunk might have been a very bad idea. But when he answered, Harry merely looked sleepy and confused.
"What took ya so long?"
"Food." Louis held out the plate as explanation. "Want some?"
Harry curled up on the bed and began scarfing down as if he hadn't eaten all day. For all Louis knew, he hadn't. Liam and Zayn sat at different edges of the bed, refusing to look at each other. Their awkwardness reminded Louis of why Liam dragged him away in the first place.
"So…you two needed to talk?" Louis asked.
"It was a mistake," Zayn blurted out instantly. "I didn't mean for it to happen."
"A mistake?" Liam repeated angrily. They were definitely looking at each other now. Glaring, in fact. "How could you say that?"
"I come here," Zayn said, his voice gradually rising, "with the best looking girl around. The girl who refused me and by God I finally got her, and you show up in your stupid shorts and t-shirt and that damn hat I bought you for Christmas and I think you look a thousand times better than her even though she's wearing a skimpy dress."
"So it's my fault? Just because you're a pig? Just because I wore my favorite hat?"
"Dammit Liam, I didn't want this mess. This isn't fair. Why did you have to show up here looking like that?"
"What did you want me to show up in? A biohazard suit? A bag over my face?"
Harry slowly munched his chips and watched the ensuing fight. Louis had no clue what to say, and was instead beginning to think Liam had brought him into this to make sure they didn't kill each other.
"This isn't fair," Zayn wailed. "It's really not."
"You think it's been fair watching you chase after all these girls all these years? How much it hurt but I just wanted you to do what you wanted with yourself? And then when I realized what you were like…."
Liam blushed all the way to his ears. Zayn's face softened and he reached for Liam's hand.
"Is it that bad of a thing to like me?" Liam whispered.
"Um…guys?" Louis coughed. "Why exactly did you need me in this?"
"Tell him," Liam sad, voice rough again. "Tell Zayn that there isn't anything to be afraid of. That being with someone you love is worth it."
Louis thought of Darla, his first love - or so he had thought. Their relationship hadn't felt worth it at the time. She had really messed him up, ruined how he trusted and cared for people. He thought of all the things that had happened with Harry, all the hurt feelings and waiting and secrets. Being with Darla had been easy, but he wouldn't want her back.
"It's always worth it in the end."
"I told you," Liam huffed. "You are so thick-headed, I swear. You don't want to be with me, fine. But I won't let it ruin my friendship with you or anyone else. I'll always love you, Zayn, but I won't let myself hurt like this anymore. I'm going back to our room. I'll leave it unlocked, but I won't stay up waiting for you."
"This is better than The Cabin of Demons," Harry said, tossing another chip in his mouth. "And that was a good horror movie."
Liam looked once at him, shook his head, and left.
"What do I do?" Zayn demanded the moment the door shut. "Harry, Louis. Help. I'm so confused."
Before Louis could prepare an encouraging emotional speech, Harry flung himself across Louis's lap and sighed dreamily.
"Go to him, Zaynie."
Zayn mouthed the nickname, puzzled.
"You love him, we all could tell since a long time ago. So goooo tooooo himmmmmm."
Not exactly what Louis would have chosen to say, but it did have an effect. Zayn heaved himself up off the bed and squared his shoulders. The way Zayn moved with tense excitement made it clear he had decided on Liam.
"I told ya," Harry yawned. "They fall in love. They always do."
"Even us?" Louis teased, careful where he put his hands as he drew Harry even closer to him.
Harry stayed to help pick up the house the next morning, but insisted Louis head on home.
"I've got this. And Miranda should be bringing me some pills for the hangover soon."
"If you're sure." Louis raised Harry's hand to his mouth and kissed his palm. "Come over later. We never finished that horror movie. Drunk you seemed to think it was great."
"Can do…and about Darla. I didn't mean to say anything. Linda asked me not to."
Up until that moment, Louis had forgotten that Linda had blurted out one of his worst memories, something that she had no right to do. The anger returned in a rush that swept away his good mood.
"It's fine. See you soon."
Louis gave him a peck on the lips, but then found himself unable to pull away entirely until Ian cleared his throat nearby.
They jumped apart as if electrocuted. Louis took the cue to leave.
As he drove off, he glanced in his rearview mirror and saw Harry standing in the yard, head bowed as Ian towered over him. Something about the scene felt off, but a car behind him honked, and he was forced to leave the picture behind.
At home, he cleaned and washed clothes until it the sun began to set. A message on his house phone offered a new and rather unpredictable job: a baby's portrait. Trying to make them smile could be harder than out-drinking Niall, but a job was a job and Miranda's money wouldn't last much longer at all with bills coming in.
Darla crept out from his bedroom and glared at him before slinking towards the bathroom, where he kept her litter box.
"I'm sorry!" Louis called after her. "I've been busy. And why am I explaining myself to a cat?"
With a resigned sigh, he flopped onto the couch and put his head in his hands. How much longer would he and Harry go back and forth with secrets? When could they get normalcy like they had those few weeks right after Louis went to Harry's apartment and Miranda and Ian were away at the beach? He and Harry had so much fun. Movies, dancing, and dinner at places with soup more expensive than his whole wardrobe…
He remembered when Harry started a pillow fight, and Louis had sat there thinking, 'There is no way I'm actually going to encourage this', before he attacked Harry.
When would they run out of darkness?
Outside, a hacking cough sounded over the distant whir of a lawn mower. Again, he was reminded of what Linda had told Harry. The problem would have to be confronted sooner or later. He stepped outside, barefoot, and let the door shut softly behind him.
The summer night created an almost suffocating humidity in the air. It then occurred to Louis that he had not been swimming all summer, as much as he loved it. Maybe it was his turn to head down to the beach. Linda huddled by the fence, pulling weeds and tossing them into a basket. Perched on her bony nose was a pair of sunglasses, despite the fact that the sun had already gone down.
This meant one thing; Linda had been in her garden for a long while and had lost track of time.
As Louis approached, she let out another loud cough.
"Well hello, Louis. Haven't seen you in what seems like forever, but I heard about Miranda's party. Did you have fun?"
Any affection he had for her was washed away in a swirl of instant anger.
"You told Harry about Darla."
"I did," she said easily. "I thought he deserved to know."
Whatever he expected when he walked over, it wasn't this. Some guilt and a lot of beating around the bush mainly, but not an instant confession made with an indifferent tone.
"That wasn't your story to tell! He must feel so sorry for me now." He tried to keep his voice under control, but all the pent up thoughts he'd had over the night were spilling out. "How could you do that to me? I trusted you!"
Linda straightened up with her basket and slid her sunglasses off.
"I was looking out for you, sweetie. Harry needed to know to be careful with you, that you've been hurt. What would I do if Harry messed with your feelings?"
"I don't want to speak to you right now," Louis answered coldly, ignoring the question. "I haven't told anyone that, save for you. My mother only knew because she was there to witness it. I'm just...so disgusted with you."
He opened his mouth to say more, but all that came out was a strangled sob that didn't reflect the anger he felt as he watched Linda blink away tears. He spun on heel and all but ran back to his house. Okay, so maybe he shouldn't have trusted Linda. Or maybe he should have trusted Linda to do what she thought right. But the fact that Harry knew was excruciatingly humiliating.
Inside, he shut the doors and windows and locked himself away until nothing existed but him in the darkness. The point where he drifted to sleep was hard to tell, but eventually the shadows changed and the sounds of life went away for little while.
That's why Louis adored sleep. You could forget life really was messed up and when everything was quiet for a few hours, the loudness that life presented could almost be welcomed back. No dreams came to him, but he didn't want any. When he awoke, it was to cool hands brushing across his face and brushing the hair away from the nape of his neck.
"Five more minutes…."
A deep, rumbling laugh echoed through the room. Then a soft pair of lips touched his closed eyelids.
"Wake up, Boobear. I have a proposition."
Louis kept his eyes closed as he rolled over and blindly felt for Harry's hands.
"What's that? It'd better involve food."
"You're acting like Niall, I swear. Yes, we can get some food. On the way, I mean."
Louis sat up hastily and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Harry's grinning face blurred for a moment before returning to focus. Though Harry genuinely appeared happy to see him, something about the way his shoulders curved forward and the way his eyes were sad and sleepy alarmed Louis.
"Are you feeling okay? And how the hell did you get in here?"
"The door was unlocked, but even if it wasn't I know you hide the key under the ceramic pigeon-"
"Kevin!" Louis reminded him.
"Yes, Kevin." Harry chuckled. "And of course I'm feeling okay. I just think we need to get away for a little bit. What do you say?"
"I don't object," Louis said, thinking of Linda. "How much would I need to pack?"
"Enough for, say, a week. We can go from there."
A week with him and Harry alone? That, he could handle. Harry helped him pack his scant wardrobe into a battered suitcase and volunteered to coax Darla from under the bed. When he asked where they would put her, Harry explained that Liam and Zayn were willing to look after her.
"So, Zayn and Liam?"
Harry smiled distractedly, trying to fit Louis's shoes into the last remaining space.
"Yeah. Zayn has been over there all day. I guess things went well."
"What will his parents say?"
The grin slid off Harry's face to be replaced by a brooding, sad expression.
"They'll probably disown him. But Zayn doesn't really care at this point. I think he kind of got a taste of the forbidden fruit and now that's all he wants. I don't know how long it will be 'till we can stand to be around them."
"Hopefully sooner rather than later. Maybe by the time we get back from whatever mysterious place you're dragging me to…."
"I figured we could drive until we found a place that suited our fancy."
"Did you just say fancy?" Louis laughed, thinking about how much Stan would make fun of him for saying it himself. Stan had been busy with his summer job as a lifeguard 'picking up chicks' and had been sending reports of how many people he slept with. The Zayn from a few days ago would have been proud.
"Yes, I did," Harry replied seriously. "I like that word. Very cute."
"It's just adorable. Now can we go? Darla might kill us if she has to spend too long in that cat carrier."
"Yes, your highness." Harry bowed deeply before picking up Louis's bag and carrying it out the door. Darla peered through the wiring of her carrier and mewled angrily.
"It's his fault," Louis protested, pointing out the door and towards the car. "Do you think I asked to be in love with a man who says 'fancy'?"
The scathing look could almost be called human, but instead of the usual fondness he felt for his cat, he couldn't help but to think about how the real Darla would have reacted if she knew who he was with. Harry was the type of guy she would go for, actually. Tall and muscled with nice lips and nice hair. She wouldn't appreciate his silence the way Louis did, or his puns that were cringe-worthy at best. But Harry would never have a girl like her, if he were to have a girl. But Louis decided that it took a very certain kind of person to fall in love with Harry, and the reason was because Louis believed that you only fell in true, deep, meaningful love once. As he watched Harry shut the trunk of his car, he decided that he had been in love with Harry from the moment they danced.
One moment, one touch, and one life for the both of them to share.
When Harry stepped back inside, Louis grabbed him and buried his face into Harry's Ramones shirt, breathing in his clean smell and trying to imagine how things had suddenly gone so perfectly right in his life.
"Is something wrong?" Harry kissed the top of his head, letting his lips linger for a moment longer than necessary.
"I'm okay. Now, I mean. I was just thinking about how I couldn't stop thinking about you after the wedding."
"Yeah?" Harry smiled so deeply that Louis could feel it.
"Yeah. And I realized that I stopped seeing other people like I did before. I stopped even thinking about girls or dating or anything mushy. I just wanted to know what was going on in your head, and I wanted you to let me in. Have you ever been so certain something that you could swear upon your life it was real?"
"Like the sky is blue, or the sun is hot. Or that dogs bark and all that. Could you swear on that?"
"I suppose I could."
Louis pulled back, leaning into Harry's hands and staring up at his pink lips and his eyes so brilliant he could drink them in forever.
"I swear I love you. And I swear that something inside me says it will always be that way."
The confession lit Harry's eyes up, made his face break out with a smile so pure Louis could only call it staring into a shaft of sunlight when all else was night.
"I love you too, Boobear. I was waiting for the right time to say it, but you won."
"I'm willing to breakeven with you."
Harry shook his head, still grinning in that way, and grabbed Louis's face.
"We're even. Always."
That same reassuring 'always'. Like they always fall in love.
Then, Louis stepped onto Harry's feet so that the height difference wasn't so drastic. With a combined effort, they kissed, almost perfectly even. All the problems fell away and nothing existed but Harry's hand on his neck, covering him in warmth and a tender passion.
"I could stay here forever," Louis finally whispered, not taking his mouth from Harry's, "but I do agree we should go."
Before they pulled away, Louis swallowed his pride and looked over at Linda's house. All her windows were shut with the curtains drawn, which was very unlike her. Candy's old Volkswagen was parked crookedly in the driveway, and when he squinted, he could make out her huddled from on the front porch. She rocked slowly in the wicker rocking chair, head turned towards him.
They spent all night driving. They stayed quiet at first, but Harry didn't ask what was wrong. Louis knew he would tell him about Darla, sooner rather than later, but for now he didn't want to discuss anything. Harry preferred Louis driving so that he could pick the music, and Louis preferred driving because he was a hell of a lot better at it than Harry and holding hands wasn't a safety hazard.
Just as the sun had climbed its length in the sky, they pulled over at a small beach town and felt the rightness of it.
"Small. Peaceful, really. Let's get a condo on the beach."
"I'm nearly broke, Hazza. I can only help so much."
"We only need a few days. I brought a tent so we can camp out if we want to stay longer."
"Isn't it kind of illegal to do that?"
"Guess we'll find out."
After a few hours of settling in, they took a stroll on the beach, weaving around couples wrapped in blankets and listening to the light ocean waves in the distance. The sand felt warm beneath their bare feet, and the sun spilled its colors into the sky just where the ocean appeared to end.
"It's beautiful," Harry sighed. "It reminds me of our first date. I hadn't flown a kite since I was younger, back before Dad died."
"You were cute," Louis teased. "Getting the string all knotted."
But even as he teased him, Louis thought back to how panicked Harry became when he mentioned how he had kept his shirt on. Now, it made sense, but clarification didn't bring him any peace of mind.
"I'm glad you agreed to jump up and leave with me," Harry said, squeezing his hand.
"I really wanted to get away from everyone. Even though I know that Zayn and Liam are disappointed we didn't stick around for double dates."
"You think Zayn's already that comfortable?"
"Maybe." Harry pondered the question for a second. "He didn't seem embarrassed when we pointed out his shirt was on backwards."
"I think they just wanted us to hand over Darla and leave."
"That much was apparent. I never knew Liam could run so fast to the bedroom. And I was there for his track meets."
Together they left a trail of footprints down a mile stretch, snaking around more and more people as the late sunbathers arrived. The occasional elderly person gave them a scathing look, but for the most part their joined hands received the same friendly reactions expected of a small town. On days like this, Louis missed his mother the most. She adored the sun, and even when she became really sick she demanded they keep her in a room where she could see the sky. During her funeral, the sun shone without a cloud to challenge it, and he knew she would have been very satisfied.
"Where do you go when you make that face?"
Harry pulled on Louis until he could wrap his arm around him.
"I was just thinking about something. Not that you should complain, oh King of Brooding Expressions."
"I'm never brooding. I'm always happy, see?"
Though he did his best not to give in and laugh, Harry's squinted eyes and exaggerated smile were too funny to be taken seriously.
"You are, most of the time. That's why I like having you around."
"Well, I suppose I can tolerate you. What were you thinking about?"
"My mother," Louis answered without missing a beat. Talking to Harry was too easy for him to lie and change the subject. Harry would know what to say. "She loved the sun, you know. Couldn't get enough of it. During the winter months I was always terrified she would wither away. That's one of the many reasons she would love you."
Louis kissed his cheek, ignoring the various whistles from spectators.
"I wish I could have known her. You need to meet my mum, soon. Since I guess I'll keep you, that is."
"What am I, a stray dog you found?"
"Close enough," Harry replied with a playful gleam in his eyes. Instantly, Louis had the grandest of ideas. He pulled his hand away from Harry and fell on all fours to the sand.
"Louis…." Harry warned.
"People are starting to stare!"
"Louis for fuck's sake!" Harry tried to sound angry, but began giggling when Louis let his tongue loll from the corner of his mouth. "People are….people are staring." Harry's voice changed to a whisper the second time.
"WOOF WOOF WOOF! AWOOOOOO!"
"What do I do to make you stop?" Harry begged.
A couple passing by shook their heads at them, smiling, but another few were becoming genuinely annoyed by the commotion. And Louis didn't give a damn.
Louis crawled a length away and stopped.
"All right, Lassie. I'll follow."
Louis stood once they reached sidewalk and led the way until they were heading away from beach and towards the quaint little shops with hand painted window designs and crafts hanging behind the displays. Though the crawl hadn't been too excessive, Louis knees were scraped and throbbing. But he couldn't give up just now. A few more minutes of drifting, and he stopped at a small Italian restaurant overflowing with teenagers.
"Here?" Harry asked, wary. "There are so many people. Do they even let dogs in?"
Louis fell back on all fours, glaring.
Apparently, they did. The waitress barely spared Louis a second glance as she led them to a table outside, where they could watch the sun just beginning to set beneath the waves. As night bore down upon them, the waiters turned brilliant strings of lights on so that the whole back deck was awash with clean light.
"It's beautiful," Harry murmured.
"Arf," Louis replied.
"When are you going to stop?" Harry shook his head. "You're even sitting like a dog. I didn't mean it, you know?"
The waiter didn't bat an eye when Louis turned to bark at him, and easily accepted Harry's explanation that his boyfriend was temporarily confused. Whatever they saw every day had to be pretty crazy for Louis's behavior to be accepted as normal.
"We'll have the spaghetti plate and glass of your finest wine."
"Coming right up."
"I hope you like spaghetti." Harry glared at Louis from the corner of his eyes as the waiter walked away. "I would ask, but I doubt I would even get an answer."
"What did I do to deserve this?"
Harry leaned back in his chair and threw his hands up.
"How did I end up with a boyfriend who is okay with crawling into an Italian restaurant barking?"
"Ruff?" Louis tilted his head questioningly. It was kind of funny though, because Louis had previously laughed about falling in love with someone who said 'fancy'. Though what he was currently doing might be a tad more extreme. In high school, Louis had always been the one doing odd things, though. Random, embarrassing things just to get a laugh out of people. Once, he hopped to all his classes. Another time, he spoke in pig Latin all day. It took a great deal to embarrass him, and even more to convince him the silly things weren't worth watching people smile.
And for Harry, he would do anything to make him smile a little longer.
When the spaghetti came, Louis hesitated before throwing all his pride away and biting at a loose noodle. Harry's only reaction was to set his fork down and sigh.
"You're really going to keep this up?"
Harry peered around, shrugged, and tossed his fork aside.
"You win, Lou. And even though I'm a cat person, I've never been more delighted to be in the company of a dog."
That said, Harry bent down and tore at a piece of garlic bread with his teeth. A few customers called the waiter over and asked to be moved away, which suited the both of them just fine. When they were left with a few stray noodles and sauce-smeared faces, Louis finally broke his act.
"It's like the Lady and the Tramp. We just need the Italian waiter to come back and play music for us."
"I would be the Tramp," Harry laughed.
"I would disagree, but that would place me as not being Lady, so….you know." He fluffed his hair, leaving traces of sauce on the tips.
"I am a tramp. This one time at a wedding, I saw this boy…"
"Go on," Louis replied, picking up a piece of bread for himself. "I love stories like this."
"He had the nicest…" Harry rolled his hands as he tried to find the right word. "Ass. I can't say it in a kinder manner. But it was a very nice ass."
"Go on, go on."
"Perfectly round. And I thought….I bet he can fall and not get hurt because once he hit the floor he probably just bounced back up."
"You took a beautiful moment we shared and ruined it, Hazza. You're supposed to tell me about my eyes and not my ass. Our meeting is tainted now."
"To be fair, I didn't notice your ass until we started dancing. I looked down over the top of your head and was pleasantly surprised."
"Whatever," Louis scoffed. "I don't think you are capable of thinking such dirty thoughts."
"You'd be surprised." Suddenly, Harry's voice wasn't sweet and playful but instead sexy and raspy. Any comeback Louis could contrive froze before it could be properly formed. Instead, every vein in his body sang at the thought of Harry's hands on him, touching him, kissing him….
"You haven't drunk any of our wine," Harry pointed out, taking obvious delight in Louis's expression. "It's expensive, too."
"Dogs don't have hands," Louis croaked, but he dutifully downed half the glass.
"Share?" Harry asked. He picked up one of the last strands of spaghetti and placed it in his mouth so that it dangled down and left a trail over his chin.
Louis all but surged over the table and took the other end in his mouth, carefully chewing until he reached Harry's wine softened lips. The taste of his tongue slipping around his was better than anything he had ever experienced. All he wanted was to crawl over the table and seat himself and Harry, where he could reach him without any restraints, but the waiter came back and cleared his throat.
When Louis tried to return to his seat, Harry kept a firm grip on his face and beamed at the waiter.
"We'll take the check, please." When the waiter left, Harry stood and slung Louis onto his back, as easily as if he were a small child.
"What are you doing?" Louis protested.
"Making sure you don't scrape your knees anymore. Why are you fighting a free ride?"
"I'm most certainly not!"
The waiter raised an eyebrow, but merely handed them the bill and started clearing up the mess they had made. Who knew cutlery would save so many messes? After they paid, Harry carried him through the town and back to the condo, where a night of watching old movies and eating ice cream was awaiting them. Louis hadn't bothered checking his phone all day. Being with Harry made time speed up and everything else slip away. A day with Harry didn't leave any room for reality.
"Am I not getting heavy, yet?"
"Not even slightly," Harry replied easily. "You're as light as a puppy."
"Woof." Louis smiled.
"Don't start that again, boo. I'm already worried for your mental health."
At the condo, they snuggled up on the couch with loose pajamas and cool tea. Louis did get around to checking his phone, but he had only received a few phone calls from Candy.
"She called you a bunch," Harry noted. He had been resting his head against Louis's shoulder, giving him a clear view of the phone and the 26 missed calls. So okay, Louis exaggerated a few.
"We both kind of forgot I have a job. Or had, by the looks of it."
"You still have a few appointments for your photography gig next week. Chin up, Lou. I can feel you frowning."
"You can't feel me frowning."
"I can too. I can sense it. Now stop and start smiling. How can you frown with Grease on?"
"I can't," Louis replied.
With a sinking feeling, however, he switched off his phone and removed the battery. Everyone he needed was right here.
Time passed in moments of pure pleasure at the beach.
The next day, they bought boards from a hippie named Trucker and went surfing. While they were out, Louis managed to push Harry off his board three times and when they settled down, they spotted a few dolphins in the distance.
On their third day, a storm moved in that rattled the windows with such ferocity Louis swore it knew where he was and it intended to be the end of him. That day, Harry made him a fort in the bedroom and Harry sang for him. This was the first time Harry did not hesitate to do so, and the only time he had ever done it with nothing to sing along with.
On the fourth day, the sky still wept softly, so they spent a day singing together and playing twister. The game quickly became suggestive, and Louis knew Harry wasn't ready for anything still, so the game had to be called off rather quickly.
Instead, Louis began teaching Harry guitar and they spoke more of music.
"What are your lyrics about?" Harry asked him, setting his guitar against the couch. "You still won't tell me."
"Before you? About loss and what life looks like through a camera lens."
"Hmm?" Louis asked, strumming a few random chords.
"What does life look like through a camera lens?"
The answer came easy. God knows enough time was spent pouring ink onto paper trying to find the same answer.
"Like taking off your sunglasses at night, and like watching color television after black and white is all you've ever known. It's a lot like hearing a song from some passing by car and then you go home and listen to it with your earphones in and everything is clear. You cut yourself off with one eye closed so that all you see is through a view finder and that's all you concentrate on. One picture, one moment, and with a single click it's yours forever. Don't you see how powerful that is? That if memory fails you, you get to choose what to rebuild and from what angles you want to be reminded?"
"Beautiful," Harry breathed, nuzzling against Louis's neck. "But what about after me?"
"Lots of green," Louis replied. He ran his fingertips down the length of Harry's spine and back up, enjoying the goose bumps that broke across his arms. "I kind of sound like a love-struck preteen."
"Will you sing something for me?"
"When I finish a song that adequately describes you, I will. But you're kind of hard to pin down."
"Me? Never. You're the one that crawled through town barking."
"That was nothing. I mean that you have so many moods and layers."
"Like an onion," Harry grinned, quoting the Shrek movie they had watched the night before.
"Yeah, a lot like an onion."
"Shrek is green. Are you sure it's me you're writing about?"
"I bet Shrek's morning breath is better than yours…I'm kidding!" Louis laughed as Harry began to tickle him over his ribs. "We already discussed this. Your morning breath is lovely."
"I really want to watch the next Shrek movie now. Hint hint." Harry tickled him again. Never had Louis regretted telling Harry something, but he really shouldn't have mentioned how ticklish he was.
On the fifth day, they sunbathed and shared a picnic in a manner similar to their first date. For whatever reason, their stretch of beach was not crowded, and they enjoyed their own private bubble. Louis never thought there would be someone in his life where he could say so much one second but then be utterly content just to hold their hand the next. It was on this fifth day that Harry mentioned going home.
"Please no…" Louis groaned. He rolled over and buried his head into Harry's chest. "There are people there."
"Just a few. But we've had our phones off since we've arrived. I haven't even talked to Miranda except on a payphone last night to tell her I hadn't been eaten by a shark."
"That's all the people we need to have in contact with," Louis argued. "I don't think Zayn and Liam want to have a chat right now. And Niall's probably staking out Nandos."
"What about Stan? And Linda?"
"Stan's a lifeguard. He's busy saving lives and running down the beach in slow motion," Louis replied, ignoring the second question.
"Linda?" Harry asked again, gently. "She probably really misses you."
"I don't care."
Louis sat up abruptly and drew his knees into his chest.
"She shouldn't have told you about Darla."
"I'm glad she did, but I would love it if you told me yourself. Please?"
He propped himself up on his elbows, giving Louis his best puppy eyes. When Harry did things like this - made himself look instantly more vulnerable than he already was - Louis caved. His caving would always be inevitable for that face, and they both knew it.
"She was my girlfriend," Louis sighed. "And then she slept with one of my best friends."
"There's more," Harry nudged. "Please."
"I wanted to propose to her after graduation," Louis recalled. "And when I think back I guess I did it because that's what everyone expected. They thought I would play football through college and I would marry Darla and we would have a perfect, blond, family."
"So, she was blond?"
"Blondest girl ever, physically and mentally. Everyone thought she bleached her hair, but I grew up with her and it was definitely natural."
Darla had always warranted a bit too much attention, ever since they turned twelve and her legs outgrew her but she still wore the same short skirts. Louis had been fascinated by her at first, but he mainly dated her because every guy knew she liked him established he couldn't do any better. For the longest time, Louis agreed.
"Who was your friend?"
"Wayne." Louis said his name with a scowl. "Me, him, and Stan had this group. Best at football, best at everything. I was the prankster, but Wayne was the leader. Stan was the one who got all the girls. Except for Darla. But when I walked in on Darla and Wayne at a party, I didn't feel sad."
Harry raised an eyebrow skeptically.
"I didn't. Obviously Linda didn't tell you everything." The thought eased some of the crushing betrayal he had had been feeling. As dramatic as he may have been acting, Louis had told his secrets to her so that she could keep them. Not share with whoever stopped in for tea. Even if whoever happened to be Harry.
"I stayed with Darla for another few weeks after that. She told me she was sorry, that it was an accident, and she didn't know why I was so mad because I was gay anyway."
"Wait, what?" Harry sat up fully, sanding sliding down his forearms.
"She said I called her Wayne one night, and I didn't even know," Louis's face felt heated, but he went on, avoiding Harry's eyes. "And I didn't even think I liked him. But then I kind remembered all the times I couldn't stop staring at him. And I asked Darla what to do, and she got the meanest look on her face."
Louis smiled despite himself.
"She told me that the freaky love triangle might be an issue because Wayne knocked her up."
"But she went back to you, knowing?" Harry sounded indignant.
"She wasn't sure whose it was at first. Had to think, do the math I guess. You have to keep in mind how dim she was. It must have taken her awhile to count up the days since we had sex. And to realize it was impossible."
"There's more," Harry looked at him knowingly. "You don't want to tell me, though."
"I do, Hazza. It's just rather insensitive and miniscule after what you've confessed."
Now, Harry wouldn't meet his eyes, opting instead to pinch at a pile of sand by his leg.
"It's not a contest for whoever has the worst life story. I want to know everything about you, and I want you to be the one to tell me."
"Fine. On our last game of the season, it was just me left in the locker room. Me and Darla had broken up, and everyone knew that Wayne was the reason. So I was putting all my stuff into my locker when he comes in."
Louis tensed up at the memory, imaging how the silence had been so thick, and his heart heavy because Darla had been kissing Wayne all over his face when they had celebrated the victory. Everyone planned to party tonight, but he had just wanted to be alone. The time had come to try to make sense of all the jumbled up feelings in him. Liking Wayne was too odd, and it made him feel sick to his stomach. But when he pictured kissing Wayne instead of Darla, he had to close his eyes and steady his breathing.
Then his wish came true.
"He pushed me against the lockers," Louis went on. "I didn't know what was going on, you know. I didn't know if he was mad that I made the last goal or if we were just messing around like all the guys did after a good game. But then he kissed me, really forceful. After he did it, he looked so disgusted that I felt ashamed to even be standing there."
"He kissed you?" Harry's jaw was set.
"Are you jealous, Harry Styles?" Louis laughed despite himself. "Because I assure you, you won't be in a minute. After he kissed me, he punched me. Really hard. It knocked out one of my teeth."
Here, he paused, trying to figure out how many details he should share, like how he had curled up and spit blood from his mouth. How Wayne kept hitting him and screaming that Louis didn't have any right to have a gay crush on him, that he was disgusted. And Louis couldn't even raise a hand to defend himself, because even though Wayne could beat the shit out of him with no restriction, Louis couldn't bring himself to touch him.
"He beat me up," Louis finished lamely. "Stan carried me to the hospital, and I told him everything, and that I didn't know why I liked Wayne but it couldn't happen again, not with anyone else."
"It did," Harry pointed out, somewhat smugly. "But I'm sorry about what happened to you. No one should have to deal with that."
"I guess not. I didn't talk to them after that. Wayne started trying to be a father at 18 and I started caring for my permanently sick mother until she passed away a few months later. Not that I'm bitter. Life was easier when it was just me and her and Stan occasionally."
"But why would you name your cat Darla? Doesn't that bring back sad memories?"
"Nah," Louis replied, taking Harry's hand and rubbing his thumb over his soft skin. "When Stan brought me her, he joked that I needed some kind of pussy. But after that I told him I just wasn't interested anymore. He told me Darla might be right after all, and that if she was nothing would change except that I might be happy. So I named her Darla to remind me that there was another option for me. I didn't have to be miserable with someone when I could be with…well, someone like you."
A soft sigh slipped from Harry's lips as he placed his head on Louis's shoulder. His soft curls brushed at Louis's collarbone.
"I think we should stay for a few more days."
They sat long past after the sunset, when the beach goers packed and headed away and shifty couples started sneaking behind the sand dunes. Not much had to be said, but Louis could feel a stronger connection settling between them. For all the doubts and restrictions between them, he knew that Harry would be the person he spent his life with, if Harry were to allow it. If Louis was to run his fingers over a calendar and count the boxes heading back to the day they met, there wasn't a great amount of time. But they had measured their relationship thus far in moments. It took Louis one look to feel a maddening attraction to Harry.
It took almost two months for them to share countless kisses and secrets so dark that they had been buried under years of denial and pain. Two months for a thousand movies, and playful teases, and so many moments.
And a moment to make a decision.
"Move in with me," Louis replied.
"What?" Harry lifted his head and blinked hurriedly. "Move in with you?"
"Yeah," Louis replied, starting to get excited by the prospect. He shuffled onto his knees and faced Harry. "I think it's a great idea. Though I would have to buy you some mouthwash first…"
After an agonizing minute of silence, Harry slowly shook his head ruefully, and Louis's heart plummeted.
"I don't think that would work, Louis. Your apartment is so small, and it really needs fixing up…"
"We can fix it," Louis replied hurriedly. "Together. And we can share a room, unless you want me to sleep on the couch."
Harry stared at him blankly. Maybe Louis had crossed a line too soon.
"I'm sorry. This was a really bad idea."
"I agree." Harry took the sides of Louis's face and forced their eyes to meet. "I'd much rather you move in with me."
"Really?" Louis's heart raced.
"Yeah. Linda might miss you, but she can come and visit. I swear we won't neglect her. What do you say?"
But Louis didn't have anything to say, and that was the beauty of it. Instead, he tackled Harry into the sand and kissed him, over and over on every available inch of skin. Harry rightly took it as a yes.
Everything changed that night. In hindsight, Louis probably shouldn't have expected them to be able to keep their solitude too much longer. Some things were too good to be true, and all dreams had to eventually end. He just really wished it had ended better.
They were intertwined in bed, both showered and laughing over nothing in particular. Just kissing every now and then and enjoying the feeling of nearness. Harry told him more about growing up. The happier memories, that is. Like how his mother would take him to the movies every time Samuel, his step-father, went away on business or worked late.
"That's why I like movies so much I guess," Harry said. He snuggled closer to Louis, placing his cheek right over his heart. "They feel like a safe place."
Louis told him of how his mother always wanted a garden, but had never had the time while trying to put him through various football camps and trying to raise him on her own. At the mention of the game, Harry perked up.
"Do you want to play tomorrow?"
"What? You don't want to hurry home and get me moved in?" Louis pouted, but his puppy eyes weren't as effective as Harry's.
"Now who wants to get home early? But we can go buy a ball and you can show me how to play."
"It's simple. Just don't use your hands."
Louis just opened his mouth to suggest that they go now-find a shop open and have the beach to themselves-when a knock on the door interrupted him.
"I don't know…." Harry said, but he sounded a bit too wary. "Maybe room service."
"At…" Louis checked his phone. "Three in the morning?"
"I'll get it," Harry offered, but he didn't exactly jump at the prospect. Slowly pulling himself from the bed, he shuffled across the room and took a deep breath before opening the door. Whatever Louis expected, it wasn't Ian. What the hell was Miranda's husband doing here?
"Hello Harry," he said, stepping around him and into the room. His cold eyes honed in on Louis, on his rumpled hair and twisted shirt. "I hate to interrupt."
"You're not," Harry told the floor. He refused to look up, but Louis could tell that he was terrified. "We can step outside and talk, Ian." To Louis, he said, "Go ahead and pack. We might as well head on home."
He offered him a tight smile before stepping outside with Ian. The door shut with a soft click.
Confused, Louis slipped off the bed and tried to make sense of things. Was Miranda mad? Had something happened? The urge to eavesdrop almost got the better of him, but he eventually decided that Harry would tell him whatever needed to be said on the drive home.
He went around the room, not even placing their clothes in their own suitcases. If they were moving in together, it didn't matter anyway, right? But the longer Ian and Harry stayed outside, the sicker he felt. Something awful had happened.
When they both finally came back, Louis was sitting cross legged on the bed with their suitcases in front of him. Harry didn't acknowledge him until they were sitting across from one another in the car. Ian had already driven off with his convertible top down, leaving them in awkward silence.
"Is everything okay?" Louis tried. "You kind of look sick."
"I'm fine," Harry said in a strangled sort of voice. "But I have to tell you something when we get back."
"Tell me now." Louis tried to sound playful as he picked at the sleeve of Harry's t-shirt. "I'll give you more bathroom time in the morning if you do."
But Harry didn't say anything. He just stared blankly ahead, teeth worrying over his bottom lip. The worst feeling in the world was watching Harry agonize over something-whatever Ian had told him-and him not share it. Hadn't they just taken a major step of trust? Maybe Louis needed to back off, give him breathing room. He napped against the window and let Harry pick the music, even though he was driving. At some point between Bob Marley and the Beatles, silent tears began to fall down Harry's face. When Louis moved to wipe them away, however, Harry jerked away, shaking his head.
Whatever walls had been taken down during their vacation were quickly going back up.
And Louis couldn't do anything but sit back and watch.
Once they stopped at Louis's apartment, he fully expected Harry to come in, maybe even help with the packing. Instead, Harry left the car running and watched in the rearview mirror and Louis pulled his suitcase from the trunk.
"Are you not coming in?" Louis asked, walking back around to talk to Harry through the open passenger window. "I can pack by myself, but if you want to help I can't say that I'd object."
He tried to give Harry a playful smirk, but it twisted like a grimace.
"Lou," Harry said, but the word stuck. He cleared his throat and shook his head again. "I can't…you can't move in with me."
"Huh?" Louis tried to play dumb, pretend that he'd heard wrong. Even though he knew he hadn't.
"We…I mean, me and you…Louis we can't see each other anymore."
"Excuse me?" Now Louis swore he'd heard wrong. There was no way they could be talking about moving in with each other and breaking up in the same day. "What the hell did Ian say to you?"
Harry flinched, but didn't reply.
"I'm not hiding anything from you," he went on, trying to keep the pleading tone from his voice. "I swear. Darla was the only thing I kept from you, and I had every intention to tell you before Linda did. Whatever's bothering you…just tell me!"
"You're making this hard."
"It should be hard for you to randomly decide to end the best things that's ever…." Louis choked. That was too much. Too much emotion and rawness for the situation. Harry obviously didn't care what Louis felt.
"Okay. I hope you have a wonderful life, Hazza. I really do. But it would kind of suck to see you, so please don't show up at the bookstore."
'If I still have a job,' he thought.
"Okay. Goodbye, Lou."
Louis didn't cry. Not until he shut the door behind him and locked it, sealing himself in the musty kitchen and putting up yet another barrier between him and Harry. Here, he felt remotely safe. No one was around to see him fall apart. Everything that had been going so right for him now felt like a delusional dream. His mother had been right in her assumptions. He did his best to stay away from relationships because the only two he had ever had hadn't ended very well. If Wayne counted, that is. And Louis did, because they were friends and the emotions were there.
And Harry was strike three. Louis was out of the dating game. Three bad endings were enough to never want another beginning.
He curled up right on the battered rug in front of the door, and closed his eyes. Maybe it was all just a bad dream. Before he could even drift off into merciful nothingness, someone knocked at his door.
Reluctantly, he reached for the doorknob and heaved himself into a standing position. After he wiped away all traces of tears possible, he opened the door. Candy stood on the other side, fiddling with her flowing skirt.
"I saw that you were home," she said by means of greeting. "I've been trying to call for the past four days."
"Sorry," Louis replied emotionlessly. "I took a vacation. Turned my phone off. Or lost it. I don't remember."
"I wish you would have answered," Candy went on, blinking away tears from behind her large glasses.
"I'm here now. What is it?"
"Linda passed away," Candy said without preamble. "Four days ago. She hasn't-hadn't, I mean, been feeling well. I tried to track you down for the funeral, but you and Harry just kind of disappeared."
She went on, but Louis didn't hear her. He swayed where he stood, gripping at the doorframe for support. Once he had it, though, he still didn't feel stable. Linda couldn't be gone. Sure, she was getting on in her years, but someone gardening one day couldn't die the next.
'Just like a couple going so strong crashing the same day?' he thought bitterly.
But Linda had been timeless, a constant in his life where nothing had ever been persistent.
"You're joking, right?"
"I'm not!" Candy sounded appalled that he would even suggest it. "She left a lot to you. Good sum of money, and demanded that I let you keep the job even though you zipped off without warning. She left you some books, too. And a note."
Candy pulled them from her satchel, handing them over in a neat stack.
"I'll…leave you to it then. She's buried in the local cemetery. Near the center, just under the big oak tree, if you want to visit her."
"Thanks," Louis managed. When he shut the door the next time, he collapsed against it and decided it wouldn't be a pain to never open it again.
The shrill ring of his house phone pulled him from the safety of sleep. That's all he had been doing in the two weeks since Harry had dumped him and he'd discovered his best friend had passed away while he was out frolicking on the beach. And he hadn't even picked up his phone or heard about her funeral. In the following two weeks, a stack of mail had piled up on the rug. Some thicker envelopes stuck in the slot. His only form of entertainment was listening to Mr. Ford, the elderly mailman, trying to shove more mail in.
He had spun the thermostat so that the house was perpetually somewhere between freezing and frozen. Food wrappers littered the floor, and dust began to thicken on the tops of tables. Despite all this, he refused to clean, or answer the door. Or even the phone. He checked his phone now, just in case. But he didn't check the messages.
Zayn and Liam had stopped by, to return Darla, but he didn't even move from his huddle on the couch to answer them. After a moment of bickering over what to do, they had left. When he heard their car pulling out of the driveway, Louis let out a sigh of relief.
Harry had sent him a message as well, with nothing but the word 'sorry' in the box. Louis chucked his phone across the room when he got it, and then buried his head under a pillow and screamed. Never had a pain so agonizing overcome him. Watching his mother die had been almost unbearable, but he knew it was happening. He knew that he was going to have to live without her and he'd had time to toughen his skin for that moment. But for Harry and Linda to be ripped away at the same time? How could he deal with that?
Instead of flipping through television shows, he put the Shrek movies on a loop. Instead of hearing the sounds of the movie, though, he saw Harry's green eyes and heard the sound of him singing.
The most he could do by the second week without him was to write lyrics. None were any good, and most were rather morbid. All he thought of was how simple it was for Harry to leave him. After all they'd shared. And Linda? How could he do that to her, say those things to her?
He'd read the note a few days before, and it had so torn him up with guilt that he'd vomited the scant contents of his stomach.
Darling Louis. I know you're angry. I told Harry what I did because he came to me to share something rather disturbing. He made the saddest eyes at me; I'm sure you're familiar. And I wanted him to know then that he wasn't the only one messed up. I wanted him to know that you needed saving sometimes too. Harry is a keeper-I want you to know that. I understand if you don't forgive me, and I don't blame you for being upset. I just wanted you to understand letting him go would be a mistake. I wish I could tell you all this in person, but I can't guarantee I'll be alive by the time you've gotten back from wherever you and Harry have dashed off to. Keep the picture of me and Beatrice, and keep it next to the picture of you and Harry. I told you once Beatrice was rebel-and so she was. I could hardly keep up with her sometimes.
But she always came back for me, and that's all that mattered.
Stay strong, Louis. I love you so much, and I hope my death doesn't cause you too much grief. Though if you aren't upset, I might be a tad bit offended. Just joking. I hope you have the beautiful life I have always prayed you would.
Goodbye, for now.
The letter had not cheered him. All the guilt that had been building up had come pouring out. After he retched into the bathroom sink, he'd collapsed on the floor and slept there until the next day. If anyone were to see him, they would be frightened. He'd lost a considerable amount of weight, and dark patches had formed under his eyes. All his clothes hung on him wrong, but he didn't bother changing them regularly.
All he wanted to do was sit alone in his living room, tracing his fingers over the books of poetry Linda had given him while Shrek played on a soft volume in the background.
So he did.
On the three month anniversary of Ian and Miranda's wedding, his house phone rang round noon. He had been getting multiple phone calls, but something felt different. Slowly, he poked his head over the jumble of covers on the couch. Before he could get up, however, the ringing stopped. He shrugged and sank down again.
Then the ringing started up.
"Okay, okay! I'm getting up."
Louis's voice scratched roughly. Thinking back, it might have been a few days since he had taken a drink. Maybe that was why his lips felt cracked and his tongue felt like sandpaper against his teeth. As he walked across the room to the phone, his limbs moved stiffly and his vision blurred for a moment.
He answered the phone without checking the caller I.D.
"Louis, open the door. Now."
All his breath left him in a single instant. Harry. But why would Harry call him after making it clear he didn't want anything to do with a relationship?
"I'm afraid I can't," Louis replied, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "Did you need something?"
"To return your cat, yes." Harry voice crackled as he moved around. Outside, Louis heard a car door slam. "Among other things."
"I can't handle a cat right now, Hazz-Harry." His face flushed at the use of the old nickname. "I've got too much on my mind. She would starve."
"Open the damn door!"
Hearing Harry's assertiveness shook something in him. With only the slightest bit of reluctance, he crossed the room and unlocked the door. Two breaths steadied him, and he urged it open. Outside, the sunlight nearly blinded him. Summer had carried on dutifully, ignoring his grief. On the sidewalk, Harry stood surrounded by suitcases that had toppled over into the grass.
Somehow, he had become far more beautiful than Louis remembered. His hair was darker and shinier, his skin tanner, and his teeth painfully white as he smiled at Louis. In his arms was Darla.
"What is all this?"
"I'm moving in. If you'll still have me."
Every part of Louis's mind screamed at him to say yes, to fling the door open wider and let Harry in, to help him unpack. But the sharp ache in his chest told him to never let anyone in that easily again.
"I can't…I don't see how that would be possible. I'm sorry…"
Harry's face fell, but a new emotion had set his jaw; determination.
"I'm not going away. I'm sorry I hurt you, more than you'll ever know. But I wasn't angry that you had kept Darla and Wayne a secret from me. I was angry because I still had something I hadn't told you. And it was eating away at me and no matter how much I tried to run from it, I couldn't get away. But I did this time. Please, let me in. I won't go away. Not ever again."
They regarded each other for a moment, Harry cuddling Darla with an expression of pain and vulnerability. Louis looked away, across the lawn and over the fence to Linda's old house. The flowers were dying. He wondered what Candy had done with all the yellowed books.
Wordlessly, Louis opened the door further and stepped in. Back to his couch, to the safe place. Harry left his suitcases outside, unsure of where he stood.
"Good God, Louis. It's freezing in here. Is your thermostat broken?"
"It's fine," Louis replied flatly, pulling the covers over himself. In the dim lights, Harry finally got his first look at him. Louis felt a sickening satisfaction at the horror in his eyes.
"You look terrible. Wait, that's not right. I mean, you just don't look well. You've lost so much weight…." He trailed away.
"Linda's dead and you dropped out of my life. No, I haven't been feeling well at all."
"Louis," Harry groaned. "I know, I let you down. And I know you're going to be mad I have more garbage to confess. I just want you to know everything that's been going on before you decide what to do with me. If you tell me to leave after this, believe me, I'll understand. But I have to fight for the best thing that ever happened to me."
Louis jerked his chin towards the end of the couch-away from him-and waited for Harry to speak.
What he confessed was by far the most shocking thing Louis had heard from him yet.
"Ian and I were in a relationship throughout high school."
"But…Miranda! She's married to him." He abandoned his stony demeanor, his curiosity getting the better of him.
"I'm aware," Harry huffed. "We kissed on the swings when we were young-no older than twelve. But I think Wayne and Ian had a lot in common. He was disgusted by the idea of me belonging to him. But when it came to me belonging to someone else…."
Harry looked away and absently petted Darla's white fur.
"He didn't like it. He called Samuel and told him I intended on going to prom with a guy, and that the guy had plans for us. But that was wrong, of course. One day, I just stormed over to Ian's house and told him that if he wouldn't be happy with me then he should let me be happy with someone else. We…almost had sex."
Louis felt his heart cinch at the thought of Harry letting someone touch him after what Samuel did, especially when he hadn't let Louis touch him. That wasn't fair to think due to the circumstance, but it hurt all the same.
"Almost?" Louis's voice was as cold as steel.
"We didn't!" Despite himself, Harry blushed. Louis hadn't felt so angry in weeks. "His parents walked in. Didn't yell, just asked me to leave. I did, and the next day Ian was off to military school. When he came back, he didn't look at me the same and he treated me like we were old buddies but nothing more. He started taking this interest in Miranda, which pleased her, really. She had been in love with him for so long."
"Where are you going with all this? I don't see how a past relationship with Ian has anything to do with us."
"It's not as old as you may think," Harry said hurriedly. He hung his head in shame.
"We…Louis I never cheated on you. He went away again, to an army base. When he returned, he proposed to Miranda and hurried the wedding along. Right before the ceremony, I was playing with the bracelet Ian got me for my thirteenth birthday. Maybe you've seen it…the leather one?"
"I have," Louis said icily. "It's lovely."
"He showed up and tied my tie for me. I've always been bad at it. Then he kissed me. I hadn't met you-I was just hours away from meeting the love of my life and I didn't even know. But something must have made me aware, because for the first time I didn't want Ian to touch me. Not to mention he was making a commitment to Miranda, our best friend. He was cheating on her."
"Ian kissed you that night? Just before the wedding?"
"We more than kissed, Lou. But I assure you I didn't enjoy a second of it. I demanded that he stop, but…well, you've seen Ian."
It took all of six second for Louis's scrambled mind to picture the situation and process what it meant.
"He raped you?" His voice broke at the second word.
"And beat me," Harry added, with a sickening attempt at casualness. Ultimately, it failed him. He had to take a moment to close his eyes and steady his breathing as a tear slid down his face. "Told me that he came back and once he and Miranda were married I could never really shake him off. That he thought of me the whole time he was gone and that when he got back he wouldn't ever let me be without him again."
"Insane," Harry supplied. "He is. But for whatever reason, it's mainly when it comes to me."
"Does Miranda know?"
"She doesn't. There were no words for her. But I went through with the wedding, even though I felt ashamed and dirty and like I shouldn't be allowed to breathe in the same vicinity of someone as kindhearted and pure as her."
"You didn't look like you had just been through something like that."
Louis opened his arms up, and Harry crossed the invisible barrier between them to bury his head in his chest.
"I've been used to abuse all my life. I've learned how to suck it up. But I saw you, and the way you watched me from the corner of your eyes, and the way you smiled up at me when we danced…I didn't feel dirty. I felt cleaner than I had all night. Ian left me alone for a while. Then, after you asked me on a date…."
Louis tightened his grip on Harry, to reassure him.
"He told me that I wasn't allowed to do that. He…did it again. All of it. But Miranda started gushing the next day about how good it would be for me, and Ian was a different person. He agreed, and told me while I was getting ready not to let you touch me. But I wanted you to. I liked the way you looked at me, how gentle and playful you were. But he beat me the night before. I know I freaked out on our date, but if you had seen the bruises you would have asked all the wrong questions too soon. Ian called me-I guess he got in a mood. He told me to get home immediately. Then I found out Miranda had gone to the mall, and he didn't want to waste the opportunity."
"Why did you go, Hazza?" Louis realized there were tears sliding down his face as well. "You should have stayed. Why would you go back to someone like that again and again?"
"I was scared. He started threatening you, but when Miranda came back she worked like a neutralizer. If she had any idea what he was doing to me, she wouldn't have bothered yelling at him before she called the cops. My goal was to keep Miranda near me whenever I wasn't with you. I built up these ideas in her head…" Harry laughed without any humor. "Told her about how perfect housewives were idolized. I told her things like she would be the best trophy wife, that Ian should do all the work. As awful as it was, I got a good laugh watching him get frustrated. And when he got called away on business, and we had all those weeks to ourselves…."
Louis closed his eyes and let the sweet memories engulf him.
"Then he came back, and it started again. I did my best to put him down, to tell him I loved you. But he became violent. The morning after the party, he didn't beat me, but I wish he would have. He thought we were having sex upstairs while he was "trapped with Miranda"."
"We didn't…you couldn't. Do you remember?" Louis could barely wrap his mind around the things Harry was saying, but he didn't think he wanted to just yet. It was too much, too sick and disgusting and downright infuriating.
"I do, and I wish we could have. I wish that I wasn't messed up and I could have stood up to Ian from the beginning. But I just packed all my things. I thought-just for a second-about driving and never coming back. But I couldn't leave Zayn, Liam, and Niall. I sure as hell couldn't leave you. So I showed up at your house and thought, 'What if we went away for a little while? Just me and him?' and the thought was so enticing I knew we should."
"You had to call Miranda on the last night we were there," Louis recalled. He stroked Harry's curls and pretended not to notice the tear stains on his shirt. "I'm guessing that was Ian related."
"It was, but not intentionally. I was talking to her, and she demanded to know where we were. I told her…I didn't think she would mention it to Ian. I was so stupid and so dangerously happy I forgot that I had been miserable in a place just a few hours away. Ian brought a gun when he came to pick me up. He said he would gladly kill you if I didn't start behaving. And I just…God, Louis I don't know. I got so scared because if you had seen the look on his face…. He would hurt you, maybe kill you. He said if I broke up with you, that he would let everything go. Maybe even stop hurting me. And swore he wouldn't hurt you."
"Well you kind of hurt me when you ended it right when things were at the best."
"I'm painfully aware. And I regret it-I do. I was acting childish and pathetic. These past few weeks, he's been quiet and started lashing out at Miranda. He hit her once, when she told him she didn't know where I was-"
"Where have you been?"
"With Zayn and Liam. They moved in together, no hesitations. Zayn told his parents to go screw themselves and that he didn't care what they thought. Strangely, I think that's why they've gradually started accepting it. He's never fought for something before. But you'll be happy to know they only keep me up a small portion of the night with their…erm…antics."
"So what changed?' Louis asked. He hated to ruin the only bright moment if a previously dark and vile confession, but he needed to be sure about what was happening here. "Why did you come back here?"
"Because I told Ian to piss off as well. Took a page out of Zayn's book. I told him that the second I saw his car anywhere near your house that I would call the police and he had three days to confess everything to Miranda or I would."
A peaceful feeling settled over Louis, easing the sick knot in his stomach. At least, and at last, everything finally made sense. All the parts of Harry that were ashamedly unlovable because they were unattainable were within reach now. And it wasn't like he hadn't already fallen.
"What?" Harry craned his neck and looked up at Louis. His eyes were red from crying. "What did you say?"
"It's our house, Hazza. Get your stuff inside before it starts to rain."
The smile that broke across Harry's face eased away all the doubts, pushed away the storm clouds and brought forth the sweet smell of sun kissing away the rain.
"I brought Shrek."
"I'll make popcorn," Louis offered.
As he jumped up and headed to the kitchen, he passed the folded letter on his table. Tucked underneath the letter were the pictures of him and Louis, along with the wedding photo of Beatrice and Linda. He decided to go shopping tomorrow and buy frames for them.
And to keep them-and thinking of it brought a ridiculous grin to his face-by his and Harry's bed.
For the first time since he had heard the news, he found her name bearable to say.
"Thank you Linda….and I'm sorry."
Nothing magical happened. No sudden spurt of wind or any objects moving. But the weight on his heart lessened even further, and he knew she had, somehow, heard.
Everything was peaceful for a brief lull of time. Louis should have known that the storm couldn't be withheld for long before lightning struck again. The night passed in a blissful way, with Harry stuffing all his clothes in the bottom drawer and scolding him on not doing his laundry properly.
He insisted on doing that himself from then on, and Louis wasn't going to complain.
They did their best not to discuss Ian; when Harry wanted to talk more about it, he would. For now, they were trying to bury away their pain in each other. Neither of them commented on how tense they became when a car passed by outside.
As night fell, Louis tried to cook a big meal for the both of them, to welcome Harry home. However, Harry quickly ended up cooking when Louis almost burned the house down. Watching from the table, he admired how deft and sure Harry's movements were. He must have cooked for himself for a long while, which didn't make as much sense as it would have for Louis. Harry still had a mother. One that lived a few hours away, but still.
"You seem comfortable in the kitchen."
"Mom worked late sometimes. Had to cook for Samuel or it would have been rough for me and Gemma."
"You have a sister?"
"I do. But she's older. Lived with our grandparents for a good chunk of time when she realized that Samuel beat me and my mother. She loves us, but I'm afraid she's still a bit angry that we didn't stand up for ourselves. I am too."
"It's not your fault, Hazza. How many times must we go over this?"
"Maybe a few more," Harry smirked at him. "I like watching you get all worked up."
"You know what I would really like?" Louis leaned over the table and tried to make his voice sultry.
"What?" Harry asked. Louis noted how his breathing became hitched.
"For you to hurry up with dinner before my stomach eats itself."
A ragged sigh fell from Harry's mouth.
"That's not funny."
"Yeah, yeah. I'm the devil. Say, what are you making?"
The cheeky smile returned.
"Spaghetti. And garlic bread. I thought it would bring back good memories."
"Of me barking?"
Harry stirred absently and checked the temperature of the oven. All that he was missing was a pink apron. Louis vowed to buy him one as soon as possible.
"Of you being adorable," Harry replied. "I've never had so much fun with someone. Even though said someone was behaving so strangely."
"I'm a unique personality, cupcake. I hope you get used to it."
"Well," Harry said loftily, "I suppose if you can stand my morning breath you can deal with anything."
"You admit it!"
Louis fell back against his chair in shock, placing a hand over his heart.
"I can't believe it. You, Harry Edward Styles, just admitted that your morning breath is, in fact, terrible. Mark it on the calendar. Mark it on that lame, puppies and kittens calendar you brought over here."
"It's not lame." Harry crossed his arms defensively and rested his hip against the corner of the stove. "We have Dalmatian December to look forward to. And next month is the picture of the silver tabby cats."
"I've never been so excited in my life!"
"Why do I love you?" Harry mused. He served the food, and as Louis watched him he realized that the answer wasn't meant to be said sarcastically.
"Because we stopped seeing life without each other. Or at least, I did. It's like having this one awesome sock your whole life, but you can't find the other one to complete the pair-"
"Please don't compare our relationship to something you wear on your stinky, smelly fee-"
"And then BAM!" Louis went on like he hadn't spoken. "You find the other sock. Brooding and reading Richard Siken poetry in some dark corner of the world. And everything feels right."
"I hate your analogies. Why don't you leave that to me?"
"You cook, and clean, and do laundry. I have to have something to contribute."
"You make me sound like a girl in the relationship."
"You aren't," Louis replied, making a disgusted face. "If I wanted a girl to do all those things, I would hire a maid. I like when you do them. In fact…"
He swirled his fork in the spaghetti and took a bite-it tasted like heaven.
"This living arrangement might work."
"I would hope so," Harry replied, reaching for his hand across the table. One of Harry's hands could cover almost both of Louis's. As vulnerable and messed up as Harry was, Louis felt like he was being protected when they were together.
That night, as they lay in one another's arms, Louis began to dream. It made little sense in the beginning. He and Harry were sitting on the swings, going back and forth but always keeping their sights on one another.
The scene shifted to the two of them sitting around a giant table, with all the other lads and Miranda sitting around them. All their glasses were raised in celebration, and Harry beamed at them with tears in his eyes. All traces of the abused boy were gone. He was at the height of his life in that second. Then the warm glow faded, and Louis was curled back up on his couch, breaths heaving and his chest aching. He was having a nightmare about the time were he had lost both Linda and Harry. Had that world really existed still in the same day as this happiness? Why were things happening like that lately? Then, he dreamed he was fighting over a pair of pants with Zayn in the mall. They were red skinny jeans, his signature style, and he was mad at Zayn for wanting them. Again, the dream shifted into blacknes.
A soft hand grasped at his shoulder, and Linda's voice whispered against his ear.
"I need you to wake up now, Louis. Before it's too late."
"Not now," Louis complained. Outside, it was storming and he heard Harry calling from the bedroom. Nothing made any sense, like why Linda looked so alive and Harry was just feet away, waiting for him, but he hurt so bad inside.
"Now, Louis! GET UP!"
Outside, lightning washed away the black and a solitary figure flashed beside the mailbox.
"Nownownownow," Linda repeated frantically, like a mantra. Her voice almost became a song in his sleep-warped mind.
"I can't. I feel sick."
"Before it's too late!" Linda shrieked. Somewhere, Harry was screaming, but Louis couldn't move. His limbs felt like lead.
"Oh, Louis…." Linda sounded so sad, so disappointed in him. Her image crumbled away, and Louis's eyes slowly peeled open. The dream had fallen away, but he still heard the muffled cries of Harry.
A shape shifted into focus. Louis's breath caught in his throat. Ian, standing over him with a baseball bat.
Ian with a maniacal gleam in his eyes.
Harry, fighting to stop him. Blood spattered his face. What had Ian done?
Lightning struck outside, in perfect synch with the swing of the baseball bat.
And Louis's world went black again.
The steady beep of his heart monitor was the first thing he awoke to. That and the sound of Miranda sobbing. Every movement of his head caused tremors of pain to shoot down his neck. In the doorway, a police officer stood with a notebook in hand, nodding kindly at Miranda. She wore plaid pajamas and a Hello Kitty tank top. Whatever happened had woken her up.
"You all right, mate?"
Louis turned his head again, slowly, and met Niall's eyes. His friend had his hands jammed in his pockets and an unusually serious look on his face.
"What happened?" Louis tried to say, but all that escaped him was a dull croak.
"Easy! You have a concussion. And some sweet stitches. Here-" Niall reached for something just outside of Louis's sight. "-have some water."
Niall helped him drink through a yellow bendy straw. The color of it made Louis's eyes water.
"Try that again."
"What happened?" Louis's voice was raspy, but Niall managed to understand.
"Ian, Miranda's husband ya know, he showed up and kidnapped Harry and hit ya 'round the head. Dunno what got into him, but Miranda said that he's been acting odd for a couple of weeks. That he even…" Niall dropped his voice to a whisper. "Hit her."
Louis closed his eyes and tried not to cry. If Niall only knew.
"What are they doing to find Harry? Do they think he's in bad danger?"
Louis struggled to sit up, scolding himself for asking stupid questions. Ian had a gun. Ian was crazy. Of course Harry was in bad danger.
"Well…yeah, mate. Miranda said that Ian mentioned him and Harry were having sex and that you were getting in the way. He knocked her out, but it seems he went a hell of a lot easier on her than you."
"It wasn't consensual sex," Louis said through gritted teeth. Niall looked sick at the knowledge, but thankfully he didn't get the chance to remind Louis just how twisted it was. Zayn and Liam slipped around the officer and rushed over to Louis's bedside.
"Are you okay?
Zayn wore one of Liam's old track shirts with a goofy slogan across it, and Liam wore that hat that Zayn supposedly got him for Christmas. The way they wore pieces of each other made Louis feel sick. Why couldn't he and Harry have one damn peaceful moment? When would they get to settle down and just be in a relationship?
And how many more past problems would weigh them down?
"He's not okay, Zayn," Liam chided. "Look at him! Would you be okay?"
"Boys?" The police officer approached the bedside, Miranda trailing behind. Her cheek was swollen and patched with yellow and brown from an old bruise. Probably the one Harry mentioned. Fine streaks of mascara trailed down her face.
"Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?"
They all nodded. Louis made a strangled noise in the back of the throat.
"Ms.," Miranda corrected savagely. "I'm not associated with that bastard."
"Ms. Miranda has said that Ian and Harry were having, erm, sexual intercourse."
The officer rubbed his neck, embarrassed.
"It wasn't sex," Niall said, with the same expression as the officer. "Harry didn't agree to it."
"I see," the officer said. He sounded like he wished he didn't. "Now, Candy Blakenship reported seeing Ian's car at your house around 2:30 in the morning, and she reacted swiftly by calling the police when she heard screaming."
"Candy was at Linda's," Louis muttered, mostly to himself.
"Candy has owner of the house now," Liam said. "Linda left it to her."
The officer cleared his throat.
"Yes, well. Do you have any idea where Ian might have taken Harry? Everyone is working together. We tracked his cell phone to a city a few towns over, but the law enforcement there found it in a dumpster. Do any of you have any messages from him?"
"I don't know," Louis replied. "My phone is at the house."
"I'll go get it," Miranda volunteered immediately. She glanced at Louis, then away. He knew what she felt went beyond the guilt that ate away at him.
The officer went through standard, subpar questions while they waited, and Louis did his best to soften the story of Harry and Ian. Zayn and Liam remained quiet, holding onto one another. If the news had been a shock to Louis, how must it feel to them? They had known Harry far longer, had been there during the whole thing. Louis prayed they didn't blame themselves.
When Miranda returned with his phone, he entered the password with shaky fingers and stared as the screen popped up.
"What is it?" the officer leaned forward expectantly.
"It's just I haven't checked my phone in a few weeks." Louis felt self-conscious under all their stares. "It's a miracle it's even alive."
But he'd had the phone on the charger by his bed before he and Harry had gone to bed. He just didn't expect the dead as dead battery to charge so fast.
"Anything useful?" Miranda asked. She hung by the door, arms cupping her elbows.
Louis ignored the several dozen missed calls-from everyone to Candy to Harry- and checked the messages. The same variation glared back at him, but he went straight to the most recent message from Harry.
The last message was one word, sent at 3:24 a.m.
The time on his phone told Louis that had been almost ten hours ago.
"What does that mean?" Niall asked, reading it over Louis's shoulder. "Does he want us to search every skyscraper in the area?"
"He tried to leave a clue." Louis punched the bridge of his nose, trying to think. "But I haven't the slightest idea. We never discussed skyscr-"
He cut off, because they had discussed skyscrapers, when they were talking about the boy he'd only had one date with. Louis could put two and two together and assume it was Ian. But what would Ian do when he saw all the police coming for him? If he and Harry were, say, at the top of a building, how much would it take for Ian to push them both over the edge? Figuratively and literally?
They would set him off. They would do more harm than good.
"I-nothing. I just thought of something irrelevant. I was hoping it would help but it's nothing. Trust me."
The officer shrugged and followed Miranda out of the room, talking quietly to her. The way he hovered over her suggested that he had long since noticed her beauty underneath the bruise and the matted hair. Something about the scene triggered a sense of urgency.
"Lads. Gather round."
Zayn, Liam, and Niall scooted closer, casting curious glances at one another. What Louis was about to suggest was hare-brained and immature, not to mention probably illegal on a few terms. He knew they would go.
"I think I know where Hazza is. The only problem is we have to get there, and I don't think I would want to face this alone. Not to mention I don't think I'm okay to drive." Louis rubbed at his head ruefully.
"We're behind ya," Niall replied without a pause. "First we have to get you out of here."
"Do you know how to safely remove an IV?" Zayn snapped. "It's kind of a problem here."
"Just rip it out," Louis said impatiently. Who knew what Ian was doing with Harry right now?
"I won't rip it." Liam gingerly peeled away the bandages and took a deep breath to steady himself. "Are you ready?"
"Li, he wasn't ready!" Zayn chided, but he didn't sound particularly irritated. "Whatever. Now do you plan on going on a rescue mission with that backless gown?"
"I have a hoodie in the car," Niall offered. And some old gym shorts."
Louis tried not to think about how long those clothes must have been in his car. Niall was infamous for junking up the place. The IV being the main obstacle, and sneaking past the nurse's station wasn't too hard. Zayn distracted her by batting his eyelashes and asking where the break room was. Once clear, Zayn joined them with a smug smile.
"I still got it."
"No, I still got it. It's mine," Liam said coldly. "Quit being a prat."
"Guys," Niall groaned.
Outside, the sun glared brightly down at them, cheerfully burning away the morning dew on the grass surrounding the entrance. Breaking out of a hospital was easier than it looked. Liam insisted they take his car after retrieving the clothes from Niall's and seeing the mess on the floorboard.
"That's plain disgusting."
"I live in my car." Niall crossed his arms in the back seat, looking to Louis for support. "My car wasn't that bad, right mate?"
"It was bad!" Zayn answered, twisting around with Liam's cd case in hand. "I nearly vomited after I saw the ice cream carton with ice cream still in it. I can't believe you put those clothes on, Louis."
"They really do smell," Louis offered. Niall glared and huffed.
Louis checked his phone, scrolling through the missed messages. Harry had texted him a few times, telling him he was sorry for Linda, asking to have coffee and talk, and even asking to stay the night. In reflection, Louis had thought Ian's behavior was odd. Not that he ever could have guessed the degree of it, but he had a sinking feeling.
Even during the wedding, when Ian had opened his eyes, looking off into the distance, Louis had noted but didn't comment. At that time it wasn't his business. How could he have known how much it would all matter?
"Lou? Where are we going?" Liam asked, playing around with the GPS system.
"North for a while, on the high way. We have a few hours to drive. We're looking for the Sun Kissed Skyscraper."
"That's what it's called?" Niall snorted.
"That's what people call it, but it's actually got some official name. The Solar Plaza I think."
"And that's so much better," Zayn muttered from up front.
"It's made of this dark glass that reflects the sun. It's not a massive skyscraper, but inside it's a wonderful five star hotel. The kind celebrities stay at when they're forced to emerge from their mansions. It's all environment friendly, which doesn't make sense considering it's in the middle of the city and cost a fortune to make. Ian, Harry, and Miranda went there to sight see when they were 16 because Miranda went through a phase where she was a hippie."
Louis grimaced remembering when Harry had told him that around a month ago. Even worse, he imagined the scenario of Harry being impressed with the place and Ian deciding to bring him back, trying to impress him further.
"I want pictures of hippie Miranda," Liam chuckled.
As the day wore on, all Louis had time to do was sit and think about everything that could be going horribly wrong. A few unknown numbers had called them all, probably the officer or the hospital. Some calls were from Miranda. Louis figured they could track his cell phone as well, but the important thing was to get to Harry before something terrible happened.
His mind shrunk away from thinking any further than that. Zayn watched him in the rearview mirror with an uncharacteristic amount of scrutiny until he ate all of the chips Niall had bought for them at the gas station. He hadn't eaten properly in so long, but at the moment it felt so trivial.
After he was satisfied, Zayn curled up and rested his head as close to Liam as possible. Louis's eyes were fixed on them as Liam ran his fingers through the black fringe with such tenderness it might have been a new born child's hair he was touching.
Niall put his earphones in and stared out the window, chomping his way through muffin after muffin while Louis tried to keep his head above the despair that threatened to drown him.
When they reached Wiltshire, the sun had begun to set. Liam had driven straight on, alternating between sipping on his cup of coffee and keeping a hand on Zayn. They way Liam looked at him told Louis that he had started thinking. What if he and Zayn were in Harry and Louis's position? And Louis knew Zayn thought the same because he never stopped looking at Liam, like he was the sun rising in the car instead of setting out in the real world.
In the city limits, traffic snaked around the tall buildings, and cars honked for seemingly no reason. A vein throbbed on Louis's forehead, but he couldn't even stand to keep his eyes closed for more than a few seconds.
"Maybe we should get out and ask someone," Niall suggested, after it became apparent the GPS didn't know where the building was. "I don't think we know where were goin'."
He checked his phone, noting the amount of missed calls. They all had the same. When they got back, Miranda would kill them. But they weren't coming back without Harry, so maybe relief would delay their inevitable murder.
Liam stayed in the traffic a moment longer before conceding and pulling into the nearest place-a Chinese restaurant parking lot. They all cringed at the seedy men leering their way from the tables outside.
"Lock the car and let's find some nicer people to ask," Niall suggested, but Louis was already pushing the door open. His head was throbbing, his heart was eating a hole through his chest, and the smell of the bad food made him want to throw up, but so fucking what? If these men could help him find Harry that didn't matter.
"Oi!" Niall struggled with his seatbelt and flung his door open to follow. Zayn and Liam shared an apprehensive look before following.
"Hello!" Louis raised a hand in a half-hearted attempt at a friendly greeting. "We need some directions, if you could help us out."
"We charge," said one of the men. He appeared to be in his late thirties, with a thin mustache and crooked teeth.
"I don't know if you can afford it," added another. He was short and bald, with a big beard to make up for his shiny noggin.
"Look, we just need you to tell us where the Solar Tower is." Louis felt his anger building at the creeps, which in turn made his head throb harder.
"Fine, we can tell you. In exchange for something." The balding man smirked.
"We aren't prostitutes," Niall laughed, as if they were buddies joking around. Obviously, he didn't feel the tension.
"You don't have to label it, but damn, I would pay a lot for your little dark friend."
Zayn appeared both affronted and flattered, but the look Liam gave them was menacing.
"What did you just say?" he asked. His voice was dangerous and low.
"Can you blame us?" The taller man leaned to look around Liam, his sharp little eyes sweeping the length of Zayn. "Look at those lips."
"Ahhh you're perverts." Niall, still oblivious.
"Tell us where the Solar Tower is!" Louis all but shouted. "It's important!"
"Why don't we go in and ask someone?" Niall suggested, but no one really heard him.
"How about a kiss?" the blading man went on. "We aren't homos, or anything. But you have to appreciate a beautiful person. Right, Hal?"
"He's right," Hal said, his eyes never leaving Zayn. "I don't see why you boys are getting so offensive. YOU approached us."
"If you don't back off-" Liam sputtered.
"Liam, let's just go ask someone else." Louis rubbed at his head, trying to worry out the pain.
"I said that a moment ago!" Niall shook his head.
"Fine, we'll go." Zayn grabbed Liam by the arm and turned him forcefully around. "We can start walking and find someone on the street to ask. Someone not hanging outside of a rundown Chinese restaurant in the rough part of town."
"Now wait, baby." Hal reached for Zayn.
Liam attacked without hesitation. Louis had never seen him so angry in the short time they had known one another. The balding man tried to pry Liam from his friend, but Liam set on him with the same ferocity. He punched and kicked any available spot of them. Hal nursed a bleeding nose and cursed at the asphalt, trying to right himself but failing.
Niall, Zayn, and Louis merely watched, not yet fully comprehending what was going on.
"Got any popcorn?" Niall asked eventually.
"This is hot," Zayn said.
"Can we go find someone and ask for directions?" Louis asked when it became apparent Liam's anger wasn't easily spent. "He seems really angry and I'm thinking this lot isn't going to be helping us."
"I know," Zayn replied, but he didn't sound annoyed.
The fighting might have gone on for a little while, but the owner of the restaurant poked his head out of the door and screamed with a heavy accent, "I called police! 'Dey be here soon!"
"Time to flee." Niall grabbed Louis, who grabbed Zayn, who reached out and grabbed Liam, and they all took off down the sidewalk.
"I hope they don't trash the car." Zayn glanced over his shoulder, but the men had already left. Liam fumed in silence.
They had walked just a few miles, heading away from the rougher part of the city and watching the crumbling buildings transform into upscale stores, when Louis saw it around a corner, rising like a beacon among the other stone skyscrapers.
"There it is."
Louis stared for a moment more before he broke into a sprint. The lads followed close behind, almost, but not quite, as excited as Louis. Glass doors slid open for them, and they were greeted by the sharp smell of incense and plants. A fish tank sat next to the receptionist.
Zayn, Liam, and Niall hung back a little as Louis approached her, heart pounding.
She quirked an eyebrow but didn't look up from her paperwork.
"This is important, and you have to believe me. My friend was…kidnapped." Kidnapped sounded so wrong. Harry wasn't a kid. Not technically. Stolen felt like the right word.
"And why aren't the police dealing with this?" She sounded bored.
"Because they move too slow and they wouldn't move fast enough to save him. Can you tell me if you've seen them, at least? Please?"
The woman sighed and glanced up. She had colored contacts in.
"What did they look like?"
"One had curly hair. Pretty green eyes…"
"Louis!" Niall nudged him.
"Right. And the other is tall, broad shouldered, tan. Classic jock type."
"Oh I remember him." The woman's face flushed. "He paid with a bunch of cash."
"We need to know what room they're in! Now!" Louis nearly lunged across the counter at her when she hesitated. "I swear to you this is not a joke."
"42D," she said at last. "That's on the fourth floor. You could follow the little signs to the doorway, but I'm afraid I can't allow that. I'm going to call the police right now. This is a dangerous situation and I can't let you go up there."
"I understand," Louis replied, and the woman relaxed, just in time for him to hurtle over the desk and grab the master key he'd been eyeing. The woman made a lunge for him, but he was already gone, dashing towards the elevators.
"Be careful!" Liam called after him. The woman was frantically scrambling with the phone. Niall, in a moment of panic, tackled her. The last thing Louis heard before the elevator doors slid closed was Liam screaming about how they would have to call an ambulance for her. And despite himself, despite the pain in his temples and the stress of the situation, Louis managed a laugh.
As the floors dinged by, Louis stared at the key in his hand. Okay, now that he really thought about it maybe the police weren't such a bad idea. But he couldn't stand to sit waiting for them to show up and tell him whether or not Harry was okay. He had to see for himself, place his hands over his shoulders and be sure.
If Ian had a gun, fine. Let him have a gun. Together, he and Harry might be able to take him. The elevator dinged, and Louis slid out. A short walk took him to the door, and he didn't let himself think. Even now, in the distance, he could hear sirens. Whether they were coming for them or not, he didn't know. No time to think. Harry was so close, Louis could almost hear him breathing.
He slid the key into the lock, listening to the echoing click, and pushed the door open.
He was greeted by a trashed hotel room. The plants were upturned, spilling soil into the cracks of the kitchen tiles. The refrigerator door opened, all the food spilled out into a messy Technicolor pile. The paintings that were hung up had seemingly been flung across the room; cracks snaked their way up to the corners of the room and glass scattered in the soil like diamonds in a field.
Louis inched his way along, peering into the empty living area before slipping into the bedroom. There, Ian lay curled into a ball, his arm draped lazily over…Harry. Louis bit down on his knuckles to keep from screaming. His boyfriend's face was beset with bruises, his lip was busted, dried blood caked under his nose, and his arms were scratched as if an angry cat had gotten to him.
What's worse, were his eyes were open, staring at Ian's face with a look of the utmost terror. Louis couldn't bear that look for another second, but he had to try to get Harry out while being sensible.
"Hazz." Louis's voice was barely an intake of breath, but Harry's eyes darted towards the doorway like a cornered animal. "It's me."
Harry couldn't speak with Ian's face so close, but his eyes made the message clear.
"Try to get free. We can run."
Louis's eyes scanned the room, looking for a trace of the gun, but he didn't see it. Maybe Ian had it under the pillow.
With agonizing slowness, Harry slid out from under Ian's arm, dragging his pillow with him so that Ian didn't notice the absent space. Louis counted those seconds it took. Forty five. Forty five seconds to move off the bed. Ian grumbled in his sleep, his fingers tightening and leaving creases against the white pillow.
Harry moved backwards across the room, hand reaching behind him for Louis's. Once they connected, they were gone. They didn't run, but they moved with a speed that was equivalent with the careful steps preceding it in mind. When the door shut behind them, Harry flung his arms around Louis and sobbed into his neck.
"I'm so sorry. I so, so sorry," he whispered again and again, his tears spilling over Louis's collarbone.
"It's okay. I'm here. We're going to go home, and the police are on the way. We won't ever have to deal with this again."
Louis slid his arm around Harry's waist, guiding him towards the elevator. They were halfway there when they heard it; an angry shriek coming from the room behind them. Louis pushed Harry in front of him, running, flinging himself into the elevator and frantically pushing the first button that he could.
"Lou, we're going to the top level! We need to go down!"
But when Ian flew out of the room, hair sticking up and a snarl on his face, Harry looked like he could care less if the elevator took them to the moon. He backed himself into a corner as Ian ran down the hall, pulling a gun from behind his back.
"Go!" Louis kicked at the elevator doors. Mercifully, they slid closed, just as Ian flung himself against the steep and let out an inhumane cry.
"We're going to be trapped on the roof!"
A soft melody tinkled over the speakers, a mockingly soothing melody given the panic inside them both. Together, they watched the light head upwards, towards the roof.
"He won't know," Louis reasoned. "He won't know which floor we went to. All we have to do is get back on the elevator and head down where the lads are waiting."
"The screen above the elevator tells where we're going."
"Then we hope that Ian didn't notice," Louis replied in a strained voice.
Gradually, Harry's breathing evened out and he took Louis's hand again, fingernails biting into his knuckles. All Louis could do was stare at him under the bright lights, trying to match bruises to actions, trying to picture all the ways that he hoped Ian suffered in prison. A soft ding emitted from the controls, and the doors slid open to reveal the roof.
"Do we have to get out?" Harry asked timidly.
When the elevator didn't budge, they surrendered and stepped out, shivering against the harsh winds. Still, the elevator doors yawned open.
"What's going on?"
Inside Louis's pocket, his phone began to vibrate wildly. He fumbled for a moment before he could press answer.
"The power just went out! Where are you guys?"
Louis closed his eyes and took a steadying breath.
"We're on the roof."
He swore he could hear Liam's panic through all the floors that separated them.
"You. Idiots. The police are trying to get someone down here, but some bloke robbed a bank downtown and that's their focus. Do you understand what that means? You're alone and trapped on a roof."
Harry tugged at him, asking what was going on, because Louis was staring away with dread sunk into his features.
"I'm coming up there," Liam finally said. "We all are. Ian's probably on his way to you, so for God's sake be careful. Try to hide up there."
Louis let the phone slid away from his face, not even caring as the battery spilled out against the concrete. As he related the news to Harry, he could see what he must have looked like when he was alone with Ian. Like a rabbit cornered by a hound.
"Aren't hotels supposed to have security?" he asked, voice almost being carried away entirely by the wind. "And how the bloody hell did he cut the power so quickly?"
"I don't know, Hazza. But we have to hide. Fast."
But even as he said that, it was painfully obvious that there was nowhere to go. The roof was a sprawling expanse of nothingness. A small pile of construction sat tucked into one corner. The Solar Tower had talked of building a small garden up top, but so far nothing had been confirmed.
Louis slowly sank to floor, crossing his legs and staring ahead. After a moment, Harry joined him. Together, they stared at the stairwell. There were many flights to go, but an angry man was fueled by something otherworldly. So they waited, with Harry flinching every time a siren passed by down below.
A good five minutes ticked by. Ian was angry, sure, but Liam could move. He might could reach them, even catch up to Ian and stop him. Liam would know what to do. This would work out fine. They would be okay. That's what Louis told himself when a loud bang rang from the stairwell, loud through even the thick door. Both Harry and Louis tense, reaching for each other and shaking.
Then the door flung open.
Ian did not run towards them. A smart hunter knew that his prey was cornered. The way he moved suggested that he was containing his excitement, trying to decide how best to handle the situation. In his hands, the barrel of the gun shook in synch with Louis's heartbeat. He couldn't help but to notice that it was still smoking slightly. The loud bang couldn't have been a gunshot. It couldn't have. That meant that something had very likely happened to Liam.
But Ian was crazy.
He wasn't going to let anyone leave the roof alive.
Louis prayed, in a numb way, that Liam was okay, and he would hurry. That the police would hurry. That if one of them were to live in that moment, it would be Harry, so he could go on and leave the past here. Maybe he would meet a nice guy with a better apartment and no dirty secrets.
And Louis loved Harry enough to wish this, and to mean it.
"You always run."
Ian's voice was as cold as the wind cutting through them.
"You were always running from me. Making excuses about how your stepfather didn't want you to go out, telling me you had to finish your homework or he'd be mad, using that as an excuse not to spend time with me. But you aren't going to run anymore. I swear."
Louis stood, even though it felt like his kneecaps were knocking together, even though Ian was getting closer and closer. He pulled Harry up with him, moving so that he could stand in front of him.
"If you think I'm scared to kill you, you're dead wrong."
And then there they were, face to face, Ian pressing the gun into Louis's chest, his breath rancid and flavored with alcohol. Even though Louis shook harder still, he stood his ground. Ian laughed once.
Then he slammed the gun over Louis's head.
It felt like a glass plate, shattering his skull. The concussion from earlier had almost been forgotten in the adrenaline rush, but now every cell in his body remembered the, pain focused on the agony as it rippled through him. He fell to ground, groaning involuntarily.
Harry let out a sob, but he wasn't in Louis's view anymore. His cheek was against the cold, biting into concrete as he stared at his shattered phone and past it to the building beside them. A pair of shoes stepped into his vision, slowly. They were black, shining in the sunlight.
"You are some inconvenience. Showing up at my wedding, touching my property, taking what was mine. You were touching him, kissing him. Did you get on your knees for him?"
Louis coughed, tasting blood in his mouth. It felt like someone had poured syrup all over his head, sticking all his thoughts together. Somewhere, Harry was still upset. He drew his knees in towards his body, trying to find purchase on the ground.
"Then stay on your knees!" Ian screamed.
His foot came down with a force that was damn near inhuman, right on his kneecap. Even as the bones in his leg snapped, Louis's mind flashed to jumping on fallen tree branches as a kid, watching them snap in half and laughing. With no clue how painful it could be, how spots would flash before his eyes.
His mind exploded. His body couldn't handle all the pain, all the parts of his body fighting to hurt more than the other. Shadows were creeping in on his vision. Blinking away the blood from his eyes, he rolled onto his back. The feeling in his knee was winning the battle for attention, screaming with pain it couldn't fully process. And Louis thought you never appreciated how normal something felt until it was so drastically altered.
As he stared up, Ian straddled his body, pointing the gun downward. He wasn't shaking now; his aim would be true.
Even though he tried to move his lips to tell Harry, one last time, that he loved, him, no sound escaped. But then Ian was gone, pushed away, and the sound of a gunshot rang through their open prison on the rooftop. Despite the fire in him that protested, he rolled onto his side again. Harry and Ian were wrestling for the gun. Harry, petrified at the mention of Ian's name, had a crowbar in one hand.
And Louis heard it whistle through the air, connecting with Ian's head. The gun went slack in his hands.
Harry was crying, saying Louis's name, and then screaming for Liam. Liam who had finally arrived. He clutched at his shoulder, shirt stained with red.
It had been a gunshot. Ian had shot him.
And Louis found, to his surprise, that he'd been shot as well. His fingers reached to a spot over his heart and were quickly coated in blood. To be honest, he hadn't even felt the pain until he looked at the blood on his hands. Even holding his arm upright proved too painful, so he let himself relax against the ground.
They all appeared, hovering over him. Zayn and Niall off to the side, Liam and Harry peering down at him. For a minute, Louis thought that it had begun to rain. But then he saw that Harry was crying.
The words were agony in his mouth, rolling out and around the blood that seemed to be stuck in his throat.
The rain fell harder.
"He's really bad," Zayn said from somewhere far, far away. His voice was up in the clouds, being carried away by the blustering winds.
"The police are on their way up."
"We've got an ambulance waiting outside."
"We've got one over in the corner. Extensive brain injury."
"His name is Ian."
"Looks like someone hit him with a truck."
"It was a crowbar."
Harry, trying to joke. Trying to be okay, one last time.
"I'm officer Fitzpatrick. Can you tell me what happened?"
So many voices and faces kneading together, and the rain still fell even though the sun was burning its way into his skin, soaking into his bones.
"Is he dead?"
"He's fading fast."
"Get him on the stretcher!"
"IS HE DEAD?"
Niall, so angry. So impatient.
"HE'S NOT DEAD! DON'T YOU FUCKING SAY HE'S DEAD!"
Louis felt Harry's fingers on his face, and he never felt more alive. All of him wanted to reach out for him, touch his face. But the fingers were gone. Someone was lifting him up. Watch his head, they were saying. Staunch the blood. Save him. He's not breathing. Oxygen mask.
Clear. Clear. Clear.
Eventually, it stopped raining.
Harry Styles sat in a chair, circling a few haircuts in a fashion magazine. Miranda asked him to. She wanted to cut her hair before she took off to see the other parts of Europe. When they were little, she had a scrapbook of Paris scenery. When they still had dreams instead of nightmares, she talked about meeting a cute guy there, with a beret and an art loft. Harry prayed she found him there. Beside him, Louis's breathing was steady, guided along by a machine that got on his nerves when he tried to stay the night.
As he circled an angled bob, modeled by a woman with a deep scowl, Liam arrived. He showed like clockwork, every day around noon. School kept him busy, but Zayn and Niall did what they wanted, when they wanted. If Harry hadn't known them so well, he would assume that they had no plans for the future. But he knew Niall had been going to training late at night, working towards managing a restaurant.
Zayn had been looking into cosmetology, but he had only told Liam, who had related the news to Harry.
"Fancy that, huh? My boyfriend gossiping with women all day. But he is good at hair."
And another week ticked by. Louis didn't move.
When they police asked what happened on the roof, Harry didn't know what to say at first. Through scattered interviews, he eventually managed it. Louis had stepped in front of him. Ian hit him, had left a fracture in his skull. Ian had broken his leg nearly in two, and had been about to shoot him in the head before Harry tackled him.
Still, the bullet pierced a spot dangerously close to Louis's heart.
Ian hesitated before he raised the gun to Harry, and Harry had hesitated before he picked up the steel pipe and slammed it over his head. But Harry's hesitation was shorter.
Even now, Ian lived. When his brain trauma was deemed to have healed as much as possible, they shipped him off to a mental institution. Miranda went to see him, just once, and Harry overheard her telling Liam that his room was covered in drawings of Harry and him together.
Of all the thing Ian's broken mind clung to, it was him.
So even as Liam approached the bedside, Harry didn't acknowledge him. All he could think about was why these men clung to him. He was broken, and dirty. Used, hurt, and fragile. But Ian was willing to bind himself to someone he didn't love to stay close to Harry.
Louis was willing to die for him, and they had only had a rough few months in their relationship.
But Harry understood that, at least.
Carefully, Harry bookmarked his place in the magazine.
"They said he's getting ready to wake up. He's going to walk with a limp for the rest of his life, and they're going to recommend a dentist for the teeth Ian knocked out. But he's alive."
"He wasn't," Liam said quietly. "Not for a few minutes."
Harry squeezed his eyes shut. Those three and half minutes where Louis was unresponsive were not something he wanted to speak of.
"I was just speaking to the doctor that attended to him," Liam went on hurriedly. "They said he said Linda's name, and then yours, right after they got him back."
He was back. That's the only thing Harry's mind heard. Back, and never leaving again, with any luck.
"So Niall has a date."
Harry silently thanked Liam for the subject change.
"When Louis went crazy trying to find you at the Solar Tower, he practically vaulted over the poor receptionist to get the master key. But Niall tackled her when she tried to stop it all. Well, he helped her up, apologized for the busted lip, and I don't even know really. Asked her to call the police after Louis got a head start. But you'll never guess who she is."
Okay, Harry would bite.
"She's the Executive of Nando's. She was filling in the job for her sister who was getting married but the hotel wouldn't let her off for the honeymoon. So she volunteered to step in."
"There is no way that all lined up like that." Harry raised his eyebrows at the silence. "Wow. So Niall can eat at Nando's again?"
"Oh yeah. And he gets a discount. It's hard for him to remember the food of the week is grapes."
They laughed for a moment before settling into a comfortable silence. It had been only two weeks since the incident, but Harry felt stronger already. The bruises were fast fading, the stitches on his forehead were close to coming out, and his bruises ribs didn't bother him. Even Louis's surface injuries didn't look so bad. And Liam's shoulder was as good as it could be at that point.
Miranda waltzed in at that moment, Zayn following her like a kicked dog.
"What did you do?" Liam demanded immediately.
"She's refusing to let me cut her hair," Zayn pouted.
"Like you know how! Harry, darling, have you found a proper hairstyle yet?"
"I've been going to school for it!" Zayn snapped, abandoning all pretenses. "For three weeks now. I need practice."
"That's hilarious. Ooooh, I approve of that style, Harry. I need to get it done, as soon as possible. I head out in a week!"
"Maybe when you get back, Lou will be awake to tell you what a mistake the style was."
They all grew quiet. Whenever Harry tried to be optimistic, they did this. Okay, the doctors didn't know how serious the head injury would affect him. It was hard to say how difficult it would be to get him walking when he wasn't even awake to stand up.
But they had to hope.
After everyone else left, Harry pulled out the copy of Richard Siken's poetry that he had taken from Louis's house. There was an underlined passage from A Primer for Small Weird Houses, about worrying about your own body. About a boy who had been hit. Candy had told him she underlined it for him, after she'd heard about Harry from Linda. She had underlined the part when Louis brought his book to work one day. Even though Linda had told Harry about Louis and Darla and had told Candy about the abuse in Harry's life, he knew she meant well. She always did.
And Candy probably wanted to remind Louis that he had his own secrets to share. His own problems to deal with. That was okay. Absently, he rubbed at the spot around his wrist where he used to wear the leather bracelet. No more. It was gone, in the trash somewhere. He didn't have any attachments to Ian and he never would again.
Inside the book, pressed between the pages, were crumpled pieces of paper with half-finished lyrics. Harry didn't read them. He would read them when Louis allowed it, but he scanned over them once, just out of curiosity. They were depressing, but honest, and Harry knew he would grow to love them.
Love wasn't measure by sad moments, even though theirs had passed in stages of digging for deeper secrets. Love wasn't even measure by normal moments.
A couple could spend all the time together they wanted, could reenact all the love scenes from the most romantic movies of all time, and they could still have nothing. Most people refused to believe love was a maddening feeling that wasn't driven by lust at all. If anything, love was a peaceful feeling. Despite all the injuries between them, Harry felt peaceful right then.
Yeah, things were going to be all right.
Ian was gone. He'd moved everything out of his apartment, and Miranda was going to make a new start for herself. Zayn and Liam were together, and Niall was basically getting Nando's for free.
Harry took Louis's hand.
"Wake up, Boobear. They're waiting for us to make the happy ending complete."
Louis awoke three days later, alone in his hospital room. Not that he knew, but Harry had gone on a coffee run, and the other lads were dining at Nando's and trying to convince Niall to join a gym to balance out the mass quantities of food he'd started consuming.
Slowly, he sat up, testing his body. His right leg was stiff beneath a thick cast, and his head felt ready to burst. Above his eye, the skin felt tight with stitches.
Where was Harry? Right before he passed out, he had been talking. So Harry had to be okay. A nurse waltzed in, face bored until she realized that Louis was awake. Without saying anything, she spun on heel and vanished to get a doctor.
"Nice speaking to you," Louis called after her.
She returned, doctor in tow. He was tall and bald, and something about him reminded Louis of the man who had tried to make off with Zayn at the Chinese restaurant. Involuntarily, he shrunk in his bed.
"You took quite a blow to the head, Mr. Tomlinson." The doctor peered at his brain scans and made a face that suggested he smelled something wonderful.
"But I think you are going to be just fine after some physical therapy. Will you tell me everything you remember?"
"My name is Louis Tomlinson. I'm 21 years old, and I have a boyfriend named Harry Styles. Where is he?"
"Should be around soon. I've seen a lot of him since you've been here."
"How long has it been?"
"Two weeks and half, today."
Louis put a hand on his head and eased back down.
"That's…wow. When can I go home?"
"A few days, I'd say. We need to get you back on your feet. Well-wheelchair. You'll have to walk with crutches for a bit."
Louis's mind flashed back to him and Harry making their getaway to the beach, before the Ian secret came out and Louis thought things had settled. Just before Ian showed up, they had been about to go buy a football, and Louis would teach Harry how.
Now, it sounded like that time was stretching far away, into a distant past and a near unforeseeable future.
"You're going to be just fine," the doctor assured, the lines on his face wrinkling into a soothing smile. "Don't you worry about-"
He broke off as Louis stared past him, face splitting into a smile.
In the doorway, Harry stood with a slack jaw. A cup of coffee fell from his hands, but as Louis watched it, he could only think, 'When did he start drinking coffee?'
"You're awake," Harry said unnecessarily.
"And you made a mess," the nurse growled, but Harry ignored her and leapt across the spill only to spring onto the hospital bed. He dove for Louis's lips, kissing him there over and over before moving to the scattering of bruises with only a slight ease of force.
"Boober…Louis…I was so worried. You…you scared us all so bad. What were you even thinking?"
The doctor and the nurse left the room, sensing the oncoming scene and wanting to give privacy. The nurse started screaming for a janitor on the other side of the door, but as Louis's eyes met Harry's, the noises were worlds away. Despite the pain and the faint fog still in his brain, Louis was awakening fast. Everything felt in place.
"I was thinking I loved you, stupid. I was thinking that you have lived afraid of Ian and I didn't want that anymore. For once, I wanted someone to show you what love is. It's not the way your stepfather raised you, and it's not that sick, double standard relationship you had with Ian."
"This is the mess you call love?" A few tears fell from Harry's face as he gestures to Louis's damaged body. But he was smiling, smiling like he meant it, like he understood.
"It's our mess, Hazza, and I wouldn't have it any other way."
Harry beamed, face glowing like a candle had been lit beneath his skin. Yeah, he understood. And the kiss he gave Louis made every ache worth it.
"Me either, Lou. Me either."
The first thing Harry Styles screamed at his boyfriend when he arrived home wasn't what Louis would have liked to have heard after a long day of photographing a toddler with a tantrum.
"IT'S FUCKING FREEZING!"
"Love you, too."
Louis rubbed his eyes and yawned before pulling another stack of film closer to him.
"That's not what I said. But the feeling is mutual."
"What do you expect, babe? It's winter. During winter, cold weather happens."
"Don't be a smart ass. What's for dinner?"
Harry threw his bag onto the recliner and slunk into the kitchen. Snow fell off his shoulders only to leave a cold trail in his wake. Dinner hadn't even crossed Louis's mind, honestly.
"Ummm. We can order a pizza?"
Harry nibbled on his lip for a minute before shrugging and snatching the phone. The local pizza shop had been registered as one of their speed dials. During the months since the Ian Incident, as they called it on the more vulnerable nights when sharing and crying were okay, much had changed. Candy had moved in next door, taking a great interest in all the old books.
She crammed some in Louis's mailbox that she thought he might enjoy, even though she very well could have given them to him in person.
Zayn and Liam had progressed from a shared apartment to a house, and Niall and Marissa-the Nando's executive-were steadily dating. The 'I really fell for you' jokes got old rather quickly, though.
Miranda sent a postcard from Paris, kissing a new man-beret and all- in front of the Eiffel Tower. Louis knew from the sparkle in her eyes that when she returned, she wouldn't return alone.
He had gone to visit Linda's grave as soon as he could, even though his crutches had sunk into the ground and Harry had become impatient. In the end, he had carried Louis up the hill and set him on the ground before heading back for the discarded crutches.
Now that he was up and around by himself, he liked to go see Linda and talk to her.
Before all the mess, he laughed at people that talked to graves. But he needed her still, like he still needed his mother in so many ways. If keeping people he loved was wrong, he didn't care.
There was always so much to tell them both, too. Like how he and Harry had pooled together their money and officially purchased the house. Together, they worked and fixed it up. One room at a time, one gallon of paint to each room. Over the months, they were able to get new furniture.
Harry had secured a job at a bakery and he came home smelling of flour and warmth that made him hard to resist. Louis did his best to restrain himself, because, as old fashioned as it was, he knew they wouldn't have sex until they were on their honeymoon.
But old morals aside, Louis knew Harry wouldn't be ready yet. Though Zayn and Liam shook their heads and demanded to know how they could even keep their hands off each other, Louis couldn't describe the peaceful feeling of just knowing that Harry was alive and his.
Maybe that would change after they finally did have sex, but for now, Louis was okay. When it was their turn to become unbearable to be around, though, they would do their best to get revenge on Zayn and Liam for all the times they had sex at awkward moments. Like when they were having a dinner and Zayn and Liam both conveniently had to use the loo. This was just one time of many, of course…
"What are you laughing about?"
Harry sat down across from him with a glass of hot chocolate, snow still clinging to his curls.
"I was thinking of when we went camping last week. And the sign that Zayn and Liam made…."
"'If the tents a rockin, don't come a knockin'," Harry laughed.
"And how Niall and Marissa went and got two sticks and started clacking them together."
"I didn't want to see Zayn that naked, but watching him beat Niall up was funny."
"Yeah, I definitely agree. So what are we doing today? After I sort this out, I'm free until tomorrow when I'm doing that anniversary gig."
"We can play naked twister," Harry suggested with a tantalizing casualness.
Louis stopped breathing for a moment as he pictured it. Yeah, the time wouldn't be far off.
"Incredibly tempting," Louis managed, "but I was thinking we could go try to play some football."
"Is your leg not bothering you today?"
Louis stretched it out under the table, considering it.
"Nah. And I've almost gotten all my old moves back. My therapist was incredibly impressed."
"Fine," Harry grumbled. "After we eat."
While they ate, Louis regarded his home with a newfound appreciation. All the paint was new and the furniture gleaming and shined. The television was a flat screen, the couches without any patches. Darla curled up in a new cat bed. Deep down, Louis truly believed that the bed was what made her come to love Harry. Before he brought it home for her, she still skirted around him and hissed when he tried to pick her up.
"You've got the ball?" Harry asked, wrapping a scarf around his neck. Outside, the snow was falling softly. Just down the road, a few kids screamed in delight.
"Yeah, but go easy on me Hazz. It's going to be rough to play in the snow."
"Don't start another snowball war," Harry said. He held the door as Louis walked out, his limp scarcely noticeable anymore. "I swear I'm still sick from all that cold."
"You liked me playing nurse," Louis teased.
"Normally, I'd say yes, but we've been at the hospital enough for me to shrink away from the thought. Be sexy for me in another way."
The way his face became dreamy told Louis their thoughts were, as always, the same. They were both very close to being ready, and if it were to happen someday very soon, that would be okay. But it wasn't necessary. Sex was not part of the foundation of their relationship, and even though it would surely become a very enjoyable factor, it didn't matter just yet.
All that Louis loved was here, breathing and smelling of cookies and warm bread.
"I'll be nice," Harry said. "But I swear I'll kick your ass, limp and all. And did I tell you the lads want us to go to dinner with them tomorrow? Liam said something important was happening."
"Really?" Louis mused.
"Yeah. Bet you my two extra nipples it's him proposing to Zayn. Finally. Can you photograph their wedding and be a groomsmen? Might be a bit hard."
"I'd think I would manage somehow," Louis said off handedly.
He watched Harry fiddling with the football, watched his head swivel as he tried to find a quaint spot for them to play. Louis had never felt such a happiness, had never been so comfortable with himself. Harry's mother loved him. He was no longer struggling to make his money, and so much had finally gone right.
And somewhere, somehow, Linda had forgiven him.
And he knew she would approve of it all, of him falling completely for Harry.
This was what she had wanted, after all. For them to cling to each other, to watch out for each other as life buffeted them along. Things were okay, things were all right.
But something did have to change.
Liam was right. Something important was happening.
Louis smiled to himself as Harry twirled around one of the neighborhood kids that had run down to ask them to join the snowball fight. Harry's smile was a falling star in a bleak night. The sun bursting from behind clouds.
Yeah, Louis could look at that face for over.
Subconsciously, he touched his pocket, finger gliding over the ring he kept hidden there.
Forever was a lot closer than Harry might think.
They could build themselves up together, make themselves stronger and taller and inseparable. They could be skyscrapers, and life could cut its way around them while they stood their ground. Fuck the whole damn world if it thought that this moment, that this feeling, was anything but everything life was meant for.
"Harry!" Louis called out.
His boyfriend turned, one kid dragging at each of his arms.
"What is it?" he laughed in reply.
"If you could have anything in the world what would it be?"
The kids giggled, talking about how Harry and Louis were being mushy again. All the parents approved of them, however. How could anyone hate Harry and all his charm, after all?
"I think….I would want to hear one of your songs. Just one. And I'd want you to sing it for me."
Louis touched the ring again, vowing to get to work that night. It could be arranged, after all. He would sing to him, during their first dance as a married couple.
If he said yes, that is.
"One day soon," Louis replied vaguely.
Harry strode over, dropping the football into a snow drift. He shoved the beanie away from Louis's face and kissed his forehead.
"One day needs to hurry up. I'm getting very impatient."
Louis snickered, ducked under his arms, and snatched the football.
"I know just when you'll hear a song!"
"Tell me when!"
"You always say that!" Harry protested.
"Little do ye know."
But soon Harry would know everything, and one day would be very soon indeed. One day would be tomorrow, and with any luck Louis could get them a cruise booked for a honey moon. Something to take them away for a little while.
And everything, in that moment, was perfect. The unattainable word, the word that people scoffed and claimed to be nonexistent, was right there, breathing itself into the air around them.
Their love may have gotten a rough start, and they might still have problems, but everything Louis was felt that word as if it had been tattooed into his very nerve endings.
Perfect, and theirs alone.