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Standing on the Edge of Forever

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Standing in his kitchen, feeling hopelessly out of his depth - yet again - Harry thinks to himself that there’s something particularly frustrating about engaging in a battle of wills with a seven year old. Especially one as creatively stubborn as his daughter.

Harry narrows his eyes at Lo, sitting on the island counter. She swings her legs back and forth, hands folded in her lap, staring straight back at him. She’s entirely mismatched, with a purple skirt, red tights, orange shirt and green socks, but Lo wears what she wants to, and today she evidently wanted to look like a color wheel.

It’s six o’clock, just before dinner time, and the two braids her hair was plaited in before school are in complete disarray – so many tendrils escaping there’s barely any braid left. Her bangs are completely fluffed as well, the stylish cut Lou gave her at their last appointment grown out and hanging in her eyes.

Time for another haircut, Harry thinks. Or they could just buzz all of it off. God knows that would make bath time and getting ready for school easier.

But back to the matter at hand.

“So let me get this straight. You took Mr. Squiggles from the classroom habitat, took him with you on your fieldtrip to the zoo, and released him in the aviary.”

Lo looks conflicted, her lips pressing tightly together as she surveys Harry with suspicion. Tipping her head to one side, she asses him with narrowed eyes.

“What’s an aviary?”

“The bird house.”

“Oh. Then yes.”

Harry sighs, not for the first time cursing his deceased husband. Lo looks just like Spencer – from her bright blonde hair to her iris colored eyes, to her full pink lips. Her cheekbones are Spencer, her nose is Spencer, her ears are Spencer. So is her stubbornness.

Harry counts to ten and prays for patience.

“Why did you steal and release your class pet?”

Her face is the picture of innocence, violet eyes wide as she looks up at him. “Because he wasn’t happy.”

“And how do you know he wasn’t happy?”

At that, her facial expression goes from that of the unjustly accused to withering superiority.

“Would you be happy living in a cage?”

Well, no. She has him there. Harry can’t imagine anything worse than living in a cage in a classroom full of six year olds. He only lives with one, in a mansion, and it’s a decently trying experience.

But, again. Not the point.

“How did you even get the bird to the zoo?”

Shrugging, Lo picks at the lining on her skirt. “In my backpack. I unzipped it so he could still breathe.”

“Of course you did. And nobody saw you? You’ve four teachers in that classroom.”

Privately, Harry’s always thought that the ratio of teachers to students at Lo’s school is a little ridiculous. And excessive, even for a fancy school like hers, with its pseudo Motessori teaching practices and emphasis on individual growth through collective learning.

“There was a lot going on,” she offers evasively. Harry’s instantly on alert.

“What do you mean there was a lot going on?” He hopes the trepidation isn’t audible in his voice. Sophia always tells him that he’s got to pretend he has the upper hand, even if he doesn’t actually have it.

“Weeeeel-”

Lola.”

“Mrs. Anderson was in her office. Her candy jar got knocked over and there were jelly beans and gumballs all over. Like, everywhere. Ms. Carlisle was taking someone to the nurse. Mr. Holland was calming someone down. Oh and Mr. Horan was busy with his messenger bag.”

Harry takes a deep breath. “Who dumped the candy jar?”

“Annabelle tripped – on accident – and it got knocked over.”

He narrows his eyes and bends just a little bit so they’re almost eye to eye. He can be intimidating and stern when he wants to be. Honestly he can. “Was it really an accident?”

Lo just gives him a look that says what do you think? Harry sighs.

“Who went to the nurse?”

“Jeffrey. Nosebleed.”

“You didn’t punch him, did you?” The last thing he needs is a new-found interest in hand-to-hand combat.

“No!” She looks offended. As if adding violence to grand-parrot larceny is that big of a stretch. “We used a ketchup packet.”

“What was Mr. Holland doing again?” There’s too many goddamn teachers in that class. Harry can honestly never keep them straight when she tells her after-school stories about what happened during the day.

“Lisa had a meltdown because she didn’t want to see any snakes at the zoo. She started crying and stuff. I think Mr. Holland thought she was having a panic ‘tack cause she got all red in the face and her mom has ‘xiety so she knows what it’s like. He totally believed her. She’s really good.”

“Anxiety, not ‘xiety’.”The level of awe in his daughter’s voice makes Harry sag with dread. “Okay. Moving on. Why was Mr. Horan busy with his bag?”

“Oh they were running around and passing it back and forth.”

“Who was?” For a long moment Harry fervently prays that the next words out of her mouth are not going to be what he thinks they will be: Please don’t say Dylan and Lennon. Please don’t say Dylan and Lennon.

“Dylan and Lennon. Duh.”

Harry doesn’t even know why he held out any hope. Dylan and Lennon Payne-Smith are Lo’s partners in crime, and have been since essentially the moment they were born. The twins are eleven months younger than Lo, and the three of them share a unique bond that nobody can really begin to explain.

Sophia, Liam’s wife, had agreed to be Harry and Spencer’s surrogate. None of her DNA went into making Lo, but she’d carried and birthed her, before nearly immediately getting pregnant with the twins. From the very first time they’d met – the day after the twins were born – Lo had been enthralled. Harry and Spencer had brought her to the hospital to meet her “cousins” and she’d been totally calm in their presence, nestled in Harry’s lap as he sat next to Liam and Spencer, holding Lennon and Dylan respectively.

The three of them would nap together, as babies, all snuggled on the floor, and when Lo started crawling, the only time she would still was when the twins were sleeping. Dylan and Lennon (named, of course, after Bob Dylan and John Lennon – Liam is such a sap) started walking earlier than expected, desperately eager to keep up with Lo, and by the time they turned two, the three of them jabbered away.

When Spencer died, Lo had been just shy of her third birthday. Too young to understand why her father was gone, she’d cried for days, sleeping only when nestled between her ‘cousins’. Since then, the three of them have been thick as thieves, put in the same playgroup, school, lessons and on the same kiddie football team. When Sophia and Liam had Stevie (Wonder, obviously) Lo had been initially hesitant, but eventually thrilled with being ‘a big sister’. The Payne-Smiths and the Styles’ are a family through and through.

Which means that Liam is going to be absolutely furious with all three of the kids.

“Lo, I know you think that Mr. Snuggles would be better off at the zoo, but you can’t just decide to release him. He was everyone’s class pet. You can’t make that decision for everyone.”

“But it was everyone’s decision. We talked about it and everyone agreed. There was a vote.”

Of course they did. Because Lola Stewart Styles is nothing if not considerate. And persuasive. Harry fears for the day that she starts to understand politics. She’ll be in jail for protesting before she’s out of secondary school.

“Well, I’m glad you checked with everyone, but what you did was still wrong. Mrs. Anderson was very worried when she realized the parrot was missing.”

“But I told her right away that Mr. Snuggles was at the zoo.”

“And I’m proud of you for being honest, but you know what you did was wrong. Or you wouldn’t have distracted your teachers.”

Lo pouts, her heel tapping against the cabinet door as she starts to get agitated. Harry’s been down this road before, and he can feel the tantrum brewing, so he puts his hands on her shoulders, making sure they’re eye to eye. He’s found, over the years, that it’s best to take a straightforward approach with his daughter, lest she be given time to work herself up.

“But-”

“Lo, you’re grounded. No, don’t argue,” he cuts her off. “I’m going to talk to Uncle Liam about how long the three of you are grounded for, and from what, but rest assured, it will be at least a week.”

Harry feels one hundred percent confident that Liam will agree with a no electronics rule. He’s just lucky the Payne-Smith’s will be in Wolverhampton for the weekend. Having the three older kids with no electronics for all of Saturday and Sunday would make for a long weekend. He has to has some sense of self preservation.

“I also want you to write a note to all of your teachers, individually, telling them that you’re sorry.”

Lo looks like she’d rather eat glass, but she nods.

“Good. Go change.”

He helps her off the counter and she scurries across the kitchen to the back staircase. Freddie, their beloved labradoodle, follows her with a long suffering look toward Harry, as if he understand just how upset Lo is. Her feet patter against the carpeted steps, the defeated stomping completely expected. Harry waits until she’s up the stairs before exhaling slowly and resting against the island, head down.

He’d been in the studio when the headmaster had called, trying to lay down a track with one of the groups he and Liam signed earlier in the year. After being assured that Lo was alright – no, Mr. Styles, she’s not hurt, she’s in trouble – he’d headed to Prentice Day School to meet with Lo’s head teacher and the headmaster.

Lo’s not in trouble too often – she’s mischievous, sure, but she usually confines that mischief to the house – so being berated by the headmaster hadn’t been a pleasant experience.

Harry rounds the corner of the island and slips onto one of the stools, elbows down on the Italian marble slab that constitutes the countertop. There’s still a bit of a red hue that just won’t come out from the time that Lo, Dylan and Lennon convinced their interim babysitter to tie dye her bedsheets and the inevitable accident that followed. After that incident Harry told Rachel, the regular nanny, she wasn’t allowed to take a vacation ever again in her entire life.

Pulling out his phone, he dials the second person on his favorites list. Sophia picks up on the third ring.

“Oh Harry.”

There’s laughter in her voice, and Harry groans, forehead pressed against the cool marble.

“How pissed is he?”

“Oh he’s right furious. The twins are getting the morality lecture.”

Harry knows that lecture like the back of his hand – Liam’s certainly droned on to him enough times about ‘doing the right thing’. He was the ‘Dad’ of the group back when they were sixteen, and he’s still the most responsible one now. The twins try his patience endlessly, but when they join up with Lo (which is most of the time) it makes Liam nearly apoplectic. He’s always complaining to Harry and Sophia about his blood pressure.

“You don’t sound too bothered.”

Sophia sighs, and through the phone, Harry can hear her moving about the kitchen, pulling dishes out of the cabinets, and Stevie’s non-distinct baby sounds in the background.

“They’re kids, Harry. They do silly things sometimes. It’s not the end of the world. Nobody got hurt.”

“Nobody except that damn bird.”

Her laughter floats through again, soft and airy. “True, I guess. Though how much different it is living in a zoo than in a classroom of six year olds, I don’t know.”

“Do you think I should buy them another bird? That’s the right thing to do, right? For the school?”

Sophia hums non-communally, but before she can comment, Harry hears a voice in the background.

“Is that him? Stop smiling it’s really not funny, Soph.”

There’s a slight rumbling as Sophia hands the phone over, and then Harry has Liam on the line.

“Stop turning my wife against me.”

In the old days, when the band first formed, Harry used to wonder if it bothered Liam, the way he and Sophia got along so well. Even when she was only Liam’s girlfriend and would visit them on tour, Liam would often find her curled around Harry before a show as the two of them laughed over stupid YouTube videos or napped together on the lounge couches. It was Sophia who had introduced Harry to Spencer, and Sophia who had first broached the subject of surrogacy right in the middle of the Dancing After Dark tour.

Once, just before Liam and Sophia got married, Harry had asked Liam. If the closeness bothered him. Liam’s response will always linger with Harry – will always be the definition of how they all love each other:

“Seeing my brother and my wife love each other like family? How could that do anything but make me happy?”

Of course, Liam’s probably changed his tune after seventeen years of watching Harry and Sophia subvert his carefully scheduled plans. Even more so since in the Payne-Smith/Styles households, he’s the only one who manages to keep any sort of order. Sophia’s much more likely laugh at the children’s mischief than she is to censor them, and Harry is usually hopeless at discipline.

“I mean, it is kind of funny.”

Liam sighs deeply, and Harry turns serious, not wanting to be the recipient of another one of Liam’s lectures.

“Kidding, kidding. I know, Li. It’s not okay.”

“It’s not all Lo’s fault. Obviously the hellions were right there with her – that nosebleed idea packet screams Lennon. I don’t understand how they got it all accomplished, honestly. There’s four teachers in that classroom. This is why we pay obnoxious fees.”

Both Harry and Liam grew up in small towns, and attended their local schools. When it came time to enroll the children in school, they’d searched and searched for the right kind of environment. The local schools were out – not with the constant paparazzi and the insane popularity of the band – but neither did they want to send the kids to a high brow exclusive school. Prentice Day School had been the answer. Following a Montessori-like teaching approach, it encouraged hands-on learning and individual growth environments. It still had quite the price tag, but it wasn’t the stress-filled competitive environment that so many exclusive London schools were.

“Well, they’re determined when they have a plan. And it was quite the detailed plan.”

“They definitely need to be grounded for a week. I want to do two, but I don’t know if I can deal with the twins in bad moods for that long.”

“I was thinking no electronics. I think a week should do it. They spend too much time on the xbox as it is.”

“Good. One week.” There’s a pause, and then Liam’s voice is suddenly quieter. “I’m not condoning it, but the ketchup packet was brilliant.”

Snorting, Harry runs a hand through his hair. “Sounds like Dylan to me. He’s the crafty one.”

That makes Liam laugh. “It’s all Sophia! She’s the evil genius. Remember the deodorant?”

Sophia had always been the prankster of the group – one would never suspect, really. She had that innocence and maturity about her that meant Paul, their tour manager, had never suspected a thing.

“I remember everything I owned smelling like cream cheese for weeks.”

“Look. All three kids came out of her. S’all I’m saying. I mean, Lo baked in there for 9 months. Something had to have rubbed off.”

That makes Harry laugh until he has tears nearly rolling from of his eyes. “I’ve never thought of it like that. Mostly I just blame Spence for all that.”

He can almost feel the change in the atmosphere on Liam’s end. It’s not often that Harry brings up Spencer in casual conversation.

“He did always love a good practical joke.” Liam’s voice is soft, caught with emotion.

It’s easy, sometimes, for Harry to forget how many people loved Spencer. He had been Spencer’s husband, the one who most intimately missed him. But not the only one.

After all. It was only through Liam and Sophia that Harry had been introduced to Spencer.

Liam and Sophia had grown up together, living on the same street. They’d been two houses down from each other. The Stewarts had lived in the house between them, and their son Spencer had been three years older than Liam and Sophia. All of the parents had been friends, so the three families had been constantly together – in many ways, the same way that the Styles and Payne-Smiths are today.

The three of them had been companions from an early age. Liam and Sophia had come out to Spencer as a couple when they were just fourteen, and Spencer, who was starting to think about university, had in turn come out to them as gay. When Liam tried out for the X factor, two years later, Spencer had been doing a study abroad year in Tanzania and then returned to Cambridge to finish his studies. Between the craziness of One Direction’s schedule and Spencer’s inability to take much time away from his studies, it was two years before Harry’s path finally crossed with Liam and Sophia’s best childhood friend.

Sophia had introduced the two of them backstage at the O2 before One Direction took the stage. Spencer had just made the move to London, to further his studies at the School of Economics, and Sophia, who was still in university in the city, had been thrilled.

Harry will never forget the way his heart had seemingly stopped the first time he and Spencer shook hands. The thrill of electricity when they’d hugged. The feeling of enormity as the rest of the world faded away.
He’s always thanked his lucky stars that Spencer had seemed to feel the same way – had fallen as madly for Harry and been willing to put up with all of the shit that came with dating a member of One Direction. They’d moved in together within six months of meeting – Harry had been eighteen and five years younger, but determined that they would get their happily ever after.

And for twelve years, they had the fairytale.

Abruptly, he pulls himself out of memory lane and clears his throat.

“Listen, I’m gonna get dinner started and break the bad news to Lo.”

“Sure, H. Good luck. We’ll do the same with the twins. See you tomorrow.”

When he’s hung up with Liam, he stares at the counter for a moment, trying to will himself to move. It’s been four years since Spencer died and it still hits him like a brick sometimes – the feeling of overwhelming loss. Still, life has moved on, and it takes him a few moments, but he eventually stands up, and pulls the lasagna out of the refrigerator.

Dinner is a somber affair. Harry breaks the news about her grounding after Lo’s started in on her lasagna, and she immediately launches into an impassioned defense of why her actions were both necessary and noble.

“He was unhappy living in a cage. The bird aviary is huge.”

“Then you should have shared that opinion with your teacher, or with me, and not stolen your class pet.”

“Everyone voted-”

“It’s not up for discussion, Lola. You, Dylan and Lennon are grounded for a week. No xbox, no ipad, no tv.”

It’s by far the most severe punishment she’s ever received, and her mouth drops open in shock. Harry winces, expecting her to have a complete tantrum, but instead, she simply goes back to eating dinner.

Harry likes to think he’s a pretty mature adult, but he nearly takes the entire punishment back when Lo refuses to speak a word to him throughout dinner.

After they’ve eaten, she disappears into her playroom to do her maths assignment and then read by herself, until he comes in to get her ready for bed.

Lo’s normal routine has her in bed by eight-thirty. It’s nearly unheard of for her to actually get to bed before eight-forty-five, but in her silent stewing, she makes no argument and actually follows the routine without complaint. She showers by herself quickly, though he makes her get back in so he can wash her hair. It’s odd, brushing out her hair and plaiting it without her constant stream of questions and observations – they usually chat their way through everything – but he works efficiently and she brushes her teeth and slips into her pajamas with zero fuss.

Harry leans against the doorframe, watching as she turns her nightlight on before slipping into bed. Lo doesn’t even spare him a glance as she turns off her bedside lamp and pulls her blanket up. She curls right into herself, facing the wall, and Harry’s heart breaks.

Padding quietly into the room he sits on the side of her bed, one hand laid on her hip. He can hear her quiet breathing, and it stirs a memory of when she was just a baby. He and Spencer used to sit by her crib at night, sometimes, just watching her breathe. Watching her tiny chest rise and fall, assuring themselves that she was safe and healthy.

“Scoot over.” Lo grumbles, but she moves slightly, and Harry moves to sit with his back against the headboard. He rolls Lo over till she’s half sitting next to him and half lying on his chest, her head buried into his shoulder.

The nightlight in her room was a gift from Zayn – specially designed to project stars onto the ceiling. It always makes the room feel a bit ethereal – Harry loves that Lo gets to sleep like that every night, bathed in starlight.

For a long moment they sit in silence, Lo still tense against him. Harry tugs the elastic hairband off her braid and runs his hands through the slightly damp strands. It’ll be a mess tomorrow, but they’ll sort it out. It’s one of the few ways Lo’s just like him – she loves having her hair played with and her head rubbed.

“Do you know why we named you Lola?”

She sighs deeply, trying to wiggle out of his embrace, but Harry holds tight. She’s heard the story countless times, no doubt, but Harry still loves telling her. Still loves reminding her about how wanted she was.

“Your father wanted a name that was strong. Unique. A name that made a statement. Because he knew that you were special.”

Talking about Spencer always makes Harry feel the absence. He tries to keep pictures around the house just to keep his husband’s memory alive, and his eyes automatically drift over the framed photos on Lola’s wall, easily finding the one of him with Spencer on their wedding day. It was a theme they’d started in her nursery; along with all the decorations, they put pictures of her family on the wall. Her grandparents, Aunts and Uncles, One Direction. They’d wanted her to always be surrounded by love. The wedding picture is still on the wall, even after all these years.

“And you are that. You’re strong and smart and you care about other people. I’m so, so proud of you Lola. And I-I know he would be too. I know that he is.” Harry takes a deep breath so he doesn’t get emotional, but he does let himself brush a kiss on the top of Lo’s head.

“I know you’re upset about being grounded. But I think you also know that you shouldn’t have done that with your class pet.”

It takes a long moment, but eventually Lo sighs and nods. “I’m sorry, Daddy.” She tightens her embrace, little arms squeezing around his neck, and Harry pulls her fully into his lap.

“I know you are, baby. Thank you for saying that. And I’m sorry you have to be grounded for the week. Do you understand why, though?”

“Cause I wasn’t bein considerate?”

“Right. And?”

“And because I was sneaky?”

Chuckling, Harry rubs her back. “Exactly.”

That seems to be enough for Lo, who sighs again and goes completely limp. Harry arranges her back on the bed and curls around her, humming her favorite lullaby – a song that he wrote with Liam and Zayn about a month after she was born. He continues to gently comb through her hair, and within few minutes she’s out like a light.

Harry stays in bed with Lo for a long time, watching her sleep, wondering if he’s doing a good enough job raising her. He has help, of course. Liam and Sophia are practically a second set of parents, and Zayn is around constantly, taking her to museums and letting her muck about in his art studio. Gemma has been in London for a few years now as well, so she sees them at least once a week if not more often, and his mum makes the trip up as often as possible. Spencer’s parents are also involved, though they live in Edinburgh. Lo spends a week with them in the summer and Harry makes sure they try and make the trip up at least twice a year.

So it’s not as if she feels like she doesn’t have a family. She has a huge family, even if many of them aren’t blood related.

When he finally tip toes out of her bedroom, making sure the door is cracked, he heads back to his study. He spends the next three hours listening to the initial demos from a slew of new groups that their record label has signed.

He falls asleep on the couch in his study and doesn’t wake up till the alarm on his phone goes off at six-thirty.

------

The week following the bird incident – as Harry and Sophia have taken to calling it – passes relatively peacefully. Lo may be grounded but she shows genuine remorse (and genuinely misses all her electronics) so Harry endeavors keep her as busy as possible. They dig out their rollerblades on Saturday morning, going all along the running path at the park again and again, followed by a trip to the library and an afternoon session of cookie-baking. Gemma joins them for dinner on Saturday night, and on Sunday Zayn takes Lo to Tate Modern where they spend nearly the entire day.

Sophia keeps the kids busy after school on Monday and Tuesday, acting out plays in the basement and performing them before their weekly ‘Payne-Smith/Styles family dinner’ on Tuesday. Rachel, their shared nanny, makes sure the kids stay away from the tv on her days, using whatever magic she keeps up her sleeves.

After a long discussion with the head teacher in class (and a class vote) Harry purchases a reptile terrarium and a turtle, while Liam solicits promises from their three kids that there will be no attempt to free Norman, as the poor turtle’s been named.

The rest of September passes relatively quietly after that. Harry and Liam are busier than ever at the label, trying to weed through which acts they’re going to keep on after a busy summer of demoing what seems like every band they’ve ever encountered.

Being a record producer isn’t something Harry had ever envisioned for himself, back when he was sixteen and trying out for the X Factor. He’d wanted to make it as a solo singer – be the next Justin Timberlake – and take over the world on his own. But then he’d been put into a band with Liam and Zayn and everything had changed.

One Direction, as they’d been called, had been the biggest band on the planet. They’d done everything and anything that Harry could have imagined in his wildest dreams. Played Europe and America. Toured in South Africa and Asia and Australia. Made dozens of appearances on the most famous daytime tv and nighttime chat shows in the world. Won a slew of awards – Grammys, BRITs, AMA’s and VMA’s. They’d sold millions upon millions of copies and become millionaires themselves twenty times over. They’d been photographed and papped nearly every moment of their lives and had thousands of screaming girls waiting outside (and inside, on scary occasions) their hotel rooms.

Of course, that’s all changed now. They’re still famous, of course. Still get papped going to Tesco and their pictures land in the gossip columns of the papers every time they go out to dinner or drinks. But the rock star lifestyle has slowed down. They don’t tour anymore at a constant rate the way they used to when they were teenagers and in their early twenties. Life slowed down a little when Lola and the twins came along, but they were still able to embark on a world tour – Sophia and Spencer along for the ride armed with an army of nannies and security guards. But after Spencer died, well. That was when life really changed. The kids were starting to become actual people who needed routines and normalcy, and it seemed like everyone was sick of living out of hotel rooms for months at a time. Plus, Sophia and Liam wanted to have another child.

So the little record label that had been something of a pet project for Harry and Liam became their main work focus, and Zayn helped out a little on the side, when he wasn’t too immersed in his artistic projects. Their business has really taken off, in the last few years. They manage some exceedingly popular acts – one of their singers has been number one on the billboard chart for most of the year – and it seems that every year their reputation grows.

One Direction still tours a bit in the summer. They do a few shows in the major cities and it’s gratifying and humbling when the concerts sell out in minutes. But for the most part, Harry is in London working Monday through Friday. It means that he’s nearly always home by dinnertime and can spend time with Lo every day. Sophia has her own gallery, and stays home at the beginning of the week, so she can watch the four kids Monday and Tuesday after school, and they have a nanny to watch them Wednesday and Thursday. Even if Spencer were still alive, Harry can’t imagine parenting without Liam and Sophia. The three of them - plus Zayn and their families - truly make up a village.

Family Dinner, as they affectionately refer to it, takes place every Tuesday at the Payne-Smiths house. Since she’s off on Tuesday’s, Sophia usually cooks, and recruits the twins and Lo to help her make a large dinner. Harry and Liam will leave the office by five-thirty and dinner is usually about six-thirty or seven, giving them time to take the kids out of Soph’s hair and spends some time with them.

By the time five-thirty rolls around, Harry is 100% ready to leave. He’s spent the afternoon discussing the books with their business manager, which always makes his head hurt. But he and Liam agreed early on that they wanted to be involved in every aspect of the business. They would hire the best people to manage departments that the two of them had no idea how to run, but they didn’t want to be clueless about how their company was run.

Still. Talking about the business end of things always gives Harry a headache. When he pops into Liam’s office, messenger bag already slung onto his shoulder, his bandmate doesn’t look like his day fared any better.

“I spent most of the day in the studio with EvolVE and I swear we are no closer to getting even a single track finished.”

Wincing in sympathy, Harry tinkers around with the glass paperweight on Liam’s desk. EvolVE is a girlgroup they’ve spent the last year developing, and while the four teenage girls have what it takes vocally, it’s like herding cats trying to get them on track.
Everything’s a struggle.

“They can’t still be arguing about the backing vocals.”

Liam raises his eyebrows and Harry immediately backs off. “Well. Fun for another day. Come on, I’m dead. Let’s get out of here.”

It takes Liam another ten minutes to pack up for the night, while Harry plays with the Newton’s Cradle on his desk. It had been a gift to Liam from Mick Jagger. Something about constant motion and being steady? Harry’s not sure. Mick’s gift to him had been a 50 year old bottle of Macallan that the two of them had finished in its entirety one night while Lo had been with his mother in Cheshire. He still remembers the hangover.

By the time they’re finally exiting the building and getting into the Range Rover, Harry’s completely famished. He’d only had an apple for lunch, in between meetings, and the thought of Sophia’s cooking has his stomach growling.

Liam gets into the passenger side and Harry puts his messenger bag in the backseat. The rover currently has three booster seats for the twins and Lo, and a car seat for Stevie. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday Harry drops the kids off at school, and half the time Stevie needs to be dropped at daycare as well, so he keeps the car seat in all the time. It makes the car feel cluttered and lived in, like all the kids really are family.

The drive from their studio in Notting Hill takes barely fifteen minutes, and they catch up on business chat as Harry navigates to Primrose Hill. Their houses are barely five minutes apart and if Sophia is off for the day then Harry usually picks Liam up in the morning. Acquaintances ask if they get sick of each other, after so many years of living in each others pockets, but the answer is always no. Harry, Liam and Zayn are like brothers and best friends smashed together, and while they have their spats and disagreements and get on each others nerves on occasion, they’re never truly sick of each other. If anything, he and Liam miss seeing Zayn every day. Three or four times a week just doesn’t cut it.

The gate unlocks for Harry’s car, and they enter through the garage. - the sound of three excited children and a dog audible before they even open the connecting door.

The first thing that hits Harry is the smell of Sophia’s famous marinara sauce. Spicy and aromatic, it makes his mouth water immediately.

The second thing that hits Harry is Lennon, as she crashes into him, Stark the golden retriever hot on her heels and barking like mad.

“Woah,” he steadies her.

Lennon’s dressed in what might, in some alternate world, be considered a toga, as well as power ranger boots and a teenage mutant ninja turtle shell. She hugs him reflexively then scurries off, waving at Liam on her way. Stark grinds to a halt in front of Liam and nuzzles at his hand before chasing after Lennon, and nearly immediately two screams erupt from around the corner as Dylan and Lola come charging into the hall. Dylan has on a Statue of Liberty costume with a Green Bay Packers helmet while Lola is wearing her Clay Matthews jersey (game worn, too - it trails on the floor) and a roman battle helmet. They’re both screaming like banshees and gesticulating with play swords - Lola’s might be more machete like, Harry’s not sure.

“Jesus Christ.” Liam puts an arm out and corrals both kids, picking each one up to carry under an arm. They immediately protest - Lola in fact tips forward so far her feet nearly hit Liam in the back of the head - but Harry and Liam just laugh at them, shucking their shoes by the rest of the mudroom mess.

“All day I work and this is what I come home to? A rag-tag war? Maybe I’ll just have to be an ogre and eat you all up!” Liam growls. They shriek with laughter as he carries them off to the kitchen and family dining area, where Lennon and Stark are running circles around the large island (still yelling) and Sophia stands at the stove minding a pot of sauce. Across from the table, on the large carpet in front of the tv, Stevie is sitting up and gnawing on a large plush letter A. Freddie lays docilely next to her. It’s a pretty accurate picture of Payne-Smith/Styles family life.

“Hi loves. Welcome home.”

Still carrying the kids, Liam rounds the island to kiss Sophia’s cheek and nuzzle into her neck. Dylan and Lola burst into teasing shrieks and Lennon and Stark abruptly change direction to make another lap around the entire house. Harry bends down to rub Freddie’s head, then scoops Stevie into his arms.

“Hullo my darling.”

Reigning kisses onto her head does very little to distract Stevie from the soft toy, but she does smile toothily at him and lay a smacking wet kiss (or something that might resemble a kiss) onto his chin.

Liam puts the kids down and Harry transfers Stevie over just in time for Lo to jump into his arms. She has to tip her head up so the top of the roman helmet doesn’t fall into her face, but she has on a giant bright smile.

“Daddy!”

“Hiiii. How was school?” He never loses his childish enthusiasm around Lo. The two of them work well in that way.

“Fine. We learned bout space. S’boring.”

“Space isn’t boring!”

Harry beings to launch into an impassioned defense of how much fun learning about space is, but Lo’s already moved on, shrugging as she runs a hand through his hair.

“Sure,” she says placatingly. “Then we helped with dinner.”

“Yes, I can see that. I think the three of you are driving your Aunt Soph mad!”

He begins to tickle her, one arm holding her securely while she wiggles and screams, flailing about. Sophia smiles and Harry leans over to kiss her cheek, opening his mouth for a taste of the sauce. She obliges and he nearly closes his eyes in pleasure.

“Not fair!” Dylan crosses his arms and glares at his mother. “You said no sneaks!”

Sophia doesn’t even try to placate him. “Yeah. Rules are different for Daddies and Moms than for kids. Life’s hard, Dylan. Parent Trump Card.”

Standing on the other side of the island, Liam is softly cooing to Stevie.

“You’re not going to grow up to be a hellion like your siblings, are you? No, you’re going to be my well-behaved child. Perfect in every way.”

Dylan rolls his eyes, Lola looks unimpressed, and there’s a sound of wheels on wood from somewhere in the distance. Sophia immediately looks up from the stove, yelling across the entire house.

“Lennon Marie, you do that for one more minute and it’s going to be two weeks of no electronics.”

At Liam and Harry’s bewildered looks, she grimaces. “The children have discovered that they can hook the lead to the dogs and trail behind them on skateboards.

It’s almost comical watching Liam’s entire face crumble. Dylan giggles, and all three adults spear him with a look. They’ve got some of the parent expressions down.

“Okay. Everyone go wash up and take off those costumes. Dinner’s in fifteen minutes.”

In the end, dinner’s on the table half an hour later, Lennon’s still wearing her ninja shell, and Lo has on her battle helmet. Dylan only parted with his own helmet after he dropped pasta on his lap twice trying to eat through the face bars and Liam physically pulled it off his head. The adults loudly proclaim how yummy the garlic bread is (the only part of dinner the children helped with) and split a delicious bottle of wine as they tuck into the italian meal.

The chatter of the kids at the table and the simultaneous grown up conversation overshadow the slight sounds of Frank Sinatra that Liam put on for background music, but there’s a lot of laughter and never ending smiles. After a play-by-play of their afternoon games, Liam dutifully makes Lo, Dylan and Lennon say one thing they learned in school before they can eat their dessert.

By the time the ice cream has been served, the topic of conversation has moved round to the school play. Prentice puts on a sort of pre-holiday do every year, where the kids sing and do weird interpretive dances and very carefully do not mention Christmas. Emphasis on the ‘Holiday’.

All three of the kids are excited for this endeavor tossing out ideas about how they might be the best munchkin or monkey.

“I’m sorry, munchkins or monkeys? Are your classes doing something new this year?”

Sophia is spooning tiny bits of ice cream to Stevie but abandons the effort when Stevie only blows everything over her face in a raspberry.

“They’re doing the Wizard of Oz. With the secondary school. They’ve some new music director or something. There’s a letter in Lo’s backpack about it. I heard the other mums talking at pick-up.”

Harry misses out on so much gossip since he rarely does pick-up. Honestly. It doesn’t help that most other mothers at Prentice hate Sophia, so she’s never in on ‘the know’.

“That’ll be fun. And you lot think you’re going to be munchkins or monkeys?”
This sets off a round of monkey sounds and arm movements from the kids, which Stevie tries to copy as well.

“Primary can be munchkins or monkeys! And they need a dog! Can Stark be Toto?”

“Lennon, does Stark look like Toto?” Liam sounds long suffering, which Harry supposes he is. First he had to deal with Harry and Zayn’s antics in the One Direction days, and now he has three children who set out each day with the goal of thinking up new ideas to terrorize him with. Harry thanks himself lucky that he’s “The Cool Dad.”

He shared that opinion with Sopha once and she just laughed at him.

“We can dye him!”

Liam quickly shuts down that idea and Lennon pouts. Harry makes a monkey face at her and she brightens right up.

“There’s a parents meeting next Thursday,” Sophia mentions as she tries to wipe off Stevie’s face. “I’m putting it on the schedule but one of us should go. Dylan, stop rocking back on your chair.”

Harry immediately digs his phone out of his pocket, shushing Lo and Dylan’s cries of ‘no phones at the table’ and thumbing through his calendar. Their life runs moderately smoothly because of Sophia’s highly organized calendar setup and continued communication.

“I’ll do it,” he volunteers, spooning up the last bite of his ice cream and scrunching his nose at Lo when she pouts.

“I’ll join you if I can. I might have a showing that night but I won’t know till Monday,” Sophia says, giving up on trying to get Stevie clean.

“And when’s the actual play? Kids, quiet down. Dylan, your mum just told you not to do that. Don’t make her say it again.”

Dylan sighs at Liam like the world is ending, and Lennon nudges his shoulder in solidarity. Lo crawls into Liam’s lap to scoop up the remains of his ice cream, and Liam, occasionally the most indulgent of the three adults, lets her. When she’s practically done everything but lick the bowl clean, he bounces her on his knees, making her giggle every time she rises above the table.

“Okay, lovelies. Let’s help with clean-up and then we’re heading home - okay Lo? Fifteen minutes.”

She nods, and stands up with Dylan and Lennon to help clear their plates. Harry and Liam deal with rinsing the dishes, loading the dishwasher and putting all the leftovers away while the kids lie together on the rug watching a rerun of whatever crap show they’re obsessed with. Sophia brushes a kiss on his cheek goodnight, then heads upstairs to have a bath, as it’s Liam’s night to get the twins and the baby through bedtime routines. Stevie, tired after the excitement of dinner, cuddles into Freddie, the two of them curled up next to the older three. Stark is already snoring in his dogbed, no doubt exhausted from pulling the kids around on the skateboard.

Once the entire kitchen has been returned to a spotless state - one that will, no doubt, evaporate within twelve hours - Harry collects Lo’s backpack and kisses the twins and Stevie.

“Alright. Off we go. Freddie, come on.”

Freddie trots after them, and curls up on the seat next to Lo’s booster, practically snoring by the time Harry pulls into their courtyard.

There’s no reading homework to be done, so Lo goes straight for a shower and then into her pajamas. Once she’s sufficiently dried off, Harry lets her crawl into his bed and watch tv while he does some more work, stretched out next to her. She drifts off before her bedtime, and he gently carries her to bed, pulling the covers back and tucking her in. He’s kissing her goodnight when her eyes blink open, hand cupping his cheek.

“Daddy?”

“Yeah baby.”

He turns the starlight night light on. Freddie whines a slight bit and curls up on his dog bed tucked into the corner of Lo’s room.

“Do you think I would be a good flying monkey?”

Harry smiles, kissing her forehead. “I think you would be a great flying monkey.”

“Okay.”

“Sleep tight darling.”

He leaves the door open on his way out, patting his leg for Freddie to follow him. He spends the next few hours working on his laptop and texting intermittently with Zayn.

----------
One week later, Harry is officially sick of the Wizard of Oz.

The kids have watched it about ten times since it was announced as the school musical.. They’ve taken to mimicking all of the dialogue and playing the songs they like (which is all of them) on repeat. Lennon keeps banging on her chest and going on about her heart being missing, and Lo keeps stealing Sophia’s heels to stomp around the house and repeat ‘there’s no place like home’ until Freddie hides in Harry’s study. Even Rachel, the nanny, seems to have had enough (and her patience is neverending, in Harry’s opinion) since the video is unexplainably ‘lost’ on Wednesday.

By the time Harry and Sophia stroll into the parents informational meeting in the school auditorium on Thursday evening, both of them are nearly ready for the entire musical to be over. They arrive a few minutes early and chat with some of the other parents - what’s nice about Prentice is that the other parents have long ago been inured to One Direction’s Harry Styles and Liam Payne’s presence at the school. They greet him the way they do any other parent, asking about work and teasing him about the bird incident.

By the time six-thirty rolls around, Harry’s done some significant parental socialization. He’s met the mother of one of the new girls in the grade who Lo and Lennon are quite fond of, and been invited to Chef Tazil’s newest restaurant. He and Liam may be the most ‘famous’ parents at Prentice, but a number of the other parents are semi-famous in assorted fields.

“Hi. Welcome. If you can all take your seats we’ll get started. I promise to keep this as short and painless as possible.”

Sophia elbows him sharply and Harry scowls, looking up from his phone. “Ow. The fuck was that for, I was going to put it away-

She inclines her head toward the front and he looks, abruptly trailing off. Standing at the front of the auditorium is the most attractive man Harry may have ever seen.

He’s slender. Not particularly tall - maybe 5’8 or so. But he’s well fit - devastatingly so. Dressed in black tailored trousers with a white button down and a black blazer, he looks sharp. Even from his seat three rows back, Harry can see that the man has electric blue eyes, obscured as they are by black rimmed glasses. He has razor sharp cheekbones and thin lips and the barest hint of stubble. His hair’s been styled to one side, a slight quiff that makes him look regal, but what really makes something dark and uncommon curl in Harry’s stomach is the smirk on his face. It isn’t mocking, nor is it quite open. It’s amused, and the way Louis links his hands and stands his ground makes something in Harry’s brain stand up and take notice.

Who’s that?” he whispers.

Sophia shakes her head, brow furrowed. “I think that’s Louis Tomlinson. The director.

“Hi, I’m Louis Tomlinson. I’ll be directing the fall play this year.”

Look at me. I’m a fucking genius.” Sophia whispers, interjecting.

Harry elbows Sophia, hissing at her as quietly as he can. “Shut up. That’s your child’s director. Pay attention-

-Oh I definitely am.

Christ.”

“I know that this year we’re doing things a bit differently than normal, so I’m sure you have questions. I’ll try and answer them all tonight.”

His voice is sweet - a tenor, Harry would wager - but strong. He smiles winningly at the parents and leans back just slightly against the table that’s been setup with various handouts stacked across the top. As he crosses his legs at the ankles, the trousers pull tight across his thighs, and Harry has to swallow reflexively. They’re thick, well muscled.

Sophia kicks his ankle like she can hear his thoughts. He isn’t sure if it’s in encouragement or admonishment. One’s never sure with her.

“Let me start by saying that I am new to the Prentice staff, and have been hired on for the fall term. I’m a company member at Mayfair Players Company, and I’ve been working with a few local schools to improve their theater programs for a few years now. It’s been a side joy of mine.”

Harry narrows his eyes, trying to think if he’s ever seen Louis on stage before. He can’t imagine that he has - how could he possibly forget seeing Louis Tomlinson before? But the MPC is extremely well renowned around London. Not quite mainstream or touristy enough to be considered West End but cutting edge enough to be written about by every major critic in the city.

“I attended Guildhall for Drama, naturally. After graduation I went straight into working. I’ve done work for numerous companies, including the RSC and Filter, as well as appeared in a number of musicals in the West End. But the last few years I’ve been primarily at Mayfair Players. I have a friend here, on the staff, and when he asked me to take part in revamping the theatre program here at Prentice, I admit I was quite excited.”

Louis then spends the next fifteen minutes outlining the process for how he’ll be running The Wizard of Oz. How he’ll be strategic about keeping after-school practice times short and efficient, and what the schedule will be for the children in the primary school.

“Now, what I’m sure many of you must be wondering about is the audition process. I’ll be very, very honest with you: I believe that at the age of your children, there should only be shown encouragement for any foray into the arts. The children in the primary school will be mostly cast as munchkins, flying monkeys, or, poppies, or, on occasion of them being quite tall, citizens of the Emerald City. There are unlimited ways to include them on stage. I do think it’s important for the kids to audition - it’s a process that I think really helps children tackle something and feel accomplished. It will be an incredibly encouraging atmosphere - and if any of them are too nervous to audition individually, I’ll work with them on singing in small groups. Everyone who auditions will be cast in the musical. I want this to be a rewarding process for all involved.”

Do you think Lo or Lennon is good enough to blow him away and be cast as Dorothy?” Sophia whispers, elbowing him in the arm.

When they attend parent meetings all three of them, Liam always makes sure to sit between the two of them or else Harry and Soph will whisper their way through the entire thing. Without him there’s nobody to stop the two of them.

Harry shrugs. “Probably not. I’d say Dylan has a shot though. He’s pretty good at walking in heels.

They sit through the rest of the lecture - information session, Harry reminds himself - learning all about the audition dates, rehearsal schedule, and performance dates. It’ll be a pretty packed fall, but Harry can already tell that it’s going to be something the kids get really into.

“The rest of the staff has already told me how involved the parents here at Prentice are - in really excellent ways. So if you’re available and interested, I would really appreciate it if the parents of any children who take part in the musical would also volunteer their time onto a parent committee. Costumes, set building, rehearsal monitors, watching the kids backstage - there’s plenty of places where we need help. There’s a list up here in your handouts of all the different committees with descriptions and dates and the like. Okay. Are there any questions?”

Naturally, ten parents raise their hands. Harry and Sophia collectively roll their eyes. They’re really the worst.

“What if the children don’t like their assigned part?”
“Will the tickets benefit the music program or the school activities association?”
“Are you able to work around violin lessons?”

After Louis has answered a half dozen half-wit questions (Sophia’s opinion), he invites the parents to come to the front to collect the various handouts. Harry and Sophia wait out the initial stampede of parents eager to greet Louis (no doubt to further their own child’s chances of a better role), discussing whether or not they have time to hit up a wine bar on their way home before Liam gets completely overrun by the kids. There’s just something about how much he wants them to behave that makes them act like extra terrors when he has all four of them by himself.

When the mass of parents has finally dissipated just a little bit, Sophia grabs her purse and they stroll to the front table. There are about five handouts all in bright neon colors, and they make their way down the line to collect each one. Audition information, rehearsal schedule, parents committee information, parent-release form - all the usual paperwork for any school sponsored activity. When they reach the end of the table, Sophia puts on her most beguiling smile, extending a hand to Louis Tomlinson.

“Sophia Smith. My children are in Year Three. It’s so fantastic to meet you. We’re very grateful for you undertaking a musical.”

She’s such a perfect parent sometimes. Even if Liam were here he’d nearly roll his eyes, muttering about her double nature. Louis seems especially enchanted, shaking her hand warmly and giving her his own winning smile.

“Lovely. I’m so happy to be involved. Your children’s names?”

“Lennon and Dylan. Payne-Smith, that is.”

Recognition flashes across Louis’ face, his eyebrows shooting up almost minutely. “Oh of course.”

His words could mean anything, but Sophia sighs. “You’ve already heard of them.”

That makes Louis chuckle, scratching the side of his face. His blue eyes twinkle, and from his spot just behind Sophia’s shoulder, Harry feels another stirring of some long buried emotion.

“My friend who actually got me involved here at Prentice is a teacher in their class, I think. Niall Horan? He’s very impressed by the two of them.”

“Terrorized, you mean.”

But Louis just laughs. “No, Niall’s a great practical joker himself. He’s enchanted, trust me. The two of them, and, ah, their cousin? Lo?”

Sophia pulls Harry forward by his elbow, her thumb digging into his forearm. He stumbles a bit, but she hauls him upright.

“Lo is Harry’s daughter. Our kids have grown up together. They’re basically family.”

Somewhat recovered from his extreme clumsiness and a lot embarrassed, Harry holds his hand out.

“Harry Styles. It’s nice to meet you. My daughter’s the unfortunate third musketeer of the rag-tag bunch.”

Louis’ eyes crinkle at the corners as he smiles and shakes Harry’s hand. His palm is warm, but not sweaty. Harry wishes he’d thought to make sure his own was dry before sticking his hand out.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Styles. I have to confess, I was a big fan of One Direction - still am, of course. Though I hadn’t realized that the Dylan, Lennon and Lo that Niall has mentioned were related to you and Mr. Payne. Silly of me not to put it together.”

Sophia smiles genuinely. “Liam will be thrilled to know he’s not associated with their antics. He’s basically ashamed of them. They’re a bit more troublesome than he was - wholesome boy that he was.” Her joking tone tampers the sarcasm. Louis nods in agreement.

“I have two sets of twin siblings of my own, so I’m sure that I could tell you stories to give you a run for your money. Do you think all three kids will be trying out?”

Sophia’s elbow subtly digs into Harry’s side. “Uh, yes. Yes they’re all very excited. Been playing the movie nonstop.”

“Fantastic. And I hope you’ll be able to take part on one of our parents committees. We could absolutely use the help.”

“Harry was just saying how excited he was to join.” Sophia’s blinding smile fixes on him and he pales.

“Uhm-”

“Rehearsal chaperoning, wasn’t it?”

“Oh, I-”

“Thank you! That would be so helpful! We need someone reliable who can really take charge.” Louis either doesn’t notice, or chooses not to see Harry’s completely clueless expression.

“I-yeah. I’ll definitely think about it.”

Sophia completely ignores the pressure he’s putting on her lower back. “I think that would be great. You’re always saying how much you wish you could spend more time with Lo after school. This would really be a fantastic way.”

Harry steps on her toe. She doesn’t even blink.

“Well, thank you so much, Mr. Tomlinson.”

“Louis, please.”

“Louis. We’re so very excited about this. It was lovely to meet you.”

They both shake his hand again, then leave the auditorium. As soon as they’re out of earshot, Harry kicks her ankle.

“What the fuck was that?”

 Sophia, bless her, doesn’t even try to misunderstand. “Harry, that man is sex personified.”

“He’s our kids’ teacher!”

She rolls her eyes. “Hardly. He’s an actor who’s helping out at school for a bit. And he’s gorgeous. And you should get on that.”

Harry hurriedly pulls her out of the auditorium, refusing to glance back at Louis Tomlinson as they round the corner.

“Soph, you have to stop setting me up with people.”

It’s a pet project of Sophia’s. She’s constantly (at least twice a month) sending Harry off on dates with eligible men (and a few women) that she meets through her art contacts, model friends, or general social calendar. She’s determined to find someone for Harry, even though he’s told her time and again he isn’t interested in seriously seeing anyone. Between work and Lo, his time is completely spoken for, and to be honest, his heart just isn’t in the dating game anymore.

“Harry,” she stops them in the hallway just in front of a garishly colorful billboard with a list of school-wide events. Harry blinks reflexively. “It’s been four years since Spencer passed away.”

“Thanks, Soph. I’d actually forgotten how long it’s been since my husband died. Don’t know what I’d do without you to remind me.”

She softens, hand cupping his face and sympathy in her eyes. “I just want you to be happy.”

Taking her hand in his, he pulls her into an impromptu hug. “I am happy, Soph. I’ve got everyone and everything I need.”

She looks sad, but she nods, kissing his cheek and hugging him back. “Okay. Okay.” They make their way toward the parent parking lot, looking at all the different bulletin boards and school advertisements as they go. Everything is brightly colored and attractive; drawing you in. Seeing the inside of Prentice always makes Harry feel good about their choice in schools. It’s good to know that Lo’s heading off to a welcoming environment every day.

“Oh that took less time than I thought. Let’s go for a drinks since Liam’s got the kids.”

He laughs at Sophia, but nods in agreement. It’s been too long since the two of them got drunk on a weekday.

---

Harry’s known Taylor Swift a long time.

A seriously long time. She’s one of his oldest friends from the industry, being both a superstar in her own right, and his beard and public girlfriend for a few months when he was seventeen years old.

When they’d first been introduced, at a party in Los Angeles for the birthday of some record producer, Harry had been just sixteen and absolutely in awe of her. Her bright bubbly laugh, her endless legs, her recognizable facial expressions - all of it had been intimidating and enchanting. By the time the One Direction publicity team set up a relationship for them to pursue in the public eye, he’d been 100% sure he was gay and absolutely furious at having to spend so much time pretending to be someone who he wasn’t. And then he’d spent time with Taylor and his entire worldview changed.

It was Taylor who showed him what to do while he felt stifled - how to plan carefully for the future and use the time to make himself into the best version he could be, for when the time was right. Taylor who first made him laugh till he cried and took him along on the carnival ride that was her life. And Taylor who had painstakingly taught him to play the guitar, one squeaky chord at a time.

They’ve remained the very best of friends through the years - through everything life has thrown at them. So it’s with a very expensive bottle of wine that Harry arrives at her house for her yearly Autumn Equinox soiree, Liam and Sophia standing behind them as Liam gives all three children last minute instructions.

“And, if something looks like it might be breakable you are not to touch it. Not at all. And no footie in house. Or in the garden - you broke a very expensive gnome last year.”

Dylan looks contemplative. “What about the basement?”

Sophia bites her lips together to stop herself from laughing and busies herself with straightening Stevie’s dress. She and Harry step a little closer to each other as Liam turns around completely to deal with the children.

“No, not in the basement! Not anywhere. No football anywhere. Just play nicely with any of the other kids, and don’t start any roughhousing.”

The door swings open, and their entire family is greeted with the sights and sounds of a party, music audible through the house speaker system and the chatter of people as they mill about.

“Harry!” Taylor looks the same as she always has; eternally youthful with her wide smile and sparkling eyes, and her tall, slender build. She’s cut her hair recently into a pixie cut and had it dyed a rich brown. It looks good on her, but then again, everything does. “Happy Fall!.”

“Happy Fall, Taylor.” He leans in to brush a kiss against her cheek and give her a hug, putting the bottle into her hands as he steps over the threshold.

Taylor’s been throwing her Autumn Equinox party for years. It’s her favorite celebration, ushering in the start of fall and the beginning of all things gingerbread, pumpkin and spice. He waits inside as she greets Liam and Sophia with big hugs, cooing over Stevie. She was in the states for almost the entire summer, and none of them have seen her since she got back. In the years since she made London her primary residence, she’s become part of their little family group.

“And my three favorites! Welcome, welcome.” She ushers in the kids, and at Liam’s prompting Dylan heaves a big sigh and hands over the tin of Pumpkin Spice Tea that he’s been tasked with bearing.

“This is for you. Thanks for the party. Where’s Jonah?”

Almost immediately, a little boy about their age runs up from amidst the general party mayhem, skidding to a stop. He’s stylishly dressed, as he always is, wearing dark grey pants, a dark blue button down, and a deep green cardigan. Taylor’s had his hair buzzed on the sides but the slightest fohawk seems to be gathered on top, little zig-zags buzzed into the sides.

“Hi!” He throws his arms around Dylan, the giant grin on his face almost dislodging his giant black rimmed glasses.

The boys hug each other, but Lennon rolls her eyes and taps her toe pointedly. “Hello, Jonah.”

She sounds like a grandmother, admonishing a child, and the adults can’t contain their smiles as Jonah leaves Dylan and gives her a hug, Lo hugging him from behind so they make a Jonah sandwich.

“Alright. Go have fun. There’s s’mores later during the bonfire so don’t eat too many cookies!”

The kids race off, the four of them making a line as they dart their way around guests to head toward the backyard where there are, no doubt, numerous fall “activities” for them to make a mess with.

Taylor’s the perfect mother sometimes; it puts the rest of them to shame. She adopted Jonah when she was just twenty-six. By herself, without the help or approval of anyone else in her life. Harry sometimes wonders if seeing Taylor parent had given him unrealistic expectations for what it would be like to have a baby. He and Spencer had watched her bottle feed with one hand and write lyrics with the other, witnessed her sing Jonah to sleep backstage and then go perform for sixty-five thousand people; stood next to her while she dealt with teething rings and a screaming child and still managed to write an entire album. When Lo had been born four months later, they assumed it would be as easy.

It was funny, at the time, the way the tabloids went after them both. Having Sophia as a surrogate was fodder enough, but when Taylor adopted a baby with dark skin, the entire world lost its mind. Now, seeing their children such good friends and playing together without a care in the world, it’s funny to think back on how their incorporation into their families was so controversial.

“Gosh, Soph, she’s so big! Come here sweetie.”

Taylor hands the bottle of wine back to Harry and takes Stevie from Sophia, who happily hands her off. The three of them follow Taylor through the house, waving hello to people and greeting old friends. Her parties are always a colorful blend of a steady crowd and delightful new creatures who drift into her acquaintance, all of them interesting with stories to tell. She still collects friends like she used to back in the day, still reels people in with her smiles and cookies and takes them on as dear friends for life.

Liam gets waylaid by a record producer and Sophia immediately gets pulled away by Karlie Kloss, leaving Harry to trail after Taylor.

On the dining table, there are assorted platters of delicious fall treats; everything from scones and tarts to savory casseroles and spicy grilled chicken. Harry picks up a plate and loads it up to share with Sophia, who never likes to hold anything but alcohol in her hand while she’s at parties. On his right, Taylor’s still cuddling with Sophia, walking over to the window to look at the glass charms hanging, watching the way the light bounces with color.

She looks good with a baby in her arms, just like she always has. She shares the same amazement and wonder with the world around her that children do, so they tend to seek her out as a fellow spirit.

“Looks good on you,” Harry remarks, leaning against the wall next to her and starting in on the casserole.

“Feels nice, I have to admit.” She buries her nose in Stevie’s little curls, inhaling the smell of baby shampoo. “Jonah’s been asking lately. I think he wants a little sister.”

“Adopting again?”

He spears an olive and chews it thoughtfully, excited at the idea of another baby in the “family”. Because Taylor’s as much family as Liam and Sophia. He’s Jonah’s godfather, and she’s one of Lo’s two godmothers.

“I’m not committed to anything. Just thinking. But yeah, that’s the idea. I mean, maybe it would be planned this time, though.”

Those close to Taylor know how unplanned Jonah’s adoption was. His mother had been an Egyptian model who Taylor had become close with in her early twenties. Farrah had been part of their group of friends for years when she got pregnant unexpectedly. Taylor and Karlie had been rocks for her during the pregnancy, overly excited to be honorary Aunts.

Harry remembers Farrah as being an incredibly giving person, full of love and wanting to share it. But he can still remember the phone call from Taylor, the hysterical tone of her voice telling him about the birth complications.

There hadn’t been any deathbed dramatics - no last minute promises made to Farrah to keep her baby happy. Farrah had died in surgery, never even able to hold her son, and Baby Boy Bashir had spent his first three days in the ICU practically clinging on to life. The moment he turned the corner, Taylor started the paperwork. Everyone knew how much Farrah and Taylor had loved each other, and with nobody else to claim the baby (and the means Taylor had to raise him), she had been granted temporary custody pending a full adoption process.

Farrah hadn’t wanted to pick a name before he was born, but she had decorated the nursery in preparation, and the blue whale she hung on the wall over his crib had been inspiration for his name. Taylor liked the name Jonah, and after Zayn’s mention that Jonah was a Prophet in Islam, he had been officially named.

“You’ve done a pretty good job with him, Swifty.”

Taylor smiles, her eyes drifting over to the built in bookshelf one one side of the room, where a picture of her with Farrah sits in an old frame. She and Harry both have people that linger with them, though it was Spencer who had actually held Jonah during the funeral, while Harry and Taylor’s mother flanked her. It seems like so long ago, now.

“Well, you’ve raised a hellion who smuggles tropical birds out of their classroom habitats.”

Of course Sophia told Taylor about the bird incident. “You know the twins each had a third of masterminding that plot. I guess just be happy Jonah’s not in school with them.”

“We raised good kids, Harry.” She nods her head to the backyard, where the kids are burying Dylan in a pile of leaves. They’re all laughing and smiling like mad, clearly having the time of their lives. “Also, Sophia says that the director of the musical at their school is a total dreamboat.”

Harry groans, wishing that he had followed Liam to the bar instead of Sophia to the food. Taylor can be just as bad as Sophia sometimes, even though she never married. Jonah’s her number one priority, though she’s been on-again-off-again (mostly on again) with Julian since sometime after they met during One Direction’s Midnight Memories tour.

“Why are you and Soph so determined to fix me up? We’ve literally met this guy once.”

“Once is all it takes, sometimes,” Taylor says sagely, reaching out to nab a bit of pasta salad from his plate. She feeds a tiny bit of noodle to Stevie and reaches back for an olive.

“I highly doubt that Louis Tomlinson and I are going to fall madly in love during the run of my daughter’s first appearance in a musical. Besides, I date.”

“Please,” Taylor counters. “You date guys who could literally not be more unavailable.”

Harry’s genuinely confused and his face must say so, since Taylor rolls her eyes. “Come on, Harry. That lyricist who lives in LA? Or the stock broker who works 90 hours a week? Don’t even get me started on that model. Ryan what’s-his-name.”

“Ryan wasn’t a date, he was really a friend. I met him through Henry.”

“Can’t you get Grimmy to set you up with someone? He always knows interesting people. People who might stick,” she adds meaningfully, ignoring the roll of Harry’s eyes.

“Can you just mind your own business? I don’t see you and Julian rushing to make anything official. Where is he, by the way?”

“Oh, probably downstairs jamming with Ed. You know how they are.”

He smiles and offers another bit of casserole to Stevie, who gnaws on his thumb. Eventually Sophia wanders over, wine in hand, and eats off Harry’s plate while she and Taylor catch up. Harry leaves them to it, falling into easy conversation with people throughout the house. That’s the nice thing about Taylor’s get togethers; they almost always feel like a reunion of some kind.

He heads downstairs after a bit, where Julian and Ed are messing around with their guitars, pulling one of Taylor’s old six strings off the wall and joining them for an hour as they flow through some of their favorite classics. It’s good to laugh with Julian and Ed, and see how far they’ve come in life. Ed’s wife Julia is expecting their fifth child in a few months, and Ed couldn’t be happier as a family man, constantly under a barrage of kids. Julian and Taylor have always kept their relationship low-key. They don’t walk the red-carpet together or appear anywhere as a joint name, but he’s been devoted to her for years. It’s exactly the amount of intensity and maintenance that makes them both happy, and it’s always felt good to see the way they keep each other sane on their own terms.

The party’s been going on for a few hours when Harry enters the kitchen, marching Lo in front of him with a hand on her head.

“But I don’t want any water. Why can’t I have another coke? Is this about my weight? Do you want me to be thin and beautiful?”

Honestly. Where does she even come up with these things? A few of the kitchen’s occupants look over in amusement, and Harry grimaces back at them, steering Lo to the fridge and filling up her cup from the pitcher of water inside.

No, this is not about your weight, you lunatic. You’ve been eating and drinking garbage for hours. Have some water and let the sugar dissipate in your blood a bit.”

Harry’s pretty sure that’s not how science and health actually work, but Lo will get a giant headache from all the soda if she doesn’t hydrate, so what’s a little white lie between a parent and child? She glares at him as she lifts the cup to her lips, narrowing her eyes obstinately. She takes the tiniest of sips - barely even swallowing anything - before lowering the cup and glaring at Harry. He lets her repeat the process three times before he tips the end of the cup up with his finger the next time she drinks, forcing her to open her mouth and take a few gulps.

“Unfair.”

“Parent Trump Card.”

She finishes the cup and hands it back to him, rolling her eyes when he grins and places three smacking kisses across her cheeks. “Ugh, Dad.”

“Okay, go back and play. And no more cookies until you eat a proper dinner, do you hear me?”

She waves him off and darts out of the kitchen, just a blonde mass of hair as she flies around the corner and into (likely) more mischief and trouble. Harry sighs. He doesn’t know where she finds the energy. He can’t ever remember being so much trouble for his own mum.

Suddenly wanting a drink of his own, he heads to the back deck, where Taylor’s kept multiple coolers stuffed with beers and ice, and selects a hard cider, wanting a sweet treat. The sun is just beginning to set and the backyard is painted in an array of pinks and oranges, the grassy yard speckled with leaves and the sound of children’s laughter all over the air. It’s a little oasis in London. Harry can see why Taylor snatched up the property.

“Harry.”

He turns, and smiles genuinely. “Chris. Good to see you.”

They shake hands and Harry grabs a beer for Chris, offering it along with an opener. Chris one of Taylor’s frequent party guests, though they aren’t terribly good friends. He’s a lawyer at the firm she uses in London, but she isn’t his actual client. Harry thinks there’s a story somewhere about how Chris told an inappropriate joke right before a really important meeting, and then left Taylor red faced and hiccuping, and the two of them have had a loose but jovial friendship ever since.

Chris also happens to be one of the ‘eligible bachelors’ that constantly graces Taylor’s list for Harry.

“How’s it been?”

The two of them lean against the deck railing and shoot the breeze, catching up on the major events of their lives over the past few months. Harry tells him about the summer of endless demo tapes, and how excited he is about the large number of new acts he and Liam are signing, and Chris shares that he’s been traveling to and from Capetown to work on contract negotiations with one of his clients.

“You know, I’ve been a lot of places, but I haven’t been to South Africa.”

“It’s amazing. I’ve never enjoyed traveling for business so much. I mean, just the food…” He gives Harry a colorful retelling of what he’s been eating while there, and some of the more memorable restaurant outings he’s had. He’s a funny guy, Chris, and Harry finds himself easily laughing along, smiling as he listens to him recount his travels.

They chat easily, cycling through topic after topic. Food. Art. Music. A few people drop into and out of their conversations, but the two of them keep on chatting well until the sun has already gone down and Taylor’s started the giant firepit in the backyard.

It’s Sophia who finds them, Lennon practically holding her waist hostage as she tries to steer her mother toward the deck steps. Sophia has Stevie nestled into her arms, wide awake after all the activity of being passed around from person to person, her little eyes still taking in everything around her.

“Harry, can you see about feeding her? The kids are whining about s’mores and I don’t trust Dylan anywhere near a fire with a long stick.”

Harry accepts the baby easily, cuddling her to his chest and glad that the temperature hasn’t dropped too much. “Where’s Liam?”

Sophia rolls her eyes. “Oh. You know. He and Julian found their way to the basement studio.” She raises her eyebrows and brings two fingers to her lips, indicating that Liam and Julian are definitely off getting high.

“That bastard. Yeah, I’ll get her fed.”

Lennon drags Sophia toward the firepit and Harry turns an apologetic glance to Chris. “You should definitely join the lads downstairs - Julian always has the good stuff. I’m going to get this little lady her dinner.”

“Sounds good.” Chris turns to head back inside but pauses, hand on the doorframe. “Hey, do you want to grab dinner sometime? Maybe a more...formal environment?”

Harry freezes for just a moment, surprised. He always assumed that Chris being interested in a date with him was a fantasy in Taylor’s head rather than a genuine interest.

“Uh, yeah. Sure. That’d be great.”

“Good. I’ll text you.”

“Absolutely.”

Chris leaves him on the deck and Harry looks down at Stevie, making his Very Surprised Face.

“Well, Missy, that was unexpected. Your mum is going to be outrageously pleased.” She cooes at him, batting at his face, and he quickly gobbles her fist, making her chirp with laughter. “Okay, okay, I know. You want dinner. Let’s go see what we can cobble together for you, hmm?”

By the time they leave Taylor’s house that night, the kids are passed out in the backseat and Liam is practically asleep next to Stevie in her carseat. Of course, Sophia wakes everyone up when she screeches with delight upon hearing that Harry has procured himself a date.

-----

Two weeks later, Harry picks up his desk phone and dials through to Sophia’s office at the gallery.

“Sophia Smith.”

“Chloe hates you.”

Chloe is Harry’s assistant. Technically she was hired as his assistant at the label, but she handles essentially every part of his life, from anything One Direction related to the after-care pick up schedule. She and Rachel the nanny are best friends, which also makes life a little bit easier. Harry had hired Chloe upon recommendation from Rachel three years earlier, and has never once regretted his decision. Except for how he regrets it every day when she tells him what to do and what he’s doing wrong. At least she teams up with him to fuck with Alice, the totally tight-laced and boring (efficient) PA that Liam hired for himself.

“Chloe doesn’t hate me.”

Harry leans back in his leather chair, feet kicked onto the corner of his desk.

“No, she totally does. I got the schedule from school about chaperoning rehearsals for the kids three times a week starting next month and now she has to basically re-arrange my schedule for those months and she hates you.”

He can hear Sophia’s nails clacking away on her keyboard - she probably has her bluetooth in. She’s such a stereotype sometimes, honestly.

“Well, it’s time for you to step up and actually be a functioning member of the PTA.”

Harry snorts. “Please. Everyone on the PTA loves me. They love the brownies I send for the bake sales.”

“Moms who want to fuck you don’t count, Harry.”

“Hey. Just because none of the other moms like you, doesn’t mean you should take it out on me.”

“I am perfectly well liked on the PTA.”

“Mmmm. You’re a little over-possessive of Liam. No, just accept it. I’m your friend, I’m telling you this for your own good.”

“They look at him like they want to eat him.”

There’s the soft thud of heels and he looks up to see Chloe walk into the room, stack of folders in her arms that he pleads with his eyes for her not to deposit on his desk. She ignores his pleas, placing the stack right in the middle of his workmat.

“Calm down, I’ve already gone through and put tags where you need to look at the contracts.”

Chloe is a goddess walking among mortals. Harry should pay her more.

“Also, tell Sophia I’m not angry with her - Louis Tomlinson is gorgeous and you should be all over that.”

Scratch that, Chloe should be fired. And he should pay her less.

“What - I - how do you know about Louis Tomlinson?” He moves the microphone of the phone away from his mouth, covering the speaker in the vain hopes Sophia won’t hear.

“Sophia e-mailed me.”

Harry glances at the phone clock, staring at the receiver in horror and taking his hand away from the speaker end of the phone. “We’ve been on the phone for a minute and thirty-two seconds!”

On the other end, Sophia just sighs. “Harry if you haven’t learned by now that I always win, I just don’t know what else it will take to make you see reason.”

Harry glares at the handset then at Chloe. “Get out. You’re fired.”

Chloe taps the stack of folders and gives him a superior look before turning around to exit his office, calling over her shoulder. “It’s still laughable that you think your life could function without me.”

“Please! You don’t do anything for me that I couldn’t do for myself.”

“Hmm. So you also sent your mother and Robin flowers for their wedding anniversary?”

Shit. Harry completely lost track of the date. “I mean, okay, but you probably didn’t even send the right kind of-”

“Fifteen sunflowers. One for every year they’ve been married.”

Not for the first time, Harry wonders why and how he managed to surround himself with so many competent, amazing, infuriating women. It’s good for Lo, he tells himself.

“Fine. You can stay. Go do some work and earn your paycheck.”

On the other end, Sophia huffs in annoyance at being ignored. “How much do you pay Chloe?”

“More than you can afford at a gallery. Listen, I really think you owe me, because this schedule for the musical is ridiculous. Three days a week I need to be there, Soph. For two hours.”

“One would think, Harold, that you would be thrilled at the opportunity to spend more time with your impressionable young daughter and two godchildren.”

“Stop trying to change the point.”

“What’s the point again?”

“The point is, you sent in that parent chaperone form without asking me - forging my signature I might add, and that I have a lot to do, here, at the label where I work with your husband, and you can’t sign me up to volunteer for six hours a week just because you want me to jump into bed with the director. Besides, you don’t even know if he’s gay.”

“Oh no, I do.” She sounds so blasé about it that Harry’s taken by surprise for a moment.

“Well, you don’t even know if he’s single.”

“Harry.” The pity and sarcasm drips from her tone.

How do you know these things? Like, what, did you friend him on facebook and send him a questionnaire?”

 “If you must know, Louis’ little sister Lottie happens to be the gallery assistant at Hauser & Wirth, and she was only too happy to tell me all about her darling brother.”

“Sophia-”

“All I am saying is that you shouldn’t write him off just yet.”

“There’s nothing to write off! I’ve literally met the man once.”

I have to go now, Harry. Some of us do actual work you know. Try and pick up some curries for dinner? I don’t have time to grab anything on my way home.”

The line goes dead, and Harry gapes at his phone. He hates Sophia Smith.

------

Auditions for the Wizard of Oz go smoothly for the Payne-Smith/Styles children. Dylan, who refuses to take any of his father’s suggestions, sings the first verse of December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night), while Lennon refuses to sing all together and raps out a verse from Salt n Peppa’s Push It. Harry doesn’t think Liam has ever been so embarrassed in his entire life.

It’s Lo who surprises him the most, when she comes into the studio with Rachel the day before her audition to show him what she’s been working on in her music lessons. She stands very still by the piano, in front of Harry. Liam, and the girls from EvolVE, and sings the first two verses from Annie’s Tomorrow. Harry is not one bit ashamed to admit that he openly cried. Which is good because Lo is ashamed enough for both of them.

When the cast list goes up, the three of them are (predictably) cast as munchkins. Lo is put as a member of the Lullaby League, and she dances around the house for three days continuously, trying to make Freddie take interest in her big part. Mostly Freddie just wants to sleep, but he trots along gamely with her as she does twirls across the kitchen floor, singing out the lines.

Harry’s unbearably proud of Lo (and Lennon and Dylan, of course), and he dutifully helps her learn her learn the real lyrics to all the songs she’ll be participating in. He gets her in his downstairs studio after dinner time, playing out the songs on the piano and teaching her the differences between the music as she learned it by ear from the movie, and the actual score for the musical.

The rehearsal schedule has the kids doing singing lessons in large groups for the first two weeks, before any blocking will be done. All three kids come home buzzing with excitement and filled with funny stories about “Mr. Tommo,” impersonating him to the fullest extent of their abilities. What’s best about the musical, however, is how engaged the kids seem. They understand they’re only one part of the whole - however small that part might be - and they just want to do their best.

While the kids are obsessed with rainbows and munchkins and the like, Harry finds himself nearly overrun at work. He and Liam had such a productive summer that they’re really suffering with too much talent, so Zayn has stepped in to help out, and they’ve also had Julian in the studio more and more to help them manage. It eases the workload by a lot, giving both Harry and Liam a little breathing room. One Wednesday, Harry decides he needs a bit of a break from the office, so he lets Chloe and Liam know he’ll be working from home, and spends the morning lounging around the house working on some hooks that have been giving him trouble.

He solves one of them, which makes him feel productive enough for the day that has an early lunch with Taylor, and then pops over to the Payne-Smith household to let Rachel have the afternoon off and takes Stevie from her after lunch. It isn’t often that he has the chance to relax during the day and he takes advantage, going for a run in the park with Stevie’s running stroller. He has to dig it out of the basement closet, because god knows Sophia doesn’t run, and even Liam has fallen off the workout wagon, but eventually he gets Stevie situated and warm, and they head to Regent’s Park. It’s a great day for running - crisp enough to enjoy the workout, and when he’s gotten a good few miles in, he stops at a cafe on the way back to his own house to indulge in an afternoon coffee, splitting a scone with Stevie and feeding her tiny crumbles from his fingers.

Once he’s put her down for an afternoon nap and taken a shower, he bakes a batch of cookies for the kids, and calls his mum for a long chat. It seems, between Lo and work, he never gets enough time to just talk to her anymore, and they spend almost an hour catching up on all the mundane details of life in Holmes Chapel and London. He and Stevie play for a bit in the den, reading through book after book and working on crawling. Sophia thinks she’ll start really crawling any day, and it makes Harry sad, the way they grow up so fast. Luckily, Stevie is a chronically lazy baby and seems in no hurry to start zipping around on her own.

He heads to the school so he can be there by five, nabbing a parking spot near the auditorium entrance and carrying Stevie into the school. She’s been in a good mood for most of the day and he hopes she doesn’t pick the next ten minutes to have a meltdown.

As he approaches the auditorium, he can hear the familiar strains of Follow the Yellow Brick Road. When he steps inside and adjusts to the darkroom and bright lights on stage, he can see the entire munchkin cast standing on the steps, all singing along. There’s a piano light for the rehearsal accompanist, and Louis stands on the steps in front of the kids, raising his arms as they hold the last note.

“That was fantastic guys! Can you hear how much you’re improving every single time we practice this? You guys are doing a great job listening to each other. Now, Mr. Arnold is going to run through Ding-Dong one more time, okay? Then you’re all good to go and I’ll see you on Monday!”

The school music director stands up to work with the kids, and Louis starts to walk up the aisle to where his directors desk has been set up in the seats, near the very back of the auditorium.

When he sees Harry he smiles, reaching out to shake his hand. “Mr. Styles.”

“Harry, please.” Stevie starts to babble unhappily, and he bounces her gently on his hip.

“Harry, then. And who is this very pretty little lady?” Louis’ entire face lights up and he makes a funny face at Stevie, causing tiny baby giggles to erupt. Which is basically the best sound in the whole world. Harry tries hard not to be enchanted.

“This is Miss Stevie Payne-Smith. Also commonly known as Stevie Wonder Payne-Smith.”

Louis’ face is a mix of horrified and delighted. “No it isn’t!”

“Well, not technically. It’s actually only Stevie Elizabeth. But yeah, she’s named after Stevie Wonder. And, of course, Dylan and Lennon are Bob Dylan and John Lennon.”

“Wow. That’s… special.”

“Soph wasn’t impressed but Liam begged and begged. After the twins came he wanted to name the next one Freddie Mercury so Sophia got us a dog and named him that to use up the name.”

As Louis laughs, Harry once again notices the way his eyes crinkle at the corners. It’s...adorable, really. Especially combined with the way he’s dressed in trackies and a thin Doncaster Rovers hoodie. He looks young - nothing like the put-together man he was at the parents meeting.

“So is Lola named after any famous singer?”

Harry chuckles, swaying gently with Stevie. “Unfortunately not. Just loved the name, really. The kids sound like they’re really coming along.”

Watching Louis’ entire face light up is an experience that Harry finds himself wanting to repeat soon. His enthusiasm for the kids is both reassuring and attractive to Harry as a parent. God damn it. He needs to get Sophia out of his head.

“They really are - every single rehearsal you can see them come together more as a group. We’re going to start blocking next week so that’ll be a fun new step. Are you on babysitting duty for the day?” He nods towards Stevie, who starts to grab fistfuls of the curls that are escaping Harry’s beanie.

“Nah. Working at home this morning so I had Rachel bring her over and take the rest of the day off. Sorry, that’s our nanny. She takes care of Stevie during the day and then the three other kids after school a few days a week. Except Monday and Tuesday. Sophia stays home Monday and Tuesday but whenever we can pick up the kids ourselves we do.”

Harry absolutely has to work on his babbling problem.

“Sounds like a complicated schedule.”

He feels like an idiot. “We make it work.”

The kids have been released from rehearsal, and the spread from the stage like ants, all heading to their bags and chatting with each other as they start to meander their way towards the group of parents who have gathered at the back of the auditorium. Lo immediately runs at him, skidding to a stop just before she rams into his thighs.

“Daddy! Did you hear us sing?”

“I did! You guys sound so good!”

She smiles up at him, a gap in her front teeth where Dylan tied a string to her loose tooth and slammed a door to pull it out. Harry bends down so that she can give Stevie a kiss on the cheek and then give him a hug.

“Do you have all your stuff? Go get your backpack.”

She trudges off, and almost immediately the twins zip over.

“Uncle Haz! I fit six peach slices in my mouth at lunch!” Lennon seems overly proud of this fact and grins up at him. Harry congratulates her and pats her head.

“Do you guys have everything you need? Dylan did you pack your homework? Really? Go check again. And Lennon I know you have a coat. Go find it.”

When they run off, he turns back to Louis, who’s looking at him with something soft in his expression.

“It was good to see you, Harry.”

Harry shakes his hand, unsure about the zing that goes through him as they make contact again. He makes Stevie wave goodbye, then forces himself to scan the auditorium for his wayward children as Louis is diverted by another set of parents. It takes a few minutes to make sure the kids have everything, and then another ten to shake off the insistent mothers who always seem to crowd him whenever he finds himself at school events.

The children attack the cookies the moment they enter the house, parking themselves at the island to stuff their faces. Harry asks them about their day and cuts up some vegetables for them to snack on as well while he starts preparing dinner. Eventually he sits them down at the kitchen table to do their homework, supervising with Stevie on a rug while he moves about the kitchen cooking, keeping an ear out to help Lo with any spelling issues she encounters and coaxing Lennon into reading her paragraphs out loud as her dyslexia therapist has encouraged.

The children finish their homework before dinner’s ready, and the timer on the oven goes off just in time for Sophia to let herself in through the side door.

“Hello my darlings!” She kisses the three older children and scoops Stevie up from her playmat, cuddling her close. “Did you have fun with Uncle Hazza today? Hmm?”
She’s still dressed up for the gallery, her pumps clicking on the wood of the floor as she walks across the kitchen to watch Harry pull the casserole from the oven. She calls the kids to clear off their homework and set the table, then settles Stevie in her high chair as she tosses up a quick salad.

“Seems like work is picking up,” Harry comments as he serves the kids Pumpkin, Squash and Peppers bake, with salad and toasted broccoli. “Dyan, don’t even think about it,” he adds as he sees Dylan try to spoon some of the broccoli into his napkin.

“But I don’t want broccoli,” Dylan whines.

“Too bad. Parent Tump Card.”

He and Dylan engage in a glaring match, but Sophia ignores it completely, continuing with her conversation about work.

“It is, actually. Carolyn Olvayston wants to have a show in the spring, so I’ve been going back and forth with her.”

Sophia has spent years trying to build her career, in between One Direction tours and having children. Art has always been her passion - it’s why she was absolutely intent on going to university - she always wanted to own her own gallery. It took a while for her to put everything together - selecting the right space, finding investors, getting off the ground - but she refused Liam’s attempts to just throw money at a business so that it could be her ‘pet project’. She’s not a huge name like the big galleries, but more and more she’s able to nab up-and-coming sought after artists.

“Carolyn Olvayston? She’s the one who does those watercolor faces? Well done, Soph. That’s great.”

“It makes for a lot of work, but she’s huge these days so I’m pretty well pleased, actually - Dylan, it doesn’t matter how much you shred up that broccoli you still have to eat it. How did rehearsals go today?”

“Brilliant! Mr. Tommo says we’re ace!” Lola’s enthusiasm makes Harry smile, and he nudges the knife a little closer to her left hand. Liam has a thing about teaching the kids to eat with all the right utensils so he and Sophia are trying to humor him.

“I bet he did! Did you happen to run into Mr. Tommo when you picked up the kids today?” The arch to Sophia’s eyebrow makes Harry feel like he’s been caught.

“Yes, I did.”

“And?” Sometimes she’s worse than the kids. Honestly.

“And nothing. We said hello, I told him about why all your children are named after Liam’s musical inspirations, we talked about how the musical is coming along.”

“Did you… flirt?” She mouths the last part, in case the children are paying attention. They aren’t, too busy shoveling food to care about grown up conversation. Harry finishes spreading a slice of the casserole out on on a small plastic plate so that Stevie can scoop up parts of it with her hand, blowing on it to make sure it’s cool enough before he puts it on her chair tray.

“No I did not, thank you. There’s nothing going on there, so. Stop trying to make magic happen.”

“He’s a nice guy, Harry. Even Liam thinks he could be potential dating material - he said so after he picked the kids up the other night.”

“I’m not saying he isn’t a nice guy. But Prentice Day School isn’t really where I’m looking to troll for my dates.”

Sophia opens her mouth to say something, but at his look she holds her hands up in surrender and mercifully lets the subject go. Two seconds later, Lennon and Dylan get into a fight about something, which takes her attention, and Harry can content himself with eating his dinner, keeping up the encouragement for Stevie to do the same.
It’s the last that he hears of the subject for the night.

After dinner, Sophia gets her children packed up and heads home, thanking Harry for dinner and for getting everything settled. Once they all leave, Harry gets Lo upstairs for a bath and then spends almost an hour reading to her from Harry Potter, which is her newest obsession. He loves the bonding time, and gives in to about three requests for ‘just one more chapter.’

By the time she’s asleep, he’ exhausted himself, and he falls into bed not long later, images of Louis Tomlinson’s smile interrupting his dreams.

----

Since Taylor’s party, Harry and Chris have been loosely e-mailing, trying to set up a date. It’s a bit hard - Harry’s been insanely busy, with the label and Lo, and Chris has been traveling a lot - but their e-mailing has been flirty, filled with pseudo innuendo and lots of jokes. Eventually they manage to find a weekend that works for both of them, and Harry finds himself looking forward to it.

Their date is set for Saturday night. It’s a Wolverhampton weekend for the Payne-Smith family, and Harry almost considers sending Lo with them since she’s never been exposed to his dating someone. After a long conversation with his mum, however, he decides to be honest with Lo and not pretend he’s meeting up with a friend. He tells her at dinner on Friday night, while the two of them are nestled into a back booth of their favorite pizzeria. She hardly reacts when he explains that he’ll be going on a date, only smiling up at him beatifically and asking if they can also get the brownie for dessert.

On Saturday night, after a long day of rollerblading and generally making a giant mess of the house, she’s spread out on his bed, wearing her favorite pajamas - a set of cream colored leggings and ribbed henley that have sushi printed all over. Her hair’s been pulled into a ponytail so high the strands practically fall in her face, and she has half an eye on the cartoons playing on his tv while she also thumbs through her giant book of maps.

“But why can’t Rachel come over?”

Harry’s only got his pants on, wandering into and out of his bathroom trying to get ready. He walks out of the bathroom to search for his trousers, scouring his closet before walking back into the bedroom, puzzled. Lo just sighs and points to the armchair in the corner, where he’d draped them over the back.

“Thanks,” he mumbles, pulling them on and doing the zipper before heading for the bathroom again. “Because Rachel is not a weekend babysitter, even though she is very nice and helps out sometimes. She needs a life too.”

He wets his face and neck and slathers some shaving gel on, letting it foam up before reaching for his razor.

“Besides,” he yells out to Lo, “you love hanging out with Zayn.”

He hears her sigh and the sound of her flopping herself back, probably messing up all the pillows at the head of the bed.

“Not when he and Auntie Pez make moon eyes at each other.”

Rinsing off the razor, Harry shaves another two stripes. “Zayn and Perrie are just friends, baby.”

That much is true. Fifteen years of being on and off, and Zayn and Perrie have never gotten their shit together. They’ve been engaged, twice, and broken up a total of five times. These days, though, Zayn insists that they’re just friends. Perrie’s been seeing some fancy lawyer for a few months and it sounds promising.

Harry finishes shaving and wipes off his face, pouring aftershave and patting down.

“You can’t just say those thing about people, bubs,” Harry tells her as he wanders back through the bedroom to his closet. “It’s not good to start rumors.”

“It’s not a rumor,” Lo insists passionately, sitting back up and huffing. “They’re totally together again. Also, we can order curry, right?”

Buttoning up his shirt and tucking it into his trousers, Harry nods. “Yes but you have to eat the meat not just dip in the sauce, okay?”

Lo looks unhappy. “Can I have popcorn too?” she hedges.

“Fine.”

“Then okay.” She flips a page on her map book, looking at a giant spread of Africa. She traces the path of the Nile with her finger, then skims over the Sahara. “Where are you going on your date?”

Harry pauses, looking at Lo in his dresser mirror. She’s staring at him curiously.

“We’re going to go to dinner and then we’re going to a play.”

She nods, turning the page again and looking down at Asia. “What restaurant?”

Harry fastens his watch and sits on the bed next to her. “It’s an Italian place. I haven’t been there before. Are you sure you’re okay with me going on a date? It’s just one evening, you know that?”

“I know. Do I have to stay with Uncle Zayn? Can’t I go over to Alyssa’s house?”

“Sorry, babe. Not tonight.”

Rolling his eyes and kissing her forehead, Harry continues getting ready. He sits to pull his socks on and tie his shoes, putting on some cologne and giving Lo a spray as well since she asks for it. Then he picks her up to carry her under his arm down the stairs to wait for her babysitters for the night.

Right on time, the doorbell rings. Harry thanks Zayn and Perrie for giving up their evening last minute to babysit, smiling as Lo launches herself at Perrie.

“Auntie Pez! Daddy says we can order curry and have popcorn.”

“Curry and popcorn? You’re a lucky duck tonight.”

Perrie greets Harry warmly, shedding her jacket so Zayn can hang it up in the coat closet. Something about the way the two of them are circling each other strikes Harry as odd, but he shakes his head when Lo raises her eyebrows at him.

“Okay. I’m off. You know the routine- Lo, bed at nine, okay? I mean it. I really, really mean it.”

She waves off his concern, jumping up when he reaches out so he can lift her up and give her a hug. She wraps her arms around his neck and kisses his cheek, careful not to muss up his hair. She smells like coconut shampoo and lip gloss and his cologne, and she looks ridiculous with her ponytail so high.

“I love you, bubs.”

“I love you too. Have fun tonight.”

He thanks Zayn and Perrie again before heading out, glancing at his watch to make sure he’s not late.

Two hours later, Harry and Chris are wrapping up dinner. The food has been delicious - the best Italian Harry’s had in a while, really - and they drank their way through a bottle of red. Conversation flowed freely throughout, which makes Harry pleased. The loose connection they’ve always enjoyed was clearly based in something that could be real.

“God, do we have to sit through a play now? I’m stuffed.”

They’re just sipping coffee, trying to get themselves caffeinated up before they head out. Chris is just as nice as he’s always seemed, picking up the bill before Harry can even reach his hand out. They look like a good pair too, Harry notes, glancing to the mirrored wall across the restaurant. He in his black jeans and jacket, Chris in a crisp grey suit.

That was something everyone used to say to Harry, back when Spencer was alive. What a beautiful couple they were. Spencer with his honey blonde hair and laughing iris eyes.

Pulling himself out of the past, Harry concentrates on the story Chris is telling, about his latest foray into cooking authentic chinese food and what an abysmal failure his last attempt had been. When he finishes, they’re both chuckling, and a comfortable silence settles for a brief moment.

“So tell me about this play we’re seeing?”

That makes Chris smile and reach to pour a bit more coffee in his cup. Harry usually hates coffee after one pm but so full of food he’d relented and agreed to a little buzz, especially with the prospect of a long play looming before him.

“Are you a theater buff? I didn’t think to ask.”

“No, not particularly. I see a few a year but I’m not really, in the know. That’s Sophia, more than anything.” He doesn’t mention that the few shows he sees a year are usually toward the tail end, when Liam just can’t take another intellectually stimulating play. Philistine, Sophia always calls him.

“I have to confess, I’m the same. I enjoy a good show, don’t get me wrong, but it’s never been my thing, really. But my roommate from uni - he’s a director and I always try to get to see his stuff once in a while. He’s a proper director now - busy all the time but I can only force myself a couple times a year.”

“I’m sure he appreciates the effort,” Harry assures him. He’s a tiny bit relieved that Chris isn’t terribly into theatre - he’d have felt completely out of his depth.

“So, anyway - tonight. He’s a company member at Wishing Tree playhouse and this is their big fall do. He’s assured me it’ll be interesting though - a gay intrigue about Oscar Wilde and his lover.”

“Well, I have to admit, I do love a gay intrigue.”

They both smile, lingering over the last of their coffee.

By the time they arrive at the playhouse, it’s nearly showtime (his days in One Direction will never quite leave him), and they hurriedly find their seats. It’s a small theatre space, set up to be in the round, and the two of them are in the second row. They’ve just sat themselves down and shed their coats when the lights dim, someone associated with the company making an announcement about cell phones, before the lights go down completely for the play to start.

Right away, Harry finds himself invested in the play. The elder gentleman who plays Oscar Wilde is witty and engaging, and it’s enjoyable to sit next to Chris and feel him laughing. The small setting is interesting, making him feel part of the action and as if he’s onstage right along with the actors.

And then Louis Tomlinson walks onstage and Harry nearly gasps in surprise.

Dressed in a period suit and strolling into the scene, Louis looks as at home as he did at the school rehearsal in a hoodie and trackies. As he lounges about the on-stage settee and takes off his hat, he commands the stage, his skin extra golden under the lights. Five minutes into the scene, Harry can see why the Oscar Wilde onstage seems so caught with Alfred Douglas. Why the young man seems to be reeling the playwright in.

Quite quickly, Harry forgets that it’s Louis Tomlinson he’s watching. Louis becomes Alfred, and he so embodies the character that everything else fades away. And, if Harry’s being honest, he’s as enthralled with “Bosie” as the Oscar onstage is, swept into his aura of intensity, feeling the attraction that the characters are supposed to feel for each other. As they begin their affair and navigate their way through society, Harry finds himself spellbound, watching with a desperate fascination as Louis moves his way around the stage, winding himself further and further around and into Oscar.

By intermission, Harry feels exhausted, so taken by the onstage simmer of sexual tension. He excuses himself to the toilet and also avails himself of the water fountain, needing a breather. The concession stand is selling wine, and he strongly wants to buy a glass, but instead makes his way back into the theatre where Chris is reading through the program.

“That Tomlinson fellow is quite good, hmm?”

“He, um,” Harry swallows. “He’s actually directing a musical at my daughter’s school. I didn’t know he was in anything at the moment.”

Chris is obviously aware of Lo’s existence, but she hasn’t come up in topic all evening. Mostly because Harry’s steered clear of bringing her up. Lo’s the light of his existence, and it just doesn’t seem wise to bring up how anybody else will always take second place in his life. Especially when he’s not even sure if he and Chris are heading into dating territory.

“That’s great. I’ve met him a few times through David. He’s a company member at Mayfair - damn good theatre company - have you ever been there? David’s done some work there once or twice.”

Chris goes on about David’s work history and makes casual conversation while Harry opens the program to read Louis’ bio for himself. The black and white headshot next to his name is equal parts cheeky and sexy, the statement mentioning that he hails from Doncaster and talks a little bit about Mayfair Players Company. It lists some of his bigger roles as an actor and thanks his family and friends for their ‘unending support’.

The second half begins within a few minutes, and Harry settles in, genuinely excited to see Louis continue his part in the plot. Two scenes in, the crew change the furniture around to resemble a turn of the century bedroom, and Harry feels his throat go dry as the lights come up and Bosie and Oscar stroll their way onto the stage. Louis looks lovely in his waistcoat, and the trousers only accentuate the leanness of his legs and thickness of his thighs. There’s a relaxed air about them, charged only with a sexual sort of tension as they discuss a play, drinking some wine and slowly building the moment. When Bosie and Oscar start disrobing each other, Harry grips the program tightly in his hands, willing himself not to do something horrifically embarrassing. The two of them start kissing and undoing their pants, until Louis is angled toward the bed and left only in his… drawers, for lack of a better term.

They slip into the bed together and commence with their lovemaking, the lights dimming as they do so until all Harry can make out are the two of them as figures in the bed, moving against each other in an erotic manor.

As the lights come up on the two of them lying in bed, both enjoying a cigarette and talking about what sort of life they can hope to have, Harry finds himself nearly unable to swallow, his mouth is so dry. He tries, deliberately, to loosen his hand and leg muscles, to not be so much of an idiot. Louis is an actor, for christ sake. How he looks lounging in bed is not how he would look in real life.

The rest of the play goes on without any more sexual interludes, though there are a number of emotionally provoking moments. By the end scene, when Oscar and Bosie are reunited (after Wilde’s sojourn in a labor camp) Harry feels emotionally drained.

It pains him, to see a representation of how difficult life used to be for gay people - how it still is in some places. Harry considers himself exceedingly lucky that he never had to face any real discrimination in his life. There had been general backlash when he came out, sure, but most of the One Direction fanbase had been so fantastic, sending constant messages of support. And he and Spencer had both the money and the means to ignore most anything unpleasant in regards to their sexual orientation. But that privilege is why Harry has spent so much of the last ten years working to spread the message of love, raising money for and bringing attention to groups that focus on gay teens and providing a safe space for them to exist and be themselves. Thinking about how different his life would be had he been born a century earlier - it makes him feel uncomfortable. And guilty.

At the end of the play, after Louis and the actor who played Oscar (and the supporting cast) take their bows Chris turns to Harry asking if he minds popping backstage for a minute or two.

“Just to say hi.”

“No, of course. I’d like to say how much I enjoyed it.”

In reality he is terrified of the possibility (likelihood, honestly) of running into Louis, but he dutifully follows Chris out of the theatre and through the lobby to a discreet entrance to the backstage area. Clearly Chris has made the trek a few times, since he expertly navigates them through the hallways, until they run into a number of the men from the show entering and exiting dressing rooms.

“Hey mate, I’m looking for David Campfield? Thanks.”

They’re directed to - of course - Louis Tomlinson’s dressing room, and Chris knocks quickly.

When they enter, Harry is struck by two things. First, Louis Tomlinson is shirtless, leaning against his makeup counter in only his unbuttoned trousers, a makeup rag in one hand as he mops at his face. Second, he’s just as built up close as he had appeared onstage, the lights from the mirror behind him leaving absolutely nothing about his lean figure to the imagination.

“Christopher! You came!”

Harry turns his attention to the man that had been in conversation with Louis. David (presumably) embraces Chris, giving him a bear hug and patting his back.

“Course I came - said I’d be here, didn’t I? This is Harry Styles.”

Harry shakes David’s hand. “Pleasure. And congratulations - the play was excellent.”

David smiles broadly, dressed only in jeans and a red pullover. He shakes Harry’s hand warmly, then gestures to Louis.

“Thank you, but all appreciation should go to my actors, of course. I was just telling Louis how on point he was tonight.”

Louis puts down the make up rag to shake Harry’s hand. His skin is warm, likely from all the stage lights. He grabs a bottle of water from behind him and takes a long pull, keeping Harry’s attention while David and Chris lapse into conversation.

“Thank you for coming. I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

His voice sounds tired. Relaxed. So different than it had mere minutes ago.
“Very much. You were...It was great. Honestly.”

Sophia would kill him, if she were there. She’d shove him right into Louis and then blame it on Liam falling, or something equally transparent.

“Well, thank you,” Louis smiles, sipping a bit more at the bottle of water and picking the make up rag back up to wipe the other side of his face. “I didn’t realize you and Chris were friends. Small world, I guess.”

Chris must hear that, because he comes up behind Harry and lays a hand on his shoulder, leaning in to talk conspiratorily.

“Dunno what I was thinking, really. Promised Harry a nice first date and I bring him to see a depressing play about two gay men.”

He and David laugh, and Harry chuckles as well, eyes still stuck on Louis. The ends of Louis’ mouth quirk up but he doesn’t quite give in to the merriment, looking back at Harry speculatively.

“Pretty good place for a first date, I’d say.”

Harry finds himself absolutely transfixed, unable to look away from Louis while David and Chris chat around them, discussing how Chris felt about the production as a whole, and what he’s up to for the rest of the fall. Louis stays quiet, smiling at Harry and draining the rest of the water bottle. There’s something deep in his eyes that Harry’s caught on, while he desperately racks his brain for something brilliant to say.

“Well, we’d best be off. Louis, fantastic as always.” Chris waves charmingly, and Louis nods pleasantly.
“Thanks for coming.”

Harry waves to Louis and smiles again at David and then he’s whisked away with Chris, following him back through the maze of hallways. The cold air as they exit the building is a welcome transition for Harry, who feels entirely too hot. Together, they walk to his car, where Harry tells Chris he’s happy to drop him off. As they drive, Chris talks about the play and about his upcoming work trip to New York the following week. He hasn’t been in a long time, apparently, and Harry mindlessly shares his favorite spot there for Ramen and a fantastic bitters bar he went to the last time he was there. By the time they reach Chris’ flat in Chelsea, Harry’s practically vibrating out of his skin, feeling totally taken apart by his extreme reaction to Louis and how absolutely Chris seems in comparison.

“I had a good time,” Chris murmurs, hand lingering on the door handle.

Harry says all the right things to agree, thanking him for dinner and for the great play experience. When Chris leans in for a kiss, and Harry obliges, brushing their lips together in as casual a fashion as he can orchestrate. He’s relieved when Chris doesn’t push for more, smiling again and thanking him for the ride before getting out of the rover and making his way into his building.

The entire drive home, his thoughts are a mess, and when he reaches the house he finds himself startled to walk into the den and find Perrie and Zayn snuggled onto the couch, Freddie curled up on the floor in front of them.

Zayn startles, practically pushing Perrie off him to wake her up and standing up quickly, giving Harry a rundown on Lo’s excellent behavior for the night. He makes her out to be an angel, which Harry appreciates, even if he’s sure she pulled her princess card a few times.

“Well, thanks so much for watching her you guys.”

“No problem! How did your date go?” Perrie wiggles her eyebrows, gathering up her purse. She and Zayn both seem to be pretending that Harry didn’t catch them practically lying on top of each other, and Harry inwardly groans when he realizes he’s going to have to fess up to Lo in the morning.

“It was fine. Dinner. Play.”

“Think you’ll see him again?”

Harry shrugs, running a hand through his hair in a haphazard manner. “Dunno. Maybe. Anyway, thanks so much.”

He practically shuffles them out the door, and locks up behind them, letting Freddie into the backyard briefly and then turning on the security system. Upstairs, he ducks into Lo’s room to kiss her forehead, careful not to wake her up. She’s sleeping soundly, sprawled out in her small bed, arms and limbs akimbo and mouth open as she breathes deeply.

He leaves the door open a few inches, so that Freddie can make his way in if he wants, then heads to his own room to undress and get ready for bed. He’s under his covers in five minutes flat, Freddie curled up next to the bed snoring softly, but it’s a long time before Harry finds sleep.

-----
The Payne-Smiths return from Wolverhampton the next afternoon, and go directly to the Styles house. Sophia has little patience after a car ride from hell, the kids and the dog cooped up for two hours while they made noise. It’s a rainy, grey sort of day so she sends them upstairs immediately, Stark hot on their heels. Liam, sensing that she has needs some space, retires to the den to watch football and nap, Stevie happily tucked into his chest.

Harry pours her some wine and sets about prepping for dinner, deciding to barbecue some pork chops and steaks, as well as vegetable skewars. He pours Sophia some wine and she lets him set about preparing the meat and the marinade, and start on the potato salad before she starts grilling him about the date.

“It was fine.”

“Just fine?”

“We had a great time,” he corrects, rolling his eyes. “You’ve met Chris how many times? You know he’s a nice guy. It was good to get to know him better.”

“Yes but, how great a time did you have? Where did you go for dinner? Did you get any under the trouser action?”

He ignores her third question and gives her a rundown of the italian meal they had, telling her what they talked about and what he thought of Chris. Talking about his dates with Sophia feels like second nature, after so many years. They used to talk for hours, cuddled up in a bunk on a tour bus, back when he was just falling in love with Spencer.

“And the play?”

Harry hesitates. He doesn’t want to make a bigger deal out of what happened than is necessary, but he also doesn’t want to lie to Sophia. She has a way of rooting out his innermost thoughts and she can detect a lie from ten feet away, after years of practice with the twins.

“It was good. Interesting.”

Her eyes narrow, and she puts her wine glass down. “What aren’t you telling me.”

So Harry caves.

“Louis Tomlinson was there. He was in the play.”

“Oh Bravo. I bet that was an enjoyable few hours.”

Harry just rolls his eyes. “You are so crass, it’s disgusting. Aren’t you supposed to be a sexless old married woman by now?”

“Please. Liam and I have sex like, five times a week.”

Gaping, Harry puts down the bowl he’s been tossing sauce around in. “Five times? How do you have the time or energy to have sex five times a week. With three children in the house, no less. I don’t even have anyone to have sex with that regularly and the thought is exhausting.”

“That’s why it’s so fantastic to do it so often! Sex means connection, Harry. Plus, I have those two hellions to deal with; it’s important that Liam and I are on the same page at all times and not living sad, miserable existences. Constant vigilance and all that. So, I saddle up.”

“Jesus Christ. I cannot believe you are the most important female figure in my daughter’s life.”

“Plus,” she goes on, swigging some more of her wine, “Liam’s as great in bed as he always was. Five times a week doesn’t even cover all the times he goes down on me.”

“Okay, that’s enough,” he cuts her off, shaking his finger at her wink. “God, the things I know about your sex life.”

“Having a healthy sex life is important!”

And Harry should play along and joke, but he just smiles and shakes his head. “I know. And it’s great to see how happy you two are after so many years together.”

She smiles, genuinely pleased, and runs a hand through her hair. Usually she’s so put together that it’s rare to see her as she is now; no make up, hair in a high ponytail, wearing leggings and one of Liam’s old button ups. It makes her seem younger than she is - fresher than the mom of three that always looks so fierce for the world.

“Yeah. I guess I really love that big lug. Shh, if you’re quiet you can hear him snoring!”

They both giggle like school children, and Harry cranes his neck to see into the den, where Liam is passed out on the couch, one hand resting protectively on Stevie’s back as he snores away during the match, Freddie curled up in front of the couch and softly snoring as well.

“Oh, that reminds me. Speaking of sex. Guess who’s back together? Zayn and Pez.”

Sophia seems surprised, mulling the information over. “That little sneak. I had lunch with her just last week and she didn’t say anything.”

He retrieves the vegetables from the fridge, rinsing them in the sink and tossing them onto his island cutting board as he selects a knife.

“I don’t know what their deal is - I didn’t have time to ask, but Lo said something before they came over and Pez was basically on top of him when I got back.”

“They’ve been off for so long I thought they really had settled into a friendship. Good. It’s time they got their shit together.”

Slicing through a zucchini, Harry privately thinks that even if they haven’t gotten their shit together, Zayn and Perrie will always be wandering into and out of each others lives. They’ve been like that since Zayn was seventeen, and that was over fifteen years ago. The two of them always seem to circle back to each other.

“Yeah. Guess so. I haven’t told Lo yet - I hate it when she’s right about this stuff.”

“Anyway. Back to you, mister. Don’t think I’ve been detracted from your story. You went on a date and you spent an evening ogling Louis Tomlinson-”

“I was not ogling, Sophia-”

“Was it that play about Oscar Wilde? I read something about him in that but I never put two and two together. I bet that was fun, watching him be some older man’s boy toy. Just think of all the fun the two of you could have together.”

“I was on a date with another person!” He reminds her harshly, eyebrows flying into his hairline.

“And did that matter to you while you were at the play?”

Her tone isn’t anything special, but the words hit him like punches in a boxing ring. The truth is, he spent the entire play wrapped up in Louis, even with Chris beside him. After, he had been so focused on his reaction to seeing Louis post-show that he hadn’t given much thought to what had been going on during the play. While he was ensnared by the character Louis played, there hadn’t been much difference between being wrapped up in thinking about him as a person, and being focused on his character. One Louis had bled into another and even with Chris sitting next to him, Harry had been completely focused on every aspect of Louis’ performance. And that had nothing to do with how good of an actor he was.

“We went to see him, after,” he admits. “Chris’ friend directed so we went backstage. And I ran into him.”

His tone is too serious for Sophia to tease him about, and she looks at him curiously as she puts her wine back on the island, leaning forward on her stool to rest an elbow on the counter.

“What happened?”

“Nothing,” he gives a small, self deprecating laugh. “I mean, nothing. We said a few words, but…”

“But what, Harry?”

“He just. He’s so…” He trails off, lost in his thoughts. “I just… It felt… different.”

“Different how?”

Sophia’s soft voice pressing for information is what finally does him in, and he puts the knife down with a tap, gripping the edge of the counter and hanging his head.

“Fuck.”

“Harry-” Sophia sounds so concerned, but Harry puts a hand out to stop her from standing up and rounding the island, needing to get some words out on his own. He breathes deeply for a moment, emotion clogging his throat.

“I never had to try, with Spencer. I didn’t have to try to fall in love with him at all. I just. I just knew, and then everything seemed to slot into place, you know?”

There’s a sweet sorrow to Sophia’s gaze, her eyes misting over for a moment as she remembers those early days of Harry’s relationship with Spencer. She had always been their cheerleader, right from the start. The one encouraging Harry to be free with his feelings, the one holding Spencer’s hand as he stepped into the limelight for being ‘Harry Styles’ boyfriend’. She and Liam had been their rock, and it had made the two of them so happy to see Harry settle down with their very best childhood friend. It had united the different parts of their lives in a way that nothing else would be able to.

“Spencer was special, Harry. It was like the two of you were destined for each other.”

“I know that. I’m not saying. It’s just. I can’t do that again. I can’t fling myself into something and not care if there’s a trampoline at the bottom or not. Not now that I’ve got Lo, and - and - and a schedule and a life. I can’t do it again. It hurt too much the first time.”

Harry’s talking in circles, not sure what he’s trying to say. He wants Sophia to understand without spelling it out, but that seems like too much to ask, even for someone as gifted at reading him as Sophia is. She tries so hard to understand him - what he wants and what he needs - bless her. He owes her honesty, at least.

“I like Louis Tomlinson. You’re right about him. Obviously. Each time I see him, there’s something… there’s something there. I’m not saying it would be something serious or even something meaningful, or even if anything would happen. But... But it feels a bit like it did. When I first met Spencer.”

“Harry-”

“And I can’t do it again, Soph. I can’t feel that way again. Even when it was good, it was too good, and I can’t...handle that.”

“Okay,” she agrees quietly, hand gentle on his wrist. “Okay. I’m sorry if I’ve been pushing-”

“I love you,” he whispers fervently. “You’re my sister and my best friend and everything you do for me I appreciate. I know how much you want me - us - to be happy. Don’t ever apologize for that. Lo and I are… we’re so lucky to have you and Li in our lives.”

For a long moment Sophia sits there, staring at him, as if she’s really trying to think through what she wants to say. Finally, she seems to settle on a thought, nodding to herself.

“Happy is what you make it. It’s what you want it to be. You of all people know what that means.”

Harry goes back to chopping vegetables, deftly slicing through the squash that he knows is going to cause an argument at dinner, trying to get Dylan and Lo to eat it. The two of them despise vegetables, constantly picking them out of dishes and trying to get out of eating them. Lennon’s the only one who really doesn’t mind her veggies, though she’s been benefiting from Dylan and Lo’s aversion for years, wheedling more dessert for herself since she always eats so nicely in comparison to the two of them.

“Chris is a good guy. We had a good time. He’s nice, he’s funny, he’s intelligent. He seems interested in continuing to get to know each other.”

“He’s certainly isn’t hard on the eyes.”

“That too,” Harry agrees, though even when he thinks of Chris, the image of Louis Tomlinson pops up, unbidden.

“You should go out again this week. Don’t wait for next weekend. See if he’s busy on Tuesday or Wednesday.”

The thought is exhausting, but Harry’s determined to commit himself to the idea of getting to know Chris, so he nods. “You don’t think it’s too soon?”

Sophia just shrugs. “You’re a superstar with a seven year old daughter and you run a record label. Co-run a record label,” she amends with a roll of her eyes. “You don’t have time to fuck around with waiting a decent interval.”

True. It’s true. Harry resolves right then to text Chris after dinner, possibly set up drinks or dinner on Wednesday night. There’s a new whisky bar he’s been meaning to check out - everyone says it’s fantastic. If Chris is free, the two of them can do dinner and then head there. That sounds like a good plan.

Their conversation is broken up with the kids thunder their way down the stairs, all running and skidding into the kitchen in their socked feet. Dylan and Lennon are wearing whatever normal clothes they traveled back from Wolverhampton in, but Lo has decked herself out in the ballet tutu from their last recital.

“Lo, you’re going to get that tutu all dirty.”

“I’m never wearing it in public again,” she informs him haughtily, exchanging a look with Lennon. The two of them had hated the ballet class. Only Dylan seems enthusiastic about returning in the spring, though Sophia has said she thinks the schedule is a bit much keeping up with dance classes and gymnastics. Harry really hopes that all three kids pick gymnastics because having them separate activities will be a nightmare to coordinate.

“That might be what you want now, but you could change your mind later. Just don’t go outside in it.”

“What is it the three of you want?” Sophia gets straight to business.

“We’re hungry,” Lennon announces, inching toward the cabinet where all the snacks are kept.

“I can cut up some fruit,” Harry offers. Sophia reaches out to take hold of Lennon’s braid, keeping her from getting any closer to the snack cabinet.

“How about a cookie?” Dylan tries, elbowing Lo, who smiles angelically on cue. She really is an opportunistic little thing.

“How about apples and grapes?” Harry counters. “With some cheese and peanut butter.”

“How about-”

“Dylan,” Sophia interrupts her son, giving him the look. “You can have fruit or you can have nothing, and it’s going to be several hours till we have dinner so I suggest you take the fruit.”

Giving in, Dylan slumps onto the chair next to his mother, folding his arms on the island and laying his chin on top. “Can there be yogurt too?”

“Sure bud,” Harry laughs, washing his hands and pulling fruit out of the fridge to slice up. The girls split up while they’re waiting; Lennon sits on the ground with Stark playing some sort of mimic game while Lo plasters herself to Harry’s leg, hugging him around the waist and hanging onto him as he tries to move. Harry laughs, ruffling the top of her head.

“Lo, what are you doing bubs?” He picks her up to sit on the island, quickly coring a few apples and washing a few bunches of grapes. The kids have a really developed cheese palate (no doubt due to the copious amount of fancy platters they’ve destroyed during their lifetime at One Direction concerts and events) so he has to cut up the nice selection he has, shuffling them all to the dining nook to settle them with their snacks. Lo finally lets go and slips in on the bench next to Dylan, and Harry sets down the platter and glasses of organic melon water.

“You have to finish all the fruit - not just the cheese.”

Once they’re sorted he returns to the island to finish chopping the vegetables for the dinner skewers. He pours Sophia some more wine and then a glass for himself, finishing up the Malbec. He’s about to drink, when Sophia lifts her glass a bit, tipping it toward him.

“To being happy,” she murmurs, lips tipping up at the corners tentatively.

Harry smiles and taps his glass against hers. “To being happy.”

It’s just that simple.

-----

Harry and Chris set their next date for Tuesday night, and they follow Harry’s gameplan; dinner at a trendy Greek restaurant followed by a trip to the whiskey bar. It had been a good day at the label, without any of the craziness that has seemed to pop up over the last few weeks. He’d spent some time in the studio with a singer/songwriter group they’d signed from Liverpool, tinkering around on the piano with them as they tried to work on some of the bridges. That sort of work - when it’s coming easily and the creative juices are flowing - always makes Harry feel good. Reminds him how much he loves producing.

Their conversation flows as easily as it had on their first date, talking at length about traveling and their renewed interest in late 80’s hip hop. Harry learns that Chris is an only child and that his parents reside in France, that he’s an avid runner, and that he hates avocados.

The whiskey bar is comfortably full but not packed; it is a Tuesday night, after all. The entire place is low lit with little booths tucked here and there, all low bass music and flickering candles. Harry sees a few people he knows; the bar has become the newest hangout for London’s rich and famous, apparently. He and Chris slide themselves into a shadowy back corner, and peruse the menu before ordering twenty year old Glenfiddich, excited about the aged blend.

It’s been a good night, and if Harry ignores the way the end of their last date had made him feel so jumbled, it’s easy to enjoy their time getting to know each other. Chris is exactly the kind of man that Taylor and Sophia have been trying to set him up with for ages; smart, stable, age appropriate. He’s kind and fun and he seems neither interested in Harry’s fame or money (though Chris has to be raking in the dough at the firm he’s with) which is an uncommon combination.

“Do you miss the band days? The craziness of it all, I mean?”

They’re on their second round of whiskey, curled into their round booth with their knees touching and the shadows playing shapes across their faces. The mood has turned a bit nostalgic without Harry realizing it, Chris sharing a story from his uni days and Harry mentioning a few anecdotes from the Take Me Home Tour.

“Sort of, in like, a distant kind of way. It was always so busy. Not real life, you know? Plus, I mean, it feels like a whole lifetime ago.”

“And you still do a bit of touring, in the summers?”

“Yeah,” Harry grins. “It’s pretty great actually. Schedule’s not as crazy as it was back then, so we can enjoy it more. Take the kids sightseeing, actually visit the cities we’re performing in. Liam makes the kids read a bit about the monuments and stuff before we go.”

It isn’t all happiness and roses, of course. Lennon had thrown a giant fit at the top of the Empire State Building - who knew she was afraid of heights - and Harry had spent half an hour walking around the lobby with her in his arms trying to calm her while they waited for Liam, Sophia, Dylan and Lo to come back down. And of course Lo had overdone herself on sushi when they were in Tokyo, stuffing herself silly and throwing up all over the hotel. Dylan had come down with the chicken pox in Brazil, and that had been fun for exactly nobody.

But still. It’s been the highlight of a lifetime, showing Lo the world.

“Sounds like a good time. And you seem to like producing.”

Harry can talk about how much he loves producing until the cows come home, and he immediately launches into a passionate detailing about why he loves working with new artists. He’d taken an interest in picking the opening acts, back in the day, and then helping to develop them. Chris listens attentively, asking him what it is he listens for and how he can tell the difference between someone who has what it takes and someone who just has a good singing voice.

They linger at the bar, enjoying the atmosphere and sipping away at the pricey whiskey. Harry’s become something of a connoisseur over the years - he makes a mental note to return with Nick - and he tries a few different blends. Eventually, they wrap up their evening, flagging down a waitress for the check.

Once they’ve paid - Harry picks up the check over Chris’ objections - they meander their way to the entrance. The car service Harry uses whenever he’s not driving has been notified, and they’ve only a minute or two to wait, hoping that there aren’t any photographers hanging about. Harry’s long past the point of caring about being photographed - so long as he isn’t with the kids - but he’d rather not be all over the gossip pages about having a new beau.

“My flight tomorrow doesn’t leave till late morning. If you wanted to come by,” Chris offers.

It’s clearly a turning point moment, and Harry feels caught out. Without thinking it through, he pulls a regretful face.

“Sorry, I’d honestly love to but it’s my turn for drop off tomorrow so I’ve got the kids frightfully early.”

It’s a total lie - Lo is spending the night at the Payne-Smith residence and Sophia is going to drop the kids off at school in the morning. He hasn’t a clue why it doesn’t feel right to go home with Chris. Two dates is a perfectly respectable amount of time - he’s even had his fair share of one-night stands, back in the day - but it just feels awkward to be heading down so intimate a path.

“Maybe next time. Let’s get together when I’m back from New York,” Chris easily agrees.

“I’d like that,” Harry murmurs, stepping in to brush his lips against Chris’. It’s barely a kiss, but it still feels like nothing, and he’s halfway relieved when his phone buzzes in his pocket, signaling that the car has arrived.

They part ways, and Harry slips into the car, finding himself wishing that he’d just had a babysitter for Lo. All of a sudden he just wants to see her sleeping, safe in her own bed. Unfortunately, all he’s got to return to is an empty, dark house and his own lonely bed.

-----

The following week, Harry’s set to start his rehearsal chaperoning duties. He’s found himself looking forward to it, despite his complaining to Sophia. It is fantastic to have some more time to spend with Lo, even if he knows she’ll be interacting with her friends rather than paying him any attention. Still. He doesn’t have as much opportunity to be around when she has playdates; chaperoning will be a bit like that.

He finishes up work in the studio with the duo from Liverpool, and leaves them pondering a lyric change for the third song on the album. By the time he gets to the school and parks, it’s almost three o’clock, which means that he’s almost late.

He finds the auditorium without an issue, and is immediately greeted by the school’s music director, Mr. Arnold. He’s an older, portly man, with a jolly smile and a grandfatherly disposition. Harry liked him the moment they met, at a new parent’s night several years earlier. Mr. Arnold tries desperately to educate the kids about classical music and guides them through learning about different eras of music, oftentimes letting lessons devolve into a sing along. He’s been serving as coordinator and rehearsal accompanist for the musical, helping Louis Tomlinson with getting the kids prepared vocally.

“Ah! Mr. Styles, Mr. Styles, how good of you to help out.”

Harry shakes his hand warmly, exchanging pleasantries and asking him about how his grandchildren are doing. When he’s been updated on all five of the grandkiddo’s, Mr. Arnold directs him to room 104, the classroom nearest the auditorium. It serves as a sort of all-purpose room, most of the time, with carpeted flooring and little chairs at little tables.

Waiting inside is Ella Henderson, one of the other mothers at the school. Harry’s met Ella a number of times - her son Jamie is the same year as all the kid, and she’s always been exceptionally sweet.

“Harry!” She kisses his cheek and brings him further into the room. One on of the tables, a host of snacks have been laid out; juice boxes, fruit snacks, cracker packs. All natural and healthy, of course.

“Well, now that the two of you are both here, I’ll leave you to get settled. The kids should be trickling in soon; there’s a check-off sheet for you to mark down each child. One of the assistants will come and get the kids as they need to be there for rehearsal. Just check them off each time they come and go - there are lists included for whose needed in which scenes, etc. Then just check them off when their parents pick them up.”

“Sounds good,” Harry agrees. Mr. Arnold leaves them alone, and Harry grins at Ella. “So two hours of babysitting....thirty-five kids.”

“There are a lot of activities to keep them occupied, I think. Hopefully it won’t be too bad?”

They’re wrong, of course. The kids come piling in ten minutes later, full of energy and completely hyperactive. They’re loud and completely playful, falling into games and activities easily.

Lo and the twins greet Harry warmly, but then scamper off to play with their friends. It’s enjoyable to watch them, all engaged with their playmates and taking part in imaginary games and situations. Harry works with some of the kids, coloring or helping them with puzzles. He and Ella round groups of them up, sending them off to the auditorium when the other parent assistant comes by, then collect them back up when they’re finished. By the time the last parents have picked up their kids, Harry feels completely exhausted, and if Ella’s frazzled demeanor is any indication, she feels the same way.

They straighten the room back up and he takes the kids home, dropping the twins off and giving Lo whatever it is the food delivery service has left in the fridge and coaxing her through her homework and into the bath and then sending her to bed early.

He drops into bed absolutely exhausted, with barely enough energy to check his e-mails before he falls asleep.

---

The rest of the week is much the same. Harry’s spending more and more time in the studio to make up for all the time he’s out of the office, and by Thursday afternoon he’s so ready for the week to be over that he’s said yes to just about every request Lo has so long as she behaves and doesn’t make a fuss about bedtime. That’s probably not great parenting but he’s defeated.

He and Ella have teamed up to take the bad cop route, ruling the children with an iron fist (yeah right) and trying to keep the mayhem down. They’ve managed to suss out a good way to keep the kids’ energy high while the craziness down, and Harry feels better about the upcoming weeks.

Halfway through the practice on Thursday, the door to the room swings open and Harry looks up to see Louis Tomlinson, dressed in black jeans and a dark blue sweater. He’s carrying a disposable coffee cup, and his hair looks like he’s raked his hand through it half a dozen times.

“Hello,” he blinks at the brightness of the room and the general roar of the children playing.

Harry’s been sitting at the tiny table with one of the small children on his lap helping with one of the more complicated puzzles, but he gently stands up and puts her down.

“This is a surprise. Welcome, Mr. Director.”

Louis rolls his eyes and scans the room. “I was told there’s a microwave here? Didn’t even get a chance to finish my afternoon tea. And the kids are bouncing off the walls so I gave them a break and had someone take them for a run around.”

They make their way to the little kitchenette in the corner of the room so that Louis can warm up his tea.

“So. This is where they’re caged when they’re not onstage? Good to know. It sounds exhausting.”

Harry’s about to reply, but out of the corner of his eye, he sees someone doing a cartwheel. It’s his daughter, of course.

“Lola Stewart,” He waits till she looks up at him. “Don’t do that again.”

She nods meekly and goes back to playing with her friends. Harry wishes he could send her to have a run around. Louis puts his cup in the microwave and starts to warm it up, his eyes skimming over all the children at play.

“Stewart’s an interesting middle name.”

“It’s her father’s last name. We used it as her middle name. And the kids are energetic, yeah, but it’s actually nice to spend time with them.”

Louis doesn’t comment on his clear change of subject, but makes an agreeing sound. “I bet. I’m having so much fun with this musical. I haven’t done a lot with kids and this is just the greatest thing ever. Despite how much energy they have.”

The truth is apparent in his face, and it makes something in Harry’s stomach flutter. Especially when Lola runs up to him, throwing her arms around his waist and pressing her face into his side. Maybe Harry needs to have a talk with her about personal boundaries.

“Do we get to go on stage now?”

She grins up at Louis, excitement lighting up her face. “Not yet, lovely. But soon. We’re just going to finish going through one more scene and then we can move onto munchkinland, alright?”

Lola nods at Louis, then darts away again to play with her friends. Louis collects his tea from the microwave and takes a small sip, testing the temperature.

“Ugh. Re-warmed.”

He grimaces, still looking fairly adorable. Then he smiles his thanks and head back toward the auditorium, leaving Harry to deal with his daughter, who has taken to doing handstands against the wall.

-----

Two weeks into his chaperoning duties, Harry is a pro. He now knows every child under his care and has even started to get to know their personalities. He’s also started to get to know even more of the parents, making chit-chat with them as they drop in to pick up their child. It makes him realize that even though he, Sophia and Liam have such a good schedule worked out, he can do so much more to be more involved at school. It’s so wonderful to see Lola interacting with her friends and playing so well.

It’s been a long day, though, full of drama at the studio followed by the usual shenanigans of the kids. He’s so looking forward to the pot roast that Rachel said she set up in the slow cooker.

He’s just seen the last child off and waved goodbye to Ella, and is trying to wrangle Dylan into his coat when Lola realizes she left her backpack in the auditorium. He sends her off, and attempts to get the zip done on Dylan, who’s squirming like a fish on a hook.

“Will you please hold still? The sooner you get bundled the sooner you can get home and have dinner.”

Dylan squirms even more.

When he’s finally wrangled Dylan, he collects Lennon and herds them toward the auditorium, trying to find his wayward daughter.

“Lo?” He calls as he walks into the auditorium, where the lights have been dimmed. The stage is empty and the only person left in the giant room is Louis, who’s sitting at a large table that’s been setup in the middle of all the seats. There’s a lone lamp still lit atop the table, and he can just make out the silhouette of Louis talking to a very small person.

“Daddy!”

Harry leads the twins by the hand and heads down the center aisle, letting Lennon go ahead of them as they walk into the row where Louis and Lo are sitting.

“Daddy, pot roast is Mr. Tommo’s favorite!”

He groans inwardly, about two seconds from smacking his hand over his eyes in deep shame. Liam is absolutely right; the nine months that Lo spent inside Sophia were absolutely enough for the diabolical spirit to soak in.

“Lo, I-”

“You should come over for dinner!” She grins at Louis, her missing tooth now filled in. She knows she’s adorable.

“Lo,” Harry admonishes quietly, “Mr. Tomlinson probably has other plans. You can’t just invite people over, honey.”

She furrows her eyebrows. “But he just said he was going to have Pot Noodles for dinner. Daddy you won’t ever let me have pot noodles except when there’s nothing else for dinner or when you’re really tired or when what you’ve made is burnt-”

“Okay, we get the idea thanks,” he cuts her off hastily, looking above her head to where Louis has a sheepish expression on his face. “Er, you’re more than welcome to join us, if you don’t have other plans,” he offers, sure that Louis will find a polite way of refusing.

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly impose-”

“Please come over for dinner, Mr. Tommo,” Lo interrupts him. She has on her most angelic expression - the one she only uses when she really working hard for the kill - and Louis is clearly as helpless to turn her down as every other adult in Lo’s life.

“Yes, please do,” Harry adds recklessly. On his right, Dylan is trying to unzip his coat and Harry offhandedly gives him a gentle thwack on the top of his head.

Louis looks adorably torn, but eventually he gives in to Lo’ pleading eyes and smiles at her, than at Harry. “Well, if you’re sure you’ll have enough.”

“We will,” Harry assures him decisively. “It was just going to be the two of us,” he nods towards Lo, “so there will be more than enough.”

Standing, Louis turns off the lamp and everyone files out of the row, the kids running toward the auditorium entrance while the two of them trail after them. Harry yells at Lo to put her coat on, then makes sure her backpack is zipped up all the way before he lets her take off. He waits as Louis shuts off all the lights and closes the auditorium doors, shrugging his coat on and pulling a messenger bag over his chest.

“Do you drive or take the tube?”

“Tube, all the time. Easier for me to get around downtown.”

Walking toward the parking lot, he racks his brain for what to say, wanting to smack himself when all he can come up with is “How was rehearsal today?” But it sets Louis talking, which makes up for the lame question. He talks all about what new things the kids did on stage and how they’re seeming to get the blocking down pretty well.

When they reach Harry’s Range Rover, he unlocks the doors and the kids all jump in. Louis helps him buckle Lo and Dylan in, while Lennon squawks about being able to buckle herself into the booster seat without needing help. Harry tries to subtly shove a few empty juice boxes and granola bar wrappers under the seat, and when he slides into the drivers seat, swipes the gym clothes he’d left on the passenger chair, throwing it under his own seat.

Louis slides in next to him and buckles in, making a face in the rearview mirror at the kids.

“Uh, sorry for the mess,” Harry apologizes, but Louis waves him off.

“I have six siblings. Trust me, I’m used to messy cars.”

Harry turns the music down as he starts the car, overriding the pleas coming from the backseat for the soundtrack to their latest favorite animated film. They settle for the radio, and Harry navigates his way out of the school parking lot.

“Are you close with your siblings?”

The mention of siblings reminds Harry of Sophia’s stalking of Louis’ sister Lottie, but he decides to keep his mouth shut about that topic, instead content to listen to Louis gush about his five sisters and one younger brother.

“...but it’s nice to have the girls nearby, at least. Even if they have no interest in my overbearing presence in their lives, for the most part. Just like having me nearby to mooch my food and take advantage of my in-unit laundry.”

“I can’t imagine having such a big family. I’ve only got my sister Gemma, though we’re pretty close. She moved back to London last year so it’s nice to have her nearby again.”

Harry listens to Louis talk about Lottie and how they’ve gotten even closer since she moved to London, and how the two of them try to get together with his younger sister Phoebe as often as possible now that she’s at University in the city. The fondness is clear in Louis’ voice, and it’s lulling as Harry navigates through the early evening traffic.

In no time at all, he’s pulling onto the Payne-Smiths street, and then turning into their driveway. He contemplates, briefly, just opening the gate and throwing the twins in, because Sophia can smell blood in the water from miles away and he doesn’t want her meddling in what is an incredibly innocent dinner. But the good parent side of him wins out, and he activates the gate, and garage door, putting the car into park.

“Okay. Lo, you stay here and I’ll get Dylan and Lennon inside, okay?”

She nods vigorously, grinning at Louis in the mirror. Harry opens the back door and helps the kids out, guiding them into the garage and letting them into the house.

“Soph?”

Almost immediately, Sophia comes around the corner, holding Stevie in her arms, dressed in leggings and a flannel button up. She beams at the kids, holding her arm out for hugs, which Dylan obliges her with. Lennon just executes a deep bow like she’s recently taken to doing after watching The Karate Kid.

“Hello! How was school? Dad’s making dinner but he’s almost finished so we’re going to eat in a few minutes. Haz, you and Lo staying?”

She’s helping Lennon out of her backpack with one hand - somehow she’s managed to tangle her arms up - and keeping Stevie balanced with her other arm. Dylan is trying to slither out of his coat like it’s a snake skin he’s shedding, and Harry tries to get him to stay still so he can unbutton the jacket.

“Sorry, no, not tonight,” He’s trying to extricate himself as quickly as possible from the situation before one of the kids spills the beans.

“They’re having dinner with Mr. Tomlinson,” Dylan shares.

Sophia’s eyes sparkle with curiosity and Harry pulls the coat up so Dylan’s head gets stuck.

“Harry-”

“I have to go. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

It’s the cowards way out but desperate times, and all that. He steps back into the garage and shuts the door to the hallway, practically running back to the car. Luckily, Louis is turned all the way around in his seat so he can converse with Lo, and Harry gets back into the rover with minimal fuss. He shuts the garage door with his remote and reverses in the drive, practically leaving skid marks as he steps on the gas to escape Sophia.

“Alright. Who’s excited for pot roast?”

Lo starts to sing a song about how hungry she is while Louis sits quietly in the passenger seat. Harry makes the turns toward their house on autopilot, parking the car in the courtyard and unbuckling Lo with deft movements. He unlocks the door to the mudroom, and the three of them are immediately greeted with the smell from the slow cooker. His stomach rumbles in appreciation and Lo lets out a quiet sigh, waving at Freddie in his dog cage.

“Coat off - no, not on the floor. Put it on the hook.”

Once she’s hung up her coat, she unlatches the cage door to let Freddie out. Harry turns to Louis, seeing him shrug off his pea coat and hang it next to Lo’s on the wall hook.

“I hope you aren’t allergic to dogs, sorry. Didn’t even think to ask.”

“Not at all,” Louis assures him, kneeling down next to Lo to give Freddie a good rub behind the ears. “What is this handsome...fellow? What’s this guy’s name?”

“Freddie Mercury,” Lo answers promptly, wrapping her arms around the dog in a hug. “But we just call him Freddie.”

Louis turns to grin at Harry. “So this is the fate you saved Liam’s youngest from?”

“All the blame can be put on Sophia. She just came over one day with him in a basket and presented it to Lo.”

Freddie playfully barks at Lo, and she nods as if she understands, grabbing the lead from above his cage.She disappears around the corner, and the sound of the french doors being opened is audible.

“She’s pretty good about being responsible with him,” Harry tells Louis as he leads him into the kitchen. Louis pauses by the french doors, watching Lo guide Freddie further into the backyard.

“I never had a pet growing up,” Louis laments. “There was just no room - not with all the sisters. And now my schedule is just too crazy.”

“I had a cat growing up.”

Louis walks around the island and perches on one of the bar stools. “I think I knew that.”

Harry blushes a bit, and opens the wine refrigerator to pull out a bottle of red. Normally he doesn’t drink on a weeknight with just Lo around, but he’s not sure he’ll be able to get through the evening without a little liquid courage.

Even if Louis is only there as a teacher. Not as a date, he reminds himself.

“Is red okay?”

He pours them each a glass and slides Louis’ over, then turns to the fridge to take out the fixings for a salad. Since they have a guest for dinner, he’s hoping Lo will keep the complaining down to a minimum.

“Can I help with anything? I feel like I’ve crashed your dinner so please give me a job.”

Harry smiles, noticing the way that Louis has seemed to settle in his seat across the island. He’s wearing an old baseball tee; it looks like it would fall apart with just one more wash, but it conforms to his build like a second skin. Harry resolutely looks back down at the vegetables he’s washing.

“Absolutely not. You’re the guest for dinner, so you do no work.”

He sets about chopping lettuce and dicing tomatoes, making small talk about the school and Louis’ regular work in the theater. They’re interrupted when Lo and Freddie come scampering in, the two of them practically running toward the island.

“I’m hungry,” she complains, but her tone doesn’t have the whiny pitch to it that Harry’s come to associate with a meltdown.

“Dinner will be ready soon. Did you wipe off Freddie’s feet? I don’t want mud all over the floors.”

“Yep,” she pops the ‘p’, delighted with the sound. “Can I wear my tutu? I want to show Mr. Tommo my dance!”

Harry raises his eyebrow at the blatant change in feeling about dance class, but that’s just par for the course with Lo. She jumps around in a few mock pirouettes (if they can be call pirouettes, they’re so badly executed), taking Freddie’s front paws in her hands so he can dance around with her on his hind legs.

“You can put on your after school clothes and maybe - maybe - if you’re good during dinner and don’t make a fuss, then you can show Mr. Tomlinson your dance after you eat. But no promises.”

Louis beams at her, reaching out to take one of Freddie’s paws and letting him pant all over his lap. “I would love to see your dance, Lo.”

She grins and heads toward the stairs, calling Freddie to come with her. He obeys like the good soldier he is, and Harry and Louis are once again left alone. Under pressure, Harry allows Louis to help him set the table, and by the time that Lo returns to the kitchen, dressed in her typical black leggings and a giant Manchester United jersey, dinner is ready.

“A United fan! Yes!”

Louis raises his hand for a high five, and she jumps up to slap her palm against his. The two of them dissolve into giggles, and Harry feels a sharp tug of fondness. When they’re seated at the kitchen nook, he feels the gravity of the situation wearing in. The nook is more cozy than the large dining table, but it had seemed absurd to eat in the dining room when it’s only the three of them. Even when the entire Payne-Smith household comes over for dinner, they sit at the nook.

But with Louis sitting on the bench and his feet occasionally tangling with Harry’s, everything feels just a little bit more heightened. Lo sits at the head of the table, between them, and is totally unmanageable all throughout dinner, too enamoured with “Mr. Tommo” to do much eating. She’s a total ham, but Harry’s as enamoured as his daughter, caught up in tales of Louis’ travels and the interesting people he’s met. Louis talks easily with them, listening seriously to what Lo says and including her in the conversation if he talks to Harry.

Eventually, Lo finishes her food, and Harry tells her to go put on her tutu if she really wants to show Louis her ballet dance. She rushes off, and Louis helps Harry carry their used plates to the sink, their elbows brushing as they walk across the kitchen. Lo comes bounding down the stairs half a minute later, the pink tutu in place over her black leggings, and Harry directs Louis toward the den. He dutifully plays the music her class used, cuing up his phone to broadcast through their speakers. Louis sits on the couch, rapt with attention, which makes Lo flush.

Together, they watch her execute the poorly remembered dance, full of amusement over her abundant enthusiasm. She makes up what she can’t remember, and she does manage to finish to the music, so Harry has to give her full points.

“Ten out of ten,” he exclaims, clapping exuberantly.

Lo blushes, bowing deeply, and beside him, Louis has a giant grin, clapping madly. “Bravo, bravo! How long have you been taking lessons? That was lovely.”

Harry let’s Louis fawn over Lo for a few more minutes, showing her how to execute a perfect plié and adjusting her arms. He gets some ice cream out of the freezer and puts a small scoop in a bowl for Lo, as well as generous helpings for himself and for Louis.

“Okay, ice cream and then upstairs to do your reading assignment. No,” he cuts off her protests, “no arguing.”

She pouts, as expected, but demolishes the ice cream in four giant bites, getting about half of it all over her mouth. Harry wipes her face with a napkin, despite her struggling to get way, then kisses the top of her head and sends her on her way. It leaves the two of them sitting on the big L-shaped couch, each with a bowl of ice cream.

“Are you in a play these days as well?”

Louis shakes his head, swallowing around his mouthful. He looks relaxed, settled into the cushions, lips wrapping around each spoonful of ice cream. Harry has to make himself stare at his own bowl.

“No, thank god. Now that the Wilde is done. I didn’t want anything once we got into rehearsals at the school and it’ll be nice not to be working over the Christmas holiday, for a change. I’m free until mid-January, actually.”

“That’s great. Did you like working on that Wilde play? I honestly can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. I sent Sophia to see it the next weekend.”

“Yeah, she e-mailed me to tell me how much she liked it,” Louis shares, and Harry wants to roll his eyes at his best friend’s antics. “I did like working on it. It’s been a while since I did something like that - stepping into a period piece about a real person. It was nice to brush up on my Wilde. And it was a good production. I like working with David.” He takes one more spoonful of ice cream, swallowing quickly, looking down briefly before flicking his gaze back up to Harry. “Have you been out with Chris since then?”

His tone is light enough that Harry could pretend he doesn’t feel the weight of the question.

But he does.

“Yeah, we went for dinner and drinks last week. We’ve known each other a while, actually. Mutual friend and all that.”

“You know, I was, um. I was surprised to see you there on a date. I thought - well, this is going to sound so dumb, and it was, in retrospect, but. I sort of thought, you and Sophia and Liam… were a thing?”

Harry chokes on his ice cream. He has to cough several times and beat his chest as he stares at Louis in abject horror. Louis is practically red in embarrassment, but Harry can only fishmouth at him, no idea of what to say.

“You - you thought. With Sophia? And Liam?”

Louis groans. “I know it sounds stupid. But listen, okay, I knew you were gay, obviously. I read that article in The Advocate along with everyone else in the world when I was like, twenty. But Liam Payne is well fit, and you and Sophia seemed very close, and the three of you are like one big happy family.”

“I don’t even know what to say,” is all Harry can get out. He takes another bite of ice cream, and then another, trying to well the images of a threesome with Liam and Sophia out of his mind. He’s never going to be able to unsee that.

“I’m sorry! Honestly, I thought you’d find it funny.”

“Oh it’s hilarious,” Harry agrees emphatically. “Sophia will about die when I tell her.” He chuckles, finally over the horror, and lets the laughs roll in. “God, what an idea. But no. No. There is absolutely nothing like that going on.”

“Well, she did have your baby after all,” Louis defends himself haughtily, causing them both to burst into another peal of laughter.

Sighing, Harry puts the bowl on the coffee table and kicks his feet up, lacing his hands over his belly.

“Sophia did surrogate for Lo,” he agrees. “and I can see why you thought maybe we were one happy polyamorous family. We certainly raise the kids like that,” he allows. It’s never occurred to him that people might think there was something romantic going on.

“Well, my stupidness aside, I think it’s a great way to raise the kids. It’s obvious how much Lo and the twins care about each other. And the way that the three of you care about all the kids.”

“Well, it’s the best we can do under the circumstances. Without Spencer.” The moment the words are out of his mouth he freezes. He never, ever talks about Spencer with people outside of his closest friends and family circle. Not in passing or reminiscing or at all. He may evasively reference him as ‘Lo’s father’ but he never says his name.

“I can only imagine,” Louis murmurs, his voice full of something that Harry doesn’t want to identify as pity. “She’s an amazing little girl.”

“She is,” Harry agrees, infinitely proud. “But that’s all her. And Spencer. She’s got a lot of him.”

Mentioning Spencer again doesn’t seem so weird after he’s brought him up once already. Still, Harry feels his heartbeat race, as if his body knows that he just crossed an invisible barrier that he set for himself four years earlier. God, has it really been four years? Has he really been a widower for four whole years?

“But she has you as well. The way she looks when she’s concentrating - that’s all you.”

Harry doesn’t comment on Louis noticing what he looks like when he’s concentrating, though he instantly zeroes in on it. If Louis notices what he’s said, he doesn’t let on, just staring at Harry with an intensity that makes the prior butterflies in his stomach feel like childs play.

“Her laugh is all Spencer,” he shares. “And her smile. And the way she eats her grapes. She can barely remember him, and yet, sometimes she does things and it just feels…” he trails off, lost in the moments that sometimes sneak up on him. “Sorry,” he says, feeling embarrassed.

“No need to apologize,” Louis says softly. “How did he die? I’m sorry, I don’t remember exactly-”

“Brain tumor,” Harry interjects, not wanting to rehash the invasive media coverage. It had been everywhere, with all sorts of conjecture over Spencer’s sudden death. The One Direction camp had handled all media and simply released a statement about needing privacy during such a tragic time. “It was a brain tumor. He started forgetting stuff and getting headaches and by the time we realized, surgery was the only option. And he didn’t make it.”

Abruptly, the memories come back - memories he’s spent years trying not to think about. The endless hours in the waiting room. The antiseptic smell. The look on the doctor’s face when he’d come to break the bad news.

“You’ve done an amazing job on your own,” Louis says quietly. Harry gives him a small smile in thanks.

“It’s not just me. I mean, no, we’re not in a three-way relationship, but Sophia and Liam are practically a second set of parents for Lo. They love her like their own kids. Liam probably loves her more than he loves the twins some days.”

The lighthearted jab seems to break the tension, and both of them smile.

“Niall has told me they’re great to have in class.”

Harry rolls his eyes. “I’m sure he uses words other than ‘great’, but thanks. The truth is that Liam loves their creativity. He was so straightlaced growing up - I think he likes how fun they are.”

That makes Louis laugh, and instantly launch into stories about his twin sisters and the havoc they wreaked growing up. Harry finds himself absolutely captivated, laughing till his stomach hurts and still wanting to hear more.

The two of them sit together for another half hour, just chatting, until Lo comes back downstairs to say that she’s all finished with her reading assignment.

“That’s my cue to go,” Louis stands up. “Thank you for a most wonderful evening. Especially since it was unplanned.”

Lo immediately launches herself to hug him, and he pats her shoulder caringly, eyes locked with Harry’s.

“It was great to have you. Unplanned or not,” Harry says. “Let me call you a cab.”

He ignores Louis’ protests, and grabs his phone to order a car, watching the way that Louis interacts with Lo. The way he involves himself in her meandering stories and manages to seem on her level without placating her.

It’s barely ten minutes later when the car arrives, and Louis gives Lo one last hug, hand lingering on the top of her head. He thanks Harry again, reaching out to shake his hand, and the two of them stare at each other for a moment. Harry feels the connection as they touch, and it makes the back of his neck feel hot.

“Thanks again,” Louis murmurs, ducking out of the door and into the waiting car. Harry watches him go, closing the auto gate once the taillights have disappeared around the corner, turning back to Lo. She’s looking at him with a sad expression on her face, as if she also feels the absurd absence that Louis’ leaving has caused.

“That was a fun dinner, hmm?”

“Yes. Can we do it again?”

“Maybe,” he tells her. “But you can’t just invite Mr. Tomlinson over to dinner whenever you want, okay? He’s your director, not your best friend.”

She nods in pretend understanding, and he gently swats her bottom to start moving her upstairs, through the bedtime routine. Lo’s too jazzed up to go to sleep, so he lets her crawl into his bed and watch tv until she tires herself out. After she passes out next to him, he continues working on some lyrics until he can barely keep his own eyes open. Too tired to move her into her own room, he puts off the lights and slides in next to her, one hand stroking over her curls.

Blonde curls just like Spencer.

----

At exactly eleven-thirty am the next morning Sophia walks into Harry’s office and sits in the chair across from his desk. Harry resolutely does not look up from his computer screen, pretending to write an email, but Sophia just sits and stares at him. It takes less than five minutes for him to cave - he doesn’t know how Dylan can sometimes last eight whole minutes.

“He came over for a friendly dinner. Lo invited him, there was literally nothing I could do.”

“I didn’t even say anything.”

Harry rolls his eyes and closes his laptop. “Please. What else are you doing here?”

“Excuse you. I’m having lunch with my totally fit husband.”

“Liam’s in Paris for the day,” he tells her triumphantly, the smugness dripping from his tone.

“Well then I guess I’ll have to content myself with you. Come on. If you humor me I’ll tell you the passcode to Liam’s calendar and then you can fuck with him and Alice.”

That is tempting, even if Harry doesn’t really believe her. As much as Sophia enjoys teaming up with him to drive Liam’s personal assistant (and by extension Liam) crazy, messing with the schedule would probably have lasting effects on Sophia’s own carefully planned schedule. And if there's one thing Sophia does not do, it’s fuck with the family schedule.

“You’ll never give me Liam’s password, so don’t even try and pretend. Honestly, there’s nothing to tell. Lo invited him over and he came. We had a great dinner. He thought that you and Liam and I were in a polyamorous relationship. We had ice cream and then he went home.”

“No!” Sophia’s eyes light up so quickly it’s like plugging in a Christmas Tree. “He didn’t! You’re lying.”

“Oh he did,” Harry assures her. “Probably because you have zero respect for boundaries and personal space. So thanks for that. Exactly what I wanted. A fit guy who thinks I’m unavailable because he thinks you have your claws in me.”

Sophia glares at him. “You would be lucky if I ever gave you the time of day between my legs.”

Harry shudders. “Okay that’s gross, you’re like, actual family. Also, you’ve already had my kid so I think it’s a moot point.”

“So if you aren’t interested in him, and it was just a friendly dinner, what do you care that he thought you were taken?”

“I don’t care, really. Look - I admit he’s fit. And funny and all the things that would make for a good boyfriend. Sure. But he’s also employed by the school and that’s not a can of worms I want to be opening. Especially since the kids are so attached to him. Besides, I’m not looking to get tangled up in anything right now. You know that.”

“And how are things with Chris?”

“Fine. We had a second date. Probably go for a third soon.”

“So you’re into him?”

“Remember our talk about being happy?”

That gentles Sophia, who sighs deeply. “Yes. I do.”

“That’s what I’m focused on. Being there for Lo, being happy, having a little ‘me’ time on the side.”

“I just think-”

“Soph.”

She gives him a small smile. “You know I want the best for you.”

“I know. It was just a quick dinner. It won’t happen again, I don’t think. Things are good right now,” he promises, giving her a smile. “Really.”

“Okay, fine,” she acquiesces, giving a small roll of her eyes. “Can we go eat lunch now? I’m craving a burger.”

So Harry grabs his jacket and ushers her out of the office, glad to be done with the conversation. Sophia’s more perceptive than anyone he’s ever met, and while he’s not purposefully trying to hide something from her, he still doesn’t want her digging around his feelings too much.

Who knows what she would find.

---

Harry’s third date with Chris is unplanned. He’s just dropping Lo off at a sleepover when he gets a text, asking if he’s already got dinner plans for the evening. It turns out Chris is back in the country a day early, and the two of them meet up at a trendy Mexican restaurant where the food is overpriced and Harry feels like he knows every single person dining.

Chris is as charming and attentive as he always is, but Harry finds himself drifting without meaning to, comparing Chris to Louis in his head.

It’s stupid, because Louis is barely an acquaintance. He isn’t a romantic interest and he isn’t someone who Harry wants to start anything with. He’s just a ridiculously fit bloke who’s working at Lo’s school, and Harry wishes that he could get his body to understand that being attracted to him isn’t an option.

Of course, the problem isn’t just that Louis is attractive. Harry finds himself remembering his smile the way he laughs and the incredibly quality of his storytelling. Being around Louis hadn’t felt like being with an acquaintance.

“...then she was stuck. I honestly don’t know how she manages to find herself in these situations.”

Harry gives a small laugh, tuning back into Chris’ story about a mutual friend of theirs - another one of Taylor’s wayward contacts. He forces himself to give his full attention to Chris, determined to concentrate on their evening and start enjoying himself. Their waiter comes around asking if they want another round.

“Another margarita?”

Harry shakes his head. “Shouldn’t - I’m driving, thanks.”

Chris declines as well, and Harry idly picks at their nearly empty bowl of chips.

“How was your trip? You haven’t mentioned New York. I haven’t been in months.”

“It was good. Mostly work, though I did visit that bitters bar you mentioned. Thanks for the tip - it was fantastic. But for the most part I was in meetings. Do you do business often there?”

“Occasionally.

Their conversation is relaxed but it doesn’t have any of the interested probing that seems synonymous with a high-intensity date. They make pleasant chat, drifting through talk about their friends and work stories, agreeing to split the check and making a semi-early night of it.

Things come to a head when they leave. Harry offers to drop Chris off, but Chris only smiles, tucking his hands into his coat pockets and stalling outside the restaurant, a bit of a resigned look on his face.

“Listen, Harry, you’re great.”

Oh shit. Harry realizes where the conversation is going about a half second before Chris launches into the spiel, and he uses that time to reflect on how pissed Taylor is going to be with him.

Maybe the fact that Taylor is his first thought upon being dumped is indicative of his interest level in his date.

“Chris-”

“It’s been great getting to know you better - you’re absolutely a fantastic guy. But I think let’s call a spade a spade, hmm? We’re better off as friends.”

And. Well. Harry can’t argue with that. Inwardly, he’s incredibly relieved that he doesn’t have to continue the farce of being interested.

“No, same, Chris. I’m glad we did this.”

They hug it out, promise to keep in touch, and then Chris hails a cab, exiting as an interest in Harry’s life as seamlessly as he’d entered. Harry takes a few moments to feel sorry for himself before he shrugs and drives home, where he changes into sweatpants, and plants himself in front of the tv with a bowl of popcorn and a six pack of beer, marathoning his way through the Iron Man movies.

He pointedly does not think about Louis, except seventh second when he does, but he doesn’t become a maudlin drunk either. He’s resigned to his fate of long-distance attraction, and contents himself with enjoying his night by himself. No harm, no foul with Chris, and it was good to make a new friends. They’ll probably go to a Chelsea v. United match before long. All feels well on that front.

Of course, that good feeling dissipates the next morning when he gets a text from Taylor that simply reads HARRY FUCKING STYLES.

-----

“That wasn’t my fault.”

Harry, covered in banana pieces and milk, begs to differ.

He takes three deep breaths, wipes the milk thats dripping from his hair into his eyes out of the way, and then turns to survey his daughter. Lo looks up at him with her most innocent expression, though she looks a little disgusted at the chunks of banana that dot his face, hair and shirt.

“Lola Stewart Styles-”

“-You said to press the button,” she interrupts quickly.

“I said you could press the button. As in you were allowed to. As in when the time was right.”

“I thought the time was right.”

“The cover wasn’t on the blender.”

“Whoops.”

Sometimes Harry wonders what his life would be like if he hadn’t had a child. Probably he would have sex all the time and be drunk or high and, more than likely, not be covered in the beginning of a milkshake.

“Towel?” She offers the dishrag up with two fingers, stretched out from her body. Harry swipes it from her and glares as he mops off his face. Of course, none of the milkshake got on Lo, who looks as pristine as she has from the moment she emerged earlier in the morning.

“Why don’t you help me clean this up. Uncle Zayn is going to be here any moment.”

“But my dress will get messy.”

“Not if you’re careful. It’s also much too cold for that so you’re going to have to change anyway,” he says, glancing at the white sundress she has on, the skirt dotted with red polkadots. It’s practically mid-November and there’s no way she’s heading out like that, even with her fall coat on.

“But it’s my favorite dress.” She goes from happy and precocious to whiny in a heartbeat sometimes.

Harry isn’t in the mood to hear her complaining, and he tells her so in no uncertain terms. “You are going out to a museum with Zayn, and to dinner, and then you’re having a sleepover with him and Auntie Pez, and if you start acting like a brat now, then you’re not going to get to go out at all.”

She pouts, but dutifully collects some paper towels and pretends to help him clean up. By the time the floor and counters are mostly cleaned, it’s almost ten, and Harry mentally pats himself on the back for thinking to pack her overnight bag before she went to bed the previous evening. He sends her upstairs to change her dress, demanding she put on leggings if she insists on wearing a dress, and calling after her to put a cardigan on as well. The doorbell rings without delay, and he hurriedly puts the blender in the skink before heading to the door. Zayn has his own key - just about everyone does - but he insists on arriving at the front door. Unlike Sophia and Liam who waltz in through the garage door whenever they come over.

“Hi, come on in.”

Harry waves him in and stands aside. Zayn gives him an odd look.

“Why do you smell like bananas?”

“Because the little miss insisted she needed a banana milkshake before she went off for the day and then hit the blender before the top was on.”

That makes Zayn laugh, the corners of his eyes creasing with amusement. He’s dressed in his usual ripped jeans and a band tshirt, leather jacket hugging his form like a second skin. But he looks happier than he has in a long time, and that makes Harry feel warm inside. Zayn was the most introverted, of the three of them, and struggled the most with the fame that One Direction brought them. It’s why he fucked off after they decided to calm down as a band, disappearing into his art studio and rarely emerging for public events.

“Sucks, mate.”

Rolling his eyes, Harry heads to the kitchen to pour himself a cup of coffee, offering Zayn one as well. They catch up while Harry waits for Lo to re-emerge, talking shop about the label and Zayn’s newest painting. When Lo finally does make her way downstairs, dressed more sensibly in black leggings, calf high boots, a light grey sweater vest and a dark grey blazer. She looks like a high fashion model in miniature clothing, and Harry finds himself both regretting and being relieved that she didn’t jump on Lennon’s newest bandwagon of constantly wearing an embroidered poncho everywhere.

“Uncle Zayn!”

She skips across the kitchen and into Zayn’s arms, jumping up so he can spin her around. Lo is the only one of the kids who shares his passion for art; its why the two of them have always had a bond. Once, he took the twins to a museum. It’s an excursion that he’s never repeated.

Lo seems to be much more enthusiastic about seeing Zayn and Perrie now that they’ve established that they’re actually together, rather than dancing around each other. They’ve had this daylong overnight date planned all week, and Lo has been bouncing with excitement about it since Zayn called on Monday to arrange everything.

“Hey Lola girl.” He hoists her onto his hip and she kisses his cheek, her platinum curls bouncing. “Are you excited for our day together?”

“Museum day is my favorite,” she assures him, and he lays a smacking kiss on her cheek.

“That’s what I like to hear.”

Within a few minutes Zayn has Lola bundled up and spirits her out the door, her overnight bag slung over his shoulder. Harry waves them off, then retreats to his study to finish his coffee and read the paper.

Around noon, he finally gives into a barrage of text messages from Liam, agreeing to meet him at a pub in Camden. He’s been hanging out with some lads he met a few months back who have joined up to play in a makeshift sort of band, all of them working in the recording business professionally and playing on the side. With Sophia’s sister in town for the weekend, Liam’s off the hook for child supervision, so he arranged to meet the lads at their usual pub for some day drinking and darts. Harry doesn’t have a lot of interest in going, but Liam’s been wanting him to meet this group for weeks, so he figures he can stop in and have lunch before taking off to enjoy the few hours of child-free alone time that he’s been blessed with.

The pub is crowded, but not terribly unpleasant, and Liam greets him warmly upon his arrival.
“Finally! Harry, this is George, Danny, Ian, Saul, and Marv.”

The five of them nod in greeting, and Harry cheerfully sits down. He orders a beer and some food, and tucks in for the rambling conversation and easy drinking atmosphere.

It turns out that Liam’s right – the five of them are easy lads to get along with – and before Harry knows it, they’ve finished with lunch and have started on a third round. It’s great to talk music with them – Danny has an encyclopedic knowledge of every musical act ever in existence, and Marv has played backup for some of the greatest singers in the business – and Harry finds himself genuinely enjoying himself. He hasn’t had an afternoon of pints in ages, and easily puts away drink after drink, his cheeks feeling warmer as their laughter gets more raucous.

Eventually they find themselves at the dartboard, and while Harry understands his limitations with hand-eye coordination, Liam has never learned his limit in that regard. It probably doesn’t help that Liam’s usual darts partner is Sophia, who can clean up a board with the best of them, so he never has to try very hard. Without Sophia (and after several hours of drinking), Liam can barely hit the board, and the nearest table hastily relocates after a few dangerous attempts.

They nearly fall over laughing, and George collecting the darts from the walls to take his own turn. Harry’s just started in on another beer when there’s a hand on his shoulder and lips at his ear, a warmth pressed against his back.

“Funny running into you here,” comes the northern accent, and a little zing runs down his spine as he recognizes the voice.

“Louis.”

He turns around and immediately wants to groan. Louis looks…really good, is the thing, decked out in a grey sweater and a sinfully tight pair of black jeans. His jaw is darkened with stubble and the way his hair has been artfully tussled makes Harry want to reach out and rake his hands through it.

“Look at you, posh boys, out here in Camden.”

Harry can only blink, unable to form a response as Liam gives a great guffaw and shakes Louis’ hand. He introduces Louis around, then gulps down some beer and stands to take his turn.

“What – what are you doing here? I mean, do you come here often?

Louis gives Harry a small smile, regarding him with serious eyes before gesturing to a far corner of the pub.

“Occasionally. Owner’s Irish, so Niall tends to carry favor here.”

Squinting, Harry can just make out the head of blonde hair that he knows belongs to Niall Horan, one of the teachers in Lo’s class.

“Liam’s friends with all these lads. They like to hang out here so I thought I’d join them. Lo’s out for the day with Zayn,” he adds, somewhat unnecessarily. “And then she’s spending the night with him and Perrie.”
He needs to start thinking about what’s going to come out of his mouth before he talks.

“So you’re out for a lads day? Excellent, Harry Styles. Excellent.”

The two of them stare at each other for another moment, before there’s a general roar of Louis’ name from the corner with his friends, and Louis’ grin turns sheepish.

“Well. Better get the drinks and get back, hmm?”

He squeezes Harry’s shoulder one more time, then heads to the bar to order a round for his table. Harry turns his attention to Liam and the rest of the lads, willing his flush to fade and wishing he hadn’t had as much to drink. When Louis makes his way back to the table, he brushes against Harry’s back, winking when they make eye contact.

From that moment, everything changes.

Harry doesn’t drink much after that, content to nurse his beers while the rest of his group orbits him, starting game after game of cricket and continuing to order pints, happily staying put as the day transitions from late afternoon into evening. But while the rest of his party is loose and filled with laughter, Harry only feels like he’s being wound tighter.

Over and over he and Louis fall into eye contact, and each time it makes something tighten in his stomach, a dark wanting settling and taking up residence. Twice, Louis passes him on the way to the bar and each time it feels like electricity crackling up his spine as they ‘accidentally touch,’ the warmth soaking through Harry’s thin flannel.

Harry can’t concentrate on any rambling story Liam tries to tell him, or take part in their lazy bets about the games of cricket, too wound up in his own thoughts.

Too wound up in trying to ignore his own thoughts.

When he sees Louis duck off toward the loo, he tells himself not to do anything stupid. Not to think too hard on what he wants or make any decisions that he’ll regret later.

But it seems like his body is acting without the permission of his mind, since he finishes the dregs of his pint and nearly slams it on the table, rising and walking down the dark corridor to slip inside the door marked Gents.

Louis is standing in front of a dingy sink, the dim overhead light casting him in shadows as he looks up at Harry in the mirror. Again, it takes a long moment of staring before either of them move, but as soon as the door shuts behind Harry, Louis is turning at the sink and meeting him halfway, hands biting into Harry’s hips as their lips meet.

Kissing Louis feels different than he would have thought. It feels like nothing he can control – like a fire that’s burning him from the inside out, and all he can do is try and pull him closer as their tongues meet and duel for dominance, a desperation he hasn’t felt in years clawing its way up from his belly and growing in power as he bites on Louis’ bottom lip.

“Fuck – Harry. I. Fuck.”

And Harry understands. Understands and feels the same, and responds in kind.

“I know. I know,” is all he can mutter, pushing Louis against the dirty wall and pressing their groins together, the both of them moaning at the contact.

It goes on like that, one kiss sliding seamlessly into another, and another, and another, until Harry feels like he’s going to burst if he doesn’t get release soon, and Louis is practically mewling at each brush of contact.

“My- my flat. Not far,” he gets out in between kisses, pulling at one of Harry’s curls and Harry just. Can’t.
Can’t deny something he’s wanted for a bit longer than he’d ever admit.

He hasn’t gotten off in dingy bathrooms since he was seventeen and still closeted, and he’s not about to revert to his teenage years now. Not when all he wants to do is spread Louis out on a bed and devour him whole.

“Okay,” is what he says, abruptly deciding to hang the consequences. “Okay.”

It takes them no time at all to collect their things, and Harry placates a delightfully drunk Liam with some spun up excuse about needing to be home for Lo. He’s standing outside the pub in his jacket, waiting for Louis as he flags down a taxi, and as soon as Louis emerges they stumble in.

They spend the ride in silence, each of them at their own end of the backseat but heads tipped back and staring at each other, finding a connection in their eye contact that feels like a caress all on its own.
Louis wasn’t kidding – it takes barely ten minutes for the cab to pull over, and both of them scramble to pay, Harry coming up with a bill first and tossing it to the driver as he kicks lightly at Louis’ foot.

There’s a winding staircase with faded red carpet and the smell of cigarettes and incense in the stairwell, and Louis lives on the third floor with two locks to undo, but they fall into the flat attached at the lips, hands already reaching to remove clothing. Harry doesn’t get a chance to notice the surroundings; he’s reaching his hands up so Louis can slide his shirt off even as they’re kissing and walking in a direction that he assumes leads to a bedroom, pausing in the doorway to undo belts and jean buttons and kicking their shoes off as best they can. Standing next to the bed they pause so he can tug Louis’ shirt off, and something about the way he’s slow to drop it to the ground changes the dynamic of the moment.

The frantic urgency disappears, replaced with a slow sort of intensity that grounds itself into the air around them, ingraining them with a long burning want that necessitates a thorough kiss, their lips bruising as they brush over and over and over.

When they separate, they’re both breathing hard, and Harry takes a long minute to consider what they’re about to do. It feels more serious than any of his hookups since Spencer died; there’s a weight to the interlude that seems out of place with his lifestyle.

It feels like everything he’s been terrified of and everything he’s been craving.

The emotions must play across his face because Louis cups his cheeks with both hands, rising up to press their foreheads together.

“Harry, we don’t have to-”

“No,” Harry stops him. He places his hand on Louis’ chest, feels the warmth seep into his palm. Wonders if Louis is just as warm everywhere. Louis’ chest is defined with muscle, his arms sleek and toned. The body of an actor, really; a tool for him to work with. To craft. Harry wants to mold him, to feel the strain of those muscles under his fingertips and lips. “No,” he says softly, pulling back to meet his eyes. “I want to.”

Eyes locked, Harry pushes the jeans over Louis’ hips, waiting for him to tug them off before he shucks his own. There’s none of his usual clumsiness as he works. Louis continues to stare at him, unblinking, as Harry sheds his pants and tosses them aside, waiting for Louis to do the same.

Then they’re both naked, and hard, and they fall into bed not in a tangle of passion but slowly, kneeing onto the mattress until they’re at the head of the bed, pillows under Louis’ head. With direction, Harry retrieves the slick and a condom from the bedside drawer, and they don’t speak in words while he slowly opens Louis up for him. There’s no need for words – not until Louis is gasping and fucking himself down onto three of Harry’s fingers, begging for something more. Harry fucks him slowly, one hand braced on the bed and the other holding Louis’ hips up, even as Louis wraps his legs around Harry’s waist and his arms around his neck, eyes still locked as they move together.

Louis comes before him, a hand between them pulling himself off, and Harry thrusts one, two, three more times before he comes into the condom, his face collapsing into Louis’ neck and tasting the salty bite of sweat there.

They lay together after, bodies curled alongside each other while they catch their breath. The sunset beams in through the window in Louis’ bedroom, and everything feels dreamlike, as if Harry could reach out his hand and make waves through the air like a painters brush.

He doesn’t leave, after that.

Not for hours and hours

Not even till the morning.

Not until they’ve gone two more rounds and shared cold leftover pizza at midnight, and a microwaved bag of popcorn at three am, and tea with the morning sun.

-----

When Harry arrives at Prentice on Monday afternoon, there’s dread in his stomach. He and Louis parted easily, and his entire Sunday had been filled with Lo’s faithful retelling of every moment they’d been apart, so that he hadn’t had time to linger on what he’d done.

Obviously, it can’t happen again. He’s sure Louis will understand that, and they can behave like adults. He’s a parent and Louis is – for all intents and purposes – a teacher. One who Lo adores and one who Harry still has to get through three weeks of rehearsal with.

“Daddy, I think I want a cat for Christmas.”

It’s one week before the end of November and Lo has decided that she needs to start thinking about what she’s going to ask Santa for. Harry has already nixed the idea of asking for a motorized scooter, a trip to Antarctica, and a baby tiger. They’re right in the middle of the rehearsal block, and the munchkins are lining up at the door to be taken to the auditorium to practice their scene.

“We’ll talk about that,” Harry promises her, mentally making a note to talk to Sophia about what they can distract the kids with instead of live animals. “Okay, everyone ready?”

He does a final count and then leads them into the hallway. His heart is practically racing at the thought of Louis’ nearness, and he wants to give himself a slap for acting like such a lovesick fool. He’s had one night stands before – he doesn’t know where this behavior is coming from.

The kids file silently into the auditorium, making their way down the center aisle and separating at the front to be prepared to take their places. Harry’s about to slip into a seat to wait for the scene to finish (he’ll take the kids back to the waiting room once they’re done) when Louis calls for a one minute break so that they can re-arrange the set.

The lights come on to dim, and Harry watches him walk up the main aisle, calling out instructions to the set crew, which consists of the kids from the secondary school. Harry can tell the moment that Louis sees him, because he pauses in his walk for the barest moment, then makes his way towards Harry’s row.
Harry prepares for the moment, his whole body going on alert. He goes over all the reasons why they can’t do what they did – again – and how to best phrase it so that Louis isn’t offended or hurt. He’s a single dad, he reminds himself, with little time that’s unaccounted for and no room for a particularly active love life. And he’s not looking for anything serious.

Louis sits down next to him, and the smell of cedar makes Harry’s brain kick into overdrive, remembering the way Louis’ sheets smelled and the way their bodies fit together.

He opens his mouth to tell Louis all the reasons that they can’t see each other again, but nothing comes out.

Instead, Louis speaks.

“Do you happen to like curry?”

-----

One of Lo’s classmates is having his birthday party at a pizzeria, and then the kids are going for ice cream and a movie. Harry drops Lo and the twins off, then heads to Piccadilly Circus, continuing west until he finds the little restaurant that he’d plugged into his GPS coordinates.

Louis is already inside, seated, munching on hot papadum with sweet chutney. He smiles when he sees Harry, and all reservations Harry felt upon arriving fall away. He’d nearly texted Louis to cancel so many times, but sliding into the chair opposite him, Harry’s glad that he hadn’t given into his ‘no-can-do’ attitude.

“You made it.” Louis sounds like he’s a bit surprised himself, and Harry grins.

“Well, you promised me the best Indian food in London.”

“It is,” Louis promises again, winking. “I’ve been coming here for years. Best lamb vindaloo you’ll ever have.”

And he’s right – the fucker. The food is delicious and Louis is entirely too captivating, and by the time that they find themselves back in Louis bed, Harry has to admit that the outcome was fairly predictable.
After that, Harry doesn’t try to talk himself out of Louis. They have such a good time together – both between the sheets and in public – that it’s just not worth the trouble, so long as they keep things light.

It isn’t something they do all the time – Harry’s busy with Lo, of course, and work and chaperoning – but he manages to find an evening here or an afternoon there, and it turns out that lying on Louis’ couch working on song lyrics while Louis memorizes his lines is an incredibly enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. Especially since they take frequent breaks to kiss or blow each other.

Louis’ flat, now that Harry has had the time to look around, is cozy. It’s just the one bedroom, with a small sitting room and an open kitchen. There’s a couch and an armchair and an old coffee table, and lots of pictures of blonde beauties who have cheekbones and smiles like Louis.

They’re sharing the couch one Saturday afternoon, legs tangled together while Harry tries to figure his way into a chorus. Lo is on a girls day with his sister, and Harry begged off a trip to the gym with Liam in favor of heading to Louis’ for a little afternoon delight and getting some work done.

It’s incredibly easy to relax and be himself, to inhabit the same small space and to forget that he isn’t looking for anything serious. He can talk or mention Lo unreservedly, and Louis listens with an intensity that doesn’t scare Harry. When he’s with Louis, other things fade away. It’s easier to forget that he hasn’t shared intimacy like this in four years – easy to forget that he’s been keeping his heart under lock and key since Spencer died, in fact.

If Sophia knew what he was doing – how he was feeling – she would immediately compare Louis to Spencer and tell Harry that his reaction to both of them is rooted in a strong connection. But Harry doesn’t like to compare them – even in his head. The gravity of that would feel like too much.

We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us; His present and your pains we thank you for: When we have march'd our rackets to these balls, We will, in France, by God's grace, play a set, Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard.”

Louis murmurs the words, his pencil making markings on the side of his script as he reads through passage after passage, a quiet hum of comforting noise across from Harry. His brow furrows as he concentrates, and Harry puts down his notebook and pen to study Louis; the way the sun glints off his eyelashes and the way that he chews one the eraser end of his pencil as he closes his eyes to murmur through the words. When Louis catches him watching, he blinks and flushes.

“There are so many goddamn lines in this play. I usually don’t have trouble memorizing, but this is just making my brain hurt,” he complains, putting his script down on his chest and surveying Harry over the bent bridge of their knees.

“When do you have to memorize by?”

“Rehearsals start in January. Gotta be off book then.”

“What is Henry V about again?”

Harry isn’t up on his history, and especially not as it relates to Shakespeare. Louis will be appearing as King Henry V at the National Theatre in March, and it’s apparently a huge deal. He hasn’t had a leading role at such a prominent theatre in a year or two, as he’s been working so much with smaller companies, but his agent had encouraged him to read for the part almost seven months ago, and Louis has been on and off preparing for the role for months.

“It’s about war with France, and a big battle where England lost basically nobody and the French lost basically all their soldiers.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“It’s a gorgeous play, really.” Louis sits up and puts his script on the coffee table, where Harry can see giant passages highlighted and notes all over the page. “Henry’s this young king, and he’s just become mature after he’s been a total idiot during Henry IV, and he has this war and doesn’t know who to trust or what to do.”

Hearing Louis talk about the part with such relish gives Harry a burst of fondness. “You sound really excited about it.”

“I am,” Louis tells him honestly. “And. Well. Next year the RSC is putting on a whole series on Henry. And they haven’t cast the Prince yet for Henry IV Part 1 and 2 and then Henry V.”

“And you could get the part?”

“I have a pretty good shot at it, yeah. If they like what I’m doing at the National. I think they’ll ask me to come in and read for it. It would be an amazing opportunity. I haven’t worked with them since I played Hamlet, five or six years ago.”

“You’ll get it,” Harry says confidently, reaching out to nudge Louis’ thigh with his foot. “How could they not cast that face?”

That gets him a pillow to the face, and then before he knows it they’re intertwined again, their lips locked and their lower halves aligned, rubbing up against each other like they’re desperate for it. As Louis pulls up and tugs Harry toward the bedroom, all he can wonder is how long this situation can sustain itself.

And he finds himself hoping that the answer is a long time.

-----

The performance weekend for the Wizard of Oz creeps up on them, and before Harry knows it, he’s trading in his rehearsal chaperone duties for that of ‘front row parent’. Except not the actual front row, because Lo would be mortified.


Lo has been so filled with excitement for two weeks that she’s barely been able to be coaxed into bed. She’s buzzed about the house humming her parts and tested the limit of Harry’s patience even while being unbearably adorable. He’d tried everything to keep her calm, including doing yoga together and taking her to his gym to swim, and during the final week of rehearsals it was all he could do keep her from exploding at the seams with anticipation.


The morning of Opening Night, she wakes up even earlier than the early alarm Harry set, and he Harry gets her into the shower and scrubs her down till her skin is sparkling and her cheeks are pink. She has to sit through a few hours of classes, but then the kids in the musical are dismissed and they’ll be fed lunch and corralled until its time to get ready. He ushers her down to the kitchen dressed in a black tank top and green yoga pants, her practically sopping wet hair piled loosely under a wrapped towel. He sits her at the island and puts a bowl of oatmeal in front of her, eating his own bowl standing across from her, his tea half finished.


Usually Lo scarfs down her breakfast and asks for more, but she just pushes the oats around with her spoon, staring at her food with distress on her face. Harry waits for a moment to see if she’ll talk to him on her own, but a glance at the clock tells him Sophia will be by in a few minutes and he doesn’t want to have this conversation with her in front of anyone else.

“Are you excited for tonight? Grandma Anne sent me a text saying she and Grandpa Robin are just starting to drive. They’re so excited to see you.”

Lo is quiet for a minute, still pushing her oatmeal around.

“Are you nervous,” Harry prompts her. “It’s your first time in a real play. I’d be surprised if you weren’t at least a little nervous.”

“A little,” she admits, her voice small.

“What are you nervous about?”

“What if I make a mistake?”

“Well.” Harry puts his tea down and bends over the counter so he can rest his forearms on the marble, his fingers linked. “I don’t think you will make a mistake – you’ve been practicing so much. But, if you do, I think it’s important to remember that people make mistakes every single day, and that it’ll be okay.”

“Did you ever get nervous before you and Uncle Limo and Uncle Zayn sang?”

“I did,” Harry tells her truthfully. “I got the most nervous before the first concert of a tour, just because it would be the first one. But then I would have so much fun that I would remember every night after that how great being onstage was going to be. And I think it’ll be the same for you. You’ll be nervous before you go onstage, but then when you walk out, you’ll forget all about being nervous.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” Harry assures her. “Because you’re prepared and you’re having a good time. You’ll forget all about the people watching until they clap. Just focus on Dorothy and on the rest of the munchkins, and everything will go smoothly.”

He rounds the counter, swiveling her barchair so he can step right into her personal space. Cupping her face in his hand, he kisses her forehead.

“Lola Stewart Styles, you are amazing. And no matter what, I’m so proud of you. Always remember that.”
She brightens, leaning up to kiss him, and they share a tight hug. “Now, eat your oatmeal before it gets cold. Auntie Soph will be here in a minute.”

While she’s tucking into her oatmeal, Harry puts on the kitchen music speaker and streams some old school Frank Sinatra. As soon as Lo has finished her breakfast, he pulls her off her stool and into his arms, dancing her around the kitchen till she’s laughing and holding him about the neck, her arm extended with his.

That’s how Sophia finds him when she arrives with Lennon, also sporting wet hair and carrying a giant disposable bag.

“Good morning my lovely munchkins. Are you ready for your big debut tonight? Lennon, on the stool. You’re first and then Lo, okay?”

Sophia starts unpacking her bag, spreading beauty items across the counter while Harry ducks into his study to retrieve his camera. When he comes back, Sophia has started to patiently roll Lennon’s hair in wet rollers, and he spends the next half hour taking photos of the two girls, cataloguing their laughter and smiles. When she’s finished with Lennon and Lo, she ties a handkerchief around both of their heads, keeping the curls in. Then she hands each of them a make up bag and tells them to put it in their backpacks for later.

“Okay. Let’s go. Dad is dropping Dylan off at school so I’ve got you two.” She turns to harry, pulling out her phone to double check the schedule for the day. “Rachel is picking Stevie up at the office at ten – please remind Liam to tell her that my parents will be at the house by noon so if she’s going to be out and about to be back by then.”

Each of them are bustling the girls into button ups as she talks, and then Sophia is urging Lennon into her coat. Harry takes a minute to kneel in front of Lo and kiss her nose one more time.

“I’ll see you after the show tonight, okay? I’m so proud of you.”

“Love you, Daddy,” she tells him, before she skips out the door after Sophia. Harry allows himself three minutes to wallow in the fact that his daughter is growing up, before he heads back upstairs to shower and get ready for the day. He sends Louis a quick text, a picture that he took on his phone of the girls in their curlers, getting a litany of letters in response about how cute the girls looked and how excited Louis is for them to be on stage. He hasn’t been able to see Louis all week; not with the dress rehearsals and the way he’s been swamped at work. It’s been years since Harry had regular sex, and going five days without it has been almost agonizing. He hopes that with all the family in town, he can duck out for an hour the next day to spend some ‘quality time’ with Louis.

Harry spends the morning at the office, but he leaves around noon to have lunch with his parents and Gemma. It’s nice to have a long lunch without the kids around, demanding attention and needing supervision. They indulge in wine and several appetizers, and it’s three o’clock before they head to the house so they can enjoy a bit of a rest. Harry and Gemma watch some tv while their parents take a short nap.

At six-thirty they head to Prentice, and Harry lingers outside the memorabilia table, buying the prints they’re selling of the kids in dress rehearsals. There’s an absolutely adorable print of the three of them, clustered together and grinning at the camera, a flowerpot on Lennon’s head and a pink bonnet on Lo’s.
He and the rest of the family pour into the auditorium, and he tucks himself between his mum and sister, sharing the same row as Liam and Sophia, Sophia’s parents and sister, Zayn and Perrie, and Taylor, Julian and Jonah. There are also several friends from the band days, and their whole group takes up three full rows in the auditorium. The flower bouquets they purchased for the kids is safely stowed under Sophia’s mum’s seat, and all their other friends have brought goodies and trinkets for the kids as a ‘congratulations’. Harry and Taylor can’t stop smiling at the way Jonah clutches three single roses in individual wrappers; white for Lo, yellow for Lennon, and red for Dylan.

Louis is nowhere to be seen, probably backstage giving the kids a final pep talk. Harry discreetly pulls out his phone, telling him to Break a Leg, and then puts it on silent and slides it back into his jacket pocket. As Gemma and Sophia’s sister Emily catch up, Harry turns to his mum, squeezing her hand.

“Thanks for making the trip down.”

“And miss seeing my grandbabies in their first musical? Please.” Then she lowers her voice and leans in; “it’ll be better than the ballet recital, yes?”

He chuckles, assuring her that the musical will be much better. The ballet recital from the previous spring had seemed to go on for hours, as class after class presented their routines.

Now, sitting in the audience with the show about to start, Harry feels his own heart start to race. He’s seen parts of the show, but not the entire thing, and as the lights dim, he feels his heart start to race, wondering where Lo is, if she’s terrified or just the right amount of nervous. He makes a fist and tightens his fingers, relaxing them, then doing it again. It’s an old trick that one of his boxing trainers taught him, back when he was seventeen and on the road, feeling too tight with energy. He feels odd. In the seven years that he’s been a parent, he’s never felt nervous for Lo. He’s probably been every other emotion possible for her, but never nervous.

As the lights go down and the music starts up, he tries to breathe out his anxiety. It takes a few minutes, but eventually he settles. The dialogue is clear and the orchestra sounds great, and Harry starts to feel better. The girl playing Dorothy has a surprisingly nice voice, and he lets the notes wash over him as he gets lost in the melody.

By the time the tornado takes Dorothy to Oz, Harry realizes he’s so tense that his mum has noticed, and she gently strokes her hand over his knee, trying to relax the muscles. Harry squeezes her hand, smiling at her in the dark.

“Here we go,” he whispers.

It feels like their entire group holds their breaths as Dorothy explores Oz, and then Glinda appears to coax out the entire cast of munchkins. Lennon appears with the flowerpot on her head, and Dylan looks spectacular in his yellow tights, and Harry’s heart constricts with how much he loves his godchildren.

They all break out into song, and within a few minutes, the Lullaby League tiptoes their way on stage as a trio, Lo in the middle dressed all in pink, her blond curls bouncing around her shoulders. She’s delightful, singing beautifully as she nails her choreography, and when they finish, Harry wants to stand up and applaud for her. He even finds himself with tears in his eyes, wishing that Spencer were there to see her be so wonderful.

At the end of the song the audience claps, and their entire three rows erupts into catcalls, making Dylan grin even wider and Lennon wink at her Auntie Pix.

After that, it’s just a matter of waiting, enjoying the rest of the performance and taking all the congratulations of their group during intermission. By the end of the show, Harry’s bouncing out of his seat with excitement, and when the kids come out for bows, he stands up with Liam and Sophia, clapping so exuberantly that his hands hurt.

After, it’s all he can do not to rush backstage, but he waits patiently with the rest of their large group for the kids to come out. Ten minutes later, the kids come pouring out, in their street clothes but still covered in make-up. Harry can’t even wait for Lo to reach them, he’s stepping in her direction and she’s in his arms within three seconds of seeing her emerge. She smells like hairspray and old clothes, and he buries his face in her neck as he swings her around, lifting her even further up like she’s a baby again.

“My marvelous munchkin! Darling you were spectacular.”

She blushes, hugging him and wrapping her legs around his waist, and Harry looks over her shoulder to see Liam holding Lennon, with Sophia kneeling on the floor kissing over every inch of Dylan’s face. He steps over to them, putting a hand on Lennon’s back while Sophia reaches a hand up to hold Lo’s ankle.

This is their proud night, their three older angels growing up so fast. Liam has tears in his eyes and he hastily holds his arm out so Sophia can lift Dylan up, clutching the twins as Sophia wraps her arms around them.

Eventually they step back and let the kids down, letting all their friends and family crowd the kids with accolades and celebratory hugs. It takes fifteen minutes before they can mobilize, Lo hanging onto his shoulder and hiked onto his hip, her backpack slung over his other shoulder and her happy voice cascading over his ear. As they make their way toward the exit doors, he sees Louis standing in the doorway to the theater, surrounded by pleased parents.

Their eyes meet across the lobby and Harry can see the twinkle in his eye, the way his mouth pulls just a little to the side in the barest hint of a smirk. Harry sends a wink his way, then follows Sophia outside.

At Liam and Sophia’s house, they’ve set up trays of cheese and fruit, and an assortment of wine. Their family and friends pour in, and while the kids drink sparkling juice and stuff themselves with expensive brie, and by the time they pass out in front of the fire, nestled with the dogs, it’s quarter past eleven. Harry sits with his oldest friends, enjoying Liam’s expensive brandy and the way the firelight plays across Lo’s hair.

At half past twelve, he carries Lo into their house, his parents trailing after him. He tucks Lo into bed and sweeps the hair off her forehead, whispering in her ear how proud he is of her. He hopes the words make their way into her dreams.

----

The entire weekend is a rousing success. Lo is spectacular all three performances, and Harry enjoys spending so much time among family and friends.

Unfortunately, by Monday it’s back to the regular grind, without the rehearsals to chaperone, Harry’s life returns to normal, spending his days at the office and his evenings with Lo. The kids still talk about and quote “Mr. Tommo” continually, and it makes Harry smile as he sinks into Louis’ sheets during a lunch break. He’s managed to see Louis twice during the week, and is hopeful that they can continue the arrangement that has been serving them so well.

The one thing that Lo keeps nattering on about is the upcoming pizza party. To celebrate the musical, Louis is springing for a party, and has gotten all of the primary kids out of class for a Thursday afternoon, so that they can properly celebrate the end of the musical. Lo has been talking about it all week, and Louis has been bemoaning via text about the end of his time with the kids.

On the day of, Harry and Liam are just finishing up a session with EvolVE when the door to the studio bursts open. They both look up sharply, annoyed at the interruption, but the annoyance immediately fades as Harry looks at Chloe. She looks frazzled, like she just ran through the building, and there’s fear written all over her face.

“Harry, Prentice just called. Lo had an allergic reaction at school. She’s on her way to University College Hospital.”

For a moment her words don’t make sense. “The school doctor-”

“A&E. Her throat closed up. By ambulance”

After that, everything seems to happen in an alternate reality. He’s rushing toward the exit before Chloe’s even finished speaking, pushing past her and running to the stairs. He hear’s Liam shouting directions, can feel him hot on his heels, but nothing comes together in his mind until he’s racing across the lobby and bursting onto the street. He’s got his hand on the rover’s door when he feels Liam yank him back.

“Don’t even think about it. I’ll drive.”

Wordlessly, Harry hands over the keys and runs around to the passenger side to throw himself in. He’s barely got the door closed before Liam’s backing out, tires squealing as he steps on the gas. They lunge forward with a jerk as he switches into drive, then fly through the parking lot to turn onto the street.

“She’s not allergic to anything, I don’t understand.”

Harry feels around his pockets but he doesn’t have his phone - likely why the school contacted Chloe.

“She’s going to be fine, Harry-”

“You don’t know that-”

“We don’t know anything - it could be a mild reaction-”

“You think they would take her away in an ambulance for a mild-”

“It’s a fancy fucking school, yeah, they would, just to be safe.”

“Christ, I just - left there! - I don’t know. Oh god. Her throat closed up Liam.”

They’re practically screaming at each other as Liam careens through the streets in the direction of UCH. Harry feels like he’s in a room with no air, clawing his way up the walls. He can’t think rationally. All he can visualize is Lo lying on a hospital table, a white sheet pulled over her body. All he can remember is the way Spencer had looked, body cold on the table.

It takes Liam almost ten minutes to navigate through traffic to the hospital, honking at cars to get out of his way and putting on his hazard lights as he makes frantic turns. Harry has about twenty panic attacks on the way, all because of the fear welling up inside him.

Liam pulls into the A&E entrance and Harry jumps out of the car, not even bothering to shut the door behind him as he races through the doors. The waiting room is full of people with all sorts of ailments, but he runs up to the woman behind the desk, panting like he’s just run a marathon.

“My daughter - they brought my daughter. Lola Styles. She’s seven. They said she had an allergic reaction.”

The woman types quickly on her computer, eyes scanning the screen as Harry waits, each moment more painful than the next.

“Yes sir, she’s right here in the system. Can I please see some identification?”

“My - you want - I,” Harry mutters stupidly as he pats his pockets, desperately overwhelmed when he feels his wallet in his back pocket. He flicks his id card across the counter and the woman verifies his name before gesturing to a nearby nurse.

“Becky, can you please take Mr. Styles to see his daughter? She’s in exam room twelve.”

Harry followed the nurse through the admittance doors and down the hall, past a few curtains and around the corner to an exam room. He nearly collapses in the doorway when he’s greeted with the scene in front of him; Lo is lying on a bed with two nurses and a doctor standing around the bed, a tube down her throat, with a nurse pumping a bag to help her breathe. She looks so tiny and helpless in the hospital bed that Harry’s heart lurches. Curled into the head of the bed is Louis, his hand stroking her hair as he speaks softly into her ear.

“Lo,” Harry croaks, crossing the threshold, only to be held back by a nurse. “Thats - that’s my daughter.” He tries to get by, but the doctor turns from the bed and puts a hand on Harry’s chest.

“Sir, I need you to calm down.”

Louis doesn’t look up or face him, just continues talking to Lo in some low tone, his lips right by her ear.

“Mr. Styles, look at me. Look at me.”

The doctor shakes Harry just a bit, till he focuses his gaze on him. He looks young. Too young to be a doctor, probably, all groomed hair and smooth skin.

“My daughter-”

“Your daughter has had an allergic reaction. She ingested a peanut. Sir, I need you to take a deep breath for me - please. For your daughter.”

Harry doesn’t want to, but he takes a deep breath, and then another, needing to convince the doctor that he should be allowed near Lo.

“She’s had a severe allergic reaction and is experiencing Anaphylaxis. Her throat started to swell - we’ve intubated her because we didn’t want to risk needing more serious measures if the reaction continued. But your daughter is awake and that was a very scary process - Louis is keeping her calm. We don’t want her to start to have anxiety again.”

“She’s-”

“She’s been administered a dose of epinephrine, which appears to be working. As soon as she has stabilized we’re going to put her on an antihistamine, and take out the breathing tube. But I need you to remain calm.”

Harry looks away from the doctor. A nurse is still hunched over Lo, and at the head of the bed, Louis is crouched over her, a smile on his face as he continues talking in her ear.

“Okay. Okay. I’m… I’m calm.”

The doctor waits a moment longer, then releases his hold on Harry. “Good. Your daughter’s still awake but she’s a little out of it; drifting, sort of. Epinephrine will do that as it works through her system It’s very important for her to stay calm since she has the breathing tube in.”

He nods, trying to take in all the information. Slowly, he walks toward the bed. Louis looks up as he approaches, a seriousness to his eyes that Harry hasn’t seen before. A nurse places a stool next to the bed and Harry sinks down, reaching out to take Lo’s hand in his own. Her skin is warm and covered in hives, swollen up in parts. His other hand shakes as he reaches out to stroke her hair; Louis links their hands and lays them at the top of Lo’s head, eyes locked on Harry’s as he continues talking to Lo.

“...and the dwarf tried and tried to get the bear to release him. He promised him gold and treasure and jewels, but the bear wouldn’t let him go. Finally the dwarf tried to convince the bear to eat Rose-Red and Snow-White, telling him that instead the bear could gobble up the girls and be much more full. But the bear didn’t listen, and instead knocked the dwarf with one large blow.”

As Louis talks, he holds on to Harry’s wrist, thumb tracing a soothing pattern. Harry exhales deeply, trying not to let the tears in his eyes fall; the adrenaline that had been overwhelming as he raced to Lo now falling away to leave him shaky.

“The sisters were frightened, and tried to run away, but the bear called to them, and his voice was so familiar that Snow-White stopped her sister and stared up at the bear. Then, before their eyes the skin of the bear fell off and before them was a man, handsome and dressed in rich clothing. “I am a Prince,” the man said, “though you know me as your friend the bear. I will not hurt you.” And they knew it was their old friend from the winter come to them, transformed into this handsome man. He explained that the dwarf had tricked him and cast a spell, and transformed him into a bear. And in that moment Snow-White knew that she loved him, and she ran into his waiting arms. And at after the Prince was returned to his kingdom, his brother fell in love with Rose-Red, and so both sisters were married, and brought their mother to court to live with them, replanting branches from her rose tree so that they could all live happily ever after.”

Louis glances up at the nurse who nods toward Harry. She’s still pumping the bag on some steady count, but she doesn’t look particularly bothered.

“Lo, darling, you’ve been so good, did you like that story? Guess who’s here, it’s your Dad. Shh, sweetheart, stay still, you’re being so good,” Louis places a gentle hand on her shoulder as Lo starts to thrash a bit, and Harry lays a comforting hand on her stomach.

“Lola, it’s Daddy. I’m here darling just stay calm.”

He doesn’t know where his own calm facade comes from; only that he has to make sure not to alarm Lo. Somehow, he keeps his voice steady and doesn’t betray how truly terrified he is.

“You’re doing so well, my love. I love you so much.” She starts to turn toward him, so Harry tries to gentle her, rubbing her stomach as she’s always loved. “Do you want Louis to tell another story? Hmm? I bet he’s really good at telling stories.”

Louis immediately jumps in, measured excitement in his voice for Lo. “Of course I’ll tell you some more stories. Have you ever heard the tale of the Golden Goose? Well, there once was a man with three sons, the youngest of which was teased and teased…”

His voices fades into the comforting hum of background noise as Harry focus’ on Lo’s face. He traces her features with his eyes, trying to will her to get better. Rationally he understands that what the doctor told him is good news - that Lo is probably going to be okay - but this is his baby on the table. His only baby; the baby he promised Spencer he would protect with every ounce of his being.

“Mr. Styles.”

It’s the doctor again, and Harry kisses Lo’s hand and lays it back down, standing up and taking a few steps away from the bed.

“We want to take her off the breathing tube. Her throat hasn’t showed any more signs of swelling up and I’m fairly confident that she’ll have no trouble breathing on her own. And as the epinephrine wears out she’ll start to become more combative.”

“So what next?”

“I want to put her on Methylprednisolone. It’s an anti-inflammatory, and it’ll help with the swelling in her throat. She’s so young that I don’t want to overwhelm her with a drug cocktail - once we’ve resolved that she isn’t having trouble breathing and that everything respiratory is okay, we’ll treat her skin reactions with antihistamines. Before we do that, though, I need you to fill this out; we treated her with epinephrine because it was necessary, but I need to be aware of any medications she’s on as well as medical history.”

He hands Harry a chart, gesturing to him to sit near the bed to fill it out.

Harry sits back down, pen in hand, and begins to fill out all of the forms. He feels foolish checking ‘none’ under known medical allergies - he certainly hadn’t known that Lo was allergic to nuts - but fills out the rest of the papers without issue. Louis is still calmly telling the story about the golden goose - something about three sons and an old man? - keeping Lo calm.

As soon as the nurse takes the clipboard from him, Harry leans back into the enveloping Lo’s hand once again.

“Okay, Mr. Styles, we’re going to take out the tube - if you could both stand back.”

The doctor leans over, blocking Harry’s view as he presumably takes the tube from Lo’s throat.

“Shh, sweetie, don’t fight it, there we go, there we go.” He hands it off to a nurse, putting a hand under Lo’s shoulder to help her sit up a bit. “Can you cough for me?” It takes a few moments but Lo eventually coughs, then takes a few breaths.

“Great job. How about some water?” A small cup of water miraculously appears and the doctor feeds it to Lo, one tiny sip at a time.”

A few minutes later, Lo seems a bit more alert. She can nod or shake her head at the doctor’s questions, and seems to realize that Harry is there with her. He replaces the doctor, sliding in to help Lo sit up all the way and rubbing her back soothingly.

“Okay, we’re going to go ahead and admit her. As soon as she’s in her room, she’ll be administered an anti-inflammatory. That’s one very lucky little girl, Mr. Styles.”

Harry nods shakily, thanking the doctor and shaking his hand. He watches Lo interact with the nurse, keeping a hand on her at all times.

“Harry, how did you get here?”

He turns to Louis, trying to remember the events of the previous half hour. It seems like so much longer.

“Liam drove me.”

“Is he in the waiting room? Why don’t I go let him know what’s going on.”

Without another word, Louis slips out, till it’s only Harry and Lo and one nurse. They wait almost fifteen minutes, till an orderly comes in with the instructions for her admittance. The bed is wheeled away, Harry trailing behind. They take Lo upstairs and put her in the children’s ward, with a room to herself for the time being. Harry pulls a chair up to the bed and sits there with her, trying to keep her spirits up as a new nurse takes her temperature and blood pressure and checks her throat to make sure there’s no more swelling. Harry asks the nurse to call down to the waiting room, with instructions for Liam and Louis to come up to their floor.

They have to wait for the Pediatrician to come round, before she can be administered anymore medicine, and Harry spends the time with his head close to Lo, who’s drifting in and out of a light sleep.

Eventually the doctor comes by and confirms the medication for the skin irritations, checking her throat again and ordering more labwork. Lo’s too tired to kick up a fuss about more blood being taken, though she does frown a bit. Once they give her the dose of medicine, she settles properly into the bed and Harry’s notified that they can have visitors in the room.

Fifteen minutes later, it’s Sophia who bursts in, her heels clicking on the floor as she steps up to Lo’s bedside and bends over, brushing her lips over Lo’s forehead. She has the same look of terror that Harry’s sure was on his face earlier, and she smoothes Lo’s curls away from her forehead in a motherly fashion.

“She’s doing really well,” Harry tells her. “Throat swelled up and obviously she’s broken out everywhere, but she can breathe again.”

Sophia nods, eyes still trailing over Lo’s form, trying to assess damage herself. “Louis told us what happened. He and Liam are in the waiting room on this floor - only one person allowed back at a time right now. How are you feeling, darling?”

Lo nods sleepily, nuzzling into Sophia’s hand. Her skin is still blotchy and puffed up red all over, but the nurse assured Harry that the dose of Medrol that was administered would help with the worst of it.

“She’s on medicine for her skin now,” Harry shares, stroking his fingertip over Lo’s nose. “They think it should reduce pretty heavily within twenty-four hours.”

Sophia sits down at Lo’s bedside, arranging the blankets snugly around her and generally just petting at her. Several times she runs a hand over Lo’s head, fingers twirling one of her stray curls around her finger.

“How did this happen? I mean, a peanut allergy?”

Harry shakes his head, raking his hand through his hair one more time. “I just never thought about it - I mean, with Liam allergic to peanuts, we’ve spent years just cutting all nuts out of everything. I’ve never had them in the house. You’ve scared Dylan and Lo into staying away from anything with nuts. She’s just never been around them.”

Sophia bends down and brushes her lips across Lo’s temple, whispering how much she loves her.

“She’ll be okay, Harry.”

“I know,” Harry assures her, breathlessly. “I know. But it was pretty fucking scary.”

Sophia rounds the bed to slip onto his lap and give him a tight hug, pressing their faces together. Harry holds her tightly, digging his fingers into her waist, squeezing her the way he wishes he could squeeze Lo - just to assure himself of something solid and real. And unbreakable.

“I’m going to go call your mother, okay? And send Liam in. He’s practically frothing at the mouth. Then I’m going to go get the twins and take them home.”

“Yeah, thanks, Soph.”

Kissing his forward, she leaves the room, the slightest hint of her perfume lingering. Lo has fallen asleep, and he lays a hand protectively on her shin, the weave of the blanket rough under his hand.

“Baby girl, I’m so sorry,” he whispers, reaching to hold her hand. God, he can’t help but keep thinking about what might have happened. If the reaction had been worse, or if she hadn’t arrived at the hospital in time. Losing Lo is unthinkable - she’s his entire world.

“Hey.”

He’d nearly forgotten that Sophia was sending Liam in, and Harry smiles gratefully at his best friend, waving him over. Liam bends over Lo just as Sophia had, and mimics his wife’s actions; running palm over Lo’s hair and stroking her cheek.

“She out?”

“Yeah. The nurse said she’d probably sleep for like, the next twelve hours off and on. She’s totally wiped from all the meds.”

“Thank god she’s okay,” is all Liam can say. Harry agrees. This is their little girl - their oldest little girl. The one who brought stability and a new sense of wonder at the world. She’s what united them all as a family more firmly than anything else ever could.

“I, uh,” Liam flounders, almost as if he’s not sure what else to say. “I wonder if I accidentally got Sophia pregnant before the surrogacy procedure.”

Harry bursts into laughter, covering his mouth so he won’t wake Lo. It’s such an absurd thing to say, especially when they’re in a hospital. But the laughter bursts out of them both, until there are tears running down their faces and they’re hopelessly grabbing onto each other.

“We never thought of that! What if she’s your kid? We should have done a paternity test!”

That makes them fall into another round of overwrought hilarity, till Harry’s stomach muscles hurt and his eyes feel swollen. Laughing far outweighs what he feels like doing, which is crying his fucking eyes out.

“No,” Liam finally calms down, arm around Harry as they stand at the foot of the bed. “Not with those curls. Or those eyes. All Spencer.”

“I can’t believe I almost lost her today,” Harry gets out, finally speaking aloud his deepest fear. “I can’t believe I almost lost both of them.”

“But you didn’t,” Liam says, squeezing Harry’s shoulder. “You didn’t.”

For another fifteen minutes, Liam sits with Harry, keeping vigil over Lo’s sleeping form. They don’t talk much, just a few comments here or there; mostly they watch the way she’s breathing. It’s so much like the way Harry used to watch her as a baby, Spencer at his side, marvelling at their newborn in her bassinet or crib. Up and down, in and out; each breath an assertion that she was there with them. Part of them.

When Liam takes his leave, Harry asks if he’ll send Louis back - assuming that Louis is still there. Part of him is surprised when Louis appears in the doorway; he’s been sitting in waiting rooms for almost two hours, and he looks almost as haggard as Harry feels.

“Hi. You didn’t have to stay. But thanks.”

Louis just nods, handing over Harry’s phone and a bag. “Your assistant dropped by with this. Liam was in the waiting room so she left it with me. Seemed to know who I was.”

The joking between Sophia and Chloe about Harry and Louis’ relationship seems so long ago - in another lifetime, really. Harry can’t find it in him to be amused anymore, or even caught up in the months of teasing.

“Thanks for bringing it in. Sophia said she was going to let my mum know, so I’m sure she’ll have called a million times.”

Louis stands by Lo’s bed and glances down at her sleeping form. “How is she?”

Harry gives him the update about her condition, keeping his voice low so as not to wake her. Louis nods, looking relieved when he hears that she ought to be a lot better within twelve hours.

“Can, um. Can you tell me what happened?”

“We were having that pizza party for the kids, to celebrate the musical. She was fine - they were running around and laughing. And then she had a big coughing fit - she and the twins and some of the other kids were sitting in a circle sharing their candy bags - and then, I don’t really remember but I think it was Dylan, he yelled and she seemed to be turning red. And I asked if she was choking - the kids said she wasn’t. And one of the girls had a package of peanuts and said all she’d had was that. But she just kept coughing and, like, she was really turning red. So I yelled for the teacher to call the hospital.”

“And you rode in the ambulance with her.”

“They got there really quick, and I was already carrying her to the front doors. I just hopped in. She just kept holding my hand and I didn’t want to leave her. And at A&E, her throat was swelling so quickly and she was having trouble breathing so the doctor said he wanted to try putting a tube in, but that she had to stay relaxed and let it breathe for her. So I just started telling her a story and she seemed to calm down. And they gave her some giant shot and that helped.”

“Epinephrine,” Harry supplies. Louis nods.

“So she managed to relax and that made things easier. I can’t even imagine, it must have been so scary for her.”

“But you made her feel better,” Harry says. “Thank you. Honestly, I can’t thank you enough.”

“I’m just glad she’s okay,” Louis says honestly. “I was terrified.”

“Me too.”

Harry’s exhaustion must be showing on his face, because Louis takes his leave shortly. He gives Harry a brief hug, ducking out of the room and leaving Harry all by himself. It’s only late afternoon, but he feels as though it’s closer to midnight. He makes himself take a few deep breaths before he calls his mother, assuring her immediately that Lo is alright and that no, she doesn’t have to drive down from Cheshire. He texts Gemma, who let’s him know she’s actually en route to the hospital with a change of clothes for him since she assumes he’ll be spending the night.

When Gemma does arrive, she’s bearing food - something bland and warm that Harry doesn’t taste and doesn’t remember. It’s good enough to sustain him, and he’s so grateful to his sister, who doesn’t pepper him with questions. She’s brought him a comfortable jumper, which he changes into gratefully; the longer they’re at the hospital the colder he feels. She’s also brought Lo’s favorite fleece blanket and one of her more favored stuffed animals.

She stays with Harry, doing some work quietly in the corner while Harry sits bedside, just staring at Lo. When she wakes, just before eight, he calls the nurse, who takes her vitals and lets her have some water, helping her to the bathroom. Lo passes right out as soon as she gets back into bed, barely acknowledging Gemma’s presence - totally wiped.

Gemma leaves just before nine, at Harry’s insistence. The nurse’s are bringing in a cot for him, and he tells Gemma’s there’s no reason for her to have an uncomfortable night when there’s not anything to be done. He wants to be there in case Lo wakes up - obviously - but Gemma can come back in the morning. After arguing for a few moments, she gives in and leaves, promising to bring breakfast and a change of clothes in the morning.

Chloe had sent Harry’s ipad along with a bit of work; she knows him so well. So Harry settles in, trying to get work done. He looks up at Lo about every six seconds, unwilling to look away for too long. He’s too afraid she’ll disappear before his eyes. He get’s a little bit done, but he can’t focus, so eventually he puts it aside, content to just stare at his daughter, to smile at the nurse as she stops in every fifteen minutes.

Around ten, he calls Sophia, who sounds so exhausted that for a moment Harry wonders if he’s woken her up.

“No, not at all,” she assures him. “I just got the twins down. They cried for about six hours straight. Kept begging to go to the hospital. We’ve always stressed how dangerous peanuts are for Liam and they just fell apart because they’re so upset.”

God, Harry hadn’t even thought of that. Of course the twins would be insane with worry; they’d been right there when it happened.

“You should bring them by tomorrow. The nurse says that she’ll be able to have more visitors after the initial twelve hours have passed, and if she continues getting better she should have more energy. The redness has gone down quite a bit,” he reports, glancing at Lo’s arms and neck.

“We’ll do that - late morning, though. They’re sleeping with us tonight - wouldn’t stay in their beds and Dylan wouldn’t let go of Liam. I’m sure they tired themselves out enough for a late start. They’re certainly not going to school.”

“Okay. I’ll call you in the morning with an update.”

“Give our girl a kiss from us. Best just give her five.”

“Will do,” Harry promises, hanging up. He continues to sit until an orderly rolls in the cart the hospital is letting him use, helping him unfold it and leaving him with the standard issued blanket and sheets. Gemma had teased him about not having Lo transferred to a private wing somewhere, but the private rooms in the children’s ward are reserved for very sick children. And, Chloe had called to give him a rundown on the doctors treating Lo, and it seems that he’s in the best place for her right now. So he’s left with a small cot, and that will do just fine for him.

For a few hours, he drifts in the chair, unwilling to get in the cot incase Lo wakes and doesn’t see him. Eventually, a nurse coaxes him into getting some sleep, helping him to the cot and assuring him that if even the slightest issue develops they’ll wake him up.

But, of course, Harry can’t sleep. Nurses come in every half hour to check on Lo, though they are careful not to disturb her. He can’t will himself to sleep, no matter how much he tells himself he needs to shut his eyes; he just can’t seem to keep them closed, continually blinking to make sure Lo’s sleeping alright.

Eventually, he wears himself out, drifting off to the slight sound of Lo’s heart monitor, the quiet beep beep assuring him enough to lull him into some kind of rest.

---

“The impulse control and memory aberrations can be due to any number of factors, and yes, a tumor may be one. We’ll take some scans and see.”

“According to lab results in conjunction with the pet scan, the tumor started in your meninges. While most meningiomas are benign, a small percentage are malignant. We’ll do a biopsy to test, though the meningioma has metastasized.”

“A malignant tumor of this size and scope located in the brain needs an aggressive treatment. Spencer will need a surgery. I suggest you take some time, spend it with your daughter, and get a second opinion. Surgery of this kind has tremendous risk, but radiation isn’t an option. Nor is chemotherapy.”

“Mr. Styles, I’m sorry. The meningioma that metastasized was more extensive than scans showed and it’s pressure on the cavernous sinus was too intrusive. We tried a lateral dissection but there were just too many bleeders. His brain swelled too fast. We did everything we could, but unfortunately there was nothing we could do to stop the swelling, and we were unable to resuscitate him.”

---

“I’m sorry, Mr. Styles. Your daughter’s allergic reaction caused swelling in her throat and we were unable to resuscitate her.”

---

Harry bolts awake, chest heaving and fear coursing through his veins. He scrambles out of the cot and to the bed, the light from the hallway spilling into the room. Lo is illuminated in the yellow glow, still passed out on her back, hair a mess and the hives on her skin greatly reduced from the reaction. Harry takes two steps to cross to her, laying his hand on her arm to feel her warmth and pressing his head against her chest to hear her heartbeat.

He’s sweating, the material of his t-shirt sticking to his chest and back, nightmares of arriving at the hospital to find Lo gone still playing behind his eyes.

He’d dreamed of Spencer, of those horrible few weeks from diagnosis to surgery. Of the terrible waiting and the endless bad news. It’s been months since he’s had a dream about that, about sitting in the doctor’s office next to Spencer as they were told about the possibility of a tumor.

About sitting in another doctor’s office and hearing the results of a scan. Then the biopsy.

Of meeting the surgeon and then the second opinion - the third and fourth and fifth, actually.

Of the few weeks they’d had to themselves, trying to soak up as much family time as they could, Lo tottling around their Scottash highlands cottage on a weekend away, the two of them watching the way she interacted with the world in delight.

Of checking Spencer into the hospital, Lo crawling around his lap in the hospital bed while he kissed the top of her head and read stories with her, their three year old blissfully unaware of their surroundings.

Of the morning of the surgery, Gemma waiting to take Lo back to the house so they weren’t cooping her up for the day. Spencer holding his baby girl and telling her how much he loved her before sending her off, clutching her teddy in one arm and an Elmo goes to School book in the other, a few stray cheerios lingering on the blanket in Spencer’s bed.

Of the last ten minutes that Harry spent with Spencer, their hands linked as they bravely talked through their dreams for the future. Walking next to the gurney as they moved him from his room to pre-op. Kissing him goodbye with so much emotion between their lips, promising to see each other on the other side.

Of the eight hours he spent pacing the waiting room, Liam and Sophia and his mother there, along with Spencer's parents and brother.

Of seeing the surgeons face and knowing immediately that life would never be the same again.

Dreams of a time that he can’t return to with his daughter; not if he wants to keep himself going.

It’s still early morning, not quite five, but there’s no way Harry’s going back to the cot. Instead he settles in the bedside chair, drifting in and out as he sits vigil. Everytime he starts to nod off, he jacknifes, trying to stay awake. Around seven, a nurse comes in with a cup of coffee, which he gratefully takes. The coffee makes him feel a little more alert, but jacks his nerves up to an unknown level, and the time seems to creep by as he waits for Lo to wake up.

She starts to stir about eight-thirty, waking slowly and groggily. Harry’s instantly next to her, helping her sit up and pouring some water for her to drink. In the morning light, her skin looks so much better, the hives greatly reduced all over and nearly gone in some places, though some of the redness still lingers.

“Hi sweetheart, sit up baby.” He settles the pillows behind her back, brushing the hair away from her face and tucking the blanket around her waist. “How are you feeling, darling?”

“Hungry,” Lo decides after a moment, brushing Harry’s hands away to bat her hair back herself.

“I’m sure you are, but how is your throat? Are you itchy?’

She shrugs, unconcerned. “Can I have pancakes?”

So probably feeling a lot better then. “Throat?”

“I feel ok. Kinda sore,” she allows, though she’s looking at him like she’s hedging her bets for answers against whether or not she’ll be allowed pancakes.

“I think the doctor is supposed to be in soon, and once he takes a look at your throat you can probably have something to eat. How do your arms feel? Let me see your legs.”

He pulls the blanket away and lifts the hospital gown up to her thighs, inspecting the skin to see if the hives have reduced. Her legs are still splotchy red, but the massive welts have gone down and seem to be better than the day before.

Soon enough she complains of being cold, so Harry tucks her back up. She definitely seems more tired than usual, even after sleeping for so long, but her attention span is still the same as it always has been. So Harry turns on the tv and settles her with cartoons while they wait for the doctor.

When the doctor makes his rounds, he greets Harry and quickly sets to examining Lo, taking a look at the labwork that was ordered the day before and reading through her notes from the overnight nurse. He takes a look down her throat and listens to her chest, looking at her legs and arms and her back.

“She has improved, but I’d like to order a shot of cortisone to alleviate the remaining throat swelling. I’d also like her to start another dosepack of the Medrol.”

“How much swelling is there still in her throat?”

“It’s extremely reduced, especially from how it was when I first saw her after admittance yesterday, but her breathing is still a bit labored. This will help with any swelling in her lungs. If left alone, it would go down on its own, but the cortisone will help the process along.”

Harry asks a few more questions about side effects and how long the doctor expects her to stay in the hospital, pleased to hear that Lo ought to be dismissed in the morning if she continues to show no further signs of reaction resurgence. When Lo loudly asks if she can eat he tells her that light, bland foods are fine.

“Pancakes?” She asks ominously, and the doctor laughs.

“If you’re determined, then sure, but not too much,” he cautions. “And not too much syrup. I don’t want anything too rich in her system,” he adds the last part for Harry. “Definitely nothing acidic - no juice, no caffeine - and avoid dairy for the time being as well. Just stick with room temperature water.”

After the doctor leaves, Harry calls Gemma and tells her what things of Lo’s to bring, as well as asks her to stop and pick up some pancakes. Lo is given a bit of dry cereal by the nurses to tide her over while she waits, and she seems to perk up little by little, though she’s not the rambunctious child Harry is used to corralling every day of his life.

Gemma arrives an hour later, bearing clothes for both of them and a bagful of activities, as well as a take out container that contains enough breakfast for about four people. Lo immediately sets to work on the pancakes, though she pouts about the tiny amount of syrup that Harry allows her, and only eats a few mouthfuls of the scrambled eggs that he coaxes her into eating. She does pull on the cardigan that Gemma brought, and Harry tugs a pair of wooly socks onto her feet, attempting to brush out her tangled hair and braid it quickly.

He changes into a new pair of jeans and a tshirt, brushing his teeth and then forcing Lo to do the same. By the time she’s resettled into bed, she looks a hundred times better, but Harry still feels a sense of unease every time he looks at the blotchy hives on her arms.

Even being in the hospital is giving him a high sense of panic; excepting doctors visits, Stevie’s birth, and one time when Lo sprained an ankle at age six, he hasn’t spent time in a hospital since the day that Spencer died. Gemma must realize his internal conflict, because she sets about interacting with Lo while Harry sits quietly in the corner chair, feeling like his own skin is about to break out in hives.

She and Lo play a board game, and then Lo plays on an ipad - some digital game that she’s obsessed with beating - just passing the time. When the nurse comes in to administer the cortisone shot, she starts to cry, begging Harry not to make her take it.

“Please, Daddy, please.”

The tears stream down her face, and Harry thinks it’s more of an emotional meltdown than anything else, but it still breaks his heart. He holds her hand and kisses her closed eyes while the nurse gives her the cortisone, kissing her arm where they put the band-aid.

“You’re doing so well, Lo.”

She sniffles, glaring at him and reaching out for Gemma, and Harry sighs deeply. He’s never been good with putting Lo through necessary pain; even when she was a baby and they were trying out small amounts of self-soothing for a few minutes at a time, he would press himself against the wall outside to her room, practically crying along with her.

Thankfully, the Payne-Smith clan arrives not too much later, the twins held back by Liam with a hand on each shoulder, tiptoing into the room with scared, earnest faces. Sophia goes first to Lo, getting a hug and and an inspection, because god knows she thinks she knows more than a real doctor. Harry goes over to the twins and kneels down so he’s at their level.

“I heard you were really brave yesterday,” he tells them seriously. “And I know you must have been really worried. But Lo is going to be okay,” he promises them, trying to impart important parental wisdom even though he has trouble believing the words himself.

The twins look at him for a moment, then break free of Liam’s (loosened) hold and throw themselves into Harry’s arms, burying their faces into his neck and hugging him with all their might.

“I love you two,” he whispers, kissing their heads. Then he stands up and helps them scramble onto the bed, where they tentatively curl around Lo, heeding Liam’s caution of ‘gentle, remember.’

As the twins settle in with Lo, the three of them curled up like a pile of puppies, Harry briefs Liam and Sophia on what the doctor said. He keeps an eye on the bed, not wanting Lo to exert herself, but the three kids are doing well at being calm, the twins each looking over one of Lo’s shoulders as they play the game on the ipad together.

At some point, Harry talks with his mum, and then turns the phone over to the kids so they can each talk to “Grandma Styles.” When he’s retrieved it from them, he calls Spencer’s parents up in Edinburgh, giving them an update on the situation. That takes another half hour, and by the time he hangs up, he feels completely wiped.

He and Liam settle in to do some work while Sophia runs out to get lunch for everyone and Gemma settles the kids in with a movie on her computer. By early afternoon, the nurses have all been charmed by the twins, and Lo has a bit more color in her cheeks, which makes him feel a little better. Being around her family seems to have done as much good as the medicine.

Around two, the kids all take a nap, and Gemma takes off to head into the office for a bit, promising to drop back in for dinner. Harry watches the kids sleep, trying to accustom himself to the way that they’re going to have to go about the world from now on. Lo will need to carry an EpiPen in her backpack and he’ll need to start reading labels on everything. He starts to go through the materials the nurse gave him, on raising a child with a severe peanut allergy, with Liam also adding bits and pieces.

The kids are up and watching tv when there’s a knock on the door, and everyone looks over to see Louis, carrying a large teddybear and a balloon.

“Mr. Tommo!”

Louis enters the room and waves to the kids, catching Harry’s eye and waiting for an inviting nod before he walks to the kids to say hello.

“Hi loves. I just wanted to come and see how my munchkin was doing?”

The kids are entranced with Louis, caught on his every word. Harry watches, just as entranced, as Louis sits on the bed asking Lo how she feels and telling her how wonderful she was the day before. At one point he grabs her feet, tickling her to elicit a string of giggles, and Harry just. Cannot.

Rising quickly, he mentions something about checking in with the nurses station, leaving the room abruptly to stalk into the hall and striding across the white tiled floors. The fluorescent lights make him sick, bring back memories that cause a bubbling in his stomach. His skin feels too tight and he puts a hand on the wall, steadying himself.

The gentle touch of arms around his waist and a body pressed against his back makes him start, but Harry relaxes into Sophia’s touch quickly, taking a few steadying breaths.

“The kids are talking Louis’ ear off,” she says, chin hooked over his shoulder. “Lo isn’t going to let go of that teddy bear for a moment.”

He squeezes Sophia’s hand and moves away, leaning his back against the wall and staring up at the lights, trying to regulate his breathing.

“It’s sweet of Louis to check-in on Lo,” she remarks offhandedly.

“She’s getting way too attached,” Harry snaps back, not wanting to get into a conversation about his relationship with Louis, which is clearly where their talk is going.

Sophia arches an eyebrow and crosses her arms. “He brought her into the hospital. From what I heard, he literally saved the day by keeping her calm. Or have you forgotten that?”

“Obviously I haven’t forgotten that,” he hisses. “And l’m grateful, but the musical is over and she needs to become accustomed to not seeing him.”

“Louis seems like a pretty good guy. I don’t think he’d be one to just run off on the two of you.”

Harry scoffs. “Now’s not the time to talk about that.”

She sighs, putting a hand on each of his arms and practically caressing his biceps. “Harry, Lo is going to be okay. She had an allergic reaction - something nobody could have predicted. Not you, not me. Not even Spencer.”

That jabs at something inside of him. “Can you not bring up Spencer right now? Like, here, of all places?”

“It’s terrible, right? At least when I had Stevie I was in the maternity ward, but this is like being back with Spence before his operation all over again.”

“Stop it,” he hisses, absolutely unable to take any mention of Spencer’s last few days. Especially from Sophia, who was right there with him every step of the way. Visiting her when Stevie was born was bearable only because they had been surrounded by happiness and the feeling of new life. And it had only reminded Harry that despite how close the Payne-Smiths and the Styles family are, Lo will never have another blood sibling.

“I’m just saying, that I know it’s terrible being here, but look at what happened, Harry. He brought her to the hospital and he stayed with her and she clearly adores him. And he clearly adores you.”

“Sophia, stop it. I’m serious.”

“Someone who cares about Lo like that? Not going to come around all the time, is all I’m saying. And I know that you’ve been seeing him - don’t even pretend, Harry. Liam opened his big mouth and blabbed it out like, weeks ago.”

“Soph-”

“-And I haven’t said anything because I know you’re doing things on your own these days. It isn’t like it used to be, when we would gab and gush about your relationship with Spence. If you’re playing things close to the chest, then I understand that, but you know that I support you.”

“Will you just listen, christ, there’s nothing-”

“You’re spending the night with him practically every weekend and running off to his flat every time Lo is occupied, Harry. Don’t try to pretend-”

“Sophia-”

“Louis Tomlinson is a good guy to build a life with, Harry, why can’t you-”

“Louis Tomlinson is nothing but a casual fling,” he practically yells in her face. Sophia stops abruptly and stares at him, her eyes wide. “He’s attractive and he’s great in bed, but that’s all he is. That’s all I’m interested in from him. A good fuck once in a while.”

The look on Sophia’s face clearly tells him she can’t believe what she’s hearing, but she also seems shocked at the venom in his tone. Harry’s surprised at himself, really. He never, ever takes such a terrible attitude with Sophia, even when she’s driving him crazy. He’s just been walking a narrow wall for so long now, and her needling him finally pushed him over. As if being in a hospital - nearly losing Lo - hadn’t been bad enough. The last thing he needs is to be reminded of his husband and his empty dating life when he’s feeling so jumbled.

“Mom? Mr. Tommo’s leaving.”

Both Harry and Sophia snap their heads to the middle of the hall, where Louis is standing in the doorway of Lo’s room, Dylan’s little hand holding his own. Dread sinks deep into Harry’s stomach; from where he’s standing there’s no way their conversation went unheard, and the hurt look on Louis’ face is evidence enough.

“Louis-”

“I hope Lo gets to go home soon,” is what Louis says, the hurt on his face materializing into a blank expression. He gives Dylan a little push toward Sophia, who scoops up her son the moment he gets close enough.

Then Louis turns and heads toward the elevators at the end of the hall, his shoes making soft thuds as he walks.

Without making a conscious decision, Harry hurries after him, calling his name to no avail. He manages to catch up with him at the elevator, skidding to a stop next to Louis as he frantically pushes the down button.

“Louis, I’m sorry. I never should have said that.”

“There’s no need to apologize,” Louis says, his voice carefully devoid of emotion. “I understand completely.”

“shouldn’t have said that. I was upset and I characterized what we had in a terrible way. Please let me explain.”

Louis looks down for a long moment, then finally turns to face Harry and scratching his head through his grey beanie. “There’s nothing for you to explain,” he says gently, reaching out to cup Harry’s elbow. “You were right - we are a fling. My wanting more isn’t going to change that. So I should go.”

For a moment, Harry’s struck dumb by Louis’ words. “I. Louis...I’m sorry - I just…”

Whatever Harry might or might not be able to say is lost as the elevator arrives and dings as the doors open. Louis moves aside to let an elderly woman exit, then steps into the car.

“You’re an amazing dad, Harry. And I’m sure you were an amazing husband. He must have been a really lucky guy.”

The doors close, and Harry is left standing by himself.

He lingers for a long moment, just trying to get a hold on all that transpired. It takes him a few minutes, but he finally calms his racing heart, and manages to breathe out the upheaval that shakes across his belly.

When he walks back into the patient room, the first thing he notices is Lo clutching the giant white teddy bear; the Get Well balloon has been tied to her bed rail. Dylan is back on the bed with Lo but Lennon has clearly broken free, and she jumps into Harry’s arms nearly as soon as he’s across the threshold.

“Uncle Haz, why can’t we make a blanket fort? Lo and I want to be camping.”

“I’m sorry darling,” he brushes his lips across her temple. “Not here in the hospital. But as soon as we’re home and Lo is feeling better, we can make one in the playroom, alright? I promise.”

Lennon harrumphs but she holds tighter as Harry approaches the bed, stepping around Sophia to get to the other side. As they lock eyes, it looks like Sophia’s going to say something, but the look on Harry’s face must say all that needs to be said, because Sophia frowns and looks away.

The two of them don’t speak to each other for the rest of the day, even when Liam and Sophia pack up the kids to take them home in the late afternoon. The three of them hold each other and whine like the twins are heading off to war instead of just to their house. It goes on for a few minutes until Liam rolls his eyes and physically pulls Dylan into his arms, draping him over his shoulders like a fancy shawl. He bends down to kiss Lo goodbye and Sophia does the same, then scoops Lennon up and follows her husband out.

Lo seems dejected after that, all frowny and pouting. She’s grumpy with the nurse who comes to check on her and bored with the tv, so Harry puts aside his emotional turmoil and steps up to the plate. He slips into bed with Lo, pulling out the copy of Harry Potter that Gemma brought them and wrapping himself around his daughter. He reads and reads, until his voice is tired and Lo has sunk into him so completely that they’re practically one being. Holding her in his arms feels so good, and Harry presses on, not wanting to relinquish her from his embrace.

They enjoy a quiet evening with Gemma, who returns bearing dinner. Lo gobbles up the lukewarm mashed potatoes and picks at the chicken, but she doesn’t complain too much. The three of them watch The Little Mermaid on Gemma’s laptop, and then Harry mandates that Lo at least try to close her eyes and sleep, which causes her to promptly pass out. Gemma doesn’t stay long after that, and Harry settles in for another long night.

He’s spent the time since Louis left resolutely not thinking about what happened, or how awful his actions were. In his entire life - even when he was an idiot sixteen year old with girl and boys the world over throwing themselves at his feet - he’s never behaved so badly to another person. Let alone someone he was sleeping with.

But it isn’t what he said to Louis that rings in his ears as he tries to follow his own advice and shut his eyes.

It’s what Louis said to him that plays over and over.

-----

To everyone’s relief, Lo is discharged the next morning. Her throat swelling has completely gone down, and her skin appears to be 95% recovered. Harry takes her home armed with two prescriptions and a list of things she can and cannot eat from now on.

To Lo’s extreme pleasure, ice cream is not on the list of what she can’t eat, so she happily demands it once she’s been settled onto the den sofa, a stack of disney movies ready to be played and her favorite Clay Matthews jersey on.

“I regret teaching you to read,” Harry mutters, even as he sets off to make her up a bowl of vanilla ice cream.

“Grandma Anne taught me,” Lo explains haughtily, and Harry snorts in amazement.

“Oh really? My mistake. I must have imagined reading the Three Little Pigs about five thousand times until you could sound out the words yourself and read the book. And you’re getting ice cream now because Gemma already read the label, but you and I are going to have to start reading the labels of everything, do you understand? Or else what happened is going to happen again. Uncle Limo is going to help you with that.”

She’s clearly feeling better, because she rolls her eyes, makes a face, and holds her hands out for the ice cream. Harry settles in next to her with his own bowl, and the two of them snuggle up under a giant blanket as the opening credits to Mary Poppins begin.

Halfway through, Rachel stops by with Stevie. She had kept the baby and ran errands for them the day before, and she’s eager to see Lo herself to asses the damage. Lo hands her empty bowl to Harry and lifts her arms out to hold Stevie, giving her cold kisses. Harry watches on fondly, chatting easily with Rachel and making Lo eat some soup.

A little while later, Rachel runs out to get the twins from school, and Harry forces Lo to have a bit of a lie down while they wait for their arrival. He puts Stevie down for an afternoon nap and busies himself in the kitchen, baking some cookies since he has nothing else to do.

Half a dozen times, he picks his phone up, intending to text Louis. But each time he writes a few words, he chickens out and erases the message. What could he possibly say to Louis that might make the situation any better? Nothing. He’s got nothing to offer except a bit of fun between the sheets now and then, when his daughter is otherwise engaged. And it isn’t fair to lead Louis on when he knows full well that’s all he’s willing to offer.

He doesn’t have long to linger on his morose thoughts. The twins come bouncing through the door, full of energy to see their third musketeer. Harry gives them a lecture about taking the energy level down because Lo is still recovering, and they dutifully calm down enough that he lets them head to the den.

Rachel heads out, and instead of cooking like he’d intended, he decides to call for a pizza for dinner, settling the kids with another movie in the den and plopping himself among them. Dylan snuggles right up to him, and Harry pulls him close, moving only to get Stevie up and bring her back to sit on the carpet and play with a stuffed animal. He spends the rest of the late afternoon with them, waiting until Liam lets him know he’s on his way to the house to call for some pizza.

Liam and Sophia arrive together, and the six of them plus Stevie eat in the den, crowded around the coffee table. Harry holds the baby in his lap, avoiding the eye contact with Sophia who clearly wants to have A Coversation. That works until after dinner, when the kids are up in Lo’s room reading together, and Liam is in the bathroom changing Stevie’s diaper.

Harry is in the kitchen putting the leftover pizza away when Sophia walks in, her bare feet making soft thuds on the wood floor.

“You were terrible to Louis yesterday.”

He sighs, hunched over the sink where he’s started to handwash some of the dishes that he used to bake cookies.

“I know that. I’ll apologize to him.”

“He deserves more than that, don’t you think?”

“Sophia, I don’t want to discuss this.”

“Harry, it’s so clear that he cares about you. And you’ve been happier these past weeks than you’ve been in the last four years. How can you just walk away from that?”

“Because this isn’t what I’m looking for right now.” His tone leaves no room for argument, but Sophia obviously isn’t deterred.

“What, someone who’s is clearly interested in being there for you and for your daughter?”

“Christ, So, can we just drop it? Please?”

She sighs, trying to round the island and put placating hands on his shoulders but he shrugs her off, much too irritated. Where the fuck is Liam? How long can it take to change the baby’s diaper?

“I just don’t want to watch you do this to yourself. Spencer would want you to be happy.”

“I’m not talking about Spencer now.”

“Sweetie, this is exactly the time and place to talk about Spencer. You’ve been living your life like you’re waiting for him to come back. Like you’re not letting go of what happened. Don’t you think it’s time to forgive him and move on?”

“Forgive him?” Harry’s voice is so sharp it could cut glass. He shuts the faucet off and whirls on Sophia, hands wringing a towel into submission. “What do I need to forgive him for?”

Sophia looks at him for a long moment, as if she’s weighing her words. “For not surviving.”

There’s a beat that drops between them. Then, Harry feels the red cloud his eyes.

“Fuck you.”

“Harry-”

“No. No. Fuck. You. You don’t get to bring Spencer into this and then tell me I’m blaming him for his own death.”

“He loved you so fiercely, and it would break his heart to see let what happened eat you up.”

“Let – let what happened eat me up?” Harry doesn’t think before reaching for Sophia’s wineglass from dinner, still on the island. He just takes it in his hand and hurls it against the wall, desperate for the sound of glass breaking. “Don’t you dare tell me what Spencer would feel. He was my goddamn husband and just because you loved him doesn’t mean you get to run your mouth about this.”

Sophia’s staring at him in horror, and the moment stretches between them, broken only when Liam rounds the corner, confusion on his face.

“What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” Sophia spits. “We’re leaving. Get Stevie into her coat.”

She leaves the kitchen abruptly, heading to the stairs to retrieve the twins. Harry stays curled over the island, trying so desperately to get a handle on himself. His behavior over the past few days has been so wildly out of character he barely has a handle on who he is anymore.

Liam turns as if to do as Sophia said, but before he heads to the den he pauses, looking at Harry with sorrowful eyes.

“You know, I don’t say a lot about what you should do. I let Sophia bug you about your dating life and all that, because it’s hard for me to see you with someone who isn’t Spencer.”

Harry doesn’t say anything, too exhausted to try and take on Louis as well.

“But she’s right. And you know it. Spencer would be ashamed of you.”

When the surgeon broke the news, it was Liam who lost his mind - not Harry or Sophia as everyone might have predicted. Liam, who choked out a sob and screamed at the doctor that he was wrong - that Spencer couldn’t be dead. Liam who had to be held back by Sophia and anyone else who was there with them.

Hearing Liam lay that at his feet breaks Harry, and as Liam goes to get Stevie in her coat, he stalks off to the den, slamming the door behind him and collapsing against it.

The tears want to come, but Harry breathes so deeply, concentrates on the air circulating through his lungs. He waits until he’s sure that the Payne-Smiths have left, then cautiously emerges. The house is eerily quiet, but when he looks at the staircase, he sees Lo sitting on the stairs, leaning on the bannister.

Her eyes are full of pain, and he doesn’t know what she heard or what she’s thinking. But Lo just smiles at him, reaching her hand out.

“Can we watch Disney in bed?”

“Sure,” he agrees, too emotionally exhausted to do anything but feel the life of his daughter, tucked against him as they snuggle in his bed. He closes his bedroom door on any thoughts of what’s going on in the world outside the room, and puts all his concentration on Lo.

-----

The next day is a bit easier.

Lo is doing so much better, regaining her energy and wanting to move around more. Gemma comes over to help entertain her since Harry is still worried about her overtiring, and they mostly spend the day doing quiet activities that don’t require a lot of movement.

He hasn’t heard from Liam or Sophia, or Louis, and he doesn’t try to reach out to anyone, contenting himself with doing a thousand piece puzzle with Lo and watching Finding Nemo for the umpteenth time.

Lo keeps watching him with a bit of a wary expression, as if she’s trying to figure him out. Thankfully, she doesn’t say anything to Gemma, and his sister leaves in the late afternoon.
They spend the evening working on the puzzle and playing the tv games, and Harry tells her she needs to sleep in her bed that night.

She nods, and without much prompting climbs the stairs to have her bath and get ready for bed. Harry washes her hair and combs it out, supervising the brushing of teeth and tossing of clothes into the laundry basket. When she climbs into bed, Harry follows happily, pulling her close and opening up Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. She cuddles right into him, and he can experience every feeling she processes as he reads to her; the excitement, the nerves, the laughter.

As they read through the black dog dragging Ron into the walloping willow and Harry and Hermione following, Lo clutches his arm in thrill. By the end of the chapter, she seems tired, both from the excitement of the book and from her day of romping around with the twins. He slides the bookmark in and places the story on her bedside table, but she’s so sweetly curled around him that he can’t bring himself to crawl out of their little cocoon. So he slides down even further until they can both lay their heads on the pillow, mimicking each other with their hands pressed together under their heads.

They look at each other, bathed in the soft shadows of the lamplight.

“Do you miss my Dad?” She whispers, reaching out with her hand to run a finger over his nose and around his chin.

“Yes,” he whispers back, kissing her finger as it skims across his lips. She looks at him with sad eyes.

“I want you to be happy.”

“Sweetheart,” Harry reaches out to cup her face in his hand. “I am happy. Why would you think I’m not happy? Because I miss your father?”

She shrugs, eyes straying away from his to glance at the wedding picture on her wall.

“Lola, just because I miss your Dad doesn’t mean I’m sad. I miss him because I loved him a lot and you never truly stop missing people like that. But I have so many people in my life who make me happy.”

“Did Dad look at you the way that Uncle Liam looks at Aunt Sophia?”

Tears well up in Harry’s eyes, and he quickly blinks, trying to will them away. He takes a deep breath and exhales slowly, not wanting to upset Lo.

“Yeah, baby. He did. And I looked at him that way too.”

For a long, long moment Lo is quiet. She studies tattoo’s along his wrist, tracing her finger on his forearm where ‘Lola forever’ is inked in loopy scroll. Harry let’s her be, lets her run her fingers over the ink - he goes in once a year to get it touched up because he never, ever wants to let it fade. She was fourteen days old when he had it inked; it was the first time he’d been separated from her for more than three hours since she’d been brought home from the hospital.

“Daddy,” she whispers, pausing to bite her lip. “It’s okay if you look at Tommo like that.”

And Harry just. Crumbles. He can’t stop the tears that stream down his cheeks or the shuddering breaths he takes. He can’t stop the swell of feeling inside or the way the pain feels pins and needles. Prickpoints of sensation all over his soul. He just cries, unable to stop himself. Lo reaches out and laces their fingers together, and Harry wants to cry harder because when did his daughter become so serious and wise? When did she become so much more emotionally mature than he his?

Harry let’s all the emotion out, until he feels completely spent. When he’s done, Lo just smiles at him.

“I think Dad would want us to be happy, right?”

Nodding, Harry tugs her to his chest and buries his face in the top of her hair. He runs his hands through her hair, tangling his fingers in her curls and sending silent prayers of thanks that this special little girl is his.

“He would, baby. He would.”

Lo falls asleep buried in his embrace, her little chest rising and falling under his hand. Harry lays in bed with her for a long time, just holding her. He let his mind wander, remembering so many things about the years that he had with Spencer. Thinking back on the good times and the bad, and the way that he let himself bask unreservedly in love. Eventually, he tips Lo onto her side and extricates himself, kissing her forehead again and pulling the covers up to her tiny shoulders. He places her beloved teddy into her arms and she wraps tightly around it, still deeply asleep.

He leaves the door open so Freddie can stay as long as he likes, and makes his way downstairs, where he pours himself a good amount of whiskey. Instead of retreating to his study or the studio, he turns on the fireplace and sits on the couch, watching the flames dance. For a long, long time he stare at the fire, letting the orange and yellow warm his gaze. He lets his thoughts drift, lets his emotional insides rearrange, till something resembling peace starts to settle through his bones.

At eleven, he pulls up his phone and dials from his favorites list.

Sophia picks up after two rings, seeming awake. “Harry?”

“Can you come over?”

“Yeah.”

It takes ten minutes for her to let herself in through the side door, and when she arrives, Harry’s poured a tumbler for her. She sheds her coat on the kitchen island and slips off her sheepskin boots, trudging into the den in only black leggings and an old, threadbare longsleeve of Liam’s. She sits near the corner of the couch, curling her legs up under her and accepting the glass.

For a long beat they sit in silence. Then, finally, Harry speaks.

“Before Spence went into surgery, he made me promise him three things.”

“Harry-”

“He made me promise that I would stay with you and Liam, because you’re his family and he knows that the two of you need a third person to keep yourselves sane. He made me promise that I would never let Lo forget how much he loved her.” Harry’s shakes on the end, nearly breaking, and he almost cries again, barely managing to keep the tears in. “And he made me promise that I’d find someone else who could love me and who I could love.”

Sophia reaches out and grabs his free hand. He knuckles are nearly white with how hard she’s holding him, and Harry doesn’t have to look at her face to know that she’s crying.

“And. And I think I’ve done the first two. You and Liam are everything to me - to us. We’re one big family. I love the twins and Stevie like they’re my own kids. And Lo, she knows about Spence. I try so hard to keep his memory alive for her. I think she knows what he was like and how much he loved her.”

Sophia nods, her movements jerky. “She does, Harry. She absolutely does.”

Harry exhales deeply, swirling the last of the whiskey around in his tumbler. His thumb presses on the inlay of the design, the crystal glimmering in the firelight. The resolve seems to work its way through his body, filling up each molecule until the certainty resonates deep in his stomach.

He hands Sophia the glass, finally turning to look at her.

“I need you to stay here. I’m going to go see Louis.”

With a kiss to her forehead he stands up, heading straight to the mudroom to pull on his boots and coat.

The streets are fairly empty near Primrose Hill, and the A400 is pretty quiet for a Thursday night. Harry drives in silence, not wanting the noise of music or the confusion of lyrics to cloud his brain. As he approaches Soho, the easiness in his gut gives way to a nervous energy, the fear starting to mingle with the certainty that had been so solid only minutes before.

He has to circle Louis’ block twice before he finds a parking spot, snatching it up from a leaving car. He walks quickly to the stoop, trying not to think about what happens if Louis isn’t home, or refuses to let him in, or - worst of all - has company.

But he doesn’t hesitate as he rings the buzzer.

Louis answers a few scant seconds later, the speaker roaring to crackled life.

“Hello?”

“It’s me,” Harry announces, and there’s a few moment’s pause before the door mechanism unlocks.

He trudges up the steep stairs, boots scuffing on the worn steps. His heart is pounding as he winds around and around, finally reaching the third floor landing where Louis is already visible, standing in the doorway. The sweats sit low on his hips, a few millimeters of skin visible between the waistband and the hem of the thin grey tshirt he has on.

As Harry moves toward the doorway Louis backs up, letting him enter. He shuts the door quietly, moving around Harry and toward the kitchen.

“Wine?”

“No,” Harry declines. “No thanks. Can we talk? I’m sorry for barging in.”

Louis puts down the bottle of wine he was about to uncork, turning to Harry and shrugging. He gestures to the coffee table where a script sits half curled, pencil markings all over.

“Just working on lines for Henry V.”

“That’s right. There’s like, a lot of them, right?”

Louis gives him a tight smile, but otherwise the joke falls flat. Harry sighs deeply and sits down on the couch, coat and boots still on. He wants a quick exit if this doesn’t turn out well. Louis leans against the island counter, his arms crossed defensively.

“How’s Lo doing?”

Harry smiles, thinking of how desolate Lo is over being allergic to peanuts, even though she’s never had one before. “She’s fine. Sad about the peanuts, but her throat swelling is gone and the hives are almost all done too.”

“That’s good. Poor kid.”

“I wanted to apologize to you. I freaked out at the hospital and took out how I was feeling on you and that wasn’t right. Or fair. Especially since you were so great about getting Lo there and staying with her.”

“You were upset. It’s okay,” Louis says, monotone. He looks tired, like he hasn’t slept well and Harry can understand that. Harry can absolutely understand that.

“It’s not okay, though,” Harry starts, but Louis cuts him off.

“I accept your apology, Harry. Really. You didn’t have to come all the way here for that. We’re good. I promise. I understood what you were saying, and I get it. You’ve a lot on your plate right now.

“Louis-”

“-Honestly, it was inappropriate for me to push for anything in the first place. You’re a parent at Prentice and I should have respected that from the start.”

Louis looks so earnest, like he’s desperate for Harry to just agree with him so they can be done with the conversation.

“I lied to you. At the hospital.” Louis doesn’t interrupt him, so Harry gives a wry smile and continues. “I told you that I didn’t want all those things - that I didn’t have time or the ability to have the kind of relationship that you were interested in. But I was just scared.”

“Harry-”

“I had a great marriage,” Harry gets out, talking over Louis. “I had an amazing romance and a fantastic marriage. And I’m scared to really open up again because the thought of having that - falling in love - and losing that? It’s… I don’t know if I can do it again. Especially now that I have Lo.”

They’re silent for a long moment, staring at each other. Finally, Louis pushes off the island and walks to the coffee table, pushing the script out of the way and sitting down so that his thighs bracket Harry’s knees. They’re so close he can smell the spice lingering on Louis’ cologne, can feel the softness of the trackies he’s wearing under his fingertips.

“Sophia and I had a huge fight about it. She proper kicked my arse about being such a prick. And she was right. I was a huge dick to you.”

Louis sighs, putting a hand on Harry’s knee. “You’ve been through a lot Harry. It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to not know what you want.”

Harry covers Louis’ hand with his own, feeling the heat seep in.

“I know want. I want someone who will be a Dad to Lo, and who understands and respects that she had another Dad too. Who gets that I’ll never stop loving Spencer, but who can take me for who I am now. I want someone who will be there for both of us, and who can be part of our family. That’s what I want.”

Harry reaches out and cups Louis’ face with both his hands. He runs his thumbs along the sharp cheekbones and lets his eyes roam Louis’ features - so familiar now, even after such a short time.

“The way I felt about Spencer? That feeling of longing and want and completeness? That draw? I feel that for you. I’ve felt it for you for so long now. I couldn’t stop thinking about you through my dates with Chris, I couldn’t stop thinking about you when I was by myself, I just couldn’t stop thinking about you. I know what I want now. But what I want is a lot.”

He leans in and nuzzles his face into Louis, soaking in the touch. “I’m not saying we have to know right now if we’re going to make it. But if we want to try, you have to be open to the possibility of all that stuff. You have to be sure you can commit to the long haul. Because it’s not just me who’ll fall in love with you.”

Having Louis so close, it’s impossible not to angle his head and brush their lips together. Louis presses against him immediately, opening his mouth and running his tongue across Harry’s bottom lip. Harry bites down softly, just enough to make Louis groan and lean forward, even as they disconnect.

“I want you to think about it. Really think about if this is what you want,” he begs, trying to convey how serious he is with his eyes. He has to be sure that Louis is all in - they can’t just throw themselves into something without taking the time to consider the magnitude of what it might be.

“Okay,” Louis agrees easily, his voice steady. His cheeks are flushed and his eyes are a bit blown, but he still feels so present, so locked in with Harry. “I will.”

Harry leans in again and presses his lips against Louis’, trying to memorize the feeling to tide him over. Then, he stands up and extricates himself, walking to the doorway.

“Take as long as you need,” he murmurs. “We’ll be here when you’re ready. Either way.”

It takes so much effort to walk out of Louis’ apartment, but for the first time, Harry doesn’t feel the separation as a punishment.

It feels like a reward.

----

The next morning, Harry wakes to the sound of his bedroom door opening. He blinks, trying to make sense of his surroundings. He’d slept like the dead, exhausted from the emotional upheaval of the previous few days and the unprecedented emotional honesty of the night before. His face is practically covered in dark hair, and he swots tiredly at the strands until all of Sophia’s hair is out of the way. She’s an absolute bed hog - always has been - as evidenced by the way she’s taken most of the blankets and stolen half his pillow.

Sitting up slowly, Harry sees that it’s only Liam in the doorway - not Lo demanding breakfast as he’d been dreading.

“Well. Good morning to you. I see the two of you’ve made up. ”

Liam’s holding Stevie, who is still dressed in a white fleece sleep onesie with cows all over it. Harry’s pretty sure it was her Halloween outfit.

Sophia groans, rolling over further into Harry’s space and kicking a leg out. “What timesit?” She mumbles, almost completely unintelligible.

“Eight in the morning.”

“Ugh. Go away. Let me sleep.”

“If I don’t get to sleep in, you don’t get to sleep in,” Liam parrots at her, the inflection identical to the way Sophia used to sound when Liam was at home with her and the twins during One Direction breaks. “Shove over,” He instructs, walking around the bed and easing himself in.

Harry sits up a bit more and reaches out for Stevie, who seems content to be quiet. Sophia rolls over and curls herself into Liam, laying her head on his shoulder and throwing an arm (and a leg) over him.

“Twins?”

“Piled in with Lo.”

“You know,” Harry says conversationally, “this might be why Louis thought the three of us were in a relationship.”

Liam waves his hand in an offhanded manner, pulling Sophia more securely against him. She snuffles happily, burying her face into his chest. Harry looks at them fondly, the ever-present kick of longing surging in his gut. He wonders if that will dissipate soon.

“So, what happened last night that pulled my wife out of our marital bed and into yours?”

“Harry declared his feelings,” Sophia mumbles. “He went out in the middle of the night and told Louis that he’s ready for a real relationship.”

“No!” Liam exclaims in mock surprise. He exaggerates his face to make Stevie laugh, and she does shaking her head into Harry’s neck and kicking her legs.

“Yes I did,” Harry cooes at her, feeling the pride surge through him. “I went over and I told him sorry for being so awful, and I told him that I was ready to let go of the hurt over Spencer. And I told him to think about what he wants.”

“I’m proud of you, mate. You deserve to be happy.”

They’re interrupted by the patter of little feet, as all three kids come running into the room. They aren’t screaming, which is an improvement, but they do jump on the bed. Dylan lies directly on top of his mother while Lennon squishes herself between Harry and Sophia, with Lo laying horizontally across everyone’s legs.

“Dylan, you’re heavy,” Sophia complains. She wiggles a little but she can’t dislodge him.

“I know,” he crows happily. “I’m a growing boy.”

Liam muffles his laugh in a cough, and Sophia quickly bucks Dylan off so that she can roll him underneath her and tickle him until he’s shouting with laughter, reigning kisses over his head. Liam joins in and then grabs the girls, till all three kids are laughing and shouting. Stevie babbles as well, not wanting to be left out, and Harry drops kisses all over her face.

His heart is light, for the first time in what feels like years. Maybe for the first time since Spencer died. He’s reached a peace within himself that feels good - no matter what Louis decides.

“Can we have pancakes?”

Lo’s voice rings out above the rest of the din, and almost immediately the kids start chanting for pancakes, begging and pleading until Harry gives in. He sends them down to the kitchen, and leaves the baby in bed with Liam and Sophia while he brushes his teeth and throws on his robe.

The kids help a little with making the batter, though that mostly means that they help with making a mess. Dylan gets to help pour the batter on the griddle and Harry lets Lennon help him flip the cakes. Lo sits on the bench in the nook like a queen on a throne, demanding the pancakes that are perfectly round. Harry also scrambles up some eggs and throws some bacon in a pan, putting the kettle on for Sophia and pouring coffee for Liam.

The breakfast feels more like life is back to normal, as the kids chatter endlessly, their childish giggles breaking out now and then and grumbles emerging as Sophia tells Dylan to chew properly or Harry tells Lennon not to rock her chair back.

After breakfast, they try and make a plan for the rest of the day. Liam wants to go buy christmas trees, but Harry doesn’t want to send Lo out in the cold just yet, lest she relapse just two weeks before Christmas. In the end, it’s decided that Harry and Liam will go pick out trees for the family with Lennon, and they promise to send lots of pictures to Lo and Dylan waiting at the house. Before leaving, Harry drags out all of the Christmas decorations, and leaves Sophia and the kids to put out all the house trinkets. As they’re heading out the door, Liam reminds Dylan that under no circumstances is he to try and ride the decorative sled down the stairs because nobody wants a repeat of the previous year’s broken arm.

Harry and Liam each take their own car, and spend about half an hour picking out trees and sending pictures to Sophia for Dylan and Lo to approve. Lennon spends the time riding on Harry’s shoulders, voting for the saddest or oddest looking spruces because “that would make it more fun.” After their legs start to freeze, the kids finally send their approval on two lovely, full trees, and they go through the process of attaching them to the tops of the cars.

They stop first at the Payne-Smith house to get their tree into the stand with water and pick up Stark, then head back to the Styles house where Sophia has set the kids up with warm cocoa and cookies. Harry and Liam shove and carry the tree into the formal living room, yelling at Lennon to fetch a towel to clean everything up and calling after Sophia to find the broom as well. They get the Blue Spruce situated and watered, and then the kids start to pile the decorations onto the tree while the adults sit around and drink alcohol.

Harry is helping Lo to hang some decorations on the higher branches when he looks over and sees that Sophia has curled herself up in the loveseat and is pouring over the old photo albums that they keep on one of the lower bookshelves. He puts Lo down and walks over, picking up an album so he can slide himself in with Sophia, the two of them squeezed together.

“Look at this! How was she ever that small?”

It’s a picture of Harry holding Lo, all wrapped up in the pink blanket issued by the hospital. It can’t have been taken more than an hour after her birth - her skin color hasn’t quite evened out yet - but she’s so small, nestled in his arms.

“Whatcha looking at?”

Dylan wanders over to them and peers over their laps, trying to see. Sophia ruffles his hair, trailing a finger over his nose.

“Pictures of when Lo was born. Come see.”

Harry scoops him up to sit on his lap, and Sophia moves the book so it’s between them. Dylan looks at the collage of pictures, lots of them dark because they hadn’t wanted to use the flash and blind Lo just moments after being born. When Sophia turns the page, Dylan giggles and points.

“Mummy, that’s you!”

It’s a photo taken from the hospital room. Sophia is in the bed, looking tired but happy, Liam standing near the head of the bed with a hand on her shoulder. On the other side, Spencer is holding Lo and Harry has a hand dipped into her bundled blanket as well.

“Yep, that’s me. It’s the day she was born so I was still in the hospital. And look, D, here’s your Uncle Spencer.”

It’s a close up of Spencer, holding Lo carefully and grinning at the camera. His blonde hair looks messy and his face is tired, but Harry recognizes the joy in his face. He swallows the lump of emotion that’s solidified itself in his throat and croaks out for Lo.

“Lola, come here.”

She abandons the box full of tinsel and patters over, crawling onto Sophia’s lap. Lennon, as if sensing she’s being left out, also comes over, and manages to squeeze herself between Dylan and Lo. Liam wanders in from the kitchen and comes around the back of the loveseat so he can peer over their shoulders, his soft sigh and the tight way he squeezes Harry’s shoulder saying enough about the moment.

Sophia pages through the album, pointing out specific pictures and moments and Harry and Liam interjecting with their own memories. Lola with all of her grandparents, and the day they brought her into the house. Her first bath and her nursery, and the bassinet basket that they moved all over the house to hold her while she napped. Harry smiles at the picture of a shirtless Spencer with a naked Lo braced against his shoulder, trying to sway her to sleep with skin to skin contact. There are pictures of them bathing her in the sink and the a few snaps from the polaroid camera that Lux had been obsessed with at the time, with the date scribbled along the white border.

When they reach the end of the album, Lennon gets up to retrieve three more, and they continue to pour over the pictures. There’s the photos of Lo crawling up to Sophia, pregnant with the twins, and an image of Spencer and Lo in a swimming pool, with massive floaties on her arms. There are a host of pictures of Lo and the newborn twins, looking at them with wonder and curiosity, and then crawling around them as they slept on the floor. As the three of them started to grow up, the pictures become more fun; playing in their boots and raincoats, and rolling around with a baby Stark.

When Sophia turns the page to reveal a great shot of her with Spencer, the two of them laughing at each other as they prepare something in the kitchen, Harry looks over at Lo and smiles.

“Dad was pretty handsome, hmm?”

She nods in agreement, and they turn back to the photos. It’s a great way to spend the afternoon, and the experience doesn’t fill him with the choked off guilt and sorrow that it might have some days earlier. The ache is still there. Of course it is. And Harry’s perceptive enough to understand that it’ll never go away. He never wants it to go away. But he can’t live his life holding Lo’s hand with his left, and clutching Spencer’s ghost with his right. Not anymore.

By the time they get through all the albums Harry’s feeling the tugs of nostalgia, and he hands Dylan off to Liam so that he can tug Lo into his lap. He smoothes the curls by her ear, and nibbles on the tip until she’s squirming and giggling like mad.

“Can you believe you used to be that small? Huh? I used to be able to hold you in my palms.”

But Lo is done with reminiscing over how small she used to be. Dylan waves a strand of garland in her direction and she’s off like a shot, making noise about wanting to make candy cane cookies. The kids have never-ending enthusiasm about decorating for Christmas, and once the Styles house has been done up and down in red and green, they head over to Liam and Sophia’s to start the process all over again.

Harry doesn’t want Lo to overdo it, but she doesn’t tire herself out so he lets her help decorate to her hearts content. Soon after their house is covered in tinsel and hand made ornaments, the kids pass out, and Harry moves Lo gently to sleep in Dylan’s bed, the two of them adjusting to each other like ying and yang.

When they’re all tucked in Harry returns to the kitchen, where Liam pours him a glass of wine. He watches as Liam turns on the music system and puts on some Christmas carols, twirling Sophia around the kitchen in his arms. Harry settles himself on their couch, relaxing into the cushions and tipping his head back, enjoying the warmth of the fire, letting the music wash over him. Two songs later, he feels the couch dip on either side of him, and Sophia puts her head on his shoulder while Liam slides his arm around the back of the couch.

The three of them don’t talk, but they watch the firelight, enjoying the music and soaking up the moment.

Harry has his best friends and his daughter safe and healthy and asleep upstairs.

How could he ask for more?

But as he closes his eyes and slips back into the relaxing atmosphere, he can’t stop himself from thinking that Louis’ presence would make the moment feel just about complete.

-----

For five days, Harry’s phone stays silent.

He doesn’t hear from Louis at all - not an email or a phone call or even a text. He decides that he’s not going to obsess over the situation; there’s nothing he can do at this point. The ball is in Louis’ court and either way, Harry has to respect his decision.

But by day four, he’s pretty sure that things are not going to end up the way he had hoped. And thats. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but he understands. Taking him on - with all his baggage - as well as Lo. Well, that’s hard to ask someone.

So when Louis texts him on Thursday night, asking if he has a few minutes, Harry resigns himself to the situation.

He tells Louis to come over; Lo is already in bed and he can’t bring himself to haul Sophia or Liam out of their house just so Harry can go someplace decent to get dumped. Instead, he leaves the gate open and pours himself a scotch, telling himself not to behave badly; he put himself out there once and he can do it again. It’s not the end of the world that things didn’t work out this time. He’ll have more chances with other people.

But as he opens the front door to Louis, all of those thoughts fly from his mind. His heart stampedes and his breath catches, just from the way Louis stands on the step, bundled up in a black coat and a red beanie.

“Hi. Come on in.”

He steps aside, letting Louis enter, feeling the kick of his heart and the way his stomach seems in free fall.

They stand in the hall, and Louis yanks the beanie off, stuffing it into his coat pocket and surveying Harry in the dim light seeping in from the kitchen.

“Can I get you something? Drink?”

“No. I’m fine, thanks.”

Harry nods, crossing his arms and leaning against the nearest wall, trying to get a hold on his emotions. The problem with putting himself out there is that he really did put himself out there; he wants Louis with an intensity he hasn’t felt in years. Is more than half in love with him, and the disappointment of what's coming feels crushing.

“I’m sorry it took me so long to get here.”

“It’s fine,” Harry assures him softly. He digs his thumb into his bicep where his arms are crossed, trying to find a grounding pressure. “And I appreciate you coming all the way out here. You didn’t have to.”

Louis nods, then nods again. He folds his hands and looks at them briefly, then back up at Harry.

“I didn’t… I didn’t take this lightly. I want you to know that-”

“Louis-” Harry interrupts him, unable to listen to a well meaning litany for the reasons he’s undatable. “It’s fine. I mean it. I’ve, I’ve had a lot of time to think, this last week, and I’m in a way better place than I was before all this happened. Honestly. And I’m sorry that things didn’t work, but-”

“I’m in.”

Louis’ interruption stops Harry cold.

“I - you’re. What?”

“I’m in.”

Harry doesn’t quite know how he’s feeling. The nerves and confusion swirling around his gut make him feel nauseous.

“Please don’t joke with me-”

“I’m not joking.” Louis takes a step toward him, hands still in the pockets of his jacket. “You said you wanted someone who could be a Dad to Lo someday. And someone who knows all about Spencer and can respect how important he was to you and to her. And someone who loves you.”

He approaches Harry, cupping his face and brushing their lips together in a ghost of a kiss.

“I’m that someone. I’m that guy - I want to be that guy.”

They breathe the same air for a long moment, just studying each other. Harry looks for a truth that he can trust in and he finds it in Louis’ eyes; a steady assurance that everything will be okay. That he can jump, finally, and not feel afraid.

“You and me,” he whispers, their noses rubbing together. “We’re gonna do this?”

“Yeah,” Louis whispers back, pressing their foreheads together. “We’re are. Because I haven’t stopped thinking about you since Sophia dangled you in front of me like a piece of meat at that first parents night.”

Harry laughs, the hilarity of the situation bubbling out of his pores, the lightness of the moment mixing in his blood like champagne bubbles rising to the top of the glass. It feels like it’s been an epic journey, getting to this point, and that every step has been worth it. He joins their lips, finally, properly, and wraps Louis in his arms. They fit together as perfectly as two people can, and with Louis in his embrace, everything feels right again.

They go on like that, kissing like teenagers sneaking around, until there’s a creak on the stair, and Harry pulls back to see Lo sleepily making her way down the main staircase, dressed only in her undershirt and her polkadotted underwear.

“Daddy I can’t sleep.”

She rubs her eyes, blinking when she looks up and sees Louis standing in the hallway. And it’s either a credit to how tired she is, or how non-phased she is at seeing her director in her house in what must feel to her like the middle of the night, but she doesn’t do anything special to acknowledge his presence. She just holds open her arms and waits patiently.

Harry squeezes Louis’ hand and crosses the foyer to Lo, reaching down and picking her up into his arms.

“Why can’t you sleep baby.”

“I don’t know. I tried counting sheep but I counted to a hundred and I still wasn’t asleep.”

Her tone is verging on whining, and Harry tosses Louis an apologetic glance.

“Let me just get her upstairs and I’ll be back,” he promises, moving to ascend the staircase.

“Maybe I can tell her a story,” Louis offers, taking a step toward them.

Harry draws back to try and look at Lo, but all he gets is a sleepy nod and her hand outstretched toward Louis. He knows this is a turning point. Both internally and between him and Louis. Just as surely, Louis understands it too, if the weight of his gaze is any indication.

“Okay, baby. But just one story. Then you have to go to bed.”

Together, the three of them make their way upstairs, Harry rubbing slow circles on Lo’s back and Louis holding her hand as they take the steps one at a time. And as they tuck Lo into her bed, Harry feels the final shift inside him; the sureness of the moment slotting into place.

There’s a picture on Lo’s dresser that has been there for years. It’s a plain silver frame with a photo of Spencer. He’s holding Lo at age two, straight out of the bath and wrapped in a towel, her eyelashes still clinging onto drops of water and her laughter evident even from the still frame. It’s a picture that Harry’s always loved.

But as he listens to Louis’ voice soothe Lo to sleep, he glances at the dresser reflexively and blinks. Next to the frame, propped up against the jewelry box, is another photo. It’s not framed - just laid at an angle so it stands up. It’s a picture of Lo, sitting on the steps of the stage, hands on her knees and laughing outrageously. And next to her, smiling down, is Louis.

Sophia must have bought the photo and put it there, and seeing it right next to the image of Spencer makes something inside Harry loosen; that last little piece of ice attached to his heart melting away.

He has a past, sure. But for the first time, he feels like he also has a future that isn’t exclusively limited to Lo.

And it feels good.

Slowly, he reaches over and takes Louis’ hand, lacing their fingers.

He can do this.