here there be louis tomlinson.
If You’re For Real and Not Pretend

If You’re For Real and Not Pretend | Harry/Louis | ~21k | In which Harry works at a bakery and Louis can’t seem to find what he’s looking for.

Harry is eighteen and he’s got his whole life ahead of him, but for now, life is nothing more than a tray of scones in the morning, a new sheet of cookies for the midday rush, and a bag full of muffins to take home at the end of the day. He takes classes on the weekdays, but truth be told, he’d rather be at the bakery where there’s so much else to learn (“What’s the difference between pastry flour and cake flour?” he asks one day). It’s a simple life but it’s been happy so far. 

When he first sees Louis, it’s getting dark outside and it’s been a long day, so he wants to go home sooner rather than later. But that’s a downside of being a bakery that opens too early and closes too late: long days and long nights. But it’s hardly anything to complain about on most days. 

It’s also been somewhat of a slow day, so he’s wiping crumbs off the counter and cleaning smudged fingerprints off the glass display case when the bell above the entryway jingles and sigh

“Be right with you,” he says without looking up. 

“Don’t mind me,” replies the voice, and it’s one that Harry thinks he’s heard before. “From the size of your selection, it might take me a while to choose anything.” 

Harry dusts off his apron and looks up and – well, there’s a face he didn’t think he’d see again. 

***

It’s like this. 

Holmes Chapel is a cozy sort of village, one with empty streets and looming churches and lampposts that flicker at night. And for the longest while, all Harry knows of his humble little town is his quiet home and his small school. 

He remembers the first few weeks of secondary school and being so lost without Gemma, who runs off to her group of friends every morning, giggling and squealing to high heaven about things he’ll most likely never understand. He comes home every night to his mum’s same encouragement and reassurance, telling him he’ll find his place and things will be better. 

It takes a year before he meets Liam, and another one before he meets Zayn and Niall. Zayn is a year older, but he’s never really gotten along with his year, so he fits right in with their unlikely group. 

He’s fifteen when he first notices Louis walking out of a classroom with his sister at the end of the day. They’re talking for all of a few seconds before he heads off in a different direction, blue eyes flashing quickly in Harry’s direction and then he’s gone. 

They’re not friends or anything, she tells Harry, just classmates. There’s nothing more behind it, but it’s enough to make him wait for Gemma outside the classroom every afternoon, just to catch a glimpse of the older boy with the really nice smile and the even nicer eyes. 

The last few months of term fly by too quickly, and by the time Harry thinks that yeah, maybe he’s got a crush on someone he’s never met or spoken to, Louis is done with sixth form and out of his life altogether. 

***

When Louis finally approaches the counter, he doesn’t know that Harry’s been watching him the whole time. Perhaps it’s better that way. Less creepy, at any rate. 

The boy drums his fingers against the countertop, eyeing the glass display case like something new might appear. And the whole time, Harry is holding his breath because this is the closest he’s ever been to the boy that only he knows about. Well, everyone knows who Louis is, but no one knows just how Harry thinks of him. 

But it shouldn’t matter after all this time, anyway. 

“Right,” Louis finally says, the corners of his mouth twitching upward. He’s pointing, too. “That croissant in the back…” 

“Delicious,” Harry fills in for him. “And I’m not just saying that.” 

Louis grins this time, nodding like he’s made the right choice. “Excellent. I’ll take that and some tea, if you have any.” 

“Croissant and tea,” he repeats. “Alright.” 

Louis hands him a few bank notes and Harry thinks he’ll disappear to the back of the empty bakery, but he actually chooses a stool at the bar and makes himself comfortable. He’s wearing a bulky overcoat and he’s got a small bag at his side and a guitar slung over his back, but he doesn’t set any of it down. Instead, he leans against the counter, eyes wandering and examining the place that Harry has memorized every nook and cranny of. 

Minutes later, Harry sets a plate and a mug down in front of Louis. The croissant is golden and flaky, and the tea piping hot and sending swirls of steam into the air. The boy looks genuinely pleased, closing his eyes and breathing in contentedly. 

“Mm,” he says, eyes still closed. “Thanks, mate.” 

“Yeah, no problem.” 

Then he’s off to the kitchen, pretending like there’s something to do when in reality, he’s finished just about everything – alone, no less. But that’s the blessing and the curse of a slow day: by afternoon, everything’s done but there’s nothing left to do. 

So he comes back out and sees Louis gingerly picking his croissant apart, sending buttery flakes onto the countertop that Harry just cleaned. But he can’t bring himself to be too bothered. 

It’s actually dark outside by the time Louis finishes with his pastry, moving onto the tea that must have cooled down by now. He’s sipping at it carefully when his eyes flick upward to where Harry is propped up against the doorway.

“Long day?” 

Harry coughs a bit, his tongue feeling too big for his mouth. But he manages to reply with, “You wouldn’t believe.” 

“Hmm,” Louis muses in a way that seems like he might understand. Instead of expanding, he draws another sip from his mug and brushes aside caramel fringe from his forehead. Harry’s limbs feel too long for his body. 

It’s strange being one of the two only people in the bakery. Normally, he’d just leave them be and go along with the rest of his chores. But he almost feels compelled to make the most out of this slight situation. 

“I know you, by the way,” Harry says before he can stop himself, and yeah, that might just be the stupidest segue ever. He can feel color rising to his cheeks and he wants to disappear into the back again, this time for good, when he sees Louis’ eyes widen in intrigue. 

“You – know me?” 

“I mean.” He clears his throat, stands a little straighter. “You’re Louis Tomlinson, right?” 

Surprisingly, the older boy nods and owns up to the claim. He even chuckles a bit.

“Yeah. And you?” 

“Harry Styles,” he answers without missing a beat. 

“Ah,” Louis says. And it takes a moment before the look of understanding dawns on his face. “Styles. You’re Gemma’s younger brother.” 

The statement isn’t false, and yet something about the way Louis says it makes Harry feel incredibly small. It’s like he can remember being fifteen all over again. 

“Yeah, I am.” 

“What’s she up to now?” 

“Lives in Sheffield.” 

“I was there the other day,” Louis says with a shrug. “Oh well. Still, it’s nice to see you, mate. Thanks for all of…this. Tea was excellent, and the croissant was even better.” He’s standing up and pushing the used dishes in Harry’s direction. “I’ve got to go, but really. Thanks.” 

He smiles quickly and darts out the door before he can hear Harry’s ‘welcome.’ 

***

There’s still another hour left before he’s a free man. In that time, he mops the floors, puts away the leftovers, and scrubs the counters one last time out of good sense. All that’s left to do is take out the trash, but he always does that once he’s closed up; the trash bins are on his walk home anyway. 

As he locks up, he thinks about how he’ll be back early tomorrow morning and it’s not a bad thought; it’s just a thought. He even wonders if Louis will stop by again now that he knows the place exists, but really, it’s more wishful thinking than anything else. 

He makes sure to stop by the alleyway around the corner with the two trash bags before heading down the main road. It’s a narrow, secluded space, one that he’s escaped to whenever the kitchen gets a little too hot. And there’s a rusty fence back there that random children have fastened small locks to, and it’s quaint in a way that only someone from Holmes Chapel could ever really appreciate. 

The alleyway is dimly lit and he’s about to head off after throwing away the garbage when he notices the silhouette of a huddled figure down by the fence and – well, that’s a guitar next to it. 

He heads over quietly, like he’s stumbled onto something that he’s not meant to have seen, and he can’t quite shake the feeling that yeah, there’s a good chance that this is exactly what this is like. The lighting hasn’t improved any, but he can make out the mat of honey-colored hair sticking out from under the heavy overcoat turned into a makeshift blanket. His limbs are sticking out from underneath, his left arm splayed to the left and holding onto the guitar lazily, almost pointlessly. 

He shouldn’t bother, shouldn’t intrude. But… 

Before he knows what he’s doing, he’s kicking at the sole of the boy’s shoe. 

“Louis?” 

The boy’s head pops out from underneath the jacket instantly, his eyes frantically searching around him. But when they settle on Harry, there’s an unmistakable undercurrent of panic there. 

“Harry.” 

“Louis, what’re you – ?” 

“I’m not homeless or anything, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Louis says suddenly, sitting up straighter against the wall and letting the coat fall and crumple around his waist. “I just – it’s too late to take any buses or trains out of Holmes Chapel, and I didn’t have a place to stay for the night.” 

“You didn’t have a place to stay for the night?” 

“And it’s more a nap than anything else, really,” Louis says, drawing his guitar closer to his side. “I’ll be out of here early in the morning, so there’s no point in looking for a room or anything.” 

Harry still doesn’t understand because he’s just found Louis sleeping in the alleyway behind the bakery. 

“I don’t – I mean – don’t you live here? In Holmes Chapel, I mean?” 

“Not anymore,” he says, his eyes fixated on his shoes. “Not since my mum and the girls moved to Durham after the divorce. I stayed for a bit, but I hate it there, so…” 

“So?” 

Louis looks up at him fiercely, and it makes Harry’s heart start a little. 

“I’ve been focusing on my music and traveling from place to place, instead,” he says quickly and without blinking. “And I’ve got a couch to sleep on most places I go. I didn’t expect to get held up here, that’s all.” 

“But you’re not – ?” 

Louis rolls his eyes, but he seems slightly chuffed under Harry’s intense scrutiny. 

“Not homeless,” he repeats. “No one to call on here, that’s all.” And it’s almost a little hard to believe, seeing as this is where he grew up. But then again, Harry can’t imagine he’d be sleeping on the streets if he had a choice. 

“Oh,” is all he can really say. 

“Sorry if I scared you or anything,” Louis says. “I didn’t think I’d be staying so close to the bakery, but this alleyway seemed as good as any.”

“I’ve got a bed, you know.” 

Louis blinks. 

Shit, that came out wrong. 

“I mean,” Harry amends almost instantly. “Not a bed, necessarily, but my flat isn’t too far from here and I’ve got a couch that you’re welcome to stay on for the night.” 

Louis looks like he might protest, but Harry cuts him off before he can. 

“Better than sleeping here, at any rate.” 

And the truth in the statement isn’t lost on Louis, who’s suddenly smiling and getting to his feet, wrapping the coat properly around himself. 

“I don’t want you to think that I’m normally this easy to proposition, because normally, I’m not.” He’s smirking in earnest at Harry, and it makes him squirm somewhat. “But it is a little cold, and I’ve got my guitar to worry about so – yeah, thanks.”

He’s reaching out a hand and Harry’s not stupid, so he takes it in his own and shakes firmly. 

“Wouldn’t have offered if I didn’t mean it.” 

***

Harry is in the kitchen preparing hot cocoa while Louis cleans up in the bathroom. He’s not sure how many mini marshmallows to put in the other boy’s drink, so he decides to play it safe and adds a handful of the pillowy sweets to the mug – the same amount in his own. 

He sets the mugs down on the coffee table in the living room, unsure of etiquette. 

When Louis pads out from the hallway, he’s wearing a ratty band shirt and a pair of flannel pajama bottoms – both of which are too big and hang loosely on his body. He flashes a grin as he settles on the adjacent couch (already piled with more pillows and fleece blankets than any one person could need in a night), and Harry returns the gesture, albeit sheepishly. 

“Sorry,” he says, frowning slightly. “My clothes are too big on you.” 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Louis tells him with a wave of his hand. “You’re taller, that’s all. And it’s better than sleeping in clothes that haven’t been washed in two days. Is that for me?” He nods at one of the mugs. 

“Yeah, yeah.” Harry hands one to him. 

Louis grabs the mug and cups it with both hands, leaning in and inhaling deeply. 

And you’ve put in marshmallows,” he says, pleased. “A man after my own heart.” 

Harry takes the small blossom of pride in his chest and tucks it aside, filing it away under ‘Things Louis Likes,’ just for good measure. 

“So,” Louis says, and Harry ignores the light layer of froth on his upper lip. “Harry. How’d you manage a place on your own? Tired of living at mum’s?” 

“The whole family moved to Sheffield and I didn’t want to. So I stayed here. Found a place on my own.” 

“Hmm.” Louis’ brows scrunch together. “You wanted to stay in Holmes Chapel?” 

“Yeah. Why?” 

“Oh, nothing. That’s just – well, it’s a first, that’s all.” Louis smiles, eyes cast down into his mug. “Any particular reason why?” 

“The bakery,” Harry says mindlessly and as soon as it’s out, he can hear how stupid he must sound – first for staying in Holmes Chapel at all, and second for staying behind because of a bloody bakery. “I mean – ” 

“That’s great.” Louis cuts him off, eyes gleaming. “You’re doing what you want to do. I’m guessing you like it, then? Baking and all?” 

He shifts in his seat. “Love it.”

Louis nods thoughtfully. “Funny that.” 

“What is?” 

“Guess that makes us like two peas in a pods, if you think about it,” Louis muses. “Family moves and we stay put. Following our dreams and all that.” 

Harry laughs a little wildly and licks his lips of chocolate. “No, you’re following your dreams. You and your music…you’d rather sleep on the streets than – oh, sorry.” 

He’s worried that maybe he’s offended Louis for some unknowable reason, but the other boy just laughs in return. 

“That’s because I’m insane,” he offers, although his face is completely straight as he says it. “I’d sooner lose my left foot to frostbite than lose my guitar, I’m afraid.” 

Harry shrugs. “If you’re insane, then I am, too.” 

Louis cocks his head to the side. “How so?” 

“Because I stayed in Holmes Chapel,” he says, enunciating carefully. “To bake cakes.”

He expects the other boy to reply with something quick and sharp; it’s barely been three hours since Louis walked into the bakery and Harry is already conditioned to expect as much. However, he just leans back and sizes Harry up properly, eyes wandering but intent with purpose. Then he shakes his head. 

“Nah.” He sips some cocoa and resurfaces to follow up with, “That’s pretty admirable, if you ask me.” 

They sit together in silence for a while afterwards, because it’s not like there’s not much else that can be said in a situation such as this. But it’s not laced with the awkwardness that Harry’s been bracing himself for all night. In fact, it’s almost natural – comfortable, actually – to just be there without conversation or a silly television program to serve as a distraction. 

When Harry finally stands up, he thinks that Louis looks a little relieved, but he attributes it to the fact that he’s probably tired, that’s all, and he could really do with some sleep. 

“Goodnight then,” he offers lowly after depositing the mugs in the sink and turning off the lights in the living room. “Don’t hesitate to, uh, you know, if you need anything.” 

But Louis is already bundled up on the couch with his face turned away. 

And Harry’s halfway down the hall when he hears Louis call after him. 

“G’night, Harry.” 

***

When he wakes up the next morning, the finds that the couch is empty with the blankets folded and stacked neatly beneath the pillows. On top of the pile is a note that reads: 

Thanks for last night. Glad I ran into you xx

***

Harry is the kind to let things linger, to make things more meaningful than they ought to be. It’s not a particularly flattering trait, but it’s the way he’s wired. 

So he holds onto the note and the memory of that night in the living room with Louis for a while after that, and it’s just about the only thing that gets him through another week of classes and routines away from the bakery. 

He has schoolwork to focus on, assignments to complete and textbooks to read and exams to study for. He wishes that he could show the same amount of dedication as Liam when it comes to uni, or at least the same degree of ‘I really don’t give a fuck’ as Zayn, but he’s not really like either of them, so he’s caught somewhere in between wanting to do better and wanting to do nothing at all. 

Maybe he’s more like Niall, who can’t bring himself to worry about more than one thing at a time. And in his case, he’s all about his music. 

It kind of reminds him of Louis, which is why Harry chooses to tell Niall first. 

“Hey, Nialler?”

The blond boy doesn’t look up from the couch, where he’s absently strumming his guitar and it’s nothing musically coherent but it’s still pretty to listen to. It’s become rather routine for Niall to come over after classes with his guitar, demanding that Harry order a pizza and hey, fetch him a beer while he’s at it. 

“Yeah?” 

“Do you remember Louis Tomlinson?”

That makes Niall look up, and it’s not like Harry ever explicitly said anything about Louis Tomlinson during their time in secondary school, but he remembers seeing the way his curly-haired friend would fawn after the older boy at the end of the day, and yeah, he remembers. 

“Sure,” he goes with. “Why?” 

“He came into the bakery the other day.” 

“Oh.” 

“Yeah.” 

Niall scoffs. “Is that it? Is that the end of the story? You’ve got me on tenterhooks, really.” 

“Twat,” Harry grumbles, reaching out with his foot and lazily kicking his mate from his seat, nearly knocking over several beer bottles in the process. “No, it’s just – he doesn’t live in Holmes Chapel anymore. Did you know that?” 

“Not really, no.” 

“Anyway, he was in the area for whatever reason, and he didn’t have anywhere to stay for the night, so – ” 

“Oh, Harry.” And the way Niall says it is part concern, but mostly amusement. He’s staring over at Harry like he’s a wounded animal or something, but a wounded animal he’d rather laugh at than help. 

“What?” he returns hotly. 

“You let him stay the night, didn’t you?” 

He’s not admitting to it, nor is he denying it, so Niall just nods and chuckles lowly. 

“Oh, Harry,” he repeats, plucking at a few strings. 

“He hasn’t got a home, or anything,” he says quickly, like it’ll help. “I mean, he does, but he’s not really staying with them. He’s…traveling, I suppose.” 

“Traveling? Doing what?” 

“Music,” he answers simply. 

“Hmm.” He looks down at his guitar. 

“What?” This time, he’s a little more nervous for Niall’s follow-up assessment. 

But he shakes his head. “Nothing. Interesting, that’s all. Was the sex good, at least? Oh god, was it on this couch?” 

Harry nearly tumbles off the couch, very certain that if he were drinking something, he’d be sputtering right about now. Instead, he just gapes at Niall mutely, who, in turn, is staring at him expectantly, completely unfazed by his little display. 

“We didn’t – there wasn’t any sex.” 

Niall blinks, clears his throat, and then blinks a few more times. But before Harry can even say anything, Niall sets his guitar on the couch and pads off to the kitchen, undoubtedly for another beer. 

“You let him stay at your flat and you didn’t even get laid?” He laughs in disbelief from the fridge. “That was the most pointless story ever.” 

***

It rains all day one Wednesday, and it also happens to be the one day of the school week that Harry finds himself working an evening shift at the bakery. It’s a little busier than it should be at this time of day, much less this time of week. But he has no choice other than to oblige each customer, and he’s more than a little thankful to have another person – a sixth form student named Rebecca – helping him in the kitchen. 

He’s thinking about how he’s probably never sold this much tea on a Wednesday evening when the entryway bell rings again. And before he can even greet the new customer or call Rebecca to the front for some back-up, he looks up to find a pair of startling blue eyes gazing into his and –

“Louis?” 

He looks, more or less, exactly how he did when he first walked into the bakery several weeks ago, wearing the same overcoat with the same bag and guitar slung across his body. His hair is wet and matted down with rainwater that’s running down his cheeks and pooling on the countertop, but Harry can’t think of reasons to care. Louis laughs and it rumbles throughout the room a little too comfortably for a sound that’s mostly foreign to this bakery. 

“Sharp memory, Curly.” 

Curly – okay. 

“You’re back, then?”

Louis shrugs, shuffling his fingers against each other and peering into the glass display case on his right. 

“Dunno. For a bit, maybe.” 

Harry knows better than to press for further information, knows that asking anything else could sway Louis against wanting to stay for a little bit. Not that it would affect him, really, if Louis chose to do so. His life would – shouldn’t – change. 

So he just says, “Brilliant.” Then asks, “You hungry?” 

Louis grins. 

“I could use some tea, actually.” 

“Coming right up.” 

When he glances around the emptying bakery for Louis, he finds him sitting in the back this time, hiding in a corner and pulling out a book. He doesn’t even look up when Harry approaches the edge of the table and sets the steaming cup of tea down. 

He looks down at the book in Louis’ hands, tattered and dog-eared in some places. Upon closer inspection, he sees it’s not so much a book for reading as it is a notebook, one covered in indecipherable chicken scratch. 

“What’s that?” 

Louis pulls out a pencil and scrawls something quick, something Harry can’t read. 

“For lyrics,” he explains simply. He looks over at the tea. “Thanks.” 

Harry glances back at the counter, relieved to find that there’s no pressing need for him to return to his post. So rather than waiting for an explicit invitation (this is his bakery, after all – if only technically), he just sits down in the chair opposite Louis. 

He folds one leg over he other and watches Louis carefully, watching to see what he might do. But he doesn’t really say anything; he sips tea and goes back to writing. 

“Can I hear some?” Harry finally asks, curiosity getting the best of him. He thinks that maybe he’s crossed some sort of boundary, but – well, he let Louis stay overnight at his flat. 

Louis peers over at him, eyes somewhat widened in surprise. 

“Hmm.” He licks his lips. “Afraid not, sorry. It’s nothing personal, it’s just – I don’t really share, you know? Not yet, anyway. At any rate, it’s shit.” 

Harry looks down to his lap so that his disappointment doesn’t show. 

“It’s probably not,” he mumbles.

But Louis only laughs, and really, is that his solution for everything? 

“Listen, what’re you doing after this?” 

Harry blinks. “This as in…work?” 

“Yeah.” 

“I dunno. Home, probably.” 

“Great,” he says rather genuinely. “I couldn’t help but notice during my last visit that you’ve got a record player, and as it so happens, I stumbled upon a vinyl copy of Helplessness Blues. I know, I’m like, a year late, but still – do you listen to Fleet Foxes?” 

Harry isn’t quite sure of the implication behind Louis’ question because, yeah, he’s got a record player, and no, he’s never listened to them, but Louis looks really excited, like this is some secret he’s been dying to share with someone. But he isn’t about to lie and make a (further) fool of himself, so he just shakes his head shamefully. 

“No. No, can’t say I do.” 

Louis thinks about that for a minute, then smiles anyway. 

“No matter. They’re American, but I’ll make you love them. I can already tell,” he says slowly, leaning over the table and whispering. “You’ll love them.” 

Harry swallows, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat and he hopes that Louis doesn’t see. 

“Yeah, okay.” 

And then Rebecca is screeching at him from behind, something about a plastic bin left in the oven or something, and he’s out of the chair, glancing over his shoulder to see Louis writing in his notebook, lost in his own world. 

***

“You like Salinger?” 

But Harry is walking out of the kitchen with two beers in hand, so he doesn’t hear. 

“What?” 

Louis pulls the yellowing book from the dusty bookcase and holds it up. 

“Salinger?” 

“Oh,” Harry says, feeling inexplicably exposed. He sits down on the couch and sets the beers on the coffee table – using coasters, of course. “Yeah, sort of. I’m more of a Nine Stories fellow than a Catcher in the Rye one, though.” 

Louis blinks in mild surprise before shelving the book back in its proper place. He collapses on the sofa next to Harry’s and grabs one of the proffered beers. 

“Wouldn’t have pegged you for the type,” he says in a way that should sound condescending, but somehow, it’s almost admiring coming from Louis. “Same here about Nine Stories, though. I love ‘For Esmé – with Love and Squalor’ in particular.” 

“Really?” Harry sips from his bottle. “Why that one?” 

Louis looks at him like he isn’t expecting the question. And in a glorious sort of alarming kind of way, he stares at Harry with a potent energy, almost like he might be seeing him for the first time. It’s rather unnerving, if Harry is being completely honest, because he hadn’t expected his simple question to elicit this sort of reaction. He feels like he’s staring into the sun – or maybe vice versa – with no chance of turning away. 

After a moment or two, Louis finally breaks contact and leans back, resting his head against the back of the couch and rubbing his temple with a free hand. 

“It’s romantic,” he says finally, voice soft and contemplative. “But not in the way you’d think.” 

Harry decides to press more. “You like romance then?” 

Louis laughs. “Truthfully? No, not really. Never really had time for romance.” 

There’s a strange sinking feeling somewhere inside Harry that he can’t quite pin to anything. 

“But – then why that one? Why bother if it’s romantic?” 

This time, Louis doesn’t have to think much. Instead, he shoots forward and he’s bent over, and though he isn’t particularly close, Harry still feels like he has to back away or something. 

“Because it’s life-affirming, I suppose.” His eyes kind of glaze over, and if he’d had more than just one beer, then Harry would have attributed it to drunkenness – or a buzz, at least. But there’s also something like clarity behind those blue orbs. “He’s off at war – gone for years. And here’s this girl and – well, with one letter, she manages to keep him tethered to reality while giving him hope at the same time.” 

“So?” He’s genuinely curious by now. 

So,” Louis replies with a hysteric sort of laugh. “It’s not love in the sense that they fall in love with each other. It’s love in the sense that she reminds him that life is worth living, in spite of all the shit that comes with it. He’s adrift and…well, she brings him back. And it’s beautiful.” 

Louis looks genuinely exhausted after his explanation, and he falls against the back of the sofa again, nursing his beer in earnest. 

All the while, Harry is just looking at him, and yeah, Nine Stories is one of his favorite works of fiction but no, he’s never really thought about it like that. Suddenly, he feels like a fraud in Louis’ company, pretending to enjoy things that he really has no business enjoying – not when he can’t find beauty in things quite like Louis can. It’s not entirely overwhelming, this sense of inadequacy, but he still feels like maybe he’s not the person that should be here sitting with Louis right now. 

Louis might be able to tell – no, he can definitely tell, because he shoots up from where he’s sitting and moves to position himself next to Harry. He wraps an uninhibited arm around the younger boy’s shoulder and pulls him in close, closer than they’ve really ever been, and Harry can smell something like apples and – huh, that’s not what he was expecting.

“You’re such an intriguing person,” Louis whispers, patting Harry’s shoulder simultaneously. 

“Thanks?” 

“You’re very welcome.” 

Harry feels like maybe he should pull away, even though he’s not the one responsible for putting them in this position. But still, it feels more intimate than he should be comfortable with and he can’t help but look at the clock and wonder when – or if – Louis plans on leaving tonight. He doesn’t know if the older boy’s circumstances have changed, or what brought him back to Holmes Chapel to begin with if he didn’t plan on staying that first time around. 

But before he can move away or even express any of the thoughts circulating in his head, Louis lets go first, only to give Harry a very serious sort of expression. 

“Harry?” 

“Yeah?” 

“Do you smoke?” 

And yeah, that’s the furthest question he could have expected. 

“Weed, I mean,” Louis expands, as though it needs clarification. 

“No,” Harry says, and immediately, he thinks he should’ve said something else because now, maybe he’s ruined something. 

But Louis seems unfazed. “Have you ever?” 

And honesty is supposedly the best policy even though it feels like the stupidest one at the moment. 

“No.” 

“Would you like to?” 

And before Harry really knows what’s going on, they’re outside under a cloak of darkness and stinking up his patio. He’s sure that his neighbors can smell everything, and yeah, they can probably hear him giggling madly because he’s always a laughing mess when he gets drunk and who’s to say that the same thing doesn’t happen when he gets high? 

He realizes that he actually lied to Louis earlier and that he has smoked before, but it was such a failure the first and only time it happened and it ended with him accompanying Niall to some dingy burger joint on the outskirts of town, so it wasn’t unreasonable to swear off the whole thing altogether. But something about being here with Louis, who repacks the bowl dutifully and wields the lighter effortlessly (he lights the bowl for Harry because they’re both sure he’d burn himself if he tried it himself), makes it enough of a redemptive experience that he wouldn’t mind trying it again down the road. 

That is, if Louis is around long enough for another time. 

So he’s high and his head is fuzzy and his mouth feels (and tastes) like sandpaper and there’s a tingling sensation creeping up his legs but the only thing he can do is bend over and rest his forehead against the small table that still takes up the most space in his tiny patio. He can feel Louis watching him amusedly, eyes wide and bloodshot, but he’s not really in the mindset to do anything. Instead, he can feel imminent hunger, and he laments the fact that he has class in the morning. 

“This was the worst idea,” Harry says, breathless and already too far gone to sound like he’s really complaining. 

But Louis seems well in control of his own faculties and he only shrugs, smirking slightly. 

“You could’ve said no.” 

Harry wants to say that, no, he couldn’t have, because saying no to Louis – though he’s never done it – seems impossible. So he slumps forward onto the table again. 

“Heya, Harry?” 

“Mm.” 

“Curly,” he says, a little sterner this time. “I’m going to ask you a question, and I’d like to make eye contact with you when you answer…just to make sure you mean it, okay?” 

His head feels heavy when he lifts it, but it feels like it could fly off once it’s upright. He grins stupidly in Louis’ direction. 

“Go for it.” 

Louis licks his lips. 

“Can I stay here again tonight?” 

Harry laughs wickedly and it sounds wrong, even when it’s coming out of his mouth. But he feels like he could jump off buildings and he’s – no, Harry, that’s LSD

“I thought you already were,” he offers.

And Louis laughs with him. 

***

When he comes to the next morning, mouth feeling like he’s swallowed a cat, he smells ham. 

This time, Louis is there when he wakes up, frying breakfast in the kitchen like he belongs there and grinning in Harry’s direction. 

***

And Louis stays for a week. Harry worries about him while he’s off at work or classes – not because he thinks the boy will steal anything from his flat or whatever, but because he doesn’t know how to keep Louis occupied when he’s gone. 

Then again, he reminds himself, Louis is the type to flit off and spend days – no, weeks or longer – on his own, so it shouldn’t be that much of a concern. 

Still, for that week, Harry grows accustomed to returning to the flat with a bag of leftover pastries – the first few days, he brings cookies, and for the days after that, it alternates between scones and tarts – and finding Louis perched somewhere on the patio, smoking a bowl or strumming his guitar or both. 

Liam, Zayn and Niall call several times during the week – especially Niall, who wants to come over and have Harry listen to this new song he’s written. But he doesn’t feel like letting them in on his private party (it’s not a party, but it feels like one) so he makes up an excuse about the flu or a stomach virus and he’ll see them when he feels better. Louis hears him each time, catches each lie, but he doesn’t ask any questions.

Harry thinks about asking Louis if he has anywhere to be, if he should call his mum or something and let her know where he is because that’s the kind of thing his mum would want to know. Then again, Louis doesn’t seem like the type to keep such courtesies at the fore of his mind, so he refrains. But that doesn’t keep him from wondering what someone like Louis – someone without any uni or work obligations – might do in their spare time. 

Soon enough, Harry is dying to figure out when Louis plans on leaving again. It’s the worst kind of suspense, to turn the lock to his flat every evening, unsure of who he might – or might not – find behind the door. But for those seven days, he sees Louis, and for each of those seven days, he can feel the tension building and he has to ball his hands into fists to remind himself that this is a weird arrangement – no, not even an arrangement at all, just some strange happenstance, and he has no business getting attached or expecting anything. 

One night, he hears Louis singing on the patio while he’s drying himself off in the bathroom after a shower. He takes his time patting himself down, pressed against the door and listening intently. He can’t make out any of the lyrics, but yeah, Louis’ voice is nice from what he can tell, and it’s almost like a lullaby with the way it matches the gentle chords coming off his guitar. 

As expected, Louis stops playing when he hears Harry open the door, and there’s mild disappointment in the way the music stops. When he comes out, he finds Louis reading a book, of all things, one from his collection. He looks up at Harry like he’s been doing this the whole time and just smiles before going back to his reading. 

Harry sits there in the silence, kind of in awe that this has been his life for a week. 

He can’t bring himself to be too surprised when he wakes up the next morning and finds the guitar gone and the flat empty. 

There’s no note this time but, hey, you can’t always get what you want. 

***

A week and a half later, the boys show up at the bakery. He’s put off hanging out with them long enough, and last week was no exception, not when exams piled up on top of each other. They’re not really cornering him because, well, he’s at work, but it’s not busy so they’re forcing him to sit down and have at least one pastry with them. 

“Danielle had a pregnancy scare,” Niall announces proudly, and Liam actually spits out some of his tea. 

“What – no, Niall, what are you saying?” There’s no truth behind the statement, but Liam’s face is beet red anyway, because, well, sex. “No, she didn’t.” 

Zayn smirks across the table and Harry watches the exchange with increasing amusement and curiosity. 

Niall shrugs, taking a bite from his custard tart and ignoring the vehement glare Liam is throwing his way. 

“Okay, she didn’t,” he admits easily. “But Hazza’s been out of the loop for a while and I wanted to make him feel like he missed something.”

Harry snorts and Liam frowns. 

“So you threw my girlfriend under the bus?” 

Niall shrugs again because there’s nothing Liam could say to make the Irish boy apologize, much less care

“So, Harry,” Liam says, pointedly changing the subject. “Niall’s right. Where’ve you been?” 

Harry breaks off a corner of his scone. 

“School. Work.” He ignores the way Zayn’s dark eyes seem to doubt him. 

But Liam is looking at him like he’s another problem to contend with. The concern and skepticism is palpable. 

“That’s never been a problem before,” he points out gently. 

“Something came up,” he goes with, and it’s unmistakable how Niall’s head suddenly shoots up from his side of the table and turns in Harry’s direction. It’s getting hot under his collar. 

“Something came up?” Liam repeats. 

Niall scoffs. “More like someone.” 

That’s enough to make Zayn audibly interested, grinning like he’s ready to take the piss. 

“Someone?” 

Harry wants to throw something at Niall’s head, anything to smack the smug smile off his face. Zayn’s smirk comes at a close second, and Liam’s eyebrows are perked upward, undeniably intrigued. He loves his boys, but really, they shouldn’t meddle where they’re not welcome. 

“No, not someone,” Harry deflects. “I’ve just been busy, that’s all. And sick. I told you all this.” 

No one seems prepared to accept his answer, but he shoots them all a warning glance that he rarely ever takes advantage of, so they keep any lingering questions at bay. But that doesn’t keep Zayn from smirking, Liam from frowning, and Niall from shaking his head, arguably struggling to stifle a knowing laugh. 

“We’ll find out eventually,” Niall promises, and it’s followed by a chorus of ‘yeah’ and ‘yes’ from the other boys.

Harry groans. 

***

The third time that Louis shows up, it’s early evening and Harry is almost certain that they can be called friends. In fact, he’s certain enough that he voices this assumption. 

“We’re friends, yeah?” 

If Louis is surprised by the question, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he sets his guitar against the wall and peels off his coat, tossing it on the couch with a surprising degree of familiarity. He cants his head to the side and gives Harry a peculiar sort of expression. 

“Thought that would’ve been obvious by now, mate,” is what he eventually responds with. 

Harry breathes easier after that, and he didn’t even realize he’d had trouble breathing in the first place. He grabs Louis a requisite beer from the fridge, not entirely surprised to find the older boy already splayed over the couch with his feet dangling off the edge. He stifles a chuckle because, really, it’s not that funny. 

But because they’re friends, he takes it upon himself to sit on top of Louis’ knees, a smug smile spreading across his face. 

“Ouch,” Louis complains. “You’re heavy, Haz.” 

“Rude,” he replies, taking a swig from the bottle meant for the other boy. 

“Hey,” he chastises before Harry hands him the beer. “By the way, I’m only here until tomorrow night. A mate of mine has a gig lined up for me a couple towns over. I don’t know where, but he’ll text me in the morning with details.” 

“Oh.” He thinks he should be upset, but at least this time, he knows when to expect Louis’ departure, and something about that is redeeming enough.

“Mind if I leave behind a few records? I think I’ll be back soon enough that I won’t really miss them on the road.” 

And – that’s new. There’s no explicit timeframe, but there’s that. 

“Uh.” He clears his throat and jumps a little when Louis bends his knees upward. “Yeah. Sure.” 

“Great. Mind fucking off then? Can’t really walk around when you’re sitting on me like this.” 

“Oh – yeah, sorry.” He slides off, not entirely sure of what to think at the moment. 

Louis slinks off to his rucksack over by his guitar, pulling out several vinyls that Harry can’t really glimpse from where he’s sitting, although he’s half-certain he sees something that looks like Of Monsters and Men and huh, he’s learning more about Louis’ music taste as the days go on. 

So Louis is filing his records along with Harry’s own on their designated shelf when he laughs, low and rumbling. Harry snaps his head up, disconcerted. 

“What?” 

Louis turns around with the record that he’s pulled out from the rest of them and – oh, it’s Pet Sounds

“The Beach Boys? Really?” The older boy is clearly amused as he inspects the distinctive cover art. 

“So?” Harry manages in an even voice, though his cheeks are getting warmer. 

“Nothing, I just – ”

“‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ is one of my favorite songs,” Harry is quick to defend. And for good measure, he adds, “Ever.” 

Louis blinks, processing this new piece of information. If Harry is subtle about the way he stores away all things Louis-related, then Louis is just the opposite. He always gets this look on his face, like he’s constantly surprised every time Harry offers something about himself, like it’s a big deal that he has an affinity for cats or warm milk. These are things that everyone around him should know, and yet Louis takes it and analyzes it in a way that allows the rest of the world to see. 

And it’s only mildly unsettling to realize that he’s responsible for the way that Louis’ face flickers through about a thousand different emotions in half a second. 

“Okay,” he finally says, like he’s decided something. He shelves the record away. “It’s a good song.” 

“Yeah,” Harry says resolutely. “It is.” 

Louis slumps down next to him, and Harry can’t even remember when they’d gone from sitting on opposite couches to sharing the same one. These aren’t thoughts he’d be having if it were anybody else, but. 

“So,” he says, kicking Harry’s foot playfully. “What were you doing before I interrupted your evening? Something exciting, I’m sure.” 

Harry scowls, but ends up smiling anyway. 

“I dunno. I’ve had this French film out from the uni library for half a month now and it’s due tomorrow, so I was going to watch it tonight.” 

Louis groans. “A foreign film? A French film?” 

Harry chuckles. “Why? Do you have something against the French?” 

“Nothing that hasn’t been held against them before,” Louis muses, brandishing an arm dramatically. “Anyway, I hate foreign films. I like reading, but not when I’m watching a movie, yeah? And they’re never nearly as profound or meaningful as others make them out to be. Don’t you have a horror channel or something?” 

Harry squirms. “Yeah, I do. But I hate horror films.” 

Louis swats his arm, obviously in an attempt to chastise his life choices. “What? They’re gory, atrociously acted, and altogether just horrible cinema. They’re perfect!”

Harry shrugs. “I hate them for all those reasons. Besides, I’m not nearly as lion-hearted as I might have led you to believe.” 

“Oh, Hazza.” Louis cards his fingers through Harry’s wavy locks and – that’s not something he expected to enjoy. But he almost hums into the older boy’s palm. “No worries. You haven’t led me to believe anything of the sort.” 

“Utter twat,” Harry grumbles, tearing away from Louis and aiming for his stomach with a fist before it’s caught in mid-air and thrown to the side. 

“Try harder next time, love.” Louis stands up, eyes gleaming with mischief. “I’ve got a plan then.” 

Harry sighs. “Should I prepare myself mentally beforehand?” 

The older boy frowns. “No – shut up. Since neither of us seems content to see reason – ” 

“See reason? This is my flat, you know. I don’t have to see anything.” 

Louis waves him away. “Regardless. What I was saying was – we can just watch half of each movie.” 

“What?” 

“Half of each movie. You can even choose the half of each that you’d like to watch.” 

“What?” 

“Honestly.” Louis shakes his head, though he’s smiling. “It’s called compromise. Heard of it, Curly?” 

Harry scowls, but he’s well aware that arguing won’t exactly solve anything, so he acquiesces with a light nod and Louis is practically bouncing when he leaps onto the couch and sits himself next to the younger boy. 

“Brilliant. Your film first, then. Get the boring stuff out of the way.” 

He can’t think of anything else to say to that, so he fetches the remotes and turns on the film. Only five minutes into it, Louis is already feigning sleep, throwing in several loud, obnoxious snores for the hell of it. And it isn’t until Harry has to elbow him sharply in his side that he stops, but by then, he’s already ruined the mood (“What mood?” Louis asks. “The mood to watch a fucking foreign film,” Harry returns, but he’s not actually that upset) and neither of them can really concentrate. 

So it’s with a giddy smile on his face (one that Harry wants to slap off) that Louis takes charge of the remotes and skims through several channels before he lands on the horror one, and he immediately turns off all the lights, sending Harry careening into his room before he pads back out with a pillow and a blanket – for comfort and not protection, he insists. 

Still, they’re barely twenty minutes into some terrible movie called Shadow Puppets and Harry is burrowing his way under the sheets and into Louis’ chest. He’d be more self-conscious of his shamelessness if he weren’t more concerned about pissing himself in fear. It’s almost pathetic how easily terrified he gets – it doesn’t help that it’s dark, and he’s not the biggest fan of the dark – and he wishes he were at least strong-willed enough to keep from dragging Louis down with him. 

But Louis doesn’t seem to mind. He inches closer – impossibly closer – to Harry, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and muttering something reassuring that ends up unheard when a loud clatter explodes from the television. He practically jumps and grips at the fabric of Louis’ shirt. 

“Christ, Hazza,” Louis says disbelievingly. 

But his grip on Harry’s shoulder is steady as ever. 

***

When Louis leaves, he feels exactly how Harry thinks he will: disappointed if not a little numb, though he thinks he has no business feeling either of those things. It’s not like he falls into mild sadness whenever Liam, Niall, or Zayn leave his flat. 

But there’s the comforting notion of having several of Louis’ records there, and it’s not really supposed to mean anything, but it’s just nice to have a little something left behind. He pulls one out on a whim the day after Louis leaves and pops it onto the record player. Within three days, he’s listened to all of them several times over, and he decides that LCD Soundsystem is his favorite. 

At any rate, “I Can Change” plays on repeat in his head for the remainder of the week – on his walk from class to class, on the walk home, and when he pulls a tray of biscuits out of the oven at the bakery. 

It’s later that weekend when there’s a knock on his door and he’s home for once, and not working at the bakery, which is great but not really at the same time, because he might actually miss it. Besides, it’s the only welcome distraction from the very apparent lack of – well, it doesn’t matter. 

Still, he practically leaps from the couch to the front door in one stride, and he tries not to let any trace of disappointment show when he sees Niall standing on the other side. 

“Hey, mate.” The blond boy doesn’t bother with any invitations; he makes his way in. 

“Nialler,” he greets, shutting the door behind him. 

“The boys and I haven’t seen you in a while,” he says, plopping down on the couch. And when he sees the shiftiness in Harry’s eyes, he’s quick to amend it. “Oh, don’t worry. I mean, Liam and Zayn are obviously heartbroken, but I’ve managed rather well without you, to be honest.” 

“Arse,” Harry grumbles, kicking his friend lightly in his calf and sitting down next to him. “Sorry, I’ve been – ” 

“Busy,” Niall finishes, rather knowingly. “Understandable.” Then after a beat, “Have you been seeing Louis, then?” 

By now, he’s used to Niall’s brazen attitude regarding, well, just about anything. And there’s no point in pretending like he’s been doing otherwise, so he just nods. 

“Nice. When’d you see him last?” 

“About a week ago.” 

Niall looks around the flat, his eyes sweeping every open space and corner for no discernible reason. They finally land on Louis’ vinyls, which have since been splayed on the coffee table ever since he made the subconscious decision to not listen to anything else. 

“Those aren’t yours,” he comments obviously. 

Harry swallows. “He let me borrow them.” 

But Niall just offers that same grin that always seems to suggest he knows more than he lets on, and it makes Harry’s insides squirm because he should feel at ease talking to his best mate about things like this. But he doesn’t exactly know what ‘this’ is, nor does he quite know if Louis would be comfortable discussing it with outside parties – not that there’s a discussion to have, anyway. 

“Okay,” he eventually says, though his eyes have wandered back to the incriminating vinyls. “Oh, don’t forget about my show.” 

“Show?” 

“The one over at the coffeehouse down the street?” Niall frowns. “You mean to tell me you’ve forgotten already?” 

“Niall,” Harry says wearily, rubbing his eyes. “That’s a month away.” 

“Still. I expect you to keep track of these things.” Then, after a few moments, “Bring Louis if you want.” 

Harry almost says ‘okay,’ but bites his lip at the last moment. There’s no guarantee that Louis will be in town within a month, if he’ll even be in a thirty-mile radius. And it almost frightens him how easily his acquiescence almost came, how easy it is to include Louis in future plans. It’s particularly unnerving when he considers that Louis probably never figures Harry into his plans – not that he has plans to begin with. 

He doesn’t even know if Louis plans his visits to Holmes Chapel - Harry’s flat, in particular – beforehand, or if he just ends up there because he needs a place to stay. The latter seems most likely and somehow, it makes Harry feel dispensable. 

But Niall seems to catch onto his hesitation and just says, “Ah, yeah. If he’s around. Well, here’s hoping that he is.”

“Yeah, here’s hoping,” Harry mutters. 

Niall shoots up and walks off to the kitchen. 

“I’m getting the beers. The least you can do is order the fucking pizza.” 

***

But Harry doesn’t have time to think about when or if Louis will even come back sometime in the future, because he’s there now, and now is all that matters. 

There are shoes now where there shouldn’t be. It’s when he walks into the flat after a long night at the bakery and the lights are off in the living room and he knows that Louis is sleeping, so he doesn’t turn any of them on and he keeps as quiet as a church mouse. But that all goes to hell when he trips on a pair of boots – it’s never really occurred to him that Louis wears boots; he figures Louis must do a lot of walking whenever he’s gone – that aren’t normally in front of the door. He yelps and goes careening several feet before flopping on his stomach, jolting Louis awake and it only takes a fraction of a second for the older boy to piece together what’s happened and he’s laughing and Harry’s belly is sore, but he’s laughing, too. Louis says he won’t leave them there anymore, that he’s usually very careful about that, but they’re there the next morning and the morning after that and the morning after that. 

Then there’s a toothbrush in the bathroom where there usually isn’t one. He’s never really seen Louis brush his teeth, but that’s because he locks the door whenever he goes to the loo and it’s almost as if he hides his bag of toiletries like he hides everything else about himself. But there’s one morning when Harry is running late for class and he sticks the toothbrush into his mouth and he’s halfway through his routine before he notices that the stick protruding from his mouth is orange and his – the one that’s still sitting in a cup by the sink – is blue. 

Suddenly there are new pairs of socks in his sock drawer, ones that vary annoyingly in color – green, red, purple, several neon ones, as well – and stick out very distinctly from his garden variety white ones. And it’s only three days after that when he pulls out a few boxer briefs from under the pile and – okay, he moves his socks into his underwear drawer because really, it’s not that big a deal to spare one drawer for Louis. By the week’s end, the drawer is bursting with pants and shirts that Harry didn’t even know Louis could fit into that little rucksack of his, so he empties out another drawer to make room. 

One time, while Louis is out on a coffee run (“How the fuck don’t you have coffee in our flat” and “I’ll be back, I promise,” and he even makes a big deal of leaving behind his guitar just to emphasize his point), he’s flipping through his DVD collection to find some Disney movie that’ll distract him from the day’s low test score and it takes him several minutes to realize that there are more discs in there than usual, some of which he’s never even heard and – fuck almighty, at least half of them are horror movies that he’s never heard of nor wants anything to do with. When he confronts Louis about it that evening over some Chinese takeout, Louis shrugs and says something about not wanting to scratch the discs in his bag. And okay, that makes sense. 

And it’s been a month and Louis hasn’t shown any signs of leaving and that has nothing at all to do with the way that Harry sits up one Saturday morning, complaining about how his couch has been hurting his back. Louis just gives him a dismissive look, mentions how he’s been sleeping on that couch for weeks now and it’s never done anything to bother him, much less upset his back. Still, Harry argues, that couch is old and it’s a hand-me-down from the old house he had with his family and isn’t it time for something new – so he drags Louis (who spends most of the day rolling his eyes and scoffing) to the nearest furniture shop to help him pick out a new couch, one that has a pull-out bed. 

Why do you need a pull-out bed?” Louis huffs, obviously distressed from having to spend time away from the flat and his guitar and the lyrics that he’ll never let Harry hear. “You have your own bed in your own room, after all.” 

“For guests,” he replies quickly, walking as far ahead of Louis as possible, but never far enough that he can’t turn around and grab the other boy if he decides to dart off. “The boys like to sleep over sometimes.” 

Louis mentions that the boys never sleep over and that he hasn’t even met the boys, but Harry pretends like he can’t hear because he’s too busy listening to this salesman inform him about all the merits of this particular couch that’s more or less the same color of the one that he’s replacing and yes, he’ll take it, much to Louis’ chagrin. 

When the deliverymen haul the couch into the living room the next morning and take away the old one when they leave, Louis glares at it like he hates it, like it’s something he can’t quite accept even though Harry will swear to the moon and back that this has nothing to do with Louis, but the way the old one started to get all stiff and lumpy. 

But Louis is cautious and silent for the rest of the day and keeps to himself on the patio, humming some tune that Harry desperately wishes he could know the words to. By mid-afternoon, Harry decides he’s had enough of this, so he leaves without telling the boy and comes back with several rented horror movies and a week’s worth of sweets and junk food. When Louis looks up at him, Harry silences him with an expression that he hopes resembles resoluteness and not something silly like affection and directs him to the living room, where the pull-out bed is…well, pulled out, and draped in sheets and yeah, it looks like a real bed.

Harry plays one of the movies and Louis is more or less coming to terms with the new couch, and it only takes ten minutes before the first on-screen death and Louis is practically bouncing in excitement while Harry clutches off to the side, wrapped in his cocoon of blankets. 

And once all the gummy bears have gone and half the licorice is depleted, they’ve started the third movie and Harry isn’t off to the side anymore, but wrapped in strong arms that smell like Louis, who’s trying his best to pay attention to the movie but it’s so hard when the new couch or bed or whatever you call it is so comfortable. 

***

Time doesn’t really have meaning when one’s not paying attention to it, and Harry knows that’s not the best mentality for someone with dual obligations to university and the bakery, but who gives a fuck. 

He’s climbing the stairs to his flat where Louis is waiting, and that’s what makes him breathless each time, and not because of the stairs. Miraculously enough, Louis has been around for longer than Harry could have ever dreamt of, though it’s something he’ll never express out loud because he thinks it might be equivalent to holding a glass from the top of a three-story building and letting it fall. But the fact that he can pretty much depend on seeing the older boy on his couch or on the patio each time he comes home is sort of a miracle in and of itself. 

But when he gets to his floor, he’s more than a little surprised because he sees Louis, but he’s out in the hallway and not in the flat where he’s used to finding him. 

He’s out in the hallway and he’s talking to Liam, Zayn, and Niall. 

Harry nearly trips over himself on his sprint down the hall to the unlikely cluster of boys, all of whom turn upward just in time to catch the panicked expression on his face. Zayn and Niall share a smirk while Liam offers a genuine look of concern, like there’s real reason for him to be running right now. And Louis just beams. 

“Met your mates,” he says cheerily. “Finally.” 

Harry shoots his three friends an accusatory glare, and they seem unperturbed. 

“We thought you’d be here,” Liam says softly, and he seems genuine enough. “But Louis opened the door instead.” 

“Almost right away, too,” Niall cuts in, decidedly unapologetic. “Sometimes, Harry’ll be a prat about it and make us wait at the door until he feels like opening it.” 

“Princess Harry, we call him,” Zayn offers, and they fall into a fit of chuckles. 

Harry feels his cheeks flush with color because no, they don’t call him that, except for that one time but one time doesn’t warrant mentioning it in the first place. And his face must be getting redder because Louis is laughing, too, legitimately amused by the nickname. His laughter is light and bubbly and Harry wants to keel over. 

“What’re you doing here anyway?” Harry grumbles, his feet shifting awkwardly. 

Niall actually frowns at that one and Harry can’t fathom why. 

“What?” 

“My show,” Niall says exasperatedly. “You know, the one that I told you to keep track of? It’s tonight?” 

“It’s tonight?” 

“Yeah,” Louis interrupts before Niall can shout any one of the expletives threatening to burst from his mouth at the next second. “And the boys were nice enough to invite me.” 

The boys

Harry stares at them, mouth agape, and Liam and Zayn are nodding enthusiastically and yeah, it looks like they really want Louis to come. 

“You don’t have to if you don’t want – ” Harry starts to tell Louis. 

But Niall’s expression tempers out and instead, he’s giving Harry his best shit-eating grin. 

“No, Louis has to come,” he says with a subtle arch of his brows. “At least he seems to care enough about my show to want to come.” 

“He didn’t even know about it until today,” Harry mutters under his breath. 

“No thanks to you, Curly.” Louis walks over to him and slings an arm around his shoulder, pulling him in for a one-armed embrace.

He notices the way his mates share knowing glances with each other out of the corner of his eye, but he can’t bring himself to say anything, not when it’s been two months and Louis is actually here

***

It’s really just an unassuming coffeehouse with concrete floors and local artwork lining the walls of exposed brick. It’s only slightly bigger than the bakery but it’s nothing special, and when he says as much out loud, Louis nudges him in the side and calls his loyalty to the bakery ‘admirable,’ whatever that means. 

They’re seated just in front of the small performance area set up toward the back of the building, which has since been cleared of its usual chairs and tables. It’s not decorated with much to set it apart from the rest of the room, save for a patterned rug and a stool and a microphone standing in front of it. There aren’t too many people here, but Niall tells them that it should fill up with the usual evening crowd just in time for his set. Then he disappears into the back room. 

“This is kind of cool,” Louis whispers in Harry’s ear midway through the second act of the night. 

Harry swallows some of his chai. “Really? You don’t think this is lame?” 

“Nah, it’s nice. Never would’ve pegged Holmes Chapel as a breeding ground for things like this.” He shrugs. “Why, do you think it’s lame?” 

There isn’t really a challenge in the way Louis asks him that, but he feels like it’s a test, nonetheless. 

“No,” he replies truthfully as Liam shushes him for talking too loud. 

Louis smiles at that and moves along the curve of the table so that he’s a little closer to Harry, causing their elbows bump against each other. 

When it’s Niall’s turn, they’ve gone through four other performers altogether, yet somehow the coffeehouse is filled with more people than when they first arrived. Niall seems to really know this place like the back of his hand, and the idea is only further emphasized when there’s a light smatter of applause as he sits on the stool with his guitar. Several people in the crowd shout his name and he shoots them a familiar smile. 

“Go Niall!” Louis’ cry of encouragement startles Harry and – well, it’s not like he, Liam or Zayn are catcalling, and that makes him feel a little like shit on the inside. 

“Yeah, Niall!” 

“You’ve got this, Nialler!” Liam and Zayn tack onto the end, and by then, Niall is blushing under the spotlight. 

As Niall tunes his guitar a final time, Harry can’t help but look at Louis in the meantime. He wonders if this is what it’s always like for the other boy – surprising the people around him by making them want to become better versions of themselves. He wonders what it must be like to have that kind of impact on people. 

But Louis is so immersed in Niall’s stage presence once he starts, and why wouldn’t he be? It occurs to him that this is the kind of thing Louis lives for, the kind of thing he must do whenever he’s out and about and not spending his time consoling Harry through horror movie after horror movie. As Niall strums the first chords to his opening song – one that he recognizes because it’s one of the first songs he ever played not just for Harry, but for anyone – Harry notices the mesmerized quality to Louis’ intense stare, and he senses something like yearning in the boy sitting next to him. 

Niall’s voice is sweet; it always is. But it took a long time to be more than just sweet, took practice and refinement before he felt confident enough to play in front of crowds – before it became the smoothness that it was now. And Harry feels that pang of jealousy once more, the one he only ever feels when he sees his best mate doing whatever it takes to make his dreams come true. 

Harry looks over again, and as he wonders what it would be like to see Louis onstage eventually, he thinks – yeah, it’d be nice to make his dreams come true, too. 

***

“Excellent set, mate! Really, that was fucking amazing!” 

Louis is clapping Niall on the back, and if Harry is surprised by the older boy’s sudden burst of affection, then the blond boy is even more so, turning an embarrassing shade of pink from the contact. Liam and Zayn stifle a chortle each, and Niall swats at them both with his free hand. 

“Erm,” the Irish boy says, clearing his throat. “Thanks – I mean, really?” 

But Louis is beaming, like there couldn’t be any other truth in the world, and the genuine emotion there is enough to unnerve Harry. 

“Yeah, really,” he replies, sobering a little as the lights in the coffeehouse dim impossibly lower. “Trust me, I’ve seen a fair share of acts on the road and – shit, Niall, you’ve honestly got something going for you. Real talent. I’m a bit jealous, if I’m to be honest.” 

And Niall is blushing even more and Harry thinks he might be joining him. Even if it’s not, it feels like a monumental occasion; he thinks that Niall probably hasn’t heard as earnest a compliment as Louis’, and he thinks that this is probably Louis’ first time giving one, too. He’s seen Louis get excited before – for tea, for a chance to shower before Harry, for a doughnut whenever he manages to bring one from the bakery – but this is a different kind of excitement, borne from some kind of untouchable passion. 

“Wow,” Niall breathes disbelievingly. “We’ll – you’ll play guitar with me sometime, yeah? We have to now.” 

Harry watches Louis for a reaction and expects him to blanche or frown or something of the sort. Instead, he knits his brows together before relaxing into warm smile. 

“Definitely.” 

And Niall is content enough with the promise (it’s more of a promise than Harry’s ever gotten from Louis, but he won’t think about that now) to turn around and set Liam and Zayn straight for whatever mocking comments they’ve been making under their breaths. 

“Drinks, then?” Zayn shifts away from the other two boys and directs the question at Harry and Louis. “C’mon Lou, you’ll have to get pissed with us eventually.” 

“I can’t drink,” Liam says as if by reflex, appearing at the mocha-skinned boy’s side. “But you can drink on my behalf. Nialler’s treating, after all.” 

“Oi, no I’m not.” Niall looks like he might whack Liam across the head with his guitar, but thinks better of it at the last possible moment. “I’ve just played a show for free. I doubt I can afford to buy a pint for each of you, love you all though I might.” 

Louis laughs comfortably, like this kind of banter is familiar to him, nevermind the fact that he’s only properly known them for all of an evening. They’re looking at him expectantly with a sort of eagerness to hang out that Harry’s never really seen before, and he can’t really blame them; the four of them are best mates, but it’s been forever since they added a new element to that dynamic. 

“Honestly, I’m sort of tired. I had plans to lounge around on the couch – though I’m incredibly glad I didn’t!” he adds when Niall puts on a show of feigned offense. “But even a sip of beer might send me off completely, so I’m afraid I’ll have to take a rain check. Take Haz, though, and make sure to send me pictures when he’s completely gone.” 

“You’re no fun. At least Harry’s fun when he’s drunk,” Zayn observes casually and Niall agrees from beside him. 

Harry frowns and Louis nudges him in the back. 

“Seriously, you’ll have loads of fun without me. Thanks so much for inviting me, though – ” 

“I’m staying in with Louis,” and four pairs of eyes travel to where Harry is standing. 

After several requisite whats and whys, he rolls his eyes and wishes that everything didn’t need an explanation with them. 

“I’ll be fine, Haz,” Louis says reassuringly. “You’ve left me in the flat alone before, and I swear I won’t steal anything.” 

“Nothing worth stealing in that dingy old flat anyway,” Liam quips, and it has the other boys barking with laughter.

“No, I’m tired, too,” Harry says, adding a yawn for emphasis. “It’s best.”

He thinks he might see a flash of something like disappointment in the other boy’s blue eyes, but he’s not sure. 

***

“Is everything okay?” 

Harry toes off his shoes and watches as Louis makes a beeline for the kitchen the moment they walk through the front door, only to emerge with furrowed brows and a beer in hand. The journey back to the flat was spent entirely in silence, other than the occasional cleared throat or sigh of exasperation from the older boy, who seemed mentally distracted even as he kicked a discarded soda can along the pavement.

Louis doesn’t look up from where he’s collapsed on the couch, gripping his bottle with two hands and resting his socked feet on the coffee table. 

“Yeah.” 

He probably shouldn’t assume that he understands Louis in any real capacity, but he just knows that the older boy is lying. 

“You’re sulking,” he says. He resists the temptation to sit by Louis’ side and settles on the adjacent sofa instead. 

“I am not sulking.” 

“I thought you had a really good time,” he continues anyway. “You and the boys seemed to get along really well and it looked like you really enjoyed the music.” 

Louis sips from his beer before replying with, “I’m fine, Harry.” 

And it’s said in a way that’s meant to imply ‘back off’ or ‘leave me alone; I don’t want to talk about it,’ but Harry doesn’t think he could listen to any of those warnings when it comes to Louis. He’s too far-gone as it is. 

“No you’re not.” So he stands up and actually sits next to Louis, who squirms from the sudden proximity and instinctively angles his body away and closer to the armrest. “You were happy and now you’re not.” 

“Happy,” Louis says carefully, like he’s getting a real taste for the word. Then he scoffs. 

“What is it?” 

“Harry – ” 

Louis.” He hopes that his voice is steady and stern enough, but he’s shaking on the inside. “I know you think you’re opaque and unreadable and all that, but you’re rather obvious when something is bothering you.” 

Louis opens his mouth like he might protest, but his shoulders slacken as though he’s given up and he brings a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. He sighs for what must be the seventeenth time that night. 

“I wish I could be like Niall.” The confession sounds exhausting coming from his mouth, and Harry waits for the rest of it with bated breath. “It’s all so natural for him. He doesn’t have to wander around, searching for a place or an audience to play his music. He just plays, and it’s like that’s all he needs, like he’s happy enough with that. I just – I wish I could be like Niall.” 

Even if Harry wants to say something, even if he wants to tell him that Niall is a naturally happy person, even if he wants to tell him that he can finally stop searching – he doesn’t get the chance. Louis puts his bottle on the coffee table and stands up. 

“I’m going to get ready for bed.” Then he pads off to the bathroom. 

Harry takes it as his cue to drop the subject. Now he understands the look of disappointment from earlier; Louis wanted to be alone. But none of that matters at this point because Harry knows that when he wakes up, Louis won’t be here anymore. 

***

When Louis does come back almost two weeks later, he enters the flat with Liam, Zayn, and Niall trailing behind him. Harry gawks at them in surprise. 

“Found them wandering the streets and I thought I’d offer them shelter here,” he tells Harry before kissing him lightly on the cheek. 

And though he questions the truth behind the statement, he doesn’t press any further because his mates are staring over with a wonky sort of expression that flits back and forth between him and Louis. He should be annoyed that they’re suddenly here without an invitation, and he should probably tell Louis that he can’t just show up whenever he feels like it, not when he practically shut Harry off during their last conversation. 

But then Niall is harping on about pizza and Louis is volunteering to pay and there are beers on the table and he figures he’ll let it go for tonight. 

***

Harry spends the rest of the night eating pizza and drinking beer until his stomach feels bloated and his mind goes fuzzy. He feels rather useless, especially when Zayn and Liam ask him to settle a FIFA-related argument. 

And anyway, it’s not like he can really focus his attention on anyone but Louis, who seems to be pressed rather comfortably against Niall on the other couch. The two have discussed everything from dream venues and guitar preferences to favorite bands and songs that make them cry. He doesn’t think it’s anything to get worked up over, but there’s an unexpected sting of jealousy that spikes in his stomach, hot and unsettling. And it only gets worse as Niall moves closer to the other boy in his increasing drunkenness, while Louis (who doesn’t seem to be drinking anything, Harry notices) accepts the proximity. 

By the time it reaches 1 in the morning, Liam and Zayn have fallen asleep on top of each other on the floor and Niall has slumped over onto Louis’ shoulder. The older boy seems to have followed suit, his head tilted back against the back of the couch and his chest rising with deep, even breaths. 

He doesn’t quite have the heart to wake them up and send them on their way, especially when they’ve had that much to drink. But he doesn’t feel like sleeping in his living room, either, so he turns off the light and ambles over to his bedroom, grabbing at the wall for support; he doesn’t recall even having drank this much. 

His head feels like lead, but it lightens drastically once he’s thrown himself onto the bed. He’s not that drunk – more like exhausted, and so he wrestles out of his clothes and wriggles beneath the covers until he’s comfortable at last. Imagery of the mess outside runs through his mind, but it’s a concern best left for the morning. 

It’s only been five minutes – though it feels like an hour – when Harry hears his door creak open and the sound of footsteps creeping toward him. 

“Wha – ?” 

“Harry.” 

But he doesn’t need to open his eyes to know that voice, to know that it’s Louis sneaking into bed with him. And fuck, that thought is enough to bring about a wave of panic mingled with nausea and confusion.

For both their sakes, he shifts off as closely to the edge of the bed as possible, working himself away from the new body beside him. 

“What’re you doing here?” he grumbles sleepily. And when he opens his eyes, he’s more than a little surprised to find Louis’ eyes so dangerously near his own, a sliver of light pouring in from outside and the tips of their noses close enough that they could touch given the right movement forward. But Harry’s so shocked, he’s practically frozen in place. 

Louis blinks back at him through eyelashes and Harry thinks about how he’s never noticed how long and inviting those lashes are. Is it even possible for lashes to be inviting? If the urge to reach out and touch is anything to go by, then yeah, it’s possible. 

“It got crowded in there,” he says, and his cheekbones are proving to be quite the distraction, as well. 

“But you were sleeping.” 

He thinks it’s the kind of stupid comment that would make Louis laugh right then, but he doesn’t deliver. Instead, he reaches out and rests and hand on Harry’s cheek, and he feels the skin beneath Louis’ palm flare with heat and fill with color. Suddenly, the sheets feel claustrophobic. 

“Not really,” he says simply and it’s the most convincing argument in the 21st century. 

Harry swallows, but it doesn’t change anything; his throat is still dry as fuck when he asks, “So…why are you in my room?” 

But that’s when Louis shifts a knee forward, bringing it into contact with Harry’s bare thigh and – that’s when they both realize just how naked he is right now. In fact, he feels his entire body flush with the realization of it. 

“You sleep naked,” Louis casually observes, ignoring the hitch in Harry’s breath. 

“Sorry,” he sputters just above a whisper. “I didn’t think – I wasn’t expecting company – ” And he sounds like a flustered housewife, but that all comes to a halt when he feels a hand on his waist. 

That’s enough to make him stop breathing altogether, because he didn’t even realize that Louis had taken his hand off his cheek, much less slipped it under the covers and onto an expanse of Harry’s skin. 

“Louis – ” 

“I’ve never really paid you back, you know.” And Louis’ eyes momentarily glaze over, like he’s given this particular method of payment considerable thought, and that very notion is enough to send Harry’s stomach into somersaults. “For putting up with me and everything.”

“I never asked for payment,” he says hoarsely. The walls feel like they’re closing in.

“You really should,” Louis says, and the grip on his waist tightens. “You’re too nice.” And suddenly, he’s palming at the erection Harry didn’t even know he had. 

It’s the most overwhelming onslaught of emotion. On one hand, there’s the very frightening prospect that either one of the boys outside could wander into the room and catch them. On the other, there’s the expected confusion and surprise of Louis touching him, especially in this way. And finally, there’s just the sheer frustration of craving the contact of Louis’ hand against his heated flesh, but he’s still under the blankets. 

Louis must sense the latter, because he ruts his hand a little more firmly before pulling back and letting his eyes catch Harry’s. It’s the most innocence that Louis has ever shown, because the way he looks right now, he’s asking for permission, and Harry wants nothing more than to give it to him – consequences be damned. 

So he wordlessly acquiesces by bucking his hips forward – and that’s that for Louis. He does the practical thing of tossing the comforter aside and freeing Harry from his confines. Harry gasps at the cool air hitting his skin, but the sensation is quickly replaced by the one of Louis’ warm hand grabbing at him and slowly – tantalizingly twisting upward. 

Oh.” 

His entire body quivers and his nose actually does hit Louis’, but the older boy huffs a breathless laugh. It’s dark, but Harry can see the way that Louis’ eyes trail down to his working hand, and he doesn’t miss the way his cheeks bloom with color. 

Harry can’t think of anything to describe this. His ears are humming and his mind is nothing but white noise from the way that Louis is touching him. It’s a fleeting thought, but it’s suddenly very apparent that this isn’t Louis’ first time doing this. There’s a sort of intensity on his face begotten by experience and it’s clear that he knows more than just making himself feel good; he knows how to make others feel good, as well. 

If there’s a brief flash of jealousy from considering how many other blokes Louis has done this with, then it’s instantly cast away with Louis’ next upstroke, which sends goosepimples running down every direction; he’s just happy to be one of those blokes. 

He wants to over-think this, wants to question it until it’s turned inside out filleted for examination. But Louis probably catches onto it, because he’s leaning forward and pressing a light kiss to his cheek, almost as if to say ‘let yourself enjoy this.’ And if there’s one person that Harry is willing to take orders from, it’s Louis. So he does. 

His eyes are fluttering and he can’t believe he’s living in a world where he’s getting a hand job from Louis; falling asleep any other way seems unreasonable now. He chances a glance over in the other boy’s direction every couple of seconds before casting his eyes back to the ceiling above, praying to any higher power to keep him from coming too soon. He wants to enjoy this for as long as he can, wants to see Louis this concentrated and dedicated to making him feel good. In a way, he’s almost certain this is the greatest kindness he’s ever been given. 

The desire to make it last grows by the second, but its progression rolls in tandem with the need to come – hard, fast, and now. He can’t keep himself from groaning, and when Louis leans in and whispers, “You look so good like this, Haz,” that’s when he loses it. His eyes roll into the back of his skull as he spills over onto Louis’ hand, his body shaking and his breath stuttering unflatteringly. 

Without thinking, he reaches his left hand out and wraps it around Louis’ wrist, rubbing the skin there with the pad of his thumb. Louis makes a quiet humming sound before pulling away from Harry and tossing his legs over the side of the bed. 

“Where – what?” That’s as much as he can manage; the air is just now slowly coming back to him. 

“Cleaning myself up. You made a bit of a mess.” And he chuckles at that before slinking off to the loo. 

He can’t bring himself to argue, so he stays in bed, utterly spent and even more exhausted than before. There’s a creeping sense of happiness inside him, because he didn’t think anything like this would have ever happened with Louis. But in its aftermath, Harry isn’t so much concerned with the why of the matter. Much like cleaning up the flat, he’d rather leave that for the next day; he just wants Louis to come back. 

And almost like he couldn’t get luckier, Louis returns only five minutes later, this time shutting the door behind him and slipping into bed beside Harry. He pulls the duvet up and over their bodies, and Harry instinctively curls up into the boy’s side; he figures that much is allowed by now. 

Louis doesn’t seem to protest, but it’s not like he’s throwing himself at Harry either. Instead, he just wraps an arm around the boy’s shoulders and pulls him in closer like he knows what Harry wants. 

In the darkness, Harry wants to say thank you a million times. But Louis is already talking. 

“I’ve got to leave again tomorrow.” 

And Harry wants to say something, but sleep is so heavy and powerful and present and just so wonderful that he’s not even sure he’s heard him properly. 

***

Keeping good on his promise, Louis isn’t there when Harry wakes up the next morning. But he figures that it might actually be a good thing. 

None of the boys have questions when he pads out into the living room, but he can’t imagine that they have any idea about last night’s goings-on, either. They help him clean up and no one seems too concerned with Louis’ disappearance, almost like they knew themselves. However, Harry’s eyes catch Liam’s more than once throughout the morning, and though he ignores it, he doesn’t miss the flash of concern in his friend’s stare. 

When they finally leave, Harry wonders if he’s different – if everything is different. 

Louis isn’t a guarantee; Harry knows that. He’s known it from the moment all of this (not that he can quite identify what ‘this’ is) started: Louis leaves and he’s not to ask any questions about it. He can’t even imagine what the other boy might be doing when he’s away. More than that, he can’t imagine what brings him back to Holmes Chapel each time.

He – He thinks he knows why. Or at least, he wants to believe he knows why. And it’s pathetic, really, not to mention potentially self-damaging, but – well, he only ever comes to Harry’s, and he figures that that must say something about all of this. 

He’s not a fool; he knows that he’s a little gone for Louis, the boy with no home and no destination. Anything that he might have dismissed as a secondary school crush has come roaring back to life in recent months, more so now that he actually knows Louis, knows him beyond the fleeting idea of the sweet-faced boy in his sister’s year. And he knows that his perspective of their whole situation is more than slightly distorted by this…infatuation. 

But now, he wonders if it could ever be a mutual thing. And in the days following that night with Louis, he almost convinces himself that it is. 

Things like that night never happen on a whim. They’re an end product, the result of months’ worth of build up and tension seeking release. Though he’s completely certain of what that night meant for him, he’s more or less sure that it must mean the same for Louis. 

And it’s almost frightening to think about. In the week after Louis’ most recent departure, Harry can’t come to terms with the realization. He knows that he’ll have to confront it because he knows that Louis will be back soon; he’s been conditioned to expect as much. But he doesn’t know what that encounter will entail, what it will be like to stare into those blue eyes that are somehow as vast as the sea and as intense as the sun all at once. 

But it’s exciting. Yeah, it’s exciting.

***

The bakery does enough to distract him from waiting for Louis’ inevitable return. He knows it would be foolish in any other context to just assume, but he still has those records, and he knows Louis wouldn’t just give those up willingly. 

He’s working alone until noon on a Saturday morning. It’s rather relaxing to have the kitchen all to himself, to have everything under his exclusive control. This way, he can spill flour without an immediate need to clean it up, and he can toy around with recipes even when he knows he shouldn’t. He’s adding a lemon component to their blueberry muffins, and though this is about as experimental as he’ll get, he loves it – he loves the excitement of two things together that really shouldn’t be. 

The fourth batch has just come out of the oven when the bell above the front door rings. So he brushes flour off his apron and walks outside. 

“Good morning, how can I – oh, morning, mate.” 

Liam offers a gentle wave, wiping away water from his forehead and shaking his umbrella at his side because it’s raining out there. He sits down at the empty bar and within minutes, Harry’s bringing him a fresh doughnut. The doe-eyed boy inhales deeply, a content smile spreading across his face. 

“Been busy, then?” Liam asks just to be an arsehole, looking around the empty bakery. 

“Incredibly,” Harry says with a roll of his eyes, leaning against the counter. “Haven’t seen you here in a while.” 

And it’s true; Liam’s usually with Danielle. 

Liam shrugs, taking a bite from the sugary doughnut. “Thought I’d pay you a visit. Maybe talk for a bit.” 

Harry is intrigued because a private talk with Liam usually entails something more, something beyond casual conversation between two friends. But he just arches a brow in curiosity. 

“Oh yeah? About?” 

Liam’s stare wanders down to his pastry, and Harry knows to expect something serious when Liam can’t meet his gaze. 

“Li?” 

“I want to talk about Louis.” 

Oh. Harry doesn’t even realize it, but he gulps hard and balls his hands into fists, and though he wants to tell Liam there’s nothing to talk about, his body language is more than enough of an indication that yeah, there is. 

“He’s not – not good news, Harry.” 

And Harry laughs a little hysterically at that, because it sounds so cliché, and hearing it from Liam somehow makes it that much funnier, if not that much more irritating. 

“What do you mean?” he says through a laugh, even though he can tell from the seriousness in Liam’s eyes that this is hardly the time to do so. “I thought you liked him.” 

Liam frowns. “I do. He’s a really great mate. But he’s not great for you.” 

“What – ?” 

“Harry, please, don’t fuck with me right now.” And there’s an unexpected sting along with the bluntness of Liam’s statement. “You’re painfully obvious and I don’t know how, but somehow, Louis is the only one who hasn’t picked up on it yet.” 

Harry feels heat rise along his neck to his face. “On what, exactly?” 

Liam shakes his head, expression labored. “You deserve to fall for someone who’ll be there when you wake up.” 

“He is there when I – ” 

“Maybe sometimes,” Liam says knowingly. “But certainly not always. Louis’ great but – he’s not a permanent fixture in your life like the boys and I are. You know that, don’t you?” 

Harry wants to counter by saying that no one is a permanent fixture in anyone’s life, but there’s no point in hurting Liam in the process; it would just be cruel and unnecessary. He bows his head and feels an inexplicable prickle of wetness in his eyes. 

“He’s different.” 

But Liam reaches out and places his hand on top of Harry’s, warm and steady. 

“He’s lost. And you deserve more than that. Better than that.” 

There’s really nothing left to say, but even if Harry wanted to, Liam steals the opportunity away by standing up and pushing the empty plate toward him. He offers an apologetic smile, and Harry understands; Liam never wants to be the person to do this, but somebody has to.  

When Liam leaves, Harry understands the weight of his words. Yeah, Louis is lost. 

But a part of himself wonders if he isn’t lost, too. 

***

The rapping on his door three days later is enough to rouse him from sleep. He jumps with a start in bed. The red characters on his alarm clock are flashing 3:02 AM and he’s hissing under his breath. 

When he opens the front door, he should be outraged for being woken up at this time. But when he sees Louis standing there, beaming and obnoxiously holding up a bottle of wine to his face, he can’t help but feel all that anger melt away. 

However, he’s still riddled with sleep and he must look a right sight at the moment, with his hair matted down and his left cheek all puffy from his pillow. If Louis notices, he doesn’t seem to care, because he surges past him and into the flat. 

“Lou…?” he rubs the sleep from his eyes as he shuts the door, blinking furiously when Louis flips the light switch on. 

“Wake up, Curly!” Louis calls from somewhere in the kitchen. “Shit, you don’t have wine glasses do you?” 

“Mm. Got mugs,” he mumbles, falling onto the couch involuntarily when his eyes are closed. 

Louis grumbles like he has to think about that for a moment before saying, “That’ll do,” followed by the sound of clinking glasses. 

“Lou. 3 AM, mate.” He thinks he might already be drooling. 

“Up you go, Curly.” He feels one of Louis’ hands yank his shoulder upright. When he looks back at the boy, he’s holding a mug in each hand, offering one in his direction sheepishly. 

“What’s this?” Harry asks, taking the proffered mug. 

“It’s a celebration!” Louis plops down onto the couch beside him and Harry can practically feel the excitement radiating off the other boy.

“Gathered that much,” Harry says, grimacing at the taste of cheap wine. “But why?” 

Louis finishes the contents of his mug in one swallow and Harry is restless, eager to be as happy as he is right now. This is nothing like what Harry expected their first encounter after that night to be like. He thought he’d be more alert, for one. But he’s almost glad in a way; he’d rather talk about that much later. Perhaps after another mug or two of wine. 

“I’m going stateside,” Louis announces proudly, and by now, he’s actually bouncing on the sofa cushions. 

Harry blinks. “What?” 

The smile on Louis’ face hasn’t left. “I’m going to America. America, Hazza!” 

And, well, he’s probably still sleeping, because this is the conversation of nonsensical dreams. Louis – the one who can barely stay in one place in England – going to America? Nothing about the past ten minutes have made sense. 

“You’re going…” And he can’t finish it; he needs Louis to fill in the rest.

Louis breathes in deeply, mentally reminding himself to relax, and this is the most worked up Harry’s ever seen him before.

“I’ve saved up enough money,” he explains calmly, though his eyes are still flashing brilliantly. “To try America for the summer, I mean. I’ve got a mate over in Worcester who’s done the same. We’re going to kip together at his cousin’s place and everything and maybe – I dunno, play some of our music over there. Jesus Christ, I’m going to America!” 

And Louis is flying off to the kitchen again, coming back with the bottle of wine and pouring more into both their mugs, nevermind the fact that Harry can’t bring himself to take another drink just yet. But Louis’ in the celebratory way, and he’s not really picking up on other moods around him. 

But Harry has to say something. He can’t not

“Lou, that’s…that’s ridiculous.” 

“I know,” Louis sputters, a bit of wine trickling down his chin that he wipes off with his sleeve. “But I’ve gotten nowhere. And there’s – there’s nothing left here, not now anyway. Maybe later down the road but…America, Haz!” 

And Harry doesn’t think he can say anything more, so he lets Louis gush about America for the rest of the night. It’s almost 5 in the morning and he’s still talking about how out of this world and unbelievable the whole thing is, and there’s a dull ache in Harry’s chest because – well, yeah, it kind of is. 

***

Louis leaves in a week, and Harry would say that it’s too soon, but none of this is coming at the right time, so why bother? 

The bright side of having an end date is knowing that he can spend it with Louis. After all, Louis tells him that he’s already gone off to see his mum and sisters, and he’ll just meet his friend at the airport, so that isn’t a problem. He pledges himself for the remainder of his time, crossing his heart as he does so. And a cross of the heart is as much of a promise as Harry’s ever gotten, so he takes off work at the bakery for the rest of the week and skips more classes than he really should, especially toward the end of term. 

He goes with Louis to buy a proper suitcase, and he doesn’t really understand why the other boy gets so emotional about it. But Louis looks at the new piece of luggage like it’s the beginning of a new life and Harry thinks he might understand a little even though he doesn’t want to. 

Everything starts to feel a little more real when he catches Louis in front of the television one morning, taking his DVDs out of Harry’s collection. It’s surprising, if not somewhat expected. But when Louis pulls his records off the shelf, Harry slinks off to the bathroom and huddles in the tub, fruitlessly waiting for hot tears that won’t come. 

Niall drops by the flat one morning when Harry’s in the shower, so he’s the first one to suggest throwing a bon voyage party (or a “let’s get pissed in Harry’s living room” party, as Niall puts it) in Louis’ honor. It feels unnecessary and altogether hackneyed, but even when Louis pretends to argue otherwise, he knows it has to happen. His hopes of spending Louis’ last day with just the two of them are immediately dashed by the party he doesn’t want to throw, in celebration of the departure he doesn’t want to acknowledge. 

So around noon on Louis’ last day (Saturday), Liam, Niall and Zayn filter in like they’ve done so many times before. They would normally do it at night, but Louis’ taking the red-eye flight to Massachusetts, so it’s a midday thing. 

They’re mostly scattered around the living room, only half-paying attention to The Lion King on television. Zayn has his knees splayed across Liam’s thighs on one couch, while Niall and Louis are pressed together on one end of the other couch, talking animatedly about some CD that no one else has heard of. Harry spends most of his time sitting alone on the other end, occasionally walking over to the kitchen for a new slice of pizza. 

It’s a low-key affair and as much as Harry wants to keep Louis all for himself, he doesn’t intrude on any of his conversations with the other boys. He does, however, catch Liam’s eye more than once, and each time, he feels like he’s getting caught for something he shouldn’t be doing. At most, he’ll return a scowl. More often than not, however, he just looks off in another direction. 

When the boys finally say their goodbyes half past seven, everyone’s a little surprised to find Niall misty-eyed. Liam snorts and Zayn claps him on the back, but Louis pulls him in for a tight embrace and promises to play guitar with him soon. 

Once they’re gone, Harry feels a little useless standing there, so he goes off to clean and Louis mumbles something about finishing his packing. 

***

“I’m going to pay you back properly,” comes Louis’ voice about an hour and a half later. 

Harry looks up from where he’s been lying on his bed and spots the boy leaning against the doorframe. He’s thrown a beanie over his head and slipped into a jumper and Harry thinks this might be too much. They don’t need to leave for another half hour, and already, he wants to hide away. 

He sits up and Louis takes it as a sign to join him. When they’re both on the bed, Harry gives him a questioning look. 

“What do you mean?”

Louis’ lips quirk up a little at the sides. “When I get back. I owe you so much – for all of this. I honestly don’t think I could’ve made it to this point without you.” 

And Harry’s insides pool together somewhere deep inside him; he can’t stomach the notion that his actions are somehow indirectly responsible for Louis leaving him. 

“When – ” Harry sighs. “When do you think that’ll be? When you get back, I mean.” 

Louis shrugs, and Harry figures as much.

“Summer’s end,” but it sounds like a question. “Maybe longer, if things go well. Hopefully.” 

“Hopefully,” Harry repeats softly. “Well – I meant it when I said I didn’t need payment.” 

Louis chuckles. “And I meant it when I said that you were too nice.” 

Right before you grabbed my cock, Harry thinks, and he’s tempted to say it aloud.

Instead, he says, “I’m not. Not really nice, I mean. Only with you.” And somehow, that feels more like a confession than anything else he could’ve said. 

Louis blanches a little, but he casts it off with a subtle shake of his head. 

“No, you’re nice, Haz. You’re a fucking great friend.” 

And Harry can’t help himself when he groans at that. Louis frowns. 

“What?” 

“I just – this is – ” And he wants to say that this is too frustrating to handle, that it’s incredibly maddening to think that he’s let himself get this wrapped up. His heart is beating frantically in his chest, pounding so furiously against his ribcage that he’s certain Louis can hear it. “You don’t have to leave.” 

Louis blinks, his whole face scrunching up in confusion. For whatever reason, he inches backward slightly. 

“Harry…” 

“I don’t get it,” Harry cuts him off, redirecting it toward the conversation that they need to have. “I thought you were happy. Aren’t you happy here?” 

Louis shakes his head. “It’s not that simple – ” 

“You’ve got someone to call on here,” Harry says, echoing that conversation in the alleyway all those months ago. “Niall and the boys are here. I’m here.” 

“I know they – I know you are.” 

“Then isn’t that enough?” Harry is crawling closer to Louis, who’s sitting on the edge of the bed and looking like he might get up at any moment. But he doesn’t, not even when Harry is inches away from him. 

Still, Louis can’t quite look at him when he speaks. “You don’t get it, Harry. My music – ” 

“Can we shut up about your music for one minute and talk about this?” 

Harry regrets saying it immediately, because Louis’ face falls and he’s standing up and backing away toward the door. 

“‘Shut up’ about my music?” His tone is incredulous. “Everything I’m doing is about my music! There’s no other ‘this’ to talk about.” 

Harry doesn’t hide the way his heart falls in his chest, the way his hands dangle limply at his sides when he finally stands up. The space between them feels so wide that it might engulf them whole. 

“I didn’t mean that,” Harry mutters, his eyes on the carpet beneath his feet. “It’s just that – well, what happened last time? When you…” 

And Louis is suddenly blushing a horrible shade of red and Harry would be proud of himself for having caused it if it were in any other context. 

“I was just being a friend – ” 

“Bullshit,” Harry calls with unexpected ferocity. “That wasn’t being a friend, that was – Louis, I – ” And he can feel the confession about to tumble out of him. 

But Louis’ tone is firm and nearly desperate when he says, “Harry. Don’t.”

Harry’s mouth opens but nothing comes out. He stares at Louis mutely, and he finds that the boy is staring back at him, brokenly. And for whatever reason, the first thing that Harry can feel is anger. 

“This is – you’re ridiculous,” he says, and he feels his shoulders tense up when Louis’ eyes widen in surprise. It would be too easy to fall apart right now, so he holds onto each word for dear life. “Your way of living makes it impossible to make a connection anywhere you go. You keep looking because you think you haven’t found it yet when really, you’re too much of a child to own up to it when it’s right in front of your fucking face.” 

He expects anger, or at least some sort of retaliation. But Louis’ gaze never falters, heavy on him and almost too much to bear; he seems as surprised as Harry at his outburst. 

“It’s pointless, your way of life,” Harry continues, his voice faltering. “And I – you could probably be really happy with your life, Louis. If you’d only let someone help you.” 

He doesn’t even remember when they’ve gotten so close to each other, much less this close to the door. But Louis’ back is against the doorframe and Harry is practically breathing on him, hot air with each exhale. 

Louis’ face is suddenly unreadable, though his body language suggests he wants to curl up into himself and disappear almost as much as Harry does. He reaches out to – to do anything, really, to make any sort of contact. But Louis flinches and steps out of the room. 

“You’re living a fantasy,” he says softly. “I’m just – I’m going to call a taxi. I’ll wait outside so don’t – yeah.” 

He wants to follow, wants to tell Louis that a taxi will take forever. But he’s stuck and rooted to the spot. Nothing hurts the way it should, even more so when he hears the front door open and shut moments later. 

***

He spends all his time at the bakery. 

He can’t stay at his flat, not when the emptiness threatens to swallow him whole. In that first week, he still sidesteps when he walks through the door, expecting to trip on the boots that aren’t there. When he reaches for a toothbrush, his is the only one waiting for him – blue and decidedly not orange. The only socks he wears and the only DVDs he’ll watch are his own, and nothing feels quite the same as it should. And he hates that new couch, wishes he had the old one instead. 

None of the boys really know what happened, although Niall has his suspicions (he always does) and he phones Harry in that first week, offering company and a bottle of bourbon if he needs it. Harry appreciates the kindness, but he doesn’t want the pity, and if he won’t accept it from Niall, then he certainly won’t accept it from Liam and Zayn. 

So he’s at the bakery. 

The boys at least have the decency to give him his space, never showing up when they aren’t expected. And as if by some divine grace, the customers don’t come as often, leaving an empty bakery for a longer stretch of time than it usually is. 

He’ll still bake, though; he reckons it might be the only thing still keeping his head on his shoulders. He doesn’t try anything new – no, he worries about what biohazard he might create in his current state of mind. So he sticks to the recipes that have always worked, have always done well by him. Something about kneading dough or frosting the side of a cake settles his mind in a way that nothing else can (sleep hasn’t been easy lately, either). And by the third week of Louis’ absence, it isn’t a good day until he comes home with flour in his shirt and flecks of batter in his hair. 

It stops being a gnawing feeling in his chest by the close of the first month, and it transitions into a numbness that’s more or less bearable. At any rate, it isn’t as much of a presence in his mind by then, and it’s almost like he’s baking for himself again, rather than baking to rid his mind of Louis. 

Still, he has a hard time remembering the last time he did anything for himself – not for Louis. 

***

“You look like shite, mate.” 

Somehow, it’s the most concern Harry’s ever heard from Zayn in his life, so he can’t help but laugh, and it surprises everyone in the living room – including himself. 

“Thanks,” he drawls before anyone can say anything.

Liam scoots closer to him on the couch, draping an arm around his shoulders. “I still think Harry’s very pretty.” 

Zayn snorts and Niall is practically rolling around on the floor. Harry can appreciate this; they’ll touch on the subject but never go further than they’re meant to. Liam, especially. He’ll work his hardest to prevent the fall, but once it happens, he’s nothing but kind and there for him, and Harry genuinely believes his inability to say ‘I told you so’ is one of his best qualities. 

They’re all sitting around the muted television and it’s the second time that he’s allowed them to come over, but this is the first time any of them really enjoy it. When they first showed up last week, Harry had immediately changed his mind and refused to leave the couch, leaving Niall to exercise hitherto unknown lock-picking skills until they forced their way inside. Even then, they doted over him (Zayn ordered food, Niall gave him a beer, and Liam pressed a washcloth to his forehead under the impression he’d come down with the flu) and hardly left him alone. 

But now – it feels like a real hangout with the boys, albeit a tentative one. He can’t shake the feeling that they’re all dancing around something, but that’s because they are. 

“I’ve just been really busy,” Harry admits; classes just ended and he’s only recently taken on more shifts at the bakery. 

“You can’t be this busy all the time,” Niall says in a rare moment of seriousness. “You’ll kill yourself, mate.” 

“Wouldn’t want that,” Liam says lowly, and Harry resists the temptation to roll his eyes at howobvioushe’s being; he’s not going to kill himself. 

“No, we wouldn’t,” he acquiesces tiredly. “I appreciate the concern, mates, but don’t take it the wrong way when I say I’d really love it if you all just fucked off.” 

They’re all laughing at that one because they know he doesn’t really mean it; he just needs a reason to laugh. 

“How’ve you been holding up?” Zayn asks quietly, mostly because they didn’t really have a chance for discussion last week. 

Harry shrugs under Liam’s embrace. “Okay, I guess.” 

“Have you heard from him?” 

And Harry expects Niall’s question to resonate with some kind of pain, and he’s almost a little crest-fallen to discover that it doesn’t. He doesn’t know if this means having moved on to some degree, or if it’s just another way of stifling those feelings. 

“No,” he says finally. Then he adds, “I didn’t expect to. I don’t know if I should expect to again.” 

Liam looks like he wants to say something supportive, but Harry leans his head on his shoulder to keep him from saying anything he doesn’t want to hear. 

***

It’s been two months and Harry is almost completely certain that he’s in love with Louis. But there’s nothing to be done about that now. 

He’s walking down the hallway to his flat when he sees the flier taped to his door. He’s about to tear it off and throw it away (just another advertisement for the whole complex, he thinks) when he sees the words ‘Special Acoustic Showcase’ and he knows it’s a reminder for another one of Niall’s shows that he must have forgotten. 

The show is tomorrow night – that’s cutting it kind of close, Niall – and he has to think about it for the rest of the night. Most of his decisions to do anything these days are contingent on his mood; he hopes he’ll be in a good one in time for the show – for Niall’s sake. 

But he hasn’t been out in a while or, at least, hasn’t been anywhere that isn’t the bakery, and he figures it’ll be a good idea to see his mates somewhere other than the living room of his flat, which is even more unbearable now than it was only a month ago. 

Plus, he thinks he can listen to music again. It’s been two months and he didn’t even realize he’d gone that long without it. 

***

When he gets to the coffeehouse the next day, it takes him several minutes before he finds Zayn and Liam at a table a little further back from their usual one. He’s pleased to find that they’ve already ordered an espresso for him (he must look even more tired than he thought), though he doesn’t miss the way that Zayn won’t meet his eyes and the way that Liam looks over his shoulder every couple of seconds.

But he doesn’t think it’s worth the effort to get to the bottom of things, so he sips on his espresso, wincing at the bitterness that bites his tongue; it’s delicious. 

Five minutes later and the lights are dimming. He’s getting comfortable when he feels the seat next to him pull out and he’s surprised to see Niall sliding in beside him. 

“Erm. Mate?” 

“Yeah, Haz?” But Niall is staring rather intently at the stage area, and he’s looking a little too relaxed for someone who should be in the back practicing. 

“Your set?” 

“Wha – oh, yeah, that’s – that’ll be later. I’m on later. No worries.” 

He catches the way Niall’s eyes flit over toward the other boys and he’s finally going to say something when the lights cut off altogether, leaving the spotlight overlooking the stage area. 

“Niall, what’s going – ” 

But there’s someone walking out to the stool and the microphone, and it takes a moment and a half for Harry to realize that –

It’s Louis.

If he was begging for Liam, Zayn and Niall’s attention only moments before, then he can feel the way that their eyes are coming at him from all directions right now, digging into him and searching for a reaction. Truth be told, he doesn’t know what kind of reaction would be appropriate right now. 

Louis is – well, he’s beautiful under the spotlight. The way it catches the contours of his face, casting shadows beneath his eyes and along his jaw line…this is probably Harry’s favorite version of Louis yet. If he notices Harry in the coffeehouse crowd, he doesn’t show any indication of it. Instead, he’s plucking some chord on his guitar and tapping on the microphone for good measure. 

“Er – evening, everybody. M’name is Louis.” There’s a smattering of light applause from several audience members, Niall included. “I – this is my first time here.” 

There’s a lingering pause and Harry’s throat is itchy, his hands balled into tight fists digging into the fabric of his jeans. 

“I’ll only be doing one song, and I’m afraid it isn’t even a song of my own.” He fiddles awkwardly with the mic. “But it’s a song that means quite a lot to me, dedicated to someone who means even more, so – yeah, I hope you enjoy.”

Then he’s strumming the opening to some song that registers as vaguely familiar in Harry’s mind, and he suddenly realizes what it is before Louis is even singing –

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older, then we wouldn’t have to wait so long?” And there’s a sound of recognition and approval among the audience. “And wouldn’t it be nice to live together in the kind of world where we belong?” 

Harry can’t even hide how transfixed he is, can’t ignore the way that the furious pounding of his heart is competing with Louis’ song for dominance over his attention. Louis is here, and he’s singing this song – and the fact that he even remembered is enough to make him swoon, he’s pretty sure. 

People have started clapping by now, and Harry wants to tell them all to just shut up because don’t they know that this is his song? It’s certainly not the kind of fare for an acoustic set like this one, but it’s the furthest thing from his mind when Louis looks so fucking happy performing up there. It’s the first time he’s heard Louis sing and he’s got a beautiful voice and he’s singing for him and it’s perfect. 

And for the first time in two months – probably longer, now that he really thinks about it – his green eyes find the blue ones onstage, and it’s like they’re seeing each other for the first time. 

Happy times together we’ve been spending. I wish that every kiss was never ending – wouldn’t it be nice?” 

***

He’s at home and frustrated – mostly at himself. 

Harry didn’t even wait for the rest of the set to finish; he just knew he didn’t have that kind of time. He met his mates’ eyes, all of which seemed to say ‘go now, you stupid git,’ and he nearly knocked his chair over in his eagerness to find Louis. 

But when he didn’t find him in the back with the other performers or anywhere else in the coffeehouse, he found himself running into the night, searching frantically for the boy who’d just been onstage and suddenly disappeared. His mind was racing and he felt like he was doing a thousand things a minute without ever really accomplishing anything, and so he darted to the bakery, hoping to test his luck. 

But when the bakery (and the alleyway behind it) yielded nothing, he ran to his flat, hoping for some kind of terribly clichéd reunion. Instead, he found himself back in his living room, in the same position as he had been that afternoon. 

Except it’s different now; Louis’ back. Louis was in America and he came back. And it’s all that Harry can play in his head – that and Louis’ cover of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ – while he tries to convince himself that it’ll work out, that it wasn’t a fluke or a cruel trick of the imagination. 

He realizes that he didn’t have Louis’ phone number, and it’s the most ridiculous thing to think about, even for someone who has never really seen Louis with a cell phone before. He wonders how long he’ll have to wait, and forever is what he decides on – because, really, he’s so far beyond help that any other answer seems impossible by comparison. 

But then there’s a knock on the door and he’s flying off the couch, turning the knob that he didn’t even bother to lock and –

Louis looks exactly like he did when he first walked into the bakery all those days ago, his guitar and a rucksack slung over his overcoat. Only this time, he has a suitcase trailing behind him, and there’s a sense of finality here that wasn’t there before. 

“I wanted to give you time,” he’s saying suddenly. “I – I kind of sprang myself on you and I wasn’t sure if you hated me, and I didn’t want to see you right after making a fool of myself if you did. So I gave you time.” 

“I don’t hate you. And you didn’t make a fool of yourself. It was – it was really nice.” He’s blushing and grinning wildly and he doesn’t care. 

But Louis isn’t smiling. His shoulders are slumped forward and his eyes seem weary and he looks like he hasn’t gotten a good night’s sleep in ages. 

“I shouldn’t be here,” he says, though he makes no movement to leave. “I – you shouldn’t be opening your door to me, Harry. Not after everything.” 

“No.” Harry’s tired of doing this with Louis, not when they could be doing other things. “You don’t get to leave me again. You’ve done enough leaving.” 

And he’s pulling Louis in by his shirtfront, crashing their lips together without any finesse or grace yet somehow it’s the most electrifying thing to happen to either of them. The suitcase clatters next to their feet, but it’s hardly anything of concern when Louis is fisting one hand in his curls and using another to hold him close by the small of his back. 

This is – it’s something that feels more familiar than any first kiss has the right to feel, but that’s just how they happen to fit together. He’s still clutching onto Louis’ shirt like he’ll fly away if he lets go, but it’s comforting to feel the way that Louis might be thinking the same thing with how tightly he’s holding him. 

“I couldn’t – it was miserable being away from you,” Louis says when he pulls away for a breath of air. But Harry doesn’t want to hear about any of that – only wants to kisskisskiss and taste Louis on his lips. 

They’re swaying in the doorway, probably giving anyone who happens to walk by an entertaining show. But they can’t move, not when it might break the moment. 

“Mmm no,” Louis says against Harry’s lips, pulling away and making a comical suction noise when he does so. “I – I need to explain.” 

“Lou, you don’t – ” 

“I do,” he insists, and his hands have moved down to Harry’s waist where he’s gripping him tightly. “You’re – I need to tell you that you’re everything to me, Haz. And I need you to understand how terrifying it was for me to realize that.”

Harry blinks, unsure of what to say. 

“What you said the night I left – I know. I know how impossible I made things. And it wasn’t fair for me to keep doing that to you, to lead you on when I had nothing to offer.” 

“Louis, you had everything to – ” 

“I didn’t know who I was,” he admits raggedly. “I didn’t know who I was apart from my music, so how was I supposed to know who I was with you? You accepted me into your life without asking questions and it wasn’t fair how I took advantage of that. I thought that I could keep it up, that I could come and go whenever I pleased without consequence. So I kept pretending, until…” 

“Until?” 

“Until I wasn’t pretending anymore.” He chuckles, but it sounds like a sob at the same time. “I couldn’t keep acting like there was nowhere to go back to when there was obviously somewhere – somewhere with someone waiting for me.” 

Harry seals their lips together again, and this time, Louis doesn’t seem as reluctant to accept the kiss. Harry draws him inside carefully, dragging the suitcase with his foot and kicking the door shut. Louis’ arms are wrapped around his middle, and he thinks he could keep kissing Louis like this forever. 

“No more leaving,” he repeats against Louis’ lips. 

“I don’t even think that’s an option anymore,” Louis breathes, and Harry thinks this is everything he’s ever wanted. 

***

It’s been two weeks since Harry managed to convince bakery management into giving Louis a position there – something to keep him busy when he’s not writing music with Niall and, more importantly, to help pay off his half of the rent (the half that Harry initially refused to accept before Louis forced him to see reason). 

Louis is absolute shite with the baking aspect of the job, which seems like it would account for more than just half of his duties. But he’s quite the charmer, and he shines at interacting with customers (of which the most frequent are Liam, Zayn and Niall). 

Still, he can never remember to tie the bag of flour shut when he’s done using it, and he’s confused powdered with granulated sugar on more than one occasion. He tried his hand at apple tarts once, and it’s nothing that Harry will let him attempt ever again – not until he’s shown steady improvement over at least three weeks. 

But Harry has a hard time complaining when he gets to see Louis’ face light up every time a customer walks in, or the way it lights up impossibly brighter when he sneaks a kiss to his neck in the kitchen. The boys tell them more than once to stop looking so happy with each other, but it’s hard when that’s just the way they’ve been lately. 

So when he comes up from behind and wraps an arm around Louis’ chest, he whispers into his ear, “You were adrift…” 

Louis snorts but leans into the embrace so that his back lines up evenly with Harry’s chest. 

“Yeah, yeah,” he huffs in return. “And you brought me back, I know. I get it.” 

Harry laughs and untangles himself from Louis, moving to walk away. But the older boy spins him around and presses a floury kiss to his nose. 

“And I’m thankful for it every day.”

Notes
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    Read it. Just read it.
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