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Flour and Chocolate

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It started with the shop down the lane closing down.

Perhaps that was a lie. Louis, for one, hadn’t even noticed the shop closing down. He hadn’t noticed the signs in the windows, the pleas to visit their new location, or the empty windows that had stared at him for over two weeks, slowly gathering dust.

No, it had actually started with a question. His daughter’s, to be exact.

“Daddy?”

“Yes, love?”

“What are they building there?”

It was only then that Louis had even noticed the construction tarps, banging of hammers, and paint-splattered workers. He frowned at the building in question, desperately trying to remember what it had even been. He eventually realised that the shop had once been in a hole-in-the-wall thai take-away with food so terrible that the only time he and Zayn had stumbled in there it had been two a.m. and they had been absolutely plastered.

Whether the hours spent hunched over the toilet the next morning were a result of food poisoning or copious amounts of alcohol, they’d never known but they hadn’t been keen to find out. Hence, the thai place had been given a wide berth from then on.

“Daddy!”

Blinking rapidly, Louis glanced down at his daughter, the six-year-old pouting at him.

“Sorry Georgie,” he apologised sheepishly. “What are they building, yeah?”

She nodded adamantly.

“Well I don’t know, baby girl.” Tightening his grip on her hand, he swung it while proceeding to gently tug her down the street. “There’s no sign so I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

“There are lots of builders in there,” Georgia pointed out, still looking over her shoulder even as Louis pulled her further and further away. “Why aren’t you building it Daddy? You’re a builder.”

“I am an architect!” Louis declared, horribly scandalised. He flicked his daughter’s nose good-naturedly. “I draw the buildings, not make them.”

“You make them sometimes,” she grumbled, leering at him in an expression that was eerily similar to his own.

Louis huffed out a laugh. “Only because everyone else is terrible!”

 

***

 

Three weeks later and Louis was ready to march into the property himself if it wasn’t finished within the week. Everyday he and Georgia had the same conversation. Everyday she asked him what it was going to be when it was finished. Everyday Louis replied, as patiently as possible, that there was still no sign so no, he didn’t know – nor was he likely to find out any time in the near future. And no, Liam didn’t know either so stop asking him!

“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”

Groaning when he saw the shop front approaching, Louis pinched the bridge of his nose. “Georgia-Rose Tomlinson, I do not know what they’re building. It opens when it opens!”

“…it is open Daddy.”

Gaze whipping left so quickly he heard his neck crack, Louis winced when he saw it was true. ‘Sweet Nothings’ stared back at him in white cursive on a pleasant blue background while heavenly smells wafted out of the propped open door. People milled both inside and out and the gentle hum over music over a stereo was easily heard. Mentally kicking himself, Louis crouched down in front of Georgia and gently pulled her into his arms.

“Sorry love,” he whispered sincerely.

“S’okay,” she sniffed and fuck, it was not okay.

Enveloping the little girl entirely, Louis buried his head into her shoulder as she similarly burrowed into his chest. Kissing her neck, Louis glanced up at the storefront, frowning upon realising it was a bakery. His eyes then narrowed dangerously because they were being watched. The man behind the counter hastily averted his gaze and slipped out of sight. Too right to.

“Daddy?” Georgia asked, voice still quieter than he would like. “Could we look inside please?”

“Sure,” he said, rocking back onto his feet and whisking his baby inside. He did wonder at the obscurity of opening a shop on a Thursday of all days, when a Friday afternoon or Saturday made so much more sense. An interesting move when looking from a business perspective.

Looking over at the counter, Louis was immensely relieved to see that the worker from before was apparently gone. As Georgia ran to inspect the colourful treats located behind the glass, though not without a ‘no touching the glass, young lady!’, Louis swept a critical eye over the bakery.

It was nice, for a bakery he supposed. The hanging lights gave a homely, snug feel, but Louis felt them a little too low, a tad intrusive. An extra ten centimetres would have created the same mood but also increased the feeling of space. He approved of the use of wood over metals or plastics though, and credit was definitely given to whoever painted the sparrows across the walls in varying shades of brown. The fridge filled with water bottles and a sign reading ‘help yourself’ with glasses next to it was a nice touch as well.

Then he approached the display cabinet.

And the foreboding slammed into him. Because every product had letters next to it. Letters. GF, DF, V, O, VGN.

What. The. Fuck?

Lifting his eyes to the chalkboard menu spread across the back wall Louis felt physically ill. ‘Gluten-free’, ‘organic’, ‘vegan’, ‘paleo’, ‘dair-…’ Wait, what the fuck was a paleo? He had entered some hipster-trash establishment and it was more than time to get out. He had allowed Liam his over-sized, un-tied boots, and Zayn his headbands – though, admittedly, some of them had really been pushing it – but no, he did not condone this kind of eating.

“Georgie, lov-”

“Daddy, it has sprinkles!”

Louis’ face soured. Of course Georgie would be immune to this new-age crap. It had colours, she would eat it. Muttering under his breath, Louis took a deep breath and then smiled brightly as he stepped up to his daughter’s side. She was pointing excitedly at a sprinkle covered cookie that was…raw and organic…? What even…?

“Can we get it please?”

“Can I just say, if the amount of biscuit dough Niall ate is anything to go by, those are delicious,” a new voice quipped.

Eyes snapping up, Louis recognised the boy behind the counter instantly as the one who had overseen his and Georgia’s interaction earlier. Judging from his awkward shuffling, he knew it too. Louis glared a moment longer. When the boy visibly gulped, he considered his point proven and slowly straightened, pointing at the biscuit with a finger.

“Organic and raw? It’s a biscuit. Explain.”

The boy blinked at his sharp tone but then his eyes – and weren’t they an enchanting shade of green? – brightened and he launched into explanation as though he’d been dying for someone to ask. “Well, organic means that all the ingredients are free of pesticides and harmful chemicals. And raw is for people following paleo diets. We use basic ingredients, so no processed sugar, only raw sugar, substituting chocolate for cocoa powder, that sort of thing.”

“And it tastes the same?” Louis asked suspiciously.

“Here,” the boy laughed, grabbing a biscuit and handing it to him, “Try it.”

“Oh no, I-”

“I insist,” he pressed, wiggling his eyebrows.

“Cheeky bugger,” Louis muttered, breaking the biscuit in half and handing half to Georgia, who took it in wonder. It wasn’t terrible, but it didn’t taste like what he was used to.

“…You don’t like it.”

Louis almost felt guilty for how heart-broken the boy looked. “Sorry mate, but I…” he waved his hand aimlessly. “This is just not for me. I’m not into this…hipster aesthetic you’ve got going on.”

Those enchanting green eyes narrowed and then they steeled over, the boy raking a hand through his curls. “You don’t like it because you’re determined not to.” Looking over the display, he selected two items and plated them, sliding them across the counter. “On me, because you will like those, even with your attitude.”

Louis openly gaped. “I could ask to speak to your manager Curly,” he pointed out.

He got a quirked eyebrow in return. “I’d like to see you try.”

Thoroughly miffed, Louis snatched both plates up and ushered Georgia to a table. Making a quick decision, Louis kept the brownie imposter for himself and handed her the less sweet looking Danish. Listening to Georgia rattle on about her day, Louis took his first bite…and nearly choked. Holy shit! He blinked at the brownie incredulously. Was food even allowed to taste that good?! He squinted at it, poking it cautiously and absolutely not looking for hidden marijuana.

“Finished, sweetie?”

“Yes please, thank you.”

Breaking out of his brownie induced haze, Louis saw their server standing beside the table. Able to now take in his entire frame, Louis had to admire the endless legs and the sweeping height that came with it. His long curls had since been tied up into a bun and…yeah, baker, that probably made sense.

“And my name’s not sweetie, it’s Georgia-Rose Eliza Tomlinson.”

The boy’s smile widened and…dimples, seriously? Who was this boy? “That’s quite a mouthful there. Can I call you Rosie?”

Georgia frowned cutely, as did Louis, though not so cutely. “Rosie?” he repeated coldly.

The boy shrugged. “Suits her, don’t you think?”

Louis sniffed. “Considering I named her Georgia, not really.”

“Daddy!” Georgia scolded, before tugging the baker’s sleeve tentatively. “Excuse me sir but can you…can you tie my hair like your hair?”

Louis hastily clapped a hand over his mouth to stop a laugh escaping. He’d never seen a grown man look more like a startled deer.

“Uh…” there was a pause. “If it’s okay with your dad…?”

Louis wanted to balk but knew he had no reason to. He eventually nodded. “Sure Curly, show ‘em how it’s done.”

“S’not my name,” he chuckled, before removing the elastic from Georgia’s hair with infinite care. “So…Throw it up…Roll a lil’ thing around it…It’s just that simple.”

The perfect bun that came out of the other side was not what Louis would have made had he followed the same instructions. His would have more resembled a bird’s nest. And yes, he spoke from experience.

“Is it pretty Daddy?” Georgia asked excitedly.

“Just like a princess,” Louis assured, asking her to tilt her head and hold still so he could take a photo, one to show her and two to send to Liam. His baby was adorable, sue him. Feeling eyes on him, Louis saw their apparent new friend looking between him and the empty plate smugly. “Fine, yes, I ate it,” Louis admitted, crossing his arms. “It was bloody brilliant.”

“Thought as much.”

Gesturing to Georgia to get her belongings with a hand, Louis swept to his feet, pulling out his wallet and handing over ten quid. “In this single instance, I, Louis Tomlinson, stand corrected.”

“This single instance?”

He waggled a finger. “Very few have been privy to such occasions.”

The boy laughed. “Should I be, like, honoured?”

“Yes, you definitely should be Mr…?”

“Harry, Harry Styles.”

“Well then Harry Styles,” Louis said, taking his daughter’s hand and tipping his imaginary hat. “Commit this day to your memory!”

With that, Louis left the bakery, completely unaware as to how much he would commit this experience to his own memory one day.

Chapter Text

“Liam!”

“Hey baby!”

Louis shrugged off his jacket as Georgia was lifted into Liam’s arms, his best friend whirling her around once before squeezing her tightly.

“How was your day, baby girl?” he asked, returning her to the ground and crouching down so they were at eye level.

“It was fine love, thanks for asking,” Louis drawled sarcastically, hip-checking Liam as he made his way into the kitchen, grinning proudly when he heard said best friend topple over. “Staying for dinner Li?” he called back over his shoulder.

“Yeah!” Liam shouted before helping Georgia with her shoes, listening intently to her incessant babbling about the day’s events.

Louis had only just put the kettle on and was in the process of searching for his favourite mug when he heard Georgia say,

“And Daddy was so mean to the man Liam! He didn’t like his food and he called him a bugger!”

“Georgia-Rose Tomlinson!” Louis hollered, shaking his teaspoon at her disapprovingly. “Don’t use those words darling. Even if Daddy does!” he added firmly, seeing her go to protest.

The little girl shuffled her feet sheepishly before scampering down the hall to her room, no doubt intending to remove her uniform. Louis watched her go until he heard her door shut before shaking his head, moving to the teapot that was starting to boil.

“Being rude in front of your girl again Tommo?” Liam teased, placing Georgia’s bag on the dining table and stepping into the kitchen. “That’s a bit-”

Don’t,” Louis snapped, eyes firmly on the bench top as he poured his tea. “Just don’t Liam.”

“Oh Lou,” Liam whispered, attitude changing instantly as he dragged the older man away from the bench and into his arms. “What’s going on love? Tell me.”

Louis stubbornly remained silent but the longer Liam held him and the more his hands rubbed up and down his back reassuringly, the more his resolve slipped.

“Boo?”

“I’m just tired,” Louis choked out, voice cracking in the middle and hands curling into the front of Liam’s dress shirt. “I’m just so, so tired. And I…”

Louis couldn’t finish that sentence but from the sympathetic look in Liam’s eyes, he didn’t need to. Waiting for Louis to scrub his face clean, Liam squeezed his shoulder before reaching past and handing him his tea.

“I know Lou. I miss him too.”

***

“Banana cake nut butter brownies or chocolate banana peanut butter swirl brownies?”

“Harry.” Niall’s tone was flat as his eyes met Harry’s over the counter. “They’re the same thing.”

“No they’re not!” Harry protested, brushing a curl off his face agitatedly.

“It’s a fucking banana nut brownie with a fancy name,” Niall groaned, wiping over the glass of the display case one last time. He then nullified his handiwork by stuffing the last of his cake into his mouth and sending crumbs all over the glass. “Ah, shit,” he muttered, furiously scrubbing them off.

Pouting even as he returned one recipe to their collection and tacked the other to the wall of goods to be baked tomorrow, Harry started dividing up the day’s leftovers. “You taking any of this home and should I drop it all at the shelter?”

Niall leant across the counter in an extremely unflattering manner, eyes roaming the collection greedily. “Any more of them biscuits you made? I want some of them. And a brownie…no, two! No…how many you got?”

“More than you can eat,” Harry laughed. Seeing Niall’s raised eyebrows, he chuckled. “Okay, more than you should eat,” he amended, placing two in a separate bag.

“You should make me Irish brownies one time,” Niall called as he stacked the last of the chairs.

“You mean I should put alcohol in it?”

“Yeah, s’bout right.”

“Do it yourself,” Harry told him good-naturedly, collecting their bags from out of the back as Niall’s whinging followed him. Passing Niall his promised share and snagging his own bags, Harry held the door open and waited for his roommate to pass before locking up. “You coming with?” he asked, holding up his bags in explanation.

“Nah, hitting up the pub with some mates,” Niall replied, already rummaging through the treats Harry had packed him. He then paused and frowned up at him suspiciously. “Why?”

“Er…” Harry tried to shuffle away. “Like, no reason.”

His friend’s eyes narrowed and then, before Harry knew it, Niall had closed the gap between them and smacked him on the arm.

“Ow!” he cried, rubbing the abused area in surprised.

Harry Styles, you do not fall for pretty men with daughters! They have girlfriends and are not up for grabs.”

Harry’s mouth opened and shut a couple of times before he ran a hand through his hair awkwardly. “How did you…?”

“I’m not blind mate, but no, he’s off-limits. Don’t even think about it.”

With that, Niall marched away. “But-”

Harry Styles, no!”

***

Rubbing his eyes tiredly, Louis stared down at the sketch in front of him. It was supposed to be his design for a new office building being put up in Greenwich but, well, it didn’t look much like anything if he was honest. Leaning back in his chair, Louis was tempted to leave it until tomorrow but he knew it would do him no good in the end. He wouldn’t feel like doing it anymore tomorrow than he would today. He just had to knuckle down and do it.

Swivelling his chair around, Louis took in the mass of colour that lay behind him. Spray-painted graffiti covered the back wall and had been starting to creep onto the connecting walls. Once he’d thought the mural would grow and grow until the whole room was filled. Now, he was contemplating painting over it entirely.

Once he’d thought he, Liam, and Zayn would live happy lives together.

He’d thought Liam and Zayn would get married one day.

He’d thought Zayn would continue to draw all over his daughter’s arms at her request. Maybe he’d still accidentally use those permanent pens sometimes and panic when the ink wouldn’t come off for days no matter how much he scrubbed and the school’s administration would be hassling Louis something terrible.

He’d thought he’d sit in this very room once more and Zayn would permanently ink his skin, and they’d be a little drunk and Liam would be furious at them and hovering like a mother hen.

But then, he’d never thought that one day, after four years, Liam would walk in the door to find Zayn standing in the living room with all his belongings packed and to simply say four words to him before walking out of their lives.

“We could never work.”

Even now, three months later, Liam had received no other explanation. Zayn had entirely dropped all contact with him; all phone numbers, social media, get togethers with friends. He had vanished from their lives and Louis had had to hold Liam together. Hold Liam as he’d sobbed into his chest night after night. Get him up in the morning when he was too tired to work and persuade to step out the door anyway. He’d helped Liam pick himself back up while he also was falling apart.

Louis had held Georgia for hours when she’d burst into tears because Zayn didn’t pick her up from school anymore, Zayn didn’t help her with her art projects, Zayn didn’t cook as awfully as she did…Cried because Zayn simply wasn’t there. Didn’t Zayn love her anymore? Where did Zayn go? When was he coming back? Why is Liam always crying? Daddy, why are you not crying?

And that question hurt the most.

Because Louis wanted to cry, wanted to cry so much it felt like his heart was weighed down by an anchor, but he couldn’t.

So he didn’t.

Somehow he’d had to keep them together. Keep them together when Liam moved out because he couldn’t stand to be in the room he and Zayn had shared for years. Keep them together when he’d had to try and stuff more hours into the day so he could fulfil more contracts to pay the rent, all the while making sure Liam never noticed because he’d assured him they were fine. He’d had to keep it together when Zayn had messaged him, and only him, asking if Georgia was okay and could he see her sometime soon. And fuck you Zayn, because what about Liam? What about the man whose heart he’d broken?

But he couldn’t say those things. Because Georgia deserved better. She hadn’t done anything wrong. Louis would never forgive Zayn for what he had done, but he also couldn’t deny his daughter one of her best friends. He couldn’t let his pride get between them.

Really, he should just ‘accidentally’ tell Liam to come along and ‘conveniently’ forget that Zayn was coming too.

If he was a real friend, that’s what he’d do.

‘And if you were a real man, you’d be doing your job Tomlinson.’

His mind’s sharp scolding had Louis shaking the thoughts away and, sending the wall one last scowl for good measure, Louis reluctantly returned his attention to his work station. He’d only just picked up his ruler when a tiny voice caught his attention.

“Daddy?”

Looking over to the doorway and seeing Georgia standing there uncertainly, Louis waved her in with a hand. She all but ran to his desk, scrambling into his lap. Looking at the time, Louis tutted down at her.

“What are you doing up, little lady? It’s past bedtime.”

“But you’re still awake,” Georgia huffed, looking up at him with a frown. “You need to sleep too.”

“I’m working,” Louis replied with a roll of his eyes.

“Working is for day time,” Georgia stated, crossing her arms. “Night time is for sleeping. So it’s time for bed Daddy.”

“Love, I just can’t,” he said firmly, tucking her more tightly against him as he leant forward to scrutinise a particular area of his design.

As awful of a parent as it made him, Louis didn’t even notice that Georgia hadn’t replied. He barely noticed her weight on his lap as he added lines, measured and re-measured others. In truth, it was most likely that he’d subconsciously decided she had gone back to sleep but hadn’t bothered to check. Which was why he jumped a good foot when her voice broke the silence.

And then her words, they broke his heart.

“Daddy…when will Zayn and Liam come back? When will we be a family again?”

Because how could he answer that? How could he tell her ‘never’?

In the end, he couldn’t.

In the end, Louis kissed her goodnight and tucked her into her bed. He then sunk to the floor outside her door, head buried in his knees.

And if he stayed there until his alarm went off hours and hours later, no one would even know.

***

Chapter Text

His phone slowly inching its way across the dining table was the least of Louis’ worries at that point in time. It was still on silent from his skype conference yesterday, when he’d wanted to be interruption free and had had Liam take Georgia out for the afternoon, and he hadn’t had time to check the caller ID; not when he had his hands full with Georgia’s hair. He’d been attempting to braid it but she’d made it especially difficult with all her squirming and they were already running late and of course it was a Monday because what other day would it be? Louis wanted nothing more than to be back in bed.

And then the phone vibrated off the table.

“Shit.”

The word escaped him without thought and Georgia whipped around, frowning severely. “Daddy!” she admonished, “We never use those words.”

“No, we don’t poppet,” Louis placated, muttering an apology even as he retrieved his phone. Thankfully, mercifully, the screen hadn’t shattered and he shoved it in his pocket without a second glance. “Now, hair, quick.”

But Daddy,” Georgia whined, batting his hands away as they reached for her hair once more. “I don’t want it in a braid. I want it in a pretty bow bun.”

Louis stared down at her blankly. “…a what?”

“A bow bun,” she repeated, slowly and carefully.

What the fuck was that?

That was, of course, what he’d like to say, not what he actually could say. So instead he went with:

“I’m afraid I don’t know what that is, love, and I don’t have time to learn.” God knows Louis’d spent long enough learning how to braid after Frozen came out and Georgia would accept nothing less than ‘Elsa-hair’.

“Harry could do it.”

Louis, for the life of him, could not recall who or what Harry was. “Harry who?”

“Harry from the bakery,” Georgia supplied chirpily, swinging her feet. “He does the best bow buns, remember? He did it all pretty when we went there the other day.”

Louis did remember now, but he did not have time for this. Without a word, he abandoned the braid and simply dragged all her hair up into a ponytail, pulling the elastic tight and combing his fingers through it one last time. “All done. Bag, please.”

“But Daddy…”

Now!”

Georgia did, albeit unwillingly, go and as she was, Louis grabbed what was left of her toast and shoved it into his mouth. He classified that as breakfast and collected his own bag from where it was already waiting on the bench. When he entered the hall, Georgia was hopping from foot to foot, trying to tug on her shoes. She managed to complete the task before falling over and Louis having to catch her; he didn’t bother wasting the time required to point out that she simply could have sat down to do her shoes. Louis slipped on his own business shoes and then shoos her out the door.

Any fears he had had about Georgia being upset by his impatient snap – and she had every right to be – were alleviated when the little girl immediately took hold of his hand as they began to walk, swinging it between them. In that single moment, Louis could allow himself to believe that everything was going to be alright again one day.

“Daddy?”

“Hmm?” he hummed, glancing down at her this time with the slightest of smiles on his face.

She seemed to notice – it was so rare these days, he supposed – and beamed right back, swinging their interlinked hands more vigorously. She then remembered that she’d been going somewhere with her line of thought. “Can we see Harry on the way to school? He can do my hair all pretty and it’s on the way!”

Louis pulled her up, ever-present frown back. “Georgia, love, Harry is not your hair-dresser. He did it once but that’s it. Harry is a baker, not a stylist.” He nudged her back into a walk and continued, “Harry works at the bakery, darling, that’s his job. Just like how my drawings are my job. He’ll get in trouble if you stop him from doing that just so he can do your hair, alright?”

Georgia muttered an “a’ight” but didn’t seem wholly convinced. Two things then happened at once:

1. Harry stepped out of the bakery up ahead to put out a sign before ducking inside, and

2. Louis’ phone went off for a second time and…it’s Eleanor. Fuck.

Making a split-second decision, Louis stuffed ten quid into Georgia’s hand and all but shoved the poor, bewildered girl into the bakery. “Go and pick something, Daddy’s got to make a phone call,” he ordered, stepping away and pressing the phone to his ear. The first few sentences Eleanor said were lost to Louis as he watched Georgia closely through the glass door, her little, piggy eyes sweeping over the sweet treats.

It was the “so I can’t take her over the weekend” that snapped him back to the present and he turned away from Georgia purely so she wouldn’t see the black scowl that had taken over his face as he literally growled into his phone.

“You what?!”

Sorry Louis, but I can’t,” Eleanor said again.

“But you said you would,” Louis argued. “You even said you’d come get her Thursday! I promised Liam I’d go play football with him and the lads!”

Yes, but with work…” Eleanor stressed and Louis wanted to spit a ‘she’s your daughter too’ except that Eleanor had never wanted Georgia in the first place and the fact that she even saw her was more than Louis had ever dreamed.

He heard her sigh. “Lou…”

“Don’t ‘Lou’ me,” he snapped, running a hand through his hair. “Just…fine.”

I’m sorry,” Eleanor repeated but all Louis could do was scoff. “And hey, Liam probably won’t be too upset, right? I mean, you don’t normally play so it’s not like he’s expecting you. I’m sure he’ll be get by without you, okay.

Never mind that fact that Louis really wanted to go and kick a football for the first time in years.

“I said it’s fine,” he finally replied tiredly, not even possessing the energy to stay angry. “I’ve gotta take Georgia to school but let me know when you’re next free to take her, yeah?”

He hung up before she could answer and took a minute to compose himself, rubbing a hand across his face before bounding into the store with a grin on his face – getting to school on time now well and truly a lost cause. It took him less than a second to spot Georgia, listening attentively as a blond man Louis didn’t recognise crouched beside her and pointed to something inside the display case. The glimpse of a nametag soothed Louis’ nerves and he hastily collected his daughter.

“Sorry there mate,” he apologised, tone sincere. “Had to take a call and she’d been begging to come in here so I thought…yeah…”

“Too easy,” the bloke replied and the Irish accent hit Louis like a train. For some reason though, it made him smile. “Name’s Niall.”

Louis’ smile widened as he accepted the offered hand. “Louis. And this is Georgia-Rose.”

“I already told him Daddy,” Georgia told him, tugging on the bottom of his shirt. “And I know what I-…Harry!”

Having only just stepped in from the back, Harry appropriately froze upon hearing his name called so shrilly. Louis barked out a laugh before muffling it behind his hand. Harry waved awkwardly and leant over the counter so he could see Georgia more clearly, hair held back with a headscarf that Louis was certain would look absolutely ridiculous on anyone else.

“Dragged your dad back huh?” he asked, voice slow and warm.

“Mmm,” she hummed, looking between Harry and Louis pleadingly and Louis suddenly understood what she wanted but he firmly shook his head.

“You wanted it, you ask,” he added when she went to open her mouth.

Georgia pouted before turning back to Harry, who looked suitably confused. “I know you’re very busy Mr. Harry,” she said quietly, hands twisting together, “But I…can you maybe…” She huffed at herself before straightening her back and adopting a frown, just like Louis did when he was being serious. “Daddy can’t do my hair in a bow bun and I know that you can but I know you’re not a hairdresser but could you please do my hair all pretty for school, please and more pleases?”

Harry was left blinking at the mini-speech while Niall cackled unashamedly. A voice from the back had him ducking off, but Louis could see the regret in his eyes, knew he wanted to catch more of the interaction. Harry remained silent for another long moment before lifting his gaze to meet Louis. “Sorry, can you explain?”

“She wants this,” Louis explained, flicking through his phone and showing Harry the picture he’d taken the other day. “I didn’t have time to learn and she was adamant. But,” he added firmly, “Georgie love will understand if you don’t have time.”

Georgia nodded hastily at his tone but Harry just laughed. “No problem,” he said, rounding the counter. “But I have to say, I don’t do this for just any customer. You’re very lucky Rosie.” He waggled his eyebrows and she laughed.

“It’s Georgia,” Louis corrected.

“It’s fine Daddy,” Georgia interrupted and Louis literally balked, feeling offended, even if he couldn’t place exactly why.

Harry saw the movement though and was particularly careful to only call her ‘Georgia’ when he next had to say her name. Louis felt grateful and embarrassed all at the same time, rubbing at his neck as he hid his face from Harry’s sympathetic gaze.

“Alright poppet,” he called once Harry was done – the bun was perfect, the bastard. “I told you to pick something for school. Did you?”

“This!” Georgia announced grandly, pointing at…well, it’s pink. Louis didn’t know how else to describe it. He thinks that something even being that shade of pink is an atrocity in itself.

“What is that?” he asked, nose scrunched in distaste.

“It’s a lemon blondie with raspberry frosting,” Harry answered brightly.

“Is it disgustingly healthy?” Louis edged cautiously.

Harry levelled him with a flat look. “It’s a blondie, so no, not particularly so.”

“And what’s a blondie when it’s out?”

Louis was met with a look that made him feel like he asked whether the sky was blue or green. “It’s like a brownie, only usually vanilla or butterscotch flavoured,” is what he got in response.

“But you said this one’s lemon yeah?” Louis clarified and only waited for Harry’s nod before he turned to Georgia, who was waiting oh so patiently. “Alright, you can have one cause there’s fruit in the name which makes me think it’s not one hundred percent sugar.”

Georgia squeezed his leg in thanks and Harry took that opportunity to duck back behind the counter. “One lemon blondie then?”

“No, two!”

“Excuse me missy,” Louis cut in. “But one is more than enough.”

“No, one’s for you Daddy,” Georgia argued.

Louis didn’t want a…pink…thing…but his daughter’s thoughtfulness touched him so he smiled nonetheless. “Yeah? Well in that case, better get one for Liam too, alright? We can’t all get one except Liam.”

Louis was so busy watching Georgia nod thoughtfully to notice the way Harry’s expression had plummeted. Didn’t notice how forced his smile has been as he bid them farewell. Didn’t notice Niall pop back out to sling an arm around his shoulders and take over the counter.

No, instead he worried about what Liam would be making for dinner and how the flying fuck he was going to get to his meeting on time.

In truth, the instant Louis left the bakery, all thoughts of the pretty boy who worked there flew out of his mind.

 

***

Chapter Text

The last thing Louis had intended was to ever return to Sweet Nothings after its opening day. And yet, somehow, his visit today would mark his third since it had opened…a week ago. Louis sarcastically praised himself on coming back exactly a week after his first visit. Was a one-week anniversary a thing? Perhaps he could patent it, he thought sourly.

Louis did, however, think he had a good excuse this time. It was Thursday once more and Georgia had been out of spirits all day. Apparently she’d actually been looking forward to going to her mother’s this weekend and Louis really should have taken a picture of her moping face and sent it to Eleanor as payback. Mind you, it wasn’t as though Louis was much better. He’d been moping all day as well. As much as he hadn’t really been looking forward to playing football with Liam, since now he couldn’t, it felt like absolute agony.

Add in the fact that it’d been raining steadily for the past two days, keeping a certain six-year-old cooped up inside, Louis was desperate to get them out of the house.

Which was why he’d gone back to that trashy hipster establishment.

Still, he stepped over the threshold as though he risked catching something. You never knew, he very well could. Louis would be willing to wager that “zen” or whatever the fuck they called it these days was catching.

As Georgia searched for a new treat to try, Louis craned his neck over the display, not wanting to admit that he was looking for a certain curly haired man when he was, in fact, most definitely looking for a certain curly haired man. He stuffed his hands into his pockets when he caught no sign of Harry, fishing out his wallet when Georgia came sprinting back to him.

Walk inside,” he reminded absently, flicking through his notes. “What’cha getting little lady?”

“What’s a bananaoffee tart?”

“Banoffee,” Louis corrected, flicking his hair off his face. “And it’s a banana pie.”

Banana pie?” Georgia squeaked and Louis finally paid her some attention, cracking a smile despite himself at her wonderstruck expression.

“God, she and Harry would make quite a pair.”

The voice startled Louis, his shoulders automatically stiffening. When he turned though, all he saw was the blond – Niall? Neil? – who worked there.

“Harry’s obsessed with bananas too,” Niall elaborated, pointing at Georgia. “That’s the face he makes when he discovers something has bananas in it.”

“Didn’t realise bananas were such prized objects,” Louis sniffed, though he added in an eyeroll when Niall’s expression turned quizzical, borderline hurt. “Speaking of Harry, where is he?”

Something about the way Niall’s face slowly split into a grin was somewhat disturbing and Louis felt slightly intimidated. But Niall’s next move was only to shrug nonchalantly. “He’s not working this afternoon but I’ll tell him you asked about him. It’ll make his day.”

Right…” Louis said slowly. “So yeah, just the banoffee tart and…Just tea for me.”

“No tea unless you want it out of a bottle I’m afraid.”

Louis actually choked on his inhale. “Excuse me?” he spluttered.

Niall merely shrugged. “I can’t make it for shit and we don’t really have the equipment for that. Go try Costa or Starbucks if you’re into tea.”

Right then and there is when Louis lost all hope in ever liking that establishment. “Then just a tart.”

“You don’t wanna try something else?” Niall pressed, looking towards the display. “We’ve got some really nice-”

“It’s fine,” Louis sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Niall looked at him for a long moment before slowly nodding. He took the money from Louis’ outstretched hand and returned with his change and a plated up banoffee slice moments later. As he handed the plate over though, his hand gave Louis’ delicate wrist a warm squeeze. For reasons Louis couldn’t explain, the simple action made a lump form in his throat.

He turned on his heel and promptly strode away from the counter. The fact that he avoided eye-contact with Niall for the rest of his stay in the bakery was entirely coincidental.

 

***

 

“Harry! Guess what?”

Harry firmly kept his eyes shut. Perhaps if he kept them shut long enough, Niall would get the hint and let him finish his yoga routine undisturbed. His hopes were promptly dashed when Niall quite literally dropped onto his back. The air escaped his lungs with a loud ‘oomph’, Harry’s arms sliding out in front of him as his chest collided with the floor. So much for cobra pose.

I said guess what,” Niall repeated loudly.

“Niall,” Harry laughed, trying to dislodge his roommate to no avail. “Hop off mate.”

“Nah,” came the reply, the Irishman’s hands coming to twist into his hair playfully.

Gathering his hands back under his shoulders, Harry took a deep breath before pushing into downward dog. Niall squawked as he was abruptly dislodged, landing on the floor with a string of curses. Coming out of the pose, Harry threw his hair into a ponytail before taking the bags Niall had brought home – leftovers, no doubt – into the kitchen.

Harry…!

The whine followed him and Harry chuckled once more. “Alright Niall, what?”

“Guess who came in to our lovely workplace today?”

“Babs?”

Niall blinked at him owlishly from over the back of the sofa. “She owns the place Harry. Not much to be surprised about if I’m honest.”

Harry lobbed an apple at him, only mildly put-out when Niall caught it easily. “Not my Babs, your Babs.”

“Oh…no,” Niall said, tone taking a glum turn as he seemingly became aware that his favourite customer hadn’t turned up. His eyes then landed on Harry and the brightness returned to his face. “No, this one was for you.”

Harry halted his fridge-packing long enough to blink at Niall in confusion. “Me?”

“Does attractive young man with cute kid ring a bell?”

Louis’ face instantly flashed into Harry’s mind and he blushed accordingly. But then the picture of Louis in his head was joined by a mysterious stranger and together Louis and that stranger disappeared into the distance, Georgia happily skipping between them.

“Are you forgetting that he has a partner?” Harry shot back, trying to find a spot for the last custard tart. Seriously, what did Niall think they were going to do with all this food?!

“I don’t know about that…” Niall said quietly, face unusually serious.

“What makes you say that?”

Niall simply shook his head, getting to his feet and ducking under Harry’s arm to grab a beer from the fridge.

“And besides,” Harry told him, finally shutting the fridge and moving onto the pantry. “There’s nothing between Louis and me. I’ve seen him twice and that’s it. That’s all there’ll ever be.”

Niall’s face plain as day said he didn’t believe him.

It is!” Harry insisted.

Niall just raised his eyebrows before making for his room. And yeah, Harry understood why Niall didn’t believe him because, if he was honest, he didn’t believe himself either.

 

***

 

“Mummy doesn’t love me anymore, does she?”

The question made Louis freeze, fork halfway to his mouth. With a frown, he very carefully lowered the utensil and gave his daughter his best serious face. “And why do you think that Georgia-Rose?”

“Because,” the little six-year-old mumbled, pushing a piece of ravioli around her plate. “Because she didn’t want me to come stay and she goes away.”

“She’s always gone away for wor-” Louis started to point out, only to be interrupted:

“And Zayn used to love me but he went away and Liam went away too…” Her voice trailed off into tiny hitching breaths and Louis was suddenly slammed by the realisation that Georgia was crying. He abandoned his meal and rounded the table so quickly his chair tipped over. He had her in his arms within seconds and she was full on sobbing by then. “Why don’t they love me Daddy?”

If Louis held his daughter any tighter he was certain her bones would break but he didn’t care. “They do love you,” he said, voice sharp and firm. “Sometimes the people we love have to go away but that doesn’t mean they love us any less.” He pulled Georgia away so their eyes could meet. His heart broke at the tears in her blue eyes. “I don’t see my mum or my sisters all the time but that doesn’t mean they don’t love me. And it doesn’t mean I don’t love them. It’s a bit sucky-” Georgia gave a weak laugh, “-but that never, ever means that we stop loving each other. I love you just as much when you’re at school and I can’t see you as when I do when you’re here in my arms. And Liam and your Mummy and Zayn feel exactly the same way, okay?”

“Promise?” Georgia asked, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands.

Louis’ breath caught because, shit, saying yes would be utter bullshit but saying no…

“I know!” he announced instead. “Why don’t we go watch Liam play football, yeah? If he won’t come to us, we’ll go to him!”

It took a moment for her to process his words but then Georgia nodded energetically. It was cold out, so Louis made her grab a coat and grabbed one for himself. It took them two tube rides before they reached the field but they arrived soon enough and took a seat just beyond the sideline, near enough to the other spectators but not close enough to be invasive. They were there not two minutes before Liam scored and Georgia squealed loudly. Liam’s head instinctively looked over and Louis gave a little awkward wave when their eyes met. Liam’s first response was to look worried but, after a meaningful look to Louis, he grinned and waggled his fingers at Georgia. She giggled and hid behind her hands in response.

It didn’t come as any surprise to Louis that within twenty minutes or so Georgia was fast asleep, curled up in her coat and using Louis’ scarf as a pillow. It allowed Louis to watch Liam play without having to split his attention and it struck him that he hadn’t seen Liam play in years. Zayn used to accompany him in Louis’ stead and Louis had never been inclined to intrude. He’d been content to wait until the pair had come home, Liam hugging him over-enthusiastically before heading to shower, letting Zayn take over. Zayn would then make himself and Louis a cup of tea and they’d sit on the kitchen benches, Louis listening as Zayn talked him through the highlights. Zayn’s soft voice would usually be enough to lull Louis to sleep and his best friend would merely laugh and drag him to bed, more often than not unceremoniously dumping him onto the mattress before heading to his own shared room.

Liam didn’t do that.

And Louis didn’t blame him.

Liam had his own apartment now. Why would he bother coming all the way to Louis’ just to talk him to sleep?

And while Louis would never admit it, he and Liam didn’t have the same chemistry as he and Zayn. There was a reason why he and Liam had absolutely hated each other when they’d first had to dorm together in uni. To be honest, it was only Liam starting to date Zayn that had kept them together; Zayn who would join in Louis’ crazy schemes but would also sit for hours on Liam’s bed and discuss comics. It was only through Zayn that Louis and Liam had discovered that they could actually stand each other if they tried hard enough. That had eventually led to the friendship they had now, but it was a hard-earned one, not an easy one. They hadn’t simply “clicked” but maybe in the end, that’s what made their friendship more valuable now.

The sharp sound of a siren had Louis looking up in time to see Liam run into the arms of his team-mates. They were all jumping up and down maniacally and Louis could only assume they’d won. He was on his feet and ready to congratulate Liam, a big grin plastered on his face when Liam looked over at him and…Liam’s expression faltered and nearly cracked entirely.

Louis knew why.

He wasn’t Zayn.

He wasn’t even close.

It was bitter-sweet when Liam finally reached his side. Louis pulled him in nonetheless and pretended that he didn’t feel the slightest of shakes in Liam’s shoulders. “You were fantastic out there love,” he whispered, kissing Liam’s temple lightly.

“Thanks,” Liam replied, taking a deep before pulling away. “Decided to come watch me tonight?”

Louis glanced down at where Georgia was still sleeping, Liam’s gaze following his. “Someone was feeling a bit unloved.”

Liam nodded sadly before going to collect his gear. He was back before Louis knew it and he was shuffling awkwardly from foot to foot. “Lou…I…”

Louis knew what Liam wanted before he even asked. Without a word, he grabbed the strap of Liam’s bag and slung it over his own shoulder. “Bring her, will ya?” he called over his shoulder, rummaging through Liam’s bag to find his keys. “And yes, you can kip on the couch tonight.”

 

***

Chapter Text

It became a habit without really meaning to. A tantrum in Sainsbury’s being resolved with a promise to visit Sweet Nothings the next morning, a goodbye treat before going away with Eleanor on a Thursday afternoon.

It was only when Louis realised he was starting to make subtle changes to his and Georgia’s weekly routine to fit in visits to the bakery that he became aware of deep in he really was. Somewhere over the past month and a half, Monday mornings and Thursday afternoons had become allocated Sweet Nothings visiting times. If Louis was honest, he was ashamed. How had he let his life come to this?

That wasn’t to say he didn’t enjoy the visits. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

For a small business with, from what Louis had been able to tell, only five staff, it had an ever-changing range and a variety that rivalled any of the other local businesses. There was always something new to try and while, more often than not, Louis was too tired or too distracted to order, what he did end up eating was always delicious. The bakery had actually made it into several conversations with Liam, which had earned him a quirked eyebrow, but Louis hadn’t mentioned Harry so he was safe on that account.

Not that there was anything to say.

Yes, there’s an attractive man who works at the bakery?

Oh, he wears the most hideous clothing imaginable but somehow it looks good on him?

His voice is richer than honey and I’d listen to him talk all day about his stupid food if only to drown in said voice?

Like hell.

Liam did not need to know about that.

Just like how Liam did not need to know about the fact that Louis and Harry had actively started flirting with each other. It had been an accident to start with. Louis had been a prat, he knew it now and he’d known it at the time, and Harry had just levelled him a look.

“If only your dick matched the size of the one you act like,” he’d snapped.

Louis had countered with a, “If you wanted a look Curly, all you had to do was ask.”

They’d both then frozen in horror for a second, Harry no doubt panicking about whether Louis would attempt to get him fired and Louis hoping to God Georgia hadn’t heard him. A swift glance over his shoulder had told him she hadn’t and he’d been so relieved he’d simply given Harry a sheepish smile before scurrying off.

From then on though, apparently flirting had become a thing between them. Not that Louis minded. Being interested in Harry had never even crossed his mind; it was more that he was desperate for someone to talk to that was older than six and not Liam. Liam was great, top lad for sure, but Louis sometimes just wanted someone else. Harry filled that description. If Niall was around, Louis would talk to him too but it was generally Harry who was working during their visits. It was all harmless fun and if Louis occasionally let his gaze linger a little too long well, so what?

Glancing down at the blueberry scone that had started his musings in the first place, Louis grabbed one last bite before leaning over the floor plan in front of him. He had finally finished his office building design and had passed the plans over to his contractor, letting them find their own builders since the job required more manpower than he possessed. The break was nice, but it also meant that Louis’  “Tomlinson Architecture, Interior, and Design” inbox was as empty as the tray to his left labelled “bills”. Which was comforting, except that the latter wouldn’t stay empty for long. The former on the other hand…

Louis ran a hand across his face. Right now he was sketching for fun, making designs for when the opportunity to use them arose, but he wouldn’t be lying if he said he wanted them to arise now. Now before the bills came back in and he had to dip into his savings fund. Had to start making cuts here and there. Had to start making changes that Liam would notice.

The split-second sound of his phone vibrating before the ringtone erupted had his hopes soaring but once the sound of ‘Uptown Funk’ reached his ears, Louis scowled, lips curled into a borderline snarl.

Because he hadn’t changed that ringtone into something more fitting, more barbed. No, it was still the ringtone he had linked to Zayn and Louis didn’t know how he felt about that – Liam’s ringtone was still the ever hilarious Batman theme, which had gotten Louis patronising looks in several meetings but damned if he was going to change it.

Knowing his voicemail was seconds away from cutting in, Louis snagged the phone off his desk, thumping down the green call sign. “Tomlinson A.I.D., Louis speaking.”

There, neutral enough that he could pass it off as a mistake but pointed enough to make Zayn squirm.

“…Louis…hey, it’s me.”

Squirming.

Guilt. 

Good.  

“If this is Zayn Malik then he better have a fucking good reason to be calling me,” Louis snapped, leaning back in his chair. “And I hope he’s fucking called his ex-fiancé first.”

“Lou’…” Zayn’s voice held a pleading edge.

With a sigh, Louis pushed himself to his feet, marching out into the hallway. “Fine, you haven’t talked to Liam then. Fine. No, not fine actually. Actually, fuck you Malik.”

“Louis,” Zayn sounded weaker this time and Louis stopped dead in the hallway, realising that Zayn could simply hang up on him. And, as angry as Louis was, he didn’t want that.

Or did he? Louis didn’t even know at this point.

“Sor-…” Wait, no. “No, not sorry,” Louis amended, “But I won’t butt in anymore. What do you want Zayn?”

There was a rattling on the other end and Louis could only guess Zayn was at a tube station, judging from all the noise around him. “Louis, look mate, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. And I…I can’t explain but…Like, I didn’t want to leave but I had to, you know?”

Screw being polite.

“No. No Zayn, I don’t,” Louis hissed, running a hand through his already dishevelled hair. “I don’t get a fucking thing right now and you, you what? You had to leave? Did you? Not what it looked like to me. And I know as sure as hell it wasn’t what it looked like to Liam!” He started pacing up and down the hallway. “You’re a shitty friend Malik, you’ve got to know that.”

“Yeah,” he agreed quietly. “I know.”

Louis pinched the bridge of his nose. “You know but you’re not going to do anything about it, are you?”

Silence. 

Louis’ eyes narrowed. “Don’t you dare try and earn some sympathy from me,” he warned, voice like ice. “I’m not gonna sit here and try and get you to spill your sob-story or whatever. I don’t…I just can’t do that Zayn.”

“I don’t want you to.”

Louis let his back bump into the wall, head following as he stared up at the ceiling, breath heavy in his lungs. “Then what do you want Zayn? I don’t have time.” A lie. “I’m busy.” Another lie.

There was a longer pause and it filled Louis with a mixture of dread and slow-building agitation. Dread because what did Zayn have to say or ask that could be this hard for him to say? Slow-building agitation because how dare Zayn say or ask something of him that contained such obvious weight when they hadn’t spoken in nearly five months.

Eventually a mumble came down the line. “…was just wondering if you’d thought any more about me coming to see Georgie sometime soon?”

“Fuck you.”

Without any further explanation, Louis ended the call, hand clenching his phone so tight he half expected the phone to shatter. How dare he? How fucking dare he? With a shout, Louis turned and kicked the fridge, fists coming to bang on it once, twice, a second later.

Because he had to be angry. If he wasn’t angry, he’d break down.

Not on.

Wrenching the fridge door open, Louis reached for the bottle of wine he had stashed at the back. He pulled it out and was debating whether to bother with a glass or just drink straight from the bottle when he heard the unmistakable sounds of Jeremy Kyle coming from next door. Mrs. Muller, his neighbour, watched it religiously to the point where Louis was almost concerned but it did serve to sharply remind him of one thing: It was precisely twelve-thirty, which meant two hours until he had to go and collect Georgia from school.

His eyes travelled back to the wine bottle. He could finish it in two hours. And if he opened it now, he would. But then what? He would stumble into Westminster Cathedral Primary drunk and attempt to collect his daughter? With his scruffy, unshaved beard and I-worked-from-home-today clothes, he’d look a treat. School security would just love to call Child Protection Services and take away one of the few good things he still had in his life.

Taking a shaky inhale, Louis returned the bottle. He needed a smoke. That’s what he needed. That he could do. He found the slightly worn box tucked into the drawer of his bedside table and sat himself on the back step. Any thoughts he had about reminding himself that he was trying to quit were waved away. The first inhale was awful, burning his throat and leaving a ghastly taste in his mouth. Louis loved it.

In fact, Louis loved it so much that when he’d finished that cigarette, there was only the barest hint of hesitation before he fished out another. And another. And another. And another until there were five cigarette butts gathered around his feet, smouldering until he firmly ground down on them with the toe of his Vans. God, he was a mess.

‘Get it fucking together Tomlinson!’ he thought furiously, resting his head in his hands, staring blankly at the ground. ‘You can do this. Pull it together!’

Right, pull it together, pull it together. Louis could do that. One phone call from Zayn would not be enough to send him off the rails. No, it would not. He was not going to let it do that to him.

Stuffing his cigarettes into his jacket pocket, Louis looked at the time, groaning when he saw just how much of the afternoon he’d wasted moping on his back step. He still had to run by the shops and he’d have to hurry now if he wanted to do so before he picked up Georgia. Which he did because he could not handle another supermarket scandal. They didn’t happen often but he wasn’t willing to test his luck today. Besides, it was just bread and she didn’t need to accompany him to buy a simple loaf.

One loaf, Louis could do that.

 

***

 

Apparently he couldn’t because the next thing Louis knew he was standing at the counter of Sweet Nothings, completely bewildered as to why Niall would be talking to him. The answer, obviously, was because Louis was in his shop.

“Deciding to shake things up are we?” Niall asked after saying his standard issue greeting. “This is not designated Louis Tomlinson visiting time. Harry’s not working, if that’s what you’re looking for.”

“I…” Louis glanced around before shaking his head. “Sorry Niall, stepped in here by accident.” He added an awkward laugh he didn’t feel. “Force of habit, I guess. Best be off, sorry about that!”

With a jerking wave, he ducked out of the line, apologising to the person behind him and making straight for the door. He’d nearly reached it when a “Louis!” pulled him up. Turning around, Louis frowned when he saw Niall weaving through the tables. A quick look at the counter showed that he’d since asked Barbara – the kind, elderly woman Louis had learnt weeks ago owned the place – to take over for him. Before Louis could ask what was wrong, Niall had a hand wrapped around his upper arm.

Jesus,” the Irishman whistled under his breath, readjusting his hold whilst dipping his head so he could catch Louis’ downcast eyes. “Louis, mate, are you okay?”

Louis gave his best chuckle, going for a playful edge as he shook Niall’s hand off. “What you on about Niall? ‘m fine!”

“That why you look like you’ve been fucking steamroller-ed?”

Louis gaped at him, ignoring the “Niall Horan, language!” that got yelled in their direction by Babs. “Excuse me!” he exclaimed indignantly.

Niall merely shrugged. “It is what it is. So, alright?”

There was an intensity in Niall’s eyes, a somehow warm edge, that had Louis’ shoulders softening ever so slightly. “Hey,” he said, rocking onto his heels. “It takes more than a “fucking steamroller” to bring Louis Tomlinson down.”

“So there is one?” Niall pressed, more serious than Louis had ever thought possible of him. “A steamroller, that is?”

“Niall, mate, seriously,” Louis laughed, pushing him away good-naturedly. “Don’t worry. I’m alright. I’m always alright.”

The younger man sighed, shaking his head as if disappointed. And, wow, that hurt. “Yeah, okay then Louis, but…stay here a ‘mo, yeah?”

Without waiting for a reply, Niall zipped out the back. He returned before Louis could contemplate leaving, hastily shoving something into a bag and twisting the top to seal it with practised ease. The bag was in Louis’ hands before he knew what was happening.

“What’s this?” he asked, cautiously going to open it only to have Niall slap his hand.

“Save it for later!” he ordered, risking a look at Babs before leaning closer and dropping his voice conspiratorially. “Don’t tell Babs I used her ovens for this, but it’s an Irish Car Bomb cupcake.”

“A what?” Louis asked, utterly lost.

“Guinness cupcake, Jameson ganache, and Bailey’s icing.” Niall explained, then grimaced. “I really don’t know if giving this to you is the best idea right now but…”

“Niall, you’re my new favourite mate!” Louis declared, a real smile spreading across his face, eyes crinkling and everything. Without thought, he pulled the other lad into a hug. Niall huffed out a surprise laugh, but quickly returned it, thumping him on the back heartily.

Swearing upon catching the sight of the time over Niall’s head, Louis untangled himself, thanked Niall once more, and slipped out the shop door. Following Niall’s advice, Louis kept the cupcake until after he’d put Georgia to bed and he was sitting on his couch, mindlessly flicking through the tv stations and checking his emails at the same time. He wasn’t even halfway through it before he found an email containing a new client.

Finally, things were looking up.

Chapter Text

If Louis had said things were looking up, he was a liar. Or perhaps, more accurately, he’d been foolishly optimistic.

In truth, Louis wanted to strangle his new client.

Receiving a new client had been a blessing and one that Louis had been all too happy to accept. The request itself had been hilariously simple: design a house for a single man. Louis had done it a hundred times before…well, maybe not one hundred but it was a job he was more than familiar with. Plus, single people wanting a home designed by an architect in the centre of London? They were always the extraordinarily rich ones, the ones that Louis bumped up his prices just a little and they never so much as batted an eyelid. He could probably double his fees and they’d be none the wiser. To them, money was no issue.

But after five days of emails and phone calls, Louis was ready to hurl his phone into the Thames and personally dismantle his business. Okay, overkill. But the sentiment remained. Because his client, one Mr. Saville, was incredibly painful.

He wanted a modern look. ‘No, that’s too new-age. Where’s the British charm?’

He wanted his apartment to be open-plan. ‘No, not like that. How are any of the rooms separated? It looks like one giant mess.’

He wanted the latest appliances and features. ‘What do you mean that’s where the screen goes? There will be no computers in my walls! I wouldn’t know how to use that, incompetent young man.’

And yes, Louis had had to hold back his tongue after that particular remark.

It gave him a headache just thinking about it. Rubbing his temples, Louis forced himself back to the present. Georgia was still talking – was it about craft…or hopscotch with Riley? – and he nodded as she spoke, stabbing his tart with a fork and taking a bite. The sweetness made him recoil slightly and Louis glared down at the thing as if it had offended him. Why had he ordered something so ridiculously sweet?

Oh, right, he hadn’t. He’d had Georgia pick while he’d replied to a message on his phone. Whoops.

“Daddy?” Georgia asked, happily munching on her giant biscuit. “Do you think Harry likes to do tie-tie?”

Louis blinked. “Tie-what?”

Her little face scrunched up into a frown. “What I just told you about! With the shirts at school. Because Harry has a big headband like that!”

Eyes flying to where Harry was busy serving a customer, there was no sign of any headband on his head. “Harry’s not wearing a headscarf,” Louis pointed out.

“Not today,” Georgia huffed. “But the other day. When we waved through the window?”  Which…did not help because they waved to Harry every day now.

“Sorry poppet,” Louis said with a shrug. “But I don’t know what a tie-tie is.”

“But you nodde-”

Louis’ phone pinged as it received an email and the twenty-seven-year-old sent his eyes skyward when he saw it was from Mr. Saville. Big surprise.

“The new plans are still not what I’m looking for but you’re getting on the right track this time,” it read. “I will call to discuss the details.”

Louis openly scoffed at the email, and then jerked back as his phone started to ring, announcing “John Saville” on the caller I.D.

“Two minutes baby,” Louis said to Georgia, whisking out of his seat and missing her hurt expression as he ducked outside to gain some privacy. “Mr. Saville!” he greeted with forced enthusiasm as he opened the line. “How may I help you?”

 

***

 

Looking out across the bakery, Harry frowned when he saw a certain little Tomlinson sitting by herself, bottom lip trembling.

“Hey,” he said to Ed, who was busy refilling the display cases, “Just, like, taking a ten, yeah?”

“Yeah, cool Haz,” Ed replied, shuffling over to the til. “S’not like we’re busy.”

Giving his friend a thumbs up, Harry slipped out from behind the counter and slid in beside Georgia, bumping her shoulder with his own ever so gently. “Hey there, little Rosie.”

Even though her eyes were still faintly glistening, she offered him a smile. “Hey Harry!” she greeted, flinging her arms around his chest. “I like your hair today,” she continued, reverently touching the braid. “My Daddy can do hair like that. He does it for me when I want Elsa hair.”

“What, so you can be a princess?” Harry asked, causing Georgia to pull away and giggle.

“I’m already a princess,” Georgia told him grandly.

He laughed. “Are you really?”

“Yep, Daddy said that I am.” Her tone was oh so smug. “And Liam said that all girls are princesses, and I’m a girl too so that makes me a princess.”

Harry’s grin dropped a little but he maintained it well enough. Well enough until the lady at the next booth’s phone went off and Georgia’s face twisted into a deep scowl.

“Hey, hey,” he said quickly, tapping the crease between her eyebrows. “What’s that face for?”

Georgia folded her arms stiffly. “Hate that sound,” she grumbled.

Harry cocked his head. “The sound her phone made?” A nod. “Why?”

This time, she didn’t look angry, just sad. “It means another email.” Her little feet swung dejectedly under the table and her next words were aimed at her lap. “And that means Daddy’s going to do more work and he’s always working! He works all the time and even at night even though I said it was for sleeping! Daddy’s just busy busy and he doesn’t listen when I talk because he’s busy.”

Harry frowned. “But love, Lou-your daddy always works, right?”

“I guess…” Georgia said before curling into Harry’s side. He froze, completely unsure as to what to do, what he was allowed to do, what Louis would let him do. “But he’s always busy now, like he’s working forever. He only stops when Liam comes home.”

Ah, good old Liam.

Harry then scolded himself harshly. Even if he did think Louis was the most gorgeous creature to ever grace the earth and even if he did have a teenage schoolgirl level crush on him, that didn’t mean he was allowed to think ill of Louis’ partner. Louis and Liam were together, he and Louis were not. He and Louis weren’t even a concept. And, as such, he had no right to bag on Louis’ partner.

“He didn’t even listen when I was telling him about school,” Georgia whispered, looking up at Harry with big, hurt blue eyes. “I told him all about the tie-tie shirts we made and he nodded but then when I asked if you liked tie-tie, Daddy said he didn’t know what it was! But I just told him!”

Though confused, Harry patted her head softly. “Well, how about I listen then? What’s a tie-tie, and I can tell you if I like it or not?”

Georgia beamed and gave a single, firm nod before launching into her explanation. It took him a few minutes and some strategic questions, but Harry soon discovered that what they were actually talking about was tie-dye and how Georgia’s class had apparently done an activity with it today. He admitted to having a couple of tie-dye shirts, pleasing the little girl to no end. She then delved into what Harry was positive was an overview of every art class she’d had since school had started. As Harry shifted slightly so he could give her more of his attention, he froze when Georgia suddenly gasped. He looked down at her in alarm only to find her scrambling onto her knees and tugging at the collar of his shirt.

“Harry, Harry, Harry!” she gushed excitedly, “You have a birdie on your chest! Daddy has a birdie too. You’re the same!” She traced the swallow tattooed on his chest gently. “Do you have any more drawings? Do you, please, can I see?”

Harry nodded, rolling up his sleeves and settling down to explain them all.

 

***

 

Hanging up with a rather hard push on the screen, Louis ran a hand down his face. Well, at least they were nearly there now. It seemed as though, miraculously, eighty percent of his most recent design had met Mr. Saville’s impossible standards and the remaining twenty percent wouldn’t be too hard to fix. Pocketing the phone, Louis stepped back inside, only to pause when he saw Harry sitting beside Georgia. Even amongst the crowded bakery, Louis could make out his daughter’s voice.

“He’s always busy now…”

“Only stops when Liam comes home…”

“He didn’t even listen…!”

Shit. 

Fuck. 

Fucking shit!

God, was that really what Georgia felt like? Was that really what he had been doing to her? Oh god, it was probably true. He’d been a shit dad these past couple of weeks. How could he have let it come to this? How could he have been so self-absorbed that he’d been ignoring his own daughter? How did he fuck up so badly that this was how she felt?

Furiously blinking away the tears in his eyes, Louis hurried back to the booth. He’d sat down and opened his mouth to say something, anything, when he suddenly realised what he was looking at:

Harry, shirt unbuttoned to a dangerously low level and sleeves rolled all the way to his shoulders, revealing more and more black ink on well-defined arms.

Louis swallowed thickly. Self-control, he needed self-control. Harry was the nice man who worked at the bakery. Harry was not new material for Louis’ sexual fantasies. No, no, no!

“What’s going on here?” he drawled as casually as possible.

“Look Daddy!” Georgia said, tugging Harry’s arm forward, said man laughing as he, due to being attached to his arm, came with it. “Harry has drawings like you!”

Louis figured he was allowed to lean closer under these circumstances, though he first flicked his eyes in Georgia’s direction. “Use the real word please Georgia. They’re not drawings, they’re…”

“Tattoos,” she replied confidently, before turning to Harry. “I know that word because Zayn used to do them-” Harry noticed Louis’ frame go rigid. “-and Zayn had lots of them too. But Liam doesn’t like Daddy getting them, but Liam has some too!” she finished in an exaggerated whisper.

Louis snorted, because by Liam-doesn’t-like-Louis-getting-them it actually meant that Liam didn’t like it when Zayn and Louis were drunk and Louis was encouraging Zayn to tattoo him all the while passing him more and more vodka and Liam was in between them trying to talk Zayn into putting the tattoo gun down while at the same time ordering Louis to shut the fuck up already!

“Clever girl,” he praised, hoping to avoid the still raw topic of Zayn.

“Apparently you have a bird too?” Harry challenged, indicating the pair on his own collarbones and obviously in need of a change of topic too.

“S’not the same as yours,” Louis admitted, unbuttoning the cuff of his dress shirt and bunching it up so his forearm became visible, “But yeah, I got one.”

Even Louis wasn’t blind to the way Harry’s pupils dilated upon seeing the masses of ink Louis had. Huh. Interesting.

“Got any more?”

Louis laughed, rolling up his other sleeve and showing the designs hidden underneath. “Sure do, Curly. Got ‘em everywhere. Arms, chest, legs, wherever. You?” His eyes then landed on the naked, and quite blatantly so, mermaid on Harry’s arm. “You allowed that at work, where children might see?”

Harry’s eyes widened as if he only just realised that maybe children shouldn’t be staring at a pair of breasts and women’s genitals, hastily pulling his sleeves back down. Louis cackled while Georgia merely looked put out.

“Daddy!” she whined, “I wasn’t finished looking!”

“They’re not that exciting anyway,” Harry hurriedly assured her.

Georgia thought it over for a few seconds before nodding. “Yeah, they was all boring. You didn’t even have any animals! You only have the birds. Daddy has a deer stag and a bird.”

“Well, I have a butterfly,” Harry countered, bopping her nose gently.

Louis’ heart gave a little clench and quite possibly skipped a beat.

“Where’s the butterfly?” Georgia demanded, pawing at his sleeve.

“Uh…” Harry glanced at Louis, in what almost looked like a plea for help. “Like, on my chest but…kinda low down?”

Louis’ eyebrows rose. “Just how low we talking Styles?” he asked, lips quirked into a cheeky grin.

“Not that low,” he pouted, said pout deepening when Louis only laughed. “Anyways,” he said, drawing out the word as he got to his feet, “Better go. Looks like Ed might need some help.”

Glancing at the amount of people that were now milling around the counter, Louis blushed. “Yeah, shit, sorry-…Georgia, don’t repeat that!-”

I know Daddy.”

“-Yeah, should totally let you work. Sorry!”

Harry just waved him off. “Anytime,” he assured before striding away. Once gone, Louis switched his phone onto silent before gently tweaking a lock of Georgia’s hair, causing her to squeal in delight. It was time to give his little girl the attention she deserved.

And if Harry came passed by a couple of little minutes and stole Louis’ tart, replacing it with something else because “Louis, you’ve been coming here long enough. I know you despise sweet things. This is bitter, you’ll love it” – needless to say, Louis did – well, Louis would let himself feel that little bit less like shit, even if only for a moment.

 

***

 

Harry was in the middle of uploading a photo on his laptop when he turned his attention to Niall, his best friend currently sprawled down the length of the couch with his head resting in Harry’s lap, having not long returned from football.

“Niall?”

“Mmm?” his roommate said, removing his attention from his phone to look up at Harry.

“When I first met Louis, you told me not to fancy him.” Niall frowned, but nodded clearly waiting for Harry continue. “But then like, now, you always try to get me to talk to him and tease me ‘bout him. Why?”

The Irishman chewed on his lip, clearly mulling over his answer. “You fall hard Styles and you fall fast,” he eventually said. “I didn’t want you to do that with a bloke that didn’t even exist. But then I got to know Louis and I think you’re good for him.” His frown deepened a little. “Maybe I don’t want you in his pants, but I’m not against it going there anymore.”

“Yeah, but like, what about his partner?”

“What partner?” Niall asked. “You talk about this ‘Liam’ but I’ve never seen him and I’ve never heard Louis mention him.”

Harry raised his eyebrows. “Niall, Louis talks about him all the time. He’s the only guy he ever mentions.”

“Could be a friend,” Niall pointed out, wriggling until he found a more comfortable position in Harry’s lap, something that earned him a slap, to which he retaliated by twisting Harry’s nipple.

“Don’t think so,” Harry said with a shake of his head, curls bouncing and rubbing his abused nipple sourly. “Not with how he and Georgia talk about him. And how Liam makes them dinner and doesn’t approve of Louis’ tattoos and how that matters to Louis.”

Okay, so that hadn’t been said, but Louis’ hasty subject change had made it clear enough.

Something about the way Niall’s face twisted caught Harry’s attention but before he could pry, Niall blinked at the image on Harry’s laptop. “Wassat?” he demanded, wrenching the device closer so he could peer at the screen, nearly nose-to-nose with it.

“Just…” Harry futilely tried to tug it back. “Just some tattoos this bloke had.”

Niall abruptly burst out laughing, shoving the device into Harry’s hands and clambering to his feet. “Harry Styles, I can’t believe you!” he crowed, “Taking secret pictures of your potential boyfriend’s hands!”

“He’s not my boyfriend!” Harry whined, having no defence because yes, the picture was of Louis’ hands, sneakily taken while Louis had been sitting opposite him with his sleeves rolled up and the black ink contrasting against his tanned skin…and the lighting from the setting sun…God, it had been irresistible, a crime to let such a perfect image go unnoticed, uncaptured.

“Potential!” Niall repeated as he disappeared into the bathroom.

Harry groaned, slumping down on the sofa. He was so screwed.

 

***

 

Sitting cross-legged on his bed, Louis stared down at his phone. He’d been staring at it for close to an hour now. He could hear Georgia’s breathing from her room down the hall, the only sound in their too-empty flat. Unlocking the phone, Louis took a breath and then locked it again without so much as a glance at the screen. He then thought back to the calendar hanging up in his office, all the different markings spread across the days in the next coming month, the large blue highlighter that had since been added over the top, mind already calculating how many hours of his day they would consume. The number he came up with was overwhelmingly high.

And so, he unlocked his phone for the final time, scrolling down his contacts right to the bottom, forcing himself not to hesitate as he pressed the little green phone.

He didn’t want the call to connect.

It did.

Fuck it all then.

“Hey Zayn…did you still wanna see Georgia sometime?”

Chapter Text

“Careful.”

Louis’ soft warning caused Georgia to look up and give him a solemn nod before resuming her reach for his cup of tea. It wasn’t overly hot but then Louis had been drinking tea like a lifeline for years so maybe he wasn’t the best judge of temperature. Georgia tipped the cup ever so slowly and Louis breathed a sigh of relief when her face didn’t screw up in pain. Her face though, when she returned it to its place on the floor, was decidedly sour.

“I don’t like that one Daddy,” she informed him flatly.

Louis laughed, taking a sip himself. “If you’d ask me what it was, love, I could’ve told you that. You never like me Yorkshire!” he mock-scolded, reaching over and tickling her.

Georgia shrieked and squirmed away. So she didn’t like his preferred flavour. Louis could deal with that. She was young; she would learn. Throwing the tea one last baleful look, Georgia turned her attention back to the colouring book they had spread out in front of them. Ever since the incident at Sweet Nothings, Louis had made a conscious effort to slot at least half an hour into every day in which he and Georgia simply did something together; be it television, colouring, games, or even trips to the park. Most days, even after designating additional time for homework, Louis managed to push it out to an hour. Sure, it meant staying up an hour later or getting up that little bit earlier the next day, but it was worth it.

Right now, they were colouring in a Frozen book. Georgia had been especially kind and allowed Louis to colour in Kristoff and Sven because “you’re a boy so you know the boy colours to draw with”. He didn’t really understand that logic but okay.

“…Daddy?”

Louis paused in his filling in of Sven’s antlers, frowning at the uncertainty in his daughter’s voice. “Yes Georgie sweetie?”

She huffed down at her picture of Elsa, paying it particular attention. “What’s a divorce?”

Of all the questions Louis had been expecting, that hadn’t been it. He blinked twice. “Why?”

“Because Violet’s mummy and daddy are getting a divorce. Daddy, do you know Violet?”

“I do,” he assured, because how could he not? Between her and Georgia-Rose they made this weird flower friendship and he was just waiting for them to find a Daisy or Poppy to add to their little mix.

“Good,” she nodded, chewing on the end of her pencil until Louis tugged it out of her mouth with a stern look. “But, what’s divorce?”

Clucking his tongue, Louis resumed his colouring of Sven. “It’s when two people who are married decide they don’t want to be married anymore. It usually means that once upon a time they thought they loved each other, but then they figure out that maybe they don’t, you know?”

Georgia paused, felt tip poised over Anna’s shawl. “Do you love Mummy?”

Louis sucked in a breath. Did he love Eleanor? Had he ever loved Eleanor? He contemplated his answer for a long moment, his extended pause making Georgia stop what she was doing and look at him.

“It’s a bit tricky,” he eventually said. “But I think the answer is no. Now, I like Eleanor – your Mummy, I mean. Yeah, I like Eleanor but no, I don’t love her.”

“Why?”

So innocent but so not.

Louis sighed, actually looking Georgia in the eyes when he spoke this time. “Well, when I was little, my Mummy and Mark used to tell me all the time that when I was big I was going to find a lovely, beautiful lady and I was gonna love her and marry her. And when I was big, I met El-…your Mummy and she was the sweetest, funniest, prettiest lady I had ever met. So, I thought I loved her.”

Georgia’s eyebrows knitted together. “But you didn’t?” she guessed.

“Nope, turns out I didn’t. You see,” he said, tilting her head to make sure he absolutely had her full attention, “No one had ever told me that you could love girls or boys. I thought boys had to marry girls and girls had to marry boys.”

“But they don’t, do they?” Georgia said, smiling when Louis shook his head.

“No, you can like whoever you like.”

“But how did you know you liked boys?” Georgia pressed, and honestly Louis thought this was perhaps the most in-depth conversation they’d ever had, period.

“Um, well…Okay, so like, you know how you liked Makka Pakka? And you thought he was the greatest thing ever?”

“That was when I was a baby,” Georgia replied with such over-played disgust that Louis had to laugh.

“Yeah, but you really liked it,” Louis reminded her. “And then you saw Peppa Pig. You didn’t stop liking Makka Pakka, you just realised you liked Peppa Pig more. So, yeah, I liked girls but then realised I liked boys instead. And because your Mummy’s not a boy, I don’t really love her the same way I would one. It’s a bit hard to explain,” he tacked on the end because that analogy had gotten away from him somewhere along the line.

Georgia nodded though, so he counted it a win. She must have understood him, at the very least. “Does that mean you have a Peppa Pig?”

Louis paused in his reach for his tea. “A what?”

She giggled. “Daddy, you told me I stopped liking Makka Pakka because of Peppa. So who did you stop liking Mummy for?”

He shook his head. “It doesn’t always work like that baby. I didn’t like someone more than El, I just didn’t love her that much anymore.”

“Like Zayn.”

Louis’ head snapped over to where Georgia was sitting, searching a specific pen in her pencil case.

“Zayn doesn’t love Liam anymore, right Daddy? That’s why he went away?” She stopped and scrunched up her nose. “Does Zayn have a girlfriend?”

“Georgia-Rose, what? Who said Zayn doesn’t love Liam?”

“No one,” she replied with a shrug. “But he went away, yeah? That’s what happens when you stop liking someone. That’s why you and Mummy don’t live together and that’s why Violet’s daddy isn’t going to live with her anymore.”

“S’pose so,” Louis eventually said, a tad unnerved by the conversation now. His daughter was smarter than he’d ever given her credit for.

“Did they get a divorce?”

“No darling,” Louis said with a shake of his head. “Liam and Zayn were never married so they couldn’t get a divorce. You have to be married first, before you can divorce someone, got it?”

“Okay.”

He had just deemed it safe enough to finish off his cuppa when Georgia announced,

“Mummy has a boyfriend.”

Louis choked on his tea, slamming the cup down and looking at the little girl to his right with wide eyes. “You what?” he spluttered.

Georgia gave him an odd look and, well yeah, Louis thought he probably looked slightly deranged right about now. “Mummy has a boyfriend,” she repeated slowly, flippantly, as though it wasn’t a big deal. “His name is Stuart. He’s a teacher. He does sixth-form.”

This was the first Louis had ever head of such a thing.

The boyfriend, that is. Not the sixth form.

“Oh.”

It was all he could think to say for a long time. It wasn’t as though Louis had never expected Eleanor to move on. Hell, they’d broken up while Eleanor had still been pregnant with Georgia. But still, it felt almost like a slap to the face, a harsh burst of reality. To him, it was as though Eleanor was moving on with her life. She was moving forward, and Louis wasn’t.

“Daddy, are you mad?”

Louis jerked at the question but quickly shook his head.

“Sad?” Georgia tried.

“No, I’m not angry or sad,” he promised. “I just…it was a bit of a surprise.” He shook his head to clear it. “But is he nice, Stuart? Have you met him?”

Georgia shrugged. “Only once. Last time I went to Mummy’s he came over and had dinner but then he went home. He was funny though, and pretty nice. He wasn’t mean. Toby at school is mean. I don’t like him.”

Louis rapped her on the top of head softly. “That’s not nice little lady. We try to like everyone.”

“Riley doesn’t like him either!” Georgia protested. “But Miss Sarah made him sit away from us now so it’s okay. He has to sit at the green table and green is yucky so there!”

Again, child logic but Louis nodded as though her words were very wise. She seemed content with that. Georgia then leant over and grabbed Louis’ phone from where it had been resting beside him. She pressed the home button and scrutinised the background picture. It was her and Louis jumping in puddles with umbrellas and wellingtons but it was getting on the old side, Louis had to admit. Zayn had taken it though, which was why he hadn’t changed it as of yet.

“Mummy had a picture of her and Stuart on her phone,” Georgia revealed. “That’s how I found out because I asked who he was.”

“Mmm, very clever. A true Sherlock Holmes,” Louis praised, making Georgia beam even if she had no idea who Sherlock Holmes was.

“Can we take a photo Daddy?” she then asked, offering the phone to him.

Louis grinned, hauling her close and opening the camera, flipping it so it was facing them. “Pretty or silly?” In the end, the question turned out to be redundant as they had taken nearly twenty photos, ranging from mockingly serious to outrageous and everything in between. Later that night, Louis flicked through the photos. There was one with him pulling the most ridiculous face while Georgia was laughing and attempting to push him out of the frame. It made him chuckle.

Louis set it as his background.

 

***

 

The following morning Louis was in the middle of making a fry up when the doorbell rang. He glanced at the time and frowned but Georgia was already running down the hallway, hair flying out behind her. Louis cocked his ear to one side as he heard the front door open, letting up once he heard Eleanor’s voice. Flipping the bacon one last time, he stepped away from the stove long enough to poke his head out of the kitchen.

“You’re early.”

It wasn’t accusing, but it certainly had a questioning air wrapped into it.

For her part, Eleanor merely shrugged. “I thought this morning’s drop off would take longer. You don’t mind if I take her now?”

“Well…” he glanced back at the two plates set up on the bench. “She hasn’t had breakfast yet.”

“We could stop for breakfast on the way back to mine,” Eleanor offered, glancing down at Georgia who was seemingly more interested in the designs on her fake nails. “What do you think Georgia-Rose? We go out for breakfast?”

Yeah!” she cheered, bolting to her room to grab her bag.

Walk!” Louis and Eleanor called at the same time.

“’S good advice,” Louis muttered when Eleanor’s eyes met him, turning back to the stove and flipping it off.

When Eleanor next spoke, she was much closer and her voice much closer. “Lou, are you okay with this?”

No’, he thought.

“Yep,” he said, flashing Eleanor a toothy grin. “I’ve got a bit of work to do anyways so it’ll help.”

“Are you okay?” Was the next question.

Louis shot her a puzzled look. “I don’t know why everyone keeps asking me that but I’m fine.”

Eleanor frowned. “Everyone? Like who?”

It was probably meant as concern, wondering how many other people had noticed Louis starting to slip, wondering how close they were to him and how well they knew his character. Louis took it as an accusation and narrowed his eyes.

“Shouldn’t I be the one asking you about other people?” he leered, as he plated up his breakfast.

“Wha-…Stuart. Georgia told you,” Eleanor realised.

“Yeah, him, that bloke.” Louis all but slammed his plate onto the bench.

“Louis!” Eleanor’s tone was sharp. “Don’t you dare bitch about this! You have absolutely no right to and you know it. You will not get a say over who I do and don’t date, do you understand?”

Louis folded his arms stubbornly. “Don’t I? That’s my little girl what’s gotta meet him and hang around him!”

She’s mine too,” Eleanor hissed.

“Not like you ever wanted her,” Louis shot back snidely.

There was a moment in which Louis thought Eleanor might actually slap him. She then shook her head, taking a step back away from him. “Grow up Louis. We were kids back then. I learnt. I matured. Did you?”

Louis opened his mouth to answer but Georgia chose that moment to bounce back down the hallway, bag in tow. Immediately Eleanor and Louis slipped their masks back into place, smiling sweetly at their daughter, making sure none of their tension was noticeable to her. Giving her a hug and kiss and seeing her off from the door, Louis turned back to look at his empty flat, the silence deafening. Suddenly, he didn’t feel like eating anymore.

 

***

 

“Liam!!!”

The door in front of him swung open, presenting him with a best friend who took in his appearance with almost resignation. “Jesus fuck Louis,” Liam groaned, dragging him into his flat. Louis went easily, coming to flop on Liam’s bed.

“Liam?” he asked, voice muffled by the sheets and definitely not because he was drunk. Definitely not. “Liam, Li, mate, I got a question.”

“And I’ve got you a glass of water,” Liam said sternly, holding out said glass.

Nng,” Louis said articulately, glaring at the offending glass. “No, question first, yeah?”

Liam threw his eyes skyward but nodded, coming to crouch in front of Louis. “Alright Tommo, what’s your question?”

“How long is long enough to start dating again?”

Louis was the victim of a long, hard stare, followed by an exasperated sigh. “Right, I’m getting my coat.”

“What? Why?” he demanded, sitting up so he could track Liam’s progress across the room.

“Because,” Liam said, slipping on a jacket, “I’m gonna have to be drunk for this.”

Chapter Text

“Liam!” Louis exclaimed, voice unnecessarily loud and making Liam wince even as he sat back down at their table, beers balanced in his hands. “Li, babe, you never drink!”

“I drink,” Liam corrected, adding on a stern glare for good measure. “Just not as much as you.”

“I don’t drink that much!” Louis protested, and then proceeded to nearly topple off his stool. “Yeah, okay, little drunk,” he admitted, making a small measurement with his fingers. “But only a bit. And, and Georgia’s gone so I can, right? Like, I can’t when she’s home but she’s not so it’s all okay!”

“Louis, what’s going on?”

The seriousness of Liam’s tone cut through the haze that was Louis’ mind but he didn’t want it to. He said as much, whining as he leant over to rest his head on Liam’s shoulder.

“Boo, seriously.”

“No Liam, fun night!” he begged, grabbing a beer off the table and downing half of it.

The beer was snatched away and he made pathetic grabby hands after it. Liam merely shook his head. “Not until you talk Louis. Talk and then fun, deal?”

Louis crossed his arms. “No deal,” he sulked. “Because if I talk then I’ll be sad and there’ll be no fun and we’ll go home miserable and be sad drunks in the back of a taxi cab.”

“And why would we be sad?”

Louis squinted at him suspiciously. “I know what you’re doing Payno and no, not working.”

Liam sighed, taking a sip at his own beer before lowering his voice. “Is this about Zayn?”

Louis froze. How the fuck did Liam know?! Did Zayn call him? Had Zayn told Liam they were intending to meet up next week? Did Georgia tell him? Wait, no, Louis hadn’t told her yet. Fuck!

“It is, isn’t it?” Liam pressed gently, and Louis paused.

He wasn’t mad? Why wasn’t he mad?

“You’re not mad?”

It was Liam’s turn to look confused. “Mad?” he repeated. “Why would I be mad?”

“Because like…” Louis made a vague gesture.

“Because I still don’t talk about him?” Liam provided, a question which prompted Louis to actually sit up and try and follow the conversation for real. “Lou, I don’t bring Zayn up because it makes it easier, you know? Out of sight, out of mind, maybe.”

Louis was so lost right now. Liam must have seen it because he smiled sadly, squeezing Louis’ shoulder gently.

“That’s why you came round right? Asking how long was too long to start dating,” Liam shrugged, letting his hand drop away. “I honestly thought you were gonna bombard me with photos of hot men or something.”

That…made sense. It was also hilarious and Louis had no qualms about erupting into a fit of laughter.

He patted Liam’s shoulder condescendingly. “Sorry babe, but no although…what are you thoughts on Irishmen and gingers? I might be able to work something out.”

Liam raised both eyebrows. “Same bloke or…?”

“No, two different ones,” Louis chimed, waggling a finger in his friend’s direction. “See? I think of you. Multiple choice and what have you.”

If he wasn’t holding his beer and still more than slightly tipsy, Louis suspected he would be getting swatted over the head right about now. Instead, Liam merely sipped more of his own drink, allowing Louis to finish his. Before he could make a break for the bar though, Liam grabbed his wrist, pulling him back down.

“No Louis, not yet. Cause if you weren’t thinking about Zayn when you turned up at my flat drunk too early on a Saturday afternoon-”

“I’m pretty sure it was night by then!” Louis interjected valiantly.

“-then what were you thinking about?”

Louis deflated, hands curling around his glass. “Can we just go back to pretending it was Zayn?”

“Why do you want to hide behind Zayn instead?” Liam challenged.

If anything, Louis’ head dropped lower, eyes disappearing behind his hair. “El has a boyfriend,” he finally whispered.

“Oh.” Liam shuffled closer, an arm coming around Louis’ shoulders. “Lou, that’s…I’m not saying I’m not surprised but I’m not not surprised either, yeah? Like, you’ve been apart over six years. Isn’t it, like…more than enough time?”

“That’s just it!” Louis exclaimed, pushing his glass away angrily, an action that made Liam hastily lunge for it before it could crash into the floor. “Like, I’d get it if it was you, ‘cause you and Zayn were together nearly five years, and if you started dating again now I’d…” He shook his head. “But Eleanor has someone, yeah? She’s moved on and she’s got this boyfriend and I don’t…I can’t even do more than fucking flirt with Harry because yeah, he’s nice to me but he has to be, right? You know, ‘cause he’s at work, innit? I can’t just go in and ask him out when he’s working because wouldn’t that be a power play or some bullshit? I don’t even have his fucking number! Fuck, Liam, I didn’t even know I wanted his number til his shirt was undone and, and…his tattoos and he’s nice to Georgia and…!”

Louis cut himself off, dropping his head into his hands as his shoulders began to shake.

Christ Louis,” Liam whispered, trying to coax his head up and sighing when Louis stubbornly refused to let him. “Lou, love, what is going on? I don’t understand half of what you just said. Harry, right? Who’s Harry?”

Louis shook his head. God, why had he said all that? Why? Jesus fuck, why?

“Don’t do this Lou,” Liam pleaded, voice ever so soft in the rowdy bar. “Don’t Boo, please. Come on, tell me, who’s Harry? Is he your ginger Irishman?”

Louis choked out a laugh, finally sitting up and very firmly denying the sheen in his eyes. “No, the Irishman is Niall and the ginger is Ed. They work with Harry,” he tacked on when Liam still looked lost.

“They work with Harry? Where are you meeting people Lou?”

Which…Okay, that was fair enough. Louis didn’t exactly have a brimming social calendar. He absently toyed with the coaster on the table. “You know that bakery what’s just opened up?”

“The hipster trash one, as you call it.”

Louis could only nod.

Liam snapped his fingers suddenly. “So that’s why you and little miss Georgia go there so often. Not that I don’t like the treats you bring me,” he added with a wink.

“Shut up,” Louis scoffed, bumping their shoulders together. “Always in it for the free food, right Li?” He then sighed, dropping his chin into his palm. “But yeah, like, it started with Georgia going ‘cause she loved Harry’s hair. It’s all long and curly and tied up in shitty indie, boho, whatever the fuck they’re calling it these days,” he explained with another vague gesture. “But he’s nice Liam. I hate his clothes and his hair and everything his stupid bakery stands for…but he’s fit Liam. I mean, fit.”

Liam’s eyebrows rose almost to his hairline. “Fit as in I-want-him-in-my-bed, or fit as in I-wanna-have-his-gay-babies?”

“Either…both…I don’t know,” Louis murmured, looking at his empty glass mournfully. “Cause I don’t know him…cause I can’t know him. But, with Georgia…I mean, like, him with her…Liam, he’s decent.”

Liam was silent for a long time. “You said you flirt with Harry?” he eventually asked.

“Maybe,” Louis grumbled, fighting down an embarrassed flush.

“Well, does he flirt back?”

“Yeah, mostly. He’s cheeky Li. Got such a mouth when he wants to.”

Liam barked out a laugh. “Then he’s definitely your type Tommo! But Lou,” he said, turning serious once more. “Honestly, mate, if he’s flirting with you and he’s doing it with a smile, then I don’t think he’s being forced into it. Not unless your ginger Niall-”

“He’d spew if you knew you’d made that mistake!”

“-does the same. And I reckon he doesn’t. Louis, get his number.”

“But-!”

Liam shot him a look. “Get his number, and go and get us another round.”

Louis’ face split into a grin. “That I can do! Great chat Li, thanks!”

 

***

 

Armed with the courage given to him by Liam, Louis entered Sweet Nothings alone the following Monday. Eleanor had dropped Georgia at school, Louis had a tentative schedule for the next few weeks – seeing as how Mr. Saville was so particular that Louis was intending to work on site personally for at least the first fortnight – which was only waiting for a clearance on Liam’s end - and since he had a morning in which all he had to do was paperwork, Louis decided he could just as easily do it at Sweet Nothings as at home.

And if he also planned to get Harry’s number along the way, well. Personal bonus.

Bounding up the steps with a little more energy than normal – hey, Louis was a ball of energy when he had a specific goal – Louis abruptly frowned when he realised Harry wasn’t behind the counter. Yes, he was later than usual but Harry always worked Mondays.

Readjusting the folders tucked under his arm, Louis strode up to where Niall was leaning on the counter, looking, god forbid, bored. “Niall, m’lad!” he crowed. “How are we this fine morning?”

Niall peered up at him suspiciously. “What are you on this morning Tomlinson?”

“I resent that implication,” Louis sniffed, causing Niall to grin and straighten up.

“Yeah?” he asked. “Well, nice to see you smiling if nothing else.”

Louis didn’t quite know what to say to that, only shuffling his feet awkwardly. “Where’s the gangly giraffe-like one this morning?”

Niall bit his cheek to stop from laughing. “You mean, ‘where’s Harry’?”

“Did I say that? I don’t think I said that.”

Niall’s deadpan expression made Louis laugh. The Irishman then merely rolled his eyes. “He’s on break.”

“Ah, don’t bother him then,” Louis said, waving a hand. “Gimme a…” Louis blinked, blindingly aware that he actually had no idea what this bakery sold. It was usually Georgia who picked. Or, more recently, Harry. “A…”

“Fuck’s sake Louis,” Niall laughed, swiping Louis’ wallet out of his hands and flipping through it despite his squawk of protest. He pulled out a five pound note before handing the leather back. “You’re hopeless, you know that? Find a table. I’ll bring you something in a minute.”

“Paddy bastard,” Louis grumbled.

“Limey shite,” Niall shot back in return, the pair exchanging wicked grins before going their separate ways.

Finding an empty table in the corner closest to the staff door, Louis slipped into the chair, laying out his folders before pulling a pen out of his pocket. His concentration became absolute until a plate materialised to his right. He gave the – supposed – croissant a once-over.

“So what’s this then? Kale and quinoa? Rabbit food and fake chocolate? What’s that called again – cacao? Carob?”

“You mean to tell me that my nutritional talks have actually been sinking in all this time?”

That…wasn’t Niall.

Head whipping up, Louis found Harry standing beside the table. The floral headscarf had made a return, as had the illegally tight skinny jeans and outrageously gold boots. Louis face crinkled into a full grin, something that made Harry’s eyes widen slightly in surprise before his face exploded into a grin of its own. He slipped in opposite Louis, sliding the plate closer.

“And cause it’s you, no. It’s just a gluten free croissant.”

Louis quirked a single eyebrow.

“Okay, it’s a bitter chocolate and star anise croissant with pistachios.”

“That’s more like it,” Louis commented smugly, taking a bite. “Fucking hell. Aces, mate.”

Harry smiled once more. “Good, I made those.”

“Actually, on further consideration, it’s bloody revolting.”

“Shut up Louis.”

Oi!” Louis protested. “You can’t talk to customers like that Curly!”

“I’m on break and I’m sitting here as your friend, so yeah, I can,” Harry countered, causing Louis to nearly choke on his water.

 Friends.

Okay, yes, friends. Louis had made it to friends.

Fuck yeah!

“So…you’re like an architect?”

Snapping back to the present, Louis saw that Harry had commandeered one of his blueprints and was scrutinising it. “Yeah,” he confirmed. “Don’t think I ever told you that.”

“Georgia said you do drawings for a living,” Harry explained off-handedly. “I didn’t quite picture you as an artist, no offence, like…”

“None taken,” he promised.

“And then some of the other stuff you said, yeah. Made sense, I guess. That’s pretty amazing Louis.”

“S’not so special,” Louis disagreed, retrieving the blueprint and carefully filing it away. “I’m not designing the next skyscraper of London or anything.” He capped his pen, deciding that since Harry had come to spend his break with him, the least he deserved was Louis’ full attention. “Niall said you were on lunch,” Louis stated. “Bit early, isn’t it?”

“Not really,” Harry said, leaning back in his chair and getting comfortable. “I mean, maybe, but I started work at, like, five.”

Louis whistled. “Yeah, no thanks.”

Harry chuckled. “I don’t mind, to be honest. Niall grumbles a bit more but he only does one early shift now since I swapped my Thursdays.”

“Oh really?” Louis asked, flashing Harry a sly grin. “And why’d you want to work late on Thursdays?”

“Not to see your ugly mug, that’s for sure.” Louis stuck his tongue out. “Nah, maybe it was. But hey, it gives Niall more time to get to football so he’s happy enough.”

Louis straightened in his chair. “Niall plays football on Thursdays?”

Harry frowned, puzzled. “Yeah, why?”

“Eh just, so does Liam.” Harry fought to keep his expression neutral. “Should ask him if he remembers a blond Irishman screaming his way around the field.”

Harry snorted, quickly trying to smother it behind his hand in embarrassment. “That…that actually sounds like Niall,” he admitted.

Louis shot him an easy grin. “Thought so.” He then reached out with his foot and tapped Harry’s knee. “So Harold, tell me about yourself. What do you do when you’re not baking disgustingly vegan shit?”

 

***

 

Harry blinked silently for several long moments. When Niall had barged into the back of the shop a quarter of an hour ago and demanded he “go feed ‘lover boy’”, Harry had not expected to be drawn into small talk by Louis Tomlinson. Don’t get him wrong, he was thrilled, it was just…Louis seemed to be such a constant state of motion that Harry hadn’t even thought he understood the concept of sitting and talking.

“Well…” he finally said, attempting to tug Louis’ shoe off when he kept nudging him with it. Louis quickly withdrew said foot. Fuck. “I like photography.”

Louis groaned, head flopping back. “No Harold, no. Please don’t let the next words out of your mouth be ‘and the Arctic Monkeys and fro-yo’.”

“Er…”

Harold!

“It’s Harry,” he corrected, kicking Louis’ shin lightly, experimentally.

Louis merely screwed his nose up in return. “Fine, Harold. But seriously? You are the actual epitome of hipster trash.” His eyes then narrowed dangerously. “Do you own a flower crown?”

Harry was about to argue that his was made of lovely pale pink roses, thank you very much, when the Batman theme song suddenly erupted from across the table. He chuckled at the tone. Or rather, he did up until Louis said, “oh, it’s Liam, I gotta take this.”

“Sure, it’s fi-…”

But Louis’ attention was already gone, Harry all but forgotten. “Hey babe.”

And, oh.

 Babe.

Liam was ‘babe’.

Harry’s heart cracked painfully.

“You what? Li, love, marry me.” Louis then winced, voice softening. “Sorry, not what I meant…Love you too…Okay…Dinner, babe?...Perfect! See you then.”

Hanging up, Louis promptly started packing everything up. His eyes lifted to meet Harry’s and he gave a helpless shrug. “Sorry Harry but I have to run. I’ve got this contract and I’ve just got some last minute things to sort out. Sorry, Harry, really.”

Harry forced a smile onto his face. “S’alright. I should probably go back to work anyway.”

“Oh, right.”

Louis was all but ready to go when Harry frowned down at his plate. “Hey, you didn’t even eat that.”

Louis glanced down at the croissant in question. He’d only taken that initial mouthful but a quick glance between the pastry and the clock next to fridge had him wincing. Grabbing the croissant, Louis took a ridiculous sized bite before raising his eyebrows in a way that seemed to say, “happy?!

“You have it,” Louis instructed, words muffled from behind his hand, vainly trying to prevent crumbs flying everywhere. “It’s delicious!”

He waggled his eyebrows and then he was gone.

Typical Tomlinson.

 

***

Chapter Text

“Niall? What are your thoughts on finishing early and letting Perrie cover the rest of your shift?”

Both Niall and Harry looked up from the cupcakes they were trimming and icing respectively at Barbara’s words. At Niall’s questioning glance, Harry merely shrugged, resuming his work.

“Fine with me,” he replied breezily, “But I started after Perrie. Shouldn’t she go first?”

“She’s trying to pick up some hours this week,” Babs explained, checking on the scones in the oven, deciding they needed a little longer. “Do you mind?”

Niall grinned. “Nope! Harry and I have already got this month’s bills covered so who am I complain about an afternoon off? Sounds more like the opposite of a problem to me.”

“Thanks love,” Barbara said, patting his cheek in relief. “You two finish that lot off and you can go.”

Niall swivelled on his heel, waggling his eyebrows at Harry. “Hurry up and ice the fuck out of those cupcakes Haz!”

The swat over the head didn’t stop his glee and within twenty minutes the rambunctious pair were free on the streets of London. Since Niall had been intending to work for another couple of hours, he hadn’t made any plans. And while perhaps following Harry through Hyde Park as he photographed anything and everything wasn’t particularly fun, the company more than made up for it. Plus, within ten minutes of entering the park, Harry had already been tangled in two different dog leashes.

“So…” Niall started after Harry finished apologising to the latest dog owner, though how he managed to walk away with a photo of the dog too was a mystery. “How did it go with Louis today? He seemed unusually chipper.”

Harry’s face made an odd twist. “He made small-talk.”

Niall’s eyebrows shot above the rim of his RayBans. “Louis knows what small-talk is?”

Harry snorted. “Yeah, that’s what I thought too. But yeah, he started to. And then…” he shrugged. “Anyway, Liam rang so off he went.”

Niall leant his elbows on the bridge railing as Harry set about trying to capture the perfect photo of a couple in a pedal boat. “You still think that Louis and Liam are a thing?”

Harry looked up from behind his camera long enough to give Niall a mournful look. “You don’t him hear Niall. It’s all “babe” this, “sure love” that. “Love you Liam”.” He sighed. “I’m not jealous of Liam…I mean, maybe. But…”

Niall remained silent for a long moment before abruptly reaching forward and snatching Harry’s camera, Harry’s panicked “hey!” losing all traction when he caught sight of the black expression on Niall’s face.

“Nialler, what’s-”

“If Liam is who you say he is, then I swear to the Virgin Mary and Jesus himself that he’s an absolute piece of shite.”

“Niall!”

No Harry! I’m not gonna stand here and listen to you defend that bastard, you hear me?”

Harry’s forehead creased into a frown. “Niall, mate, you can’t just-”

“Watch me!” he growled, hauling Harry closer. “Because you know why?”

Harry shook his head dumbly.

“When I did this-” he squeezed Harry’s bicep by way of explanation, “-to Louis I swear I could nearly fit me whole hand around his arm. Because, Harry, Louis’ falling apart! I can see it from here and if Liam can’t, what the fuck is he doing?!”

“Louis…”

“Harry, have you ever seen Liam?” Niall’s tone was clipped and very un-Niall-like.

A shake off the head.

“No, and Louis takes Georgia to school. Louis picks Georgia up. Louis works. Louis’ the one that comes into our bakery so stressed out of his mind that he doesn’t order half the time and doesn’t even seem to notice! And if he does,” he continued loudly when it looked like Harry might interrupt, “name for me a single time you’ve ever seen him finish something! He’s so distracted that he doesn’t even realise he’s not eating. And I’d bet my arse he does the same thing at home! So tell me, Harry, where the fuck is Liam?”

Niall’s body was shaking with righteous fury by the time his rant was over and, honestly, Harry could see his point, wondered why he hadn’t seen it earlier.

“Harry…” Niall’s voice was softer this time. “What’d you get Louis this morning?”

“A croissant.” The answer came easily.

“And did Louis eat it, at all?”

And Harry realised – fuck! – Niall was right. Apart from the initial bite, Louis hadn’t so much as touched it. He had honestly seemed to have forgotten all about it until Harry had pointed it out to him as he’d gone to leave. It sparked memories in Harry’s head, other comments from Louis, all in the same train of thought:

“Didn’t even remember breakfast this morning!”

“Don’t think I’ve eaten all day!”

“Grabbed Georgia’s left-overs; didn’t have time for anything else!”

Jesus,” Harry groaned, tugging on his curls.

Niall sent him a grim smile, slipping a sympathetic arm around Harry’s shoulders. “Look, Harry, Liam’s a prat. I’ll be honest about that. But, Louis needs you. Even if not in the way you want, Louis really needs you. I think, more than anything, Louis needs a friend. Liam is not that friend. Liam’s not good for him. Louis needs someone to talk to.”

Harry turned and buried his face into Niall’s neck, his next words muffled because of it. “Maybe he needs two.”

“Well of course he needs two!” Niall laughed, digging a finger into Harry’s ribs, making him grunt in protest. “Between the two of us, we’ll make him sit for more than five minutes at a time and shove him so full of organic shit that he’ll be actually shitting compost!”

Harry erupted into a fit of laughter, smacking Niall on the shoulder once before raising his camera to capture a snapshot of the Irishman’s preening face.

Be a friend to Louis Tomlinson. Yeah, he could do that.

 

***

 

“Daddy!”

Louis grinned, whisking Georgia up into his arms. “Hey baby girl!” He kissed her cheek before setting her back onto the floor. “Get your bag and coat please,” he instructed.

As Georgia skipped off to her cubby, Louis made his way over to her teacher, informing Miss Sarah that Georgia would be being picked up by Liam for the next couple of weeks and asking that maybe she help Liam if he proved to be particularly hopeless in remembering things. Miss Sarah assured him it would be fine, gave him the usual “Georgia had a good day” spiel, finishing up when Georgia came back, dumping her bag at Louis’ feet as she struggled into her blazer.

“You got it poppet?” he asked, crouching down to help.

“I can do it,” she huffed, brushing a stray piece of hair off her face. “But the button is a sticky one!”

“A sticky button!” Louis repeated in his best scandalised voice, thanking his drama lessons when Georgia giggled. “Well, I’ll have you know that I am particularly good at sticky buttons.”

“Really?”

“The very best!”

Eyes crinkling as she laughed, Georgia let Louis fix the button – it really was quite stubborn – before giving both Riley and Violet a goodbye hug, but not Dennis because “he smells like frogs”. Up until that point, Louis hadn’t even been aware that frogs had a smell.

Slipping out of the school gates together, Louis tugged them just to the side before pulling Georgia up.

“Georgia-Rose,” he said, catching her attention by use of her full name alone. “I have a surprise planned for this afternoon but…” Louis ran a hand across his face. “It’s a very secret surprise,” he eventually said. “And you cannot tell anyone about it. Especially Liam, promise?”

“Why not Liam?” she asked innocently.

Louis scratched the back of his neck awkwardly. “Just because. You promise though? Super secret?”

She was uncomfortable with the idea, Louis knew it and too right to because it was so, so wrong, but eventually she nodded, curiosity winning out. This could only end badly, it was a fact, but Louis was desperate. He was falling apart at the seams and he just needed a minute to himself. A minute that didn’t need explaining to Liam because explaining meant questions and Louis didn’t want to answer those questions.

Taking Georgia’s hand in his, Louis took them to the nearest tube station. Swiping their oyster cards, Louis let Georgia prattle on and on about her day and her weekend at Eleanor’s. He put his whole being into listening for once, asking questions in pauses or adding things here and there. She seemed to notice, and her enthusiasm only grew and grew, Georgia’s gestures becoming more and more wild, until Louis had to shush her, laughing all the while, ignoring the pointed glares they were getting from the other passengers.

Reaching their stop, Louis collected their belongings and manoeuvred them towards the escalators. It wasn’t peak hour so it was hardly as though they were being pressed together or shoved around, but that didn’t mean Louis wasn’t relieved once they actually cleared the station. They crossed a road, and then two more, and then…

Fuck.

There was Zayn, leaning against the wall of Starbucks, casual as anything.

His hair was longer, Louis noted, his undercut growing out. A cigarette was between his lips and with his sunglasses and leg crooked up against the wall, he honestly looked like he’d stepped straight off a catwalk.

Georgia hadn’t seen him yet. Pulling her up with a sharp tug, Louis swallowed past the lump in his throat and pointed. “Who’s that, love?”

She frowned in the direction he was pointing. Her face then split into a look of wonder. “Zaynie!”

The twenty-five-year-old jumped at the screech, eyes quickly finding the source, grinning as he tucked his sunglasses into his pocket. He was very obviously still looking for Louis when Georgia collided with his legs, nearly sending them both to the ground. Zayn hastily scrabbled at the wall, finally finding purchase and regaining his balance. It was funny, Louis couldn’t deny it, but he did his best to keep his face neutral.

A simple flashback to Liam crying in his bed was enough to accomplish that, all trace of humour being wiped from his mind.

Which was why, when he reached where the pair were crouching, he had no problem in keeping his voice painfully clipped. “Zayn.”

Zayn visibly shrunk in on himself. His arms were still wrapped around Georgia but he almost seemed smaller than her. “Hey Lou’,” he greeted weakly.

“It’s Louis,” he corrected snidely. “Or at least, it is to you.”

Zayn nodded meekly as he returned to his feet, Georgia gripping onto his hand like a lifeline. Good riddance if it worked.

“You got a plan?” Louis demanded impatiently.

Louis…” Even before he started, Zayn seemed to realise it was useless, shaking his head. “Thought we might go see a movie,” he tried instead. “Like, a kids’ one, obviously, if that’s okay with you…?”

Louis shrugged a shoulder. “Whatever you want.”

Zayn blinked in surprise. “You sure?”

Louis rolled his eyes more out of instinct that anything else. “Zayn, please, I trust you.”

“You what?”

Zayn looked as startled as Louis felt. Yeah, he hadn’t meant to say that. Eventually, he sighed. “Look, I may not like you, but I trust you.” He consulted his phone. “Text me when you’re done yeah? No later than six-thirty!”

With that, Louis spun on his heel and marched off. Because, dammit, if he looked at Zayn for any longer, he might actually start consider forgiving the fucker.

 

***

 

So maybe ordering a ridiculous amount of ice-cream from Haagen-Dazs was not how most adults would spend a free afternoon but fuck them. To Louis, it was absolute heaven. This had been his afternoon off and he had spent it however he’d damn well pleased. And yes, ice-cream had been consumed, and yes, he would be sure to be feeling it for the rest of the foreseeable future.

Worth. It.

If Louis was honest though, it was more the ability to simply sit and breathe that had meant more to him. To be able to sit in the middle of a crowded café and not keep a second eye trained on his daughter. To be able to open his phone and simply scroll down tumblr. Sure, the website was mostly full of batshit people he couldn’t make head or tail of, but if he searched the right tags, there were phenomenal design ideas tucked away in there. All in all, it had simply been the peace for which he had been most thankful.

But he was headed back to reality; reality which now had a Zayn-shaped stamp in it.

Something wrapped around his leg and it didn’t take a genius to work out what the particular something was. Glancing down, Louis’ suspicions were confirmed when he saw Georgia beaming up at him, eyes brighter than they had been months. Zayn was only a couple of feet behind her, her schoolbag tucked under his arm.

“Were you good for Zayn?” Louis asked, Georgia nodding firmly.

“She was,” Zayn agreed.

“Did I ask you?” Louis snapped, glaring over his daughter’s head, silently gloating as Zayn physically flinched.

Daddy!” Georgia’s voice was appalled and her frown frighteningly severe. “That was mean! You said we had to be nice to everyone!”

Louis gaped. “I…”

“S’alright little G,” Zayn murmured, reaching out - one eye trained on Louis as if waiting for him to lash out – and stroking her hair.

“No it’s not!” Georgia protested, folding her arms. “Say sorry Daddy, that wasn’t nice!”

Sorry,” Louis spat, sounding anything but.

Daddy,” Georgia warned in a tone that so perfectly echoed his own. “That’s not a real sorry. Give Zayn a hug.”

“Georgia, n-” “That’s not-”

“Hug!”

Her stomping foot and quivering finger were too adorable to ignore. Louis was powerless to resist. Muttering profanities under his breath, Louis took two steps forward and crushed Zayn in his arms.

The next second he all but crumpled.

Because this was too familiar. He’d been here too many times.

Zayn’s arms had always been a place of comfort and safety. If Louis had felt like sniffling, it had been Zayn’s shirt he would sniffle into. The smell of Zayn’s cologne was engraved into his memories, the way Zayn’s bones shifted as he tightened his hold – always too bony on his often too thin frame. The scrape of Zayn’s stubble against his cheek, the ways his hands always laid spread on his back, rather than fisted in his shirt like Liam’s did. It was so Zayn and it hurt. Fuck, did it hurt.

Fuck you Malik,” Louis choked out as he ripped himself away. He pretended not to see Zayn’s tears as much as he pretended not to feel his own, hands casually coming to cover Georgia’s ears. “Fuck you.”

Removing his hands from Georgia’s head and pasting a smile on his face for her sake, Louis instructed her to get her bag and say goodbye. The obvious plea was right there on her lips, but whatever Georgia saw in his face made her reconsider and she meekly did as asked. She squeezed Zayn as tightly as she could and then returned to Louis’ side, slipping her hand into his. Louis gripped it for all it was worth.

“See you,” he managed.

“Bye,” Zayn gasped in return.

They were pathetic, Louis thought as they went their separate ways. Absolutely pathetic.

Because, despite all Zayn had done, despite all the heartbreak, despite all the pain, Louis was already missing him.

 

***

 

It was nearly dark when Louis caught sight of their flat. Georgia was still holding onto his hand and swinging it from time to time, but she’d long since gone quiet. The combination of running out of things to say and tiredness was a deadly one. Reaching into his pockets to retrieve his keys, Louis tapped his baby girl’s hand once with his thumb to get her attention.

“Now, what was my rule for today again?”

Georgia sighed and Louis felt more awful than usual. “That I don’t tell Liam. It’s a secret.”

“Good girl,” Louis praised softly, stroking her cheek gently and stepping towards the door only to be pulled back. He turned and found Georgia staring at the ground, feet shuffling. “Georgie?”

“…why can’t I tell Liam?”

Louis sighed himself, crouching down and letting her eyes find his. “Because, love, it’s not fair. It’s not fair to Liam.”

She frowned. “Why?”

“Because…” How did he explain something he himself didn’t even understand? “Because Liam and Zayn…had a fight, yeah? And there are a lot of things they need to talk about but they need to do it alone, just Liam and Zayn, right? And…”

Louis couldn’t think of an explanation. Because he didn’t know. He had no idea what had, what still was, going through Zayn’s head. Nor did he know what was going through Liam’s. He firmly believed with everything he had that if Zayn came back and apologised and explained himself, Liam would forgive him, no questions asked. But, with every week that passed, that belief grew a little bit weaker. How long was long enough for Liam to move on? How long was enough for Liam to start questioning everything he and Zayn had ever shared, started questioning how much, if any of it, had been real?

“Daddy?”

Georgia’s voice was timid and Louis brought her into his arms, heart swelling when she came easily. “Baby, I don’t know,” he finally admitted. “I don’t know why Zayn went away but I know it’s something that Zayn has to tell Liam himself when he’s ready and Liam…Liam’s sad that Zayn left because Liam loved him the most, the most out of all of us. And Liam would be very sad if he found out Zayn was seeing us first.”

“Because Zayn is his favourite and Liam wants to be Zayn’s favourite too?”

Louis pushed Georgia away, mulling over her words while he studied her closely, a little taken aback. “Yeah…” he said slowly. “That’s right. What made you think of that?”

“Mummy said it,” she admitted. “She said that even if she loved Stuart very much, which she promised she doesn’t yet, and maybe one day Stuart became my other daddy that you were always gonna be my favourite daddy and I would always love you more.”

Note to self: thank Eleanor.

Also, note to self: what the fuck?! How serious were El and Stuart?!

“Mummy’s absolutely right!” Louis said, returning to his feet and fossicking for the key to the front door. “I will always be the best daddy, right?”

“Always!” Georgia quipped, scrambling up the stairs behind him and wrapping her arms around his legs. “I love you Daddy!”

Louis bit his lip at that admission, sliding the key into the lock and pushing the door open. “Love you too baby! So remember, we’re not gonna tel-”

“There you are!”

Louis jumped a mile, hand flying to his chest as his heart threatened to explode. Whirling around, he saw Liam walking down the hallway, the beginnings of a frown on his face. “Jesus Christ Li!”

“Oi, none of that!” Liam scolded, ushering them in and helping Georgia out of her blazer. “You two’re home late.”

“I went to the movies!” Georgia announced, going to continue before catching Louis’ pointed look and snapping her mouth shut.

“What are you doing here Liam?” Louis cut in, panicking because he was so not prepared for this.

Liam’s frown only became more pronounced. “Thought I’d make dinner. Didn’t realise you’d be going out. S’not like you.”

Louis shrugged stiffly, steering Georgia into the dining room, the smell of something delicious bombarding his nose. “Thought we’d do something different. Just Georgie and me, day out together and all.”

“Sounds…nice,” Liam offered, though he was definitely clued onto the fact that something was wrong. God dammit. “Alright Lou’?”

“Always,” he said around a fake grin, telling himself to calm down already. “Bit of a long day maybe is all.”

Liam gave Louis a look that clearly meant “later” – fuck – before waving the subject aside. “Okay, so, how was the movie? Which one did you see?”

“Uh…”

Shit.

Louis turned to look at Georgia. “What was it called again, darling?”

She looked particularly put on the spot. “Umm…I don’t know.”

Louis faked a laugh, slipping past Liam to start pulling plates from the cupboard. “We’re as useful us each other Payno! She gets it from me,” he added in a stage whisper, causing Georgia to laugh.

“It was the one with the happy one and the sad and the red angry, grumpy man,” she managed to offer, sparking a memory in Louis’ mind, a poster or something.

“That’s right!” he said, snapping his fingers. “Inside Out, I think.”

“Oh, that one!” Liam said, handing some cutlery to Georgia and directing her to the table as Louis started plating up – chicken parmigiana, his favourite. “I thought that looked kinda interesting. Was it any good?”

Louis blanked. “I…”

“It was funny!” Georgia called from the dining room, skipping back to Liam’s side. “I liked Bing Bong! And, and there was a girl called Riley. There’s a Riley is my class Liam!”

Something Georgia had told him on the tube suddenly flashed into Louis’ head – thank God.

“I would die for Riley!” he proclaimed, striking a silly pose.

Georgia erupted into a fit of giggles, clapping her hands delightedly while Liam merely looked lost. Louis shrugged, Liam taking it as kids-movies-right? while to Louis it was I-have-no-clue-either.

Shooing Georgia to the table, a plate in each hand, they waited for Liam before diving in. Unfortunately for Louis, despite how awesome chicken parmigiana was, he didn’t really have the appetite for it. Not with the ridiculous amount of ice-cream still churning in his gut that is. He pushed it around his plate, occasionally taking a bite or so, but he mainly kept conversation going. Georgia was doing an excellent job of keeping the conversation Zayn-free and he could only count it as a relief. Liam was laughing along with her, hoisting the little girl into his lap when she was finished eating. She squealed at his tickling hands until he let up, squeezing her tightly. Georgia burrowed into his shoulder, arms coming to wrap around his neck.

That’s when Louis saw it.

Liam went rigid, head all but ripping itself away from where it had been resting on Georgia’s head.

His eyes, when they met Louis’, were fierce.

“Li?”

“She…”

“She what?” Louis prompted, painfully aware of how still the room had gotten.

“She smells like Zayn.”

And…fuck! Louis hadn’t thought of that. Shit, shit, shit!

Georgia had been with Zayn nearly two hours. God knows how much she’d been missing him these past few months; she’d undoubtedly spent the whole movie curled up in his lap. His cologne would be clinging to her clothes, her hair, every part of her.

And Liam would recognise it. Of course he would. He’d only been wrapped in that smell himself every day for nearly five years!

Shit! What the fuck was he supposed to say?!

“It’s Harry’s!”

Two pairs of eyes suddenly snapped to Georgia, whose own eyes were wide.

“I’m sorry, what darling?” Liam asked, voice soft as it always was with her.

“Harry smells like Zayn,” Georgia said quickly, eyes flying to Louis desperately. “And…and I hug Harry sometimes. He’s really cuddly.”

“Like a teddy bear,” Louis hastily added, Liam’s eyes immediately flying back to him, silently demanding an answer to every question Louis knew he had. “I…We went to the bakery after school because…Georgia hadn’t got to see Harry this morning, cause she was at Eleanor’s right? And, like, Harry’s really hands-on so yeah, maybe she got a hug cause he spoils her. He…” Louis let his eyes drop and his hands twist together, because yes, he could play Liam so, so well. “…Sometimes he…normally he smells like the bakery but sometimes he…”

“Lou’…” Liam’s voice was pained and it made Louis want to drown himself. “Oh Lou. He’s got the same cologne as Zayn, doesn’t he?”

Louis shrugged awkwardly, eyes still downcast so he wouldn’t have to see Liam’s face as he flat out lied to him. “I don’t know. I think, it’s only sometimes. Maybe he borrows Ed’s?”

Liam sighed, Louis cautiously peeking out to watch as he dropped his head back onto Georgia’s. “We’re a mess, aren’t we?”

“Maybe a little,” Louis sniffled. He then shook his head, gathering the plates. “Come on Georgia. It’s late. Bath and bed please.”

She nodded, giving Liam one last squeeze before silently sliding off his lap. Their silence continued all through bath time, as Louis helped her wash her hair and inspected her teeth once she’d finished brushing them. He tucked her in and was preparing to read her a story when the book was plucked from his hands. Surprised, Louis could only obey when Georgia patted the bed next to her. She rested her head on his shoulder, a hand coming to toy with the hem of his shirt.

“I understand now Daddy.”

“Hmm?”

“Why Zayn is a secret,” she offered, voice kept hushed and low. “Because he makes Liam sad. I like Zayn Daddy…but I don’t like that he makes Liam cry.”

“Georgia…”

She shook her head. “So even though Zayn makes me happy I won’t talk about him because I don’t want Liam to be sad. I want to wait until Liam sees Zayn so Zayn can make him happy himself. Is that okay Daddy?”

Louis wrapped his arms around her as tightly as he could. “That is more than okay Georgia. I think that’s what Liam would want. Thank you baby, I love you.”

“Love you too.”

Louis smiled, kissing her before tucking the covers under her chin. “Sleep tight and remember, you be good for Liam tomorrow. I’ll be working so you might not see me but I’ll still know if you’re being cheeky, you hear?”

“…will you come get me from school?”

Louis felt his smile drop at her dejected tone and quickly set it firmly back in place. “’fraid not, missy! Daddy has a lot of work to do, lots of building. But we’ll play in the afternoon, I swear.”

Her bottom lip looked like it might be trembling and Louis forced himself to ignore it. “If you’re not here when I wake up Daddy…”

“Liam will be, promise,” he said, kissing her once more. “Who knows,” Louis added with a wink, “I might even let Liam sleep in my bed with me.”

Georgia gasped loudly, pulling an exaggerated shocked face. “Daddy!”

With one last kiss, Louis slipped out the door, flipping off the light and making his way back down the hall. Liam had already washed the dishes and was sitting in front of the telly, one of televisions many police dramas on the screen. He caught sight of Louis the instant he entered the room and opened his arms, letting Louis flop down beside him and lean heavily into his side.

“Sorry about dinner.”

“S’alright,” Louis mumbled because God knew he was the one in the wrong here.

“But,” Liam continued, bumping his shoulder and causing Louis to look up at him. “You went to the bakery and saw Harry. That’s good, innit? Did you get his number?”

“No,” Louis huffed, Liam laughing at his put-out expression.

“But you stuffed yourself with his food!” At Louis’ blank face, Liam merely rolled his eyes. “I’m not blind Louis. You didn’t touch your dinner. Too full on Harry’s baked goods? If you were Georgia, I’d be telling you off.”

Louis pinched Liam’s stomach. “How is that not what you’re doing right now?”

“Shut up Tommo,” Liam laughed, shoving him away. “Anyways, where’s my thank you for saving your arse and playing house husband?”

That made Louis sober and he nodded, settling back into Liam’s chest. “Yeah actually, thanks Li. Really mate, you saved my life. I didn’t know what I was gonna do.”

“It’s alright Louis,” Liam whispered, rubbing his shoulder tenderly with a thumb. “We got it covered, we made it work.”

“How did you make it work?” Louis asked curiously, blinking up at his best friend.

“Oh, easy,” Liam replied breezily. “Betty wanted to cut her hours because she’s going on maternity leave in a month so we’re basically splitting my shift between the two of us. It’s a little less money for me but it’s only a month. Besides,” he added with a shrug, “It’s not like I’m not already up to date with repayments and all that. Even started saving a bit!”

Louis’ face contorted in a deep scowl. Oh, how lucky for Liam. How wonderful for him. Wasn’t life swell?

But then he had to bite his cheek because none of that was Liam’s fault.

“That’s great Liam!” he said instead, smiling before pushing himself up, back cracking as he stretched his arms overhead. “Now, I’m turning in early because I’ve gotta be up at arse-crack of dawn.”

Liam grimaced. “Lovely image Lou’, now piss off.”

Louis kicked him as he passed. He then paused at his doorway. “Hey Li?”

“Yeah?” came the distracted reply.

Louis swayed indecisively for a moment. “Don’t stay on the couch, yeah? My bed fits two.”

***

Chapter Text

It was still dark when Louis’ alarm blared from the bedside table. Groaning, Louis glared it, wondering if it would cease if he did so for long enough. Shifting, he then paused when he felt a weight behind him. Looking over his shoulder, Louis blinked in surprise to see Liam lying beside him. Yes, he’d invited him into the bed but Louis hadn’t expected him to actually do it. Louis must have looked particularly miserable last night. Not to mention exhausted, if the fact that he hadn’t even noticed Liam joining him in bed was anything to go by.

Lou’…I swear to God…” Liam’s voice was slurred, disorientated but annoyed all at the same time.

Louis barked out a laugh, earning him a one eyed glare.

Louis.” Liam’s voice was firmer this time. “Make it stop.”

The way the ‘stop’ turned into a whine at the end caused Liam’s order to lose any power it may have held but Louis acquiesced nonetheless. Grabbing his phone from the side of the bed, Louis punched in the code, the blissful quiet returning.

“Thanks babe.”

“Anytime honey.”

Liam snorted, tilting his head so as to give Louis his attention. “You planning on keeping me?”

“Depends,” Louis shot back, leaning teasingly close. “How well do you a treat a man, Payno?”

The question was a mistake – holy fuck was it one – but before Louis had to reap the consequences, his bedroom door was stealthily pushed open. They probably wouldn’t have noticed, had not the door hinge creaked and a loud squeak followed.

“Georgia-Rose Tomlinson!” Louis called, frowning through the darkness. “What are you doing out of bed this early?”

Tiny scuffs sounded and then the little girl scrambled onto the bed. She paused when she bumped into two pairs of feet. “Liam?” the confusion in her voice was clear.

“I’m here love,” Liam assured, reaching out and fumbling until he found her shoulder. “Come up here.”

Liam,” Louis warned, even as he helped Georgia crawl into the space between them. “Little Miss Tomlinsons should not be up at this time.”

“But Daddy, I wanted to see you,” Georgia pleaded. “I wanted to see you before you went to work.”

Louis hummed in displeasure but drew her close. “Baby, I’m going to be getting up very early. You can’t do this every day or you’ll be too tired to go to school.”

“But-”

“Uh uh,” he interrupted, tapping her nose. “I said no, so no. Liam can take you to school just as well as I can and I know it’s not the same but it’s only two weeks. You can do it for two weeks, yeah?”

“…do I have to?”

She sounded so dejected, it tore at Louis’ heart. “Georgia,” Liam cooed, shuffling closer and wrapping an arm around her. “Lou’ doesn’t want to leave you either sweetheart but that’s just how work is. It’s only for a little while, okay? And then Louis will be home again, like he always is. He loves you very much.”

“I know,” she mumbled.

“Love you both,” Louis said, checking the time on his phone. “Right, I’ve got five minutes before I have to properly get ready so come cuddle me!”

Georgia giggled and flopped onto his chest, squeezing him as tight as she could. Louis laughed, hugging her back. The next minute Liam’s arms were around both of them and…yeah, that was more than okay. Pushing Georgia into the middle, Louis let Liam ensnare them both. These were the moments he needed more of.

 

***

 

It was raining - such a surprise for London, not - and Harry was staring out the bakery window absently. He knew it was a terrible cliché but the thought only made him sigh heavily, thereby adding to the image.

The reason for his moping?

Louis Tomlinson.

If Niall knew, he’d hit him. Actually, Niall probably did already know and Harry just looked so pathetic that his friend had left him alone.

Because Harry hadn’t seen Louis in nearly a week and a half. And yes, he was well aware of how that sounded. But it was starting to make him uneasy. When Louis and Georgia hadn’t popped in at their usual time on Thursday afternoon, Harry had wondered if maybe Louis had been embarrassed by their last conversation. Then Louis hadn’t stopped by the next Monday either. It was then that Harry realised that he hadn’t seen the pair at all. Not one single morning or afternoon had Georgia rapped on the window and waved at him cheerily, while Louis gave his own awkward wave. He hadn’t seen them walk to or from school. It was as though the Tomlinsons had disappeared from the face of the planet.

Which was why Harry was looking so keenly this Thursday. His gaze flickered to the clock once more. A little late but not enough to be a sign they weren’t coming.

God, was he a stalker? Did this count as stalking? Harry grimaced.

Shaking his head, Harry pushed himself up and stretched his back until it cracked satisfactorily. He had just decided to neaten the shelves for lack of anything else to do when a very familiar voice broke through the air.

Harry!”

“Hey my little Ros…”

Harry’s greeting died on the tip of his tongue because while that was Georgia, that was definitely not Louis with her. The man holding Georgia’s hand today was devastatingly handsome. With those soulful brown eyes, perfect buzz cut, immaculate suit…

Liam.

It had to be.

“Hi Harry!” Georgia sang, forearms resting on the counter as she stood on the counter’s skirting so as to see him properly.

“Baby, don’t stand on that,” the mystery man said softly, tugging her back and then whisking her into his arms. “There, better?”

“Yep! Thanks Li’!” Georgia chirped.

Harry gulped. Shit, it was him.

“Harry, was it?” Liam asked, extending a hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Harry shook it out of politeness. “Hopefully, uh, all good.”

“All great,” Liam promised, setting Georgia back down and letting her look at the displays. “Only a shame Georgia hasn’t dragged me down here earlier. She says she comes here all the time?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Twice a week,” Harry replied, before shrugging. “She does, like, wave at the window every day though.”

Liam’s eyes widened in surprise. “Oh, does she? She never said! Sorry! I didn’t know.” His words were all garbled together. “I’ve been taking her to school because Lou’s-”

Lou 

Liam called him ‘Lou’.

“-working. If I’d known, we would’ve popped in earlier.”

“It’s fine,” Harry mumbled, torn between wanting to hate this man and being wooed by him. He seemed genuinely nice, which Harry found…odd.

“Have you picked something?” Liam called to Georgia, gesturing with a hand and causing something to glint as it caught the light.

Harry froze. A wedding ring.

What the hell?

Fuck, no.

No, Louis had never said that, never said that.

He must have stared for awhile because Liam noticed, following his gaze. He smiled, though it was somewhat sad which, again, odd. “Ah, I…” he rubbed his neck. “I’m keeping it safe for someone.”

“Oh.”

“Daddy doesn’t wear rings,” Georgia announced, bouncing back into the conversation, swinging on Liam’s arm. “He says they break at work with all the saws and hammers!”

“Oh.”

Only this time it was oh, that’s-why-Liam’s-wearing-it-not-Louis rather than oh, maybe-they’re-not-together?-please-God-please?

“What are we getting then Georgia?”

Georgia pointed out two different things and Liam nodded, handing Harry his credit card with a smile. Even as Harry swiped the card, he watched the pair intently. Liam was so different to Louis. He didn’t let Georgia leave his side, keeping her close instead and eyes ever-watchful. If she so much as scuffed her foot, Harry was sure Liam would know. Harry was willing to bet, on the other hand, that Louis lost Georgia every time they stepped into any establishment, probably out of sheer obliviousness. Liam’s tone was softer too, didn’t have that exhausted, frustrated edge that Louis’ always did. It made Harry’s hackles rise though because how could Liam be so carefree while Louis looked as though the whole world rested on his shoulders?

“Here you go,” he said, handing Liam his card back before going to grab their order.

“Oh, should I order for Louis?”

Harry straightened, raising his eyebrows. “Are you asking me?”

“Uh, yeah, I am,” Liam said with a nod, frowning down at Georgia when she tugged on his hand, impatient to find a booth.

“Louis usually lets her pick a table,” Harry stated, levelling Liam a look that was probably colder than acceptable given his position. “You’d know that if you came with him sometimes.”

Liam looked a little stunned by his sharpness. “Alright…?”

“Harry,” Georgia interrupted, clearly having decided Liam wasn’t going to be moved. “Where’s Niall?”

Harry smiled down at her. He could ignore Liam in favour of her cuteness. “Not here today I’m afraid Rosie. Promise to tell him you said hi!”

“Rosie?”

Harry raised his eyebrows challengingly at Liam’s questioning tone. To his credit, the other man merely held his hands up. Georgia, on the other hand, looked rather put out.

“But I wanted Liam to meet Niall too,” she complained. She then turned to Liam, one hand on her hip and the other out in front, not unlike a teacher scolding a rowdy student. Harry snickered, wondering where she’d seen that particular pose. “Niall is Harry’s best friend,” she told him. “They’re always together. But I don’t think they share a bed.”

Liam spluttered indignantly while Harry’s eyes merely widened slightly as the little girl looked his way.

“Do you sleep with Niall?”

Harry slapped a hand across his mouth to stop a laugh escaping, knowing that was not how Georgia had meant it.

“Because Daddy sleeps with Liam.”

Georgia!” Liam squeaked, flushing bright red.

Sleep together. Liam and Louis slept together. Harry took a deep breath. Right, okay. He could deal with that. He could deal with it. Like he’d been telling himself from the beginning, Louis wasn’t his. Louis had never been his. And, apparently, Louis had never even been an option.

“You fucked up Styles,” a voice in his head kindly informed him.

Harry firmly dismissed the voice, instead sliding Liam and Georgia’s order over the counter. Perhaps if he did that they’d leave him alone. Alone to mope and be miserable.

Whether he saw something in his face or if it was purely coincidence, Liam took the hint, collecting the plates and thanking Harry so politely it made his skin crawl. Their leave of the counter timed perfectly with the shop’s door being pushed open, something that relieved Harry to no end. Yes, a distraction. God knows he needed one. He smiled blindingly at the approaching elderly woman. Work, he could do that.

And he did. He did his job brilliantly. He was charming, he smiled, he laughed, he ducked and weaved around Perrie as she ran various goods to and fro. In fact, he was epitome of a model employee.

That is, until Louis walked in.

It wasn’t fair. It really wasn’t.

If you’d told Harry two months ago that he’d find steel capped boots and, of all things, high-visibility vests attractive, he would’ve laughed. But the combination was fucking deadly when it was worn by Louis Tomlinson. The boots only served to amplify the definition in his legs, the vest being worn over a short sleeved tee and – holy shit – Louis hadn’t been kidding when he’d said he had quite a few tattoos. They completely dominated his right arm and he was clearly making a start on the left. His hands were ingrained with a mixture of dirt, sawdust, and dried blood and his hair was dripping from the rain, but flattened in a way that left Harry in no doubt that Louis had been wearing a hard hat all day and why on earth was that attractive?!

Again, it wasn’t fair.

For the barest of moments, Harry thought Louis would look his way – send him a wave or smile. But no. Louis’ attention seemed entirely focused on his daughter and partner. Without hesitation, he strode over to where they were sitting and settled down next to Liam, an arm sliding around his shoulders easily even as he leant over to kiss Liam’s cheek.

“Hi love.”

Five minutes later, Harry tore out the door.

 

***

 

“So I met Harry.”

Louis looked up from where he was bent over tomorrow’s schedule. Liam was hovering in the doorway and Louis went to wave him in when he saw Liam catch sight of Zayn’s mural behind him, flinching minutely. Shit. Grabbing his diary, Louis abandoned his desk and took a hold of Liam’s wrist, dragging him back towards his own room. He pointed to his bed.

“Get comfy while I make us a cuppa.”

Returning five minutes later, Louis handed Liam his steaming cup before coming to sit on top of the covers, legs crossed.

“Lou…” Liam’s voice was hushed, “You don’t have to…I’m sorry I…”

“S’ fine,” Louis said with an impatient flick of his hand. “I heard enough of what went on in that room to not want to picture it either.”

Louis!

Liam’s screech had him grinning wickedly. Well, until Liam actually retaliated for once with, “Do you know Georgia told Harry you and I “sleep together”?”

Louis choked on his tea, hacking into his hand. “Georgia what?!

“She said Harry and Niall were best friends and wanted to know if they slept together like you and I did.”

Liam looked far too amused. Louis scowled at him. “You wish Payno!”

But Harry and Niall…That was a concept he’d never considered. Not that he was considering anything, Louis firmly told himself. Sure, he was one hundred and ten percent confident from some of his and Harry’s conversations that Harry was bi at the very least but he’d never actually thought as far as to whether Harry was single or not. Probably because he never really believed that he and Harry would go anywhere. Harry was young and attractive and unbearably hipster. Louis was old. He was plain, even if his arse was a sight to behold. He had a daughter. He had baggage. He wasn’t worth it.

A socked foot tapping his knee brought him back to the present.

“Alright there Louis? You zoned out mate.”

“Mmm, nothing.” Louis shook his head. “Anyways, you started this conversation with you met Harry.” He indicated for Liam to continue.

“Yeah, Harry…” Liam frowned, looking a little puzzled. “He’s…He wasn’t what I expected, to be honest. Like, when you described him Louis, he sounded really sweet but I…He’s kind of stand-off-ish, yeah?”

Louis matched Liam’s frown with his own. “Stand-off-ish? Li’, I’ve heard him apologise for being late to work because he rescued a cat in a drain, or that time he took a homeless guy to breakfast. He could be the modern day Jesus. No.” He snapped his fingers. “What’s the Buddhist monk guy? The dalai lama or whatever? That guy, that’s Harry.”

“Well, I guess I’ll take your word on that,” Liam eventually said, still frowning slightly. “’Cause yeah, not what he seemed like to me. Maybe he was just having a bad day?” he offered.

Louis hummed noncommittally, finishing his tea and slipping under the covers, Liam squawking when Louis’ icy toes found his legs. Louis laughed, leaning over his best friend to grab his laptop.

“Now!” he crowed, “Since we’re apparently, and also technically, sleeping together, that means we can act out the ultimate couple fantasy.”

He was met with a suspicious look. “And what might that be Tommo?”

“Cuddling in bed with ice-cream and binge-watching Netflix!”

“Oh thank God!” Liam proclaimed, snickering when Louis pouted at his theatrics. Without prompting, he collected Louis’ cup along with own, sliding out of bed. “Pick a series and I’ll get the ice-cream. Will we be needing bowls love?”

“No bowls but I draw the line at sharing spoons.”

Liam’s face screwed up in disgust. “Yeah, no. That’s just gross.”

Louis stared at him in disbelief. “You and Zayn never shared spoons?”

It took a moment but Liam beat down his tenseness at hearing Zayn’s name – good lad. “Nope, never.”

“Huh…” Louis said, surprised. “We did.”

Liam’s expression turned indignant. “You did what Louis?”

He threw a pillow at Liam. “Ice-cream Liam, now! And it’s not my fault I don’t care about germs as much as you.” As Liam left the room he smirked before shouting, “But if it makes you feel better, I never went anywhere near his dick!”

Needless to say, Louis found himself smothered with a pillow ten seconds later. And, no matter how much he denied it, Louis never quite believed Liam when he claimed that dropping ice-cream on his crotch had been entirely an accident. Nope, not at all.

 

***

 

Niall knew something was wrong the moment Harry burst into the flat, making straight for the kitchen with arms full of shopping bags. One, Harry wasn’t supposed to even finish his shift at the bakery for another hour and a half. And two, Harry was already opening bags of various flours and sugars and chocolate…Stress-baking. Harry was stress-baking. Throwing down his controller, Niall moved to the kitchen island.

“Harry?”

“I’m fine,” he replied shortly, running a hand through his curls. “I’m fine…fine, fine…Niall?”

The second he lifted his eyes so they could meet, Harry crumpled, frame hunching over as his head came to bury itself in his forearms. Niall swore, rounding the bench, prying Harry up and into his arms.

“Harry, Haz, hey,” he whispered, rubbing Harry’s back soothingly. “What’s wrong? Tell Uncle Niall, yeah?”

Harry bumped him playfully but didn’t raise his head. “I fucked up Niall, I so fucked up.”

Niall frowned, attempting to push Harry away but failing. Curse his ridiculous size. “Is this about Louis?” he guessed.

“I was so stupid,” Harry whimpered, fingers tightening in the back of his shirt. “You said I fall hard Ni’, and I do. I know I do. But Louis…I never thought anything of it but he’s like…I haven’t been attracted to someone in so long Niall and he…He just walked in like a model or a god or something. Like a stupid fairy tale.” He finally pulled away, scrubbing at his eyes despite the tears that continued to fall. “But I didn’t even know him Niall. I didn’t know anything about him before I fell for him! Serves me right, really.”

“What does?”

He’s married!” Harry cried, curling in on himself once more as a sob escaped.

Niall took a step back. “Hang on, no, Harry. He wouldn’t be. Are you sure?”

“Niall, I saw Liam’s wedding ring when he brought Georgia in today.”

“You saw Liam?” he repeated blankly.

“Does it matter?” Harry snapped, raking a hand through his hair once more before turning back to the bench, thumping down his measuring scales. “Liam came in with Georgia wearing his wedding ring. Talking about how he and Louis slept together. Oh, and did I mention Louis greeting him with a “hi love” and a kiss on the cheek, because I think that’s a pretty important part to leave out!”

It didn’t add up in Niall’s head, but maybe it did. To him, it sounded wrong, felt wrong, but what did he know? Sighing, he grabbed two beers from the fridge, handing one to Harry even as he reached over to grab a saucepan and two packets of chocolate.

“What do you need me to do?”

If Harry’s weak smile was anything to go by, being there was what Harry needed him to do. Niall could do that.

Chapter Text

Fuck. 

No seriously, fuck.

Louis stared down at his phone incredulously. He understood that he worked as a consultant, one of many architects usually dragged in to discuss buildings’ designs. He got that. That was his job. And yes, like most other free-lance architects in London, he didn’t have set business hours because you grabbed opportunities the second they were placed in front of you because if you didn’t there was always someone else who would reply within the hour.

But that didn’t mean that he was available for a consultation in one hour in a location that was going to take him half an hour to get to, assuming he didn’t hit traffic and broke a couple of speed limits!

If it hadn’t been such a long-term client, Louis would have told them exactly where to stick their impromptu meeting.

But now he had to be on the other side of London in less than fifty-five minutes and he wasn’t even dressed, but that wasn’t even the start of his problems because what the ever-loving hell was he supposed to do with Georgia?! Sure, once upon a time he would’ve torn out the flat, yelling to Zayn and Liam that he’d be back soon without so much as a by your leave but…That wasn’t an option anymore.

Louis swore under his breath, hands fisting in his hair.

The next second he was on his feet, stomping down the hallway towards his room.

“Georgia-Rose, bag, now, I do not have time to explain!”

The little girl looked up from where she was seated in front of the tv, appropriately puzzled. “Daddy?”

“Now, please!” he snapped, ripping off his tee and pulling a dress shirt from the cupboard.

He heard her footsteps stop in his doorway. “Why?”

Breathe Louis, breathe.

“Daddy has to go to work. He needs to go right now and I’m sorry baby but you have to come.”

Because, of course, today was the day Liam’s sisters had decided to come down and they were out gallivanting around the city. Louis rubbed his temples with a whine, already feeling the beginnings of a stress headache. He had just finished doing up the last button and was reaching for a tie when,

“Could Zaynie come watch me?” Georgia’s voice was timid, clearly unsure of where the line was drawn. Louis was unsure too. “I know we don’t talk about him but you don’t let me come with you to work Daddy because I’m not allowed at work and Liam’s busy so maybe…”

It wasn’t a bad idea, but, still…

“Pack your bag,” Louis repeated, gentler this time. “I promise to call Zayn if you do.”

Georgia zipped off and Louis sighed, tugging his phone out of his pocket. He considered lying, saying he’d called and no one had answered, that perhaps Zayn’s phone was off, but he needed help, needed it like he needed air.

He pressed the phone to his ear.

“…Zayn? Fuck it all, I need your help man…”

 

***

 

Louis didn’t know whether the gods had smiled upon him or laughed vindictively at him, but either way, by some freak coincidence Zayn had been not one suburb over when Louis’d called. He’d made it to the door with two minutes to spare and Louis would have cried tears of joy if he hadn’t been hastily plugging directions into his GPS and collecting files from his drawers. As it was, he’d barely said “hi” to his ex – ex, really? – friend before slamming the door shut behind him.

Now, one meeting and three hours later, Louis was turning back into his street, feeling absolutely exhausted.

But even as much as he wanted to shut down, he couldn’t, because his mind was still flying at one hundred miles an hour. Half-way through his meeting he’d panicked, suddenly imagining Liam deciding to pop round only to find Zayn sitting in the living room. He’d talked himself out of that one by reminding himself again and again that Liam and his sisters had dinner reservations that would take them out much longer than he would be out. Still, it didn’t stop the thought from niggling at the back of his mind, clawing at his throat, occasionally making his breath shallow.

Parking the car, giving a quick prayer when he found the spot he’d left hours ago still free – a modern day miracle – Louis collected his things and hastened to the front door. He let himself in, pausing when he realised that Zayn had let himself in earlier, and why the fuck did he still have a key?!

“Home!” he called simply as he toed off his shoes.

Daddy!” Georgia squealed, excited as always to see him.

Louis gave her a tired smile, thanking her softly when she took the folders out of his hands and led him down the hall. Eyeing him up with an oddly critical look, Georgia set the folders down on the dining table before gently pulling him into the kitchen.

“Zayn and I made you something.”

Her voice was a whisper, something that one, made Louis frown, but two, made Zayn pause in his washing of the dishes.

“Baby?” Louis inquired, crouching down in front of her. “Is something wrong?” He swore to God if Zayn had done something…

To his surprise, her hands simply found his face, cupping his cheeks for a moment before pulling him into a hug. Louis’ eyes flew to Zayn but he honestly looked just as worried, coming to crouch by Georgia himself.

“G?”

She shook her head, squeezing Louis tightly. “You just looked sad Daddy. Please don’t be sad. I’m hugging it better, yeah?”

Louis slammed his eyes shut, biting his lip to stop a sob escaping. Tentatively, a hand came to rest on his shoulder. It was a mistake though and Louis tore away, glaring at Zayn. Like Zayn hadn’t put them in this mess to start with! He could see Zayn’s mouth opening to apologise but Louis silenced him with a thunderous scowl.

His expression turned disgustingly sunny though as he swivelled back towards Georgia. “Thanks Georgie love. Your hug made me a lot better.”

“Really?” she asked hopefully, eyes wide.

Louis nodded. “Definitely,” he quipped, ignoring the way his head rushed and his knees ached as he got to his feet. Cheers stress, cheers. “Now!” He clapped his hands together loudly. “What did you make me?”

Georgia promptly zipped over to the fridge, pulling out a large bowl of…something. She nearly dropped it though, Zayn whisking it from her arms before she lost grip of it entirely.

“Carefully baby, it’s heavy, remember?”

Georgia grinned, wrapping herself around Zayn’s legs and Louis wished he could melt at the sight. Once upon a time, he would have.

“Wanna tell Louis what we made?” Zayn prompted, voice as thick and lazy as it had always been.

“It’s a mess!” Georgia announced.

Zayn barked out a laugh and Louis blinked in bewilderment. “A what?”

“She wanted to bake,” Zayn explained, placing the dish on the bench and retrieving three bowls. “So we tried to make a pavlova, like an Arabian one. But it didn’t work so it’s Eton Mess…but with all different fruits…?”

“Arabi Mess!” Georgia finished with a proud nod, Louis setting her on the counter as Zayn started to dish their monstrosity up.

“Arabian,” Zayn corrected softly.

“Arabian,” Georgia repeated carefully, beaming when Zayn praised her accordingly.

When he was handed a bowl, Louis sniffed it suspiciously. “So what actually is in it?”

Zayn chuckled and Louis’ heart clenched. “’S just yoghurt, our failed pavlova, so like smashed meringue I guess…and then some figs and pomegranates.”

Louis paused his stirrings. “I don’t own figs or pomegranates.”

Zayn rolled his eyes. “We got ‘em from the shops.”

Louis placed his bowl down very slowly. “You took Georgia out of the house?” His voice as a hiss.

“I took her to the movies,” Zayn countered, voice harsher than Louis had anticipated. “I thought a five minute walk wasn’t too different. What, think I’d lose her?”

No, it was the sheer audacity of what Zayn had done, but with the way Georgia’s eyes were going between the two of them like she was watching a tennis match, Louis dropped the subject.

And by dropping the subject, he meant pointedly dumping his bowl in the sink and announcing that he was going to work in his office.

 

***

 

“Lou’? Georgia wants to say goodnight before lights out.”

Louis’ head snapped up from where he was…God, what was he doing? He’d been filing at one stage, matching blueprints to interior designs the next but…Surely that hadn’t been…He looked at his watch, doing a double-take when he saw the time. 8:30P.M.?! That had to be a mistake! There was no way he…

His eyes flew to the door, where Zayn was standing, eyebrows knitted together. What had he just said? Georgia? Bed?

Shit!

8:30P.M.?!

Bed-time!

“Thanks Zayn!” Louis tossed over as his shoulder as he all but bolted down the hallway. Georgia was already tucked up in bed but she’d clearly been waiting for him, sighing in relief when she saw him enter the room. Louis sat himself beside her, leaning forward to wrap her in his arms.

“Sorry baby,” he whispered, squeezing her tightly as guilt swamped him. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t even know what time it was! Did you and Zayn play together? Was that fun? What did you do?”

She laughed, squealing when he ran his stubble over her cheek. “Tickles!” she screamed, pushing him away and tugging him close all at the same time. “And too many questions Daddy! One at a time!”

“Well I don’t have time now, do I? Gotta squeeze it all in.” He emphasised ‘squeeze’ by positively squishing her.

“Heavy, heavy!” Georgia protested, a giggling mess under him. “Get off Daddy!”

Louis laughed, gently adding just a little more weight. “No! I’m gonna flatten you into a pancake, baby girl.”

“You don’t even like pancakes!”

“I do too!”

“No you don’t! Not the chocolate ones, anyway.”

“Well, no,” Louis acquiesced, pulling a face. “I don’t like those ones because they’re too sweet.”

Georgia poked her tongue out. “Harry says you don’t like them because you’re boring!”

Louis gave an offended gasp and she collapsed into giggles once more. Kissing her before pulling away, Louis went to ask when that particular conversation with Harry had occurred but those thoughts were short-tracked by the henna designs drawn up both of Georgia’s arms. They were as intricate and perfect as always, design so stark against her white skin, the messy imperfections where Georgia had attempted, once more, to colour it in. Wordlessly, he took her arms into his hand, gently tracing the patterns with his fingers.

“Is it okay Daddy?” Georgia asked, squirming in her bed. “I asked Zayn to do it, I promise! And we made extra sure the pens were the wash off ones and I was gonna wash them off in the bath but Zayn said no bath and that I could bath in the morning.”

…which was amazing foresight because yeah, if Louis had kicked up such a stink over Zayn taking Georgia to the shops, putting her in the bath had probably been well above limits. Not that Zayn hadn’t done it before. Why was everything so complicated all of a sudden?

“I’m not cross.” Was the first thing Louis said, watching as his daughter instantly relaxed. “I just wanted to look at them. They’re very pretty, aren’t they?” She nodded fervently. “We’ll wash them off in the morning, it’ll be fine.” Louis pulled his phone out, making Georgia smile. “Take a photo though? For us to keep?”

She positively beamed. “Yes please!”

A kiss and a cuddle later, Louis was flipping the light off and padding back down the hall. He paused when he caught sight of Zayn in the living room, knees drawn up, sketchbook resting on his thighs, telly on in the background. Huh. He’d actually figured Zayn would have gone home the second he’d told Louis to put Georgia to bed. A little uncertainly, Louis picked his way over, sitting down gingerly. Zayn barely spared him a glance before snapping his sketchbook shut and leaving the room.

Louis felt a stab of hurt. Right then.

“Here.”

Louis jerked at the voice, causing Zayn to snort loudly. Looking up, Louis found Zayn to be holding out a bowl and a mug. Louis accepted the tea and peered into the bowl, slinking down slightly in shame when he saw it was the “Arabian mess” from earlier.

Zayn raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, Georgia was pretty upset when you didn’t even try it.”

“Sorry,” Louis whispered, taking a sip of his tea and then crinkling his nose in disgust. Honestly, how could Zayn fuck up black tea that badly every time without fail?

“Whatever,” his friend replied with a shrug. “’S not like it was me who got upset.”

“No, but sorry, ‘cause you really helped me out today Zayn and I…” Louis stirred the yoghurt despondently. “I was a dick.” He met Zayn’s eyes. “Sorry, and thanks.”

Zayn eyed him up critically before sighing, placing his own coffee down and running a hand through his hair. “Lou’…”

“Louis.”

The snap was out before he knew it and Louis immediately bit his lip, quickly averting his gaze.

“Fine, Louis…Liam…he’s moved out, hasn’t he?”

That…wasn’t what he’d been expecting. Louis looked to his left at Zayn, a deep frown forming, a little confused when Zayn seemed for bear a similar one. “Yeah…What, like, do you blame him?”

For a second, Zayn’s expression became shuttered but then he waved it away. “I guess not but like…I didn’t think he would. I thought…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “I thought he’d stay with you.”

“Well he didn’t and like I said, I don’t blame him.” Louis folded his arms crossly, glancing at the television in time to see Arsenal score a goal against Tottenham.

“But…you turned that room into an office Lou’…”

He didn’t bother to correct Zayn this time; mostly because he was suddenly desperately hoping that Zayn wasn’t making the connection Liam had so conveniently been oblivious too. From what Louis could glean from sneaked glances under his lashes, he was. Fuck.

“You’re living here by yourself, aren’t you?”

Louis’ silence was answer enough. Zayn’s eyes widened.

Louis! Fucking hell mate, how? How the hell are you affording this?! God knows I fell behind on the rent often enough…I know what it costs Lou’. How?!”

“I make it work,” Louis ground out, arms folding tighter and tighter against his chest.

“Was today an example of ‘making it work’?” Zayn demanded mockingly, tucking a foot under his thigh so he was facing Louis more fully. “How many hours are you doing a week, Louis? Fifty? Sixty?”

An uncomfortable squirm.

“Closer to seventy?”

Louis squeezed his eyes shut. “Stop.”

“Jesus. Louis, what the actual fuck?!

Don’t.” Louis sounded so broken, so pleading, even to his own ears.

“You have a kid, Louis! You can’t spend that many hours away from her! What’s that gonna make her think? You can’t live like this!”

“I wouldn’t have to if it wasn’t for you!”

Louis didn’t know when he’d gotten to his feet but he had, hands curled into fists, shaking in silent fury because how dare he? He outright glared at Zayn, eyes narrowed and frame vibrating.

“Don’t sit there and act all holy when you’re the one who fucked this whole scenario up in the first place Zayn! You’re the one that left! You left us! When are you gonna own up to that? When are you gonna grow the balls to at least tell Liam why you walked out on him?” Louis stepped closer, trapping Zayn on the couch. “When are you gonna stop being such a fucking coward Malik?”

Zayn angrily pushed him away, scowling over his shoulder as he started gathering his belongings. “I don’t have to explain myself to you,” he spat.

“No, you don’t.”

The softness of Louis’ tone shocked both of them but Louis simply shook his head, toeing the floor.

“But,” he continued, voice barely above a whisper. “You do have to explain yourself to Liam. Zayn, five years. He deserves that much.”

Zayn’s eyes slid to the floor and maybe Louis imagined it, maybe he didn’t, but there could have been the barest incline of the head. Zayn took a breath, released it and then seemed to give up, shaking his head sadly. He licked his lips as a way to bide time but when he spoke, Louis knew his words weren’t what he’d originally planned.

“Look, I don’t know what we are anymore Louis, but I got Georgia a present, yeah, for her birthday. Can I like, at least come round again sometime and give it to her?”

Louis blinked. Birthday?

Zayn swore. “Louis, you’re kidding me? Tell me you didn’t forget? Please?”

“A month,” Louis said numbly, brain going impossibly fast and sluggishly slow all at once. “It’s in a month.”

“Thank fuck,” Zayn muttered, looking genuinely relieved. “But yeah, see her then?”

Louis swallowed thickly, not wanting to admit that no, he hadn’t actually remembered. He hadn’t remembered his own daughter’s birthday. “Yeah, sure, come round. She’d love it. You’re still her friend.”

“But not yours?”

Louis flinched. “Don’t. Not right now.”

Zayn seemed to accept that. He nodded, shoving the last of his belongings into his bag. He then teetered on his toes before taking two quick steps and flinging his arms around Louis. “Finish that shit we made,” Zayn ordered, Louis still too shocked to even think, let alone respond. “Eat Lou’, then sleep. Don’t work, sleep.”

The next second he was gone and Louis was left standing in the living room, arms full of air, the phantom feel of Zayn against his skin. His arms sagged and it was though all of Louis’ energy went with them. Running a hand across his face, Louis spared the bowl a split-second glance before abandoning the idea of eating. He didn’t have the energy. Instead, he flicked the telly off, strode into his room, stripped down to his briefs and crawled straight into bed. He’d deal with it in the morning.

 

***

 

Unlocking the flat, Liam quickly slipped inside, lest the brisk morning air follow him in. While Louis didn’t need him to take Georgia to school anymore, Liam had taken a whole month of half shifts, meaning his hours were delightfully short. He figured a full English fry-up would be the perfect start to a Monday morning. Give Louis a little bit of a break. Making for the kitchen, Liam screwed up his nose, wondering if he shouldn’t have brought some food with him actually. Louis’ fridge could sometimes be notoriously empty.

Passing the living room, Liam rolled his eyes at the cups and bowl left on the coffee table. Wait, cups? Back-tracking, Liam saw that it was true. One, two. He hadn’t miscounted. Collecting the dishes, his frown only became more pronounced when he found one of the mugs very clearly contained coffee. Louis didn’t drink coffee. Louis didn’t even own coffee. The only coffee in the flat was stashed somewhere in the back of the pantry, leftovers from Zayn.

Half of Liam wondered if Louis had finally gathered the courage to ask Harry around.

The other half wondered something much worse but no. Louis would never do that.

Rinsing the dishes, Liam inspected the fridge, relieved to see Louis had apparently gone shopping within the past week – small victories and all that. Peeking into Louis’ room, Liam smiled to see Louis was still fast asleep, burrowed into his sheets. The clothes on the floor was a first – Louis was weirdly meticulous about his clothing – but it laid more evidence towards the “Harry over” story so he allowed himself a smile.

Reaching Georgia’s room, Liam nuzzled the little girl awake. “Georgia?” he called softly, brushing her hair off her face tenderly. “Hey baby girl, up we get.”

“…’iam?” Her question was punctuated by a yawn.

“Hi,” he breathed, coaxing her up. “Thought we’d have a family breakfast as a surprise for Daddy. Sound good?”

It took her a moment to process his words, but when she did, Georgia scrambled out from under her covers excitedly. Her foot caught in her duvet though and Liam had to catch her before she collided with the floor.

“Careful!” he warned despite the fact that he was laughing. “Don’t want you bumping that noggin of your-…”

Liam’s words died as his breath suddenly caught in his throat. Because he’d seen it. He’d seen the ink on her arms. How could he not? And those patterns…Liam ran a shaking hand over the swirling henna design that had become smudged during the night. No. No, no, no. This wasn’t…Louis wouldn’t…He wouldn’t! But…the coffee, the cologne that day…Fuck.

“What the fuck?” he gasped, furiously blinking away tears – hurt, betrayal, anger; he didn’t know.

“Liam?” Georgia sounded terrified. Liam didn’t blame her. “Liam, I’m so sorry! I was gonna wash it off before you saw! And I…I wanted to tell you about Zayn but he makes you sad and I didn’t want to make you sad. Daddy said not to tell you! He made me promise! I promised I wouldn’t tell you! Please don’t be angry!”

Louis…

Louis had made her promise?

Made her promise to hide the fact that he and Zayn were still friends?

Made his six-year-old promise to lie to his best friend to, what, protect his other friend?!

After all Zayn had done!?

“Georgia, sorry darling, but can you please go wash your arms?”

“Liam…” She hiccoughed, bottom lip trembling but Liam could only shake his head.

“Please baby, just go shower. Please?”

She dashed off, tears tumbling down her cheeks and Liam bit back a sob of his own. He’d make it up to her, he swore he would, but not yet, not right now. Not right now because there was someone else he needed to talk to first.

 

***

 

Louis was startled awake by his pillow being ripped out from under his head. He made an indignant noise. That noise only raised in volume when he was abruptly whacked over the head by said pillow. Pushing the offending object away, Louis peered up to locate his attacker, finding Liam standing by the side of the bed.

“Liam! What the blo-”

“Louis, how could you?”

The question was quiet but it held so much weight. Liam sniffed and…holy fuck, he was crying. Sitting up, something that had his vision tilt momentarily, Louis reached out, only to be smacked away.

“Liam, what-”

“What’s wrong?” Liam’s voice was hurt, betrayed, devastated. “Do you even have to ask that Louis? Honestly, do you?!”

The increase in volume had Louis wincing, head pounding. “Liam, I don’t understand. What’s wrong? Why are you mad at me?”

“Yes, why?” Liam scoffed and it was so, so out of character for him. “Why, because you’ve been hiding so well?”

Louis tensed. What? Had Zayn tattled? Had he reached out only to report on Louis?

“God, if I hadn’t of met Harry myself, I’d be wondering if he was even real.”

Wait, what?

Louis struggled to track the conversation, physically inching back when Liam levelled him with the blackest look he’d ever seen. God, was Liam even capable of such hate? Up until this moment, Louis wouldn’t have thought so. What had he done? Jesus Christ, what had he done?

“Because otherwise I would have thought “Harry” was a disguise for meeting-with-Zayn.”

Louis eyes widened.

Oh shit.

He knew. Liam knew. How the fuck did he know?!

“Liam, I…”

Liam cut him off with a single hand gesture. “To be honest Louis, I don’t even care. You’ve always been one for crafting incredible stories. I don’t give an actual fuck what your excuses are this time. You can shove them up your arse for all I care.” He wrapped a hand around Louis’ arm and tugged him forward. “I thought you were my friend Tomlinson. But you’re not. You’re a sorry excuse for a friend Louis. In fact,” he said, pushing Louis away and getting to his feet. “You’re a sorry excuse for a human being.”

Watching Liam helplessly, Louis felt his heart shatter when Liam looked back one last time, eyes overflowing with disappointment.

“The least you could have done was not lied about it.”

Chapter Text

“Who’s next?”

“Me! Me!”

Harry looked up from where he was wiping his hands on his apron. He was at a point in his life where he was confident he could recognise Georgia-Rose’s voice anywhere – which was a problem, wasn’t it? – and hearing it now, he couldn’t comprehend it. Not when he couldn’t see Louis. Another sweeping gaze of the bakery confirmed that, yes, Louis Tomlinson was nowhere in sight.

Approaching the counter and leaning over, Georgia really was standing on the side, barely tall enough to see over. She was giving him a bright smile but there was something fragile about it.

“Georgia?” he asked blankly. “Where’s Daddy?”

And just like that, Georgia’s entire expression shut down. Her arms come up to hug her chest and she shook her head mutely. Eyes flying up wildly, Harry found that he couldn’t recognise the woman that was standing behind Georgia either. If anything, she looked just as concerned, chewing her lip uncertainly.

Louis?

Liam?

Where were they?!

Wincing at the long line of customers growing ever impatient and throwing a quick look over his shoulder, Harry swore when he saw no sign of back-up. Niall and Barbara could both be heard in the back, but from the sounds of it, something wasn’t turning out quite right.

Shit. 

What was he supposed to do?

“It’s okay Harry.”

Georgia’s voice had him whirling around and he saw the little girl slide him a pile of coins. Her bottom lip was trembling but she was doing her very best to smile.

Harry leant forward on his forearms, levelling his gaze with hers. “What’s okay darling?”

She shrugged, pointing at a heart-shaped macaron. “Can I just have a bikkie please? And something for Daddy?”

Harry was already reaching into the shelf when she decided to tack on:

“Something special ‘cause he’s really sad?”

Harry froze in his bagging up, swearing under his breath once more when he saw how long the line was becoming. He hurled a frantic “Niall!” over his shoulder even as he returned to the counter. “Where is your daddy?”

“Out there,” Georgia replied, pointing outside where, now that Harry knew where to look, he could see Louis scuffing a foot along the ground, a-…Was he smoking? Since when?! “He didn’t want to come in ‘cause his face is all red from crying.”

Harry’s breath caught. “Crying?

“Liam made him cry,” Georgia whispered, sniffling herself and standing on tiptoe to take the bag from Harry’s hands. He let her, still in too much shock to do otherwise.

Taking a risk, Harry lowered his voice, doubting whether he was even legally allowed to do this. “What did Liam do to make Louis cry?”

If anything, Georgia became even smaller, clutching the brown paper bag tightly. “I’m sorry!” she gasped, wiping tears from her eyes. “I promised I wouldn’t tell! I wasn’t allowed to tell!”

Alarm bells blared in Harry’s head because honestly, what the fuck? Before he could question Georgia further, she tore out of the store, flying out of the door and into Louis’ arms. It said mountains to Harry when Louis didn’t pat her on the head or take her hand; no, he dragged her up into his arms and folded himself into her, hugging her fiercely while his shoulders shook.

What the fuck had Liam done to him?

And where the hell was Niall?! Didn’t he know Harry needed to get out there?!

“Excuse me?”

The soft voice cut through the buzz that was Harry’s head and he jerked back, scratching his neck sheepishly when he realised it was his next customer that had spoken.

“Sorry, sorry,” he apologised profusely, placing Georgia’s money in the till. “Sorry about the delay. Welcome to Sweet Nothings, what can I get you?”

The woman opened her mouth and then closed it, lips pursing. She then leant forward conspiratorially, voice barely more than a murmur when she next spoke. “Are you friends with that girl’s father?”

Harry’s frame tightened. “Why?”

She levelled him with a look. “I think you know why. Because that,” she pointedly looked at where Georgia had disappeared to, “Quite frankly, was disturbing.”

Of course Niall chose that as his moment to arrive, completely demolishing the mood by slinging an arm around Harry’s shoulder and bellowing for the next customer to come forward. As Harry watched, the woman’s face shifted into something perfect, something manufactured, placing her order with a civil smile.

But her words stuck with Harry. Stuck with him because he couldn’t agree more.

 

***

 

Entering the classroom, Louis shooed Georgia off in the direction of her pigeon hole. She did as asked, albeit reluctantly, and Louis held in a sigh. He hadn’t been the greatest father this morning. Between Liam slamming the door, Louis being in tears when Georgia came out of the bathroom, and the pounding headache that would not stop…They weren’t having the best start to the day, simple as that. Hell, he hadn’t even felt up to seeing Harry because no. No way was he letting Harry see him like this; unkempt stubble, watery eyes, and no doubt a red nose.

Running a hand through his hair to hopefully tame it, Louis approached the desk where Miss Sarah as shuffling through her morning notes. Upon catching sight of him approaching, she looked up, face contorting into a slight frown.

“Are you alright Mr. Tomlinson?”

He held up a hand. “Fine,” he answered shortly. “I just have a quick question regarding…” Louis glanced over his shoulder quickly, relieved to see Georgia sitting beside a boy and talking animatedly, “…Georgia’s birthday.”

“Oh.” That clearly wasn’t what she’d thought but she glossed over her slip up easily enough, gaze flicking to the birthday chart stuck up to her left. “Next month, right?”

“Yeah,” he agreed, nodding. “I was just wondering, can I, like, bring in cupcakes, do a little party or something?”

Miss Sarah furrowed her brows, looking almost frustrated. “I’d love to say yes but I know we do have several allergy children this year and that causes complications.”

“Oh yeah, no, I get it,” Louis replied, hiding his disappointment behind a simple wave of the hand.

‘Harry! Harry!’ a voice in his head suddenly supplied. ‘Vegan, shitty, free-from Harry!’

“Hang on,” Louis called, catching the teacher just as she went to slip away, no doubt to catch another parent which…oops.

“Yes Mr. Tomlinson?”

He winced. Shit. “I mean, what if they were absolutely allergy free? Like, I have a…friend-” Harry had called them friends that time. “-who specialises in free-from baking.” She was frowning, but in thoughtfulness now. “Could he make something, like if you gave me a list of allergies I could pass on to him?”

“You’d have to make sure he followed the list exactly,” she stressed.

Louis nodded. “Yeah, totally.”

She wavered indecisively for a moment before finally nodding. “Alright. I’ll send the children’s allergy list to reception and you can pick it up on your way out. How does that sound?”

Louis gave her a charming smile, subconsciously widening it to a grin when she blushed. Ha ha, still got it Tommo. “Sounds fantastic Miss Sarah. Thank you so mu-”

Ow!” “Daddy!

And hell, he knew that voice.

Whirling around, Louis saw that the boy Georgia had been talking to was now on the floor while Georgia was still sitting but bawling her eyes out. Louis was speed-walking over even as Miss Sarah did the same.

“What happened here?” Miss Sarah asked.

“Georgia-Rose pushed me!” the little boy screeched, kicking his feet on the floor and making Louis’ top lip curl in distaste.

“I only did it because he licked me!” Georgia wailed, turning pleading eyes to Louis. “I told Toby to stop but he didn’t and he licked me and I didn’t like it! I don’t want him to lick me Daddy!”

She was in his arms even as Miss Sarah reprimanded her with a soft, “But that doesn’t mean we push him, sweetheart. You come and tell me, do you understand?”

She nodded but only seemed satisfied once Toby was made to sit in the corner, at which point she grinned smugly. “Georgia,” Louis scolded, though it wasn’t without a wicked grin of his own.

“I told you he was mean Daddy,” Georgia whispered, her best I-told-you-so face on.

Louis raised an eyebrow before remembering: “Is he the one that has to sit at the green table?”

“Yep! ‘Cause he snapped all Riley’s crayons and pulled my hair!”

“Okay, yeah, this once, you don’t have to be nice to him. I think he’s a stinky boy.”

Daddy!” Georgia gasped, “You can’t say that!”

It was true but it didn’t make Louis any more inclined to take it back, not when the little shit chose that very moment to turn around and poke his tongue out at them. Louis was halfway towards flipping the bird when he realised just how highly inappropriate that would be. He snatched his finger down and stuffed it into his pocket. Georgia patted his chest in a manner that almost seemed proud and he sincerely hoped she hadn’t seen what he’d been about to do and…shit, if she had and was proud of him for stopping that meant she already knew what flipping someone off was and there was no one she could have learnt that off except him. Fucking hell.

“Daddy?”

Blinking, Louis found Georgia now staring at him curiously…And when had she hopped off of his knee? “Baby?”

Her head tilted to the side quizzically. “It’s school time now Daddy, you have to go home…”

Looking around, Louis saw that it was true. All the other parents had left and each child was sitting at their desk in various states of stillness.

“Are you alright Daddy?” Georgia asked, button nose screwing up in worry even as she reached out to run two fingers feather-softly down the side of his face.

“All good, all good!” Louis announced, bouncing to his feet and giving Georgia one last kiss. He then backed out of the room with an awkward wave. Louis ran a hand over his face before shaking his head, hoping to dispel the fogginess and ignore what could have possibly been one of the most embarrassing moments of his life. It didn’t work and only ended up increasing the throbbing behind his pupils. Louis pushed through it and trekked his way back to reception, stopping at the desk and smiling at the receptionist behind it. What he didn’t anticipate was her eyes widening and the way she seemed ready to fly out of her seat.

“Sir?” she asked anxiously.

Louis raised an eyebrow. “Hi, Louis Tomlinson, father of Georgia-Rose, class 2. Miss Sarah said she was sending down an allergy list for me to collect?”

He was scrutinised for another long moment before the lady nodded, heading over to the printer and beckoning over someone from a different station. Louis recognised the new-comer as Frances, his usual go-to for all school matters. She was the one that he always spoke to regarding Liam or Eleanor picking up Georgia and if she had a habit of pinching his cheek or doting on him, well, he wasn’t exactly about to complain.

He did, however, think it a bit odd when she rounded the desk to hand him the paper, rather than just pass it over. It was even more odd when she slipped a hand around his elbow and guided him to a nearby chair, lowering him into it before crouching down in front of him. The hand to the forehead was what really did it though, Louis recoiling and wrinkling his nose.

“Oi!” he yelped, trying to smack her away in a balance between playfulness and seriousness. “What you playing at?”

“Where are you off to now Louis?” Frances asked, completely bypassing his question.

Louis struggled to come up with an answer. He was nearly at the point of having to consult his phone when it came to him. “Work!” he blurted. “I have a meeting across town.”

A dubious eyebrow was raised at him. “And you’re intending to drive there?”

Louis’ brow furrowed. “’Course. Weren’t make it otherwise.”

“Okay,” Frances said, so easily it made him squint at her in suspicion. She then patted his knee and got to her feet. “You want a cuppa before you go?”

A strange question but who was he to refuse free tea?

“Uh…yeah…? Black, no sugar, if that’s alright?”

Frances nodded at him and Louis shifted back until he was more comfortable. His eyes drifted shut and Louis decided he could let it slide, may as well since he had to wait for his tea. The odd phrase caught his attention but never enough to make him actually open his eyes.

“Looks peachy, doesn’t he?”

“He’s not driving like this, I wouldn’t let him.”

“No, he’s all alone, you see.”

“Oh good, Liam.”

Wait…Liam?

What did Liam have to do with…

“Oh shit…Lou’…”

Louis’ eyes flew open.

And just like, Liam was there. He was there, actually in front of Louis, dressed for work, hair immaculate, but eyes alight with worry. Louis almost didn’t believe it. No, scratch that, he didn’t believe it. Because why would Liam be here? Why would Liam be here after everything that happened this morning? Why would Liam be…Louis blinked, glancing around in confusion. Wait, he was still at the school. Why would Liam be at Georgia’s school at all? For that matter, why was Louis still there?

He must have asked that last question out loud because Liam’s grip on his knee tightened as he whipped around, calling to Frances, “How long has he been like this?”

“He’s been there nearly an hour now. He may have fallen asleep in the middle though, we weren’t entirely sure.”

The other receptionist nodded and Louis just didn’t understand. He had only been waiting. Waiting for his… “My tea!” he exclaimed, looking on either side of him and coming up blank. “Where’s my tea?”

Liam was suitably confused. “What tea?”

“I promised him tea,” Frances explained, rolling her eyes, which Louis thought was very unprofessional. “It was the only way I could think of to make him stay. Worked though, didn’t it?”

Louis scrunched his face up. “What do you mean “worked”? And you,” he added, pointing at Liam. “Why are you even here?”

Liam rolled his eyes, tugging Louis to his feet and out the door, calling a goodbye to the ladies behind the desk. “Because you’re sick,” he snapped, stuffing Louis into the passenger seat of his car.

Sick?” Louis screeched. “I am no such thing!”

“Louis, shut up.” Liam’s voice was like a knife and it had Louis snapping his mouth closed. “This is the last thing I need right now.”

There was a strained edge to Liam’s tone, forcing Louis to hunker down in his seat sullenly. Okay, so perhaps being ill explained some of the bizarre headaches and aching joints and inability to focus that he’d been experiencing over the weekend but he wasn’t so bad as to need Liam to look after him. He wasn’t five! He went to tell Liam as such when he saw how tightly his friend’s jaw was locked. Liam wasn’t over this morning, that much was clear. To be honest, Louis didn’t blame him. Louis had betrayed his trust in the worst way possible. Had the situations been reversed, he would have done much worse. He was lucky Liam was even willing to look at him at this point.

“Li’…”

“Save it Louis.”

He did. He kept his mouth shut when Liam detour-ed to Boots, kept quiet when he was led inside the flat, kept silent as Liam dumped everything on the bench carelessly and made it quite clear he was heading back to work. It was only Louis’ phone going off that stopped him, and even then he probably only stopped because Louis was staring at the device as if he had no idea as to how it worked. He physically jumped when Liam snatched it out of his hand.

“Tomlinson A.I.D., Liam Payne speaking,” he answered, all professionalism and civility. “Yes…yes, he is…No he won’t be…under the weather you see…no, quite badly I’m afraid…currently at the doctor’s…”

A stern look in Louis’ direction told Louis exactly where he would be going if he didn’t co-operate with Liam where he wanted, when he wanted, no questions asked.

“…we can reschedule…yes, an email would be best…I’ll have Mr. Tomlinson deal with it at his earliest convenience…Thank you for your understanding.”

Louis watched as Liam hung up the phone, spinning the device on his palm before reaching out to hand it back.

And Louis?

Louis burst into tears.

Lou?” Liam panicked, nearly dropping the device as he wrapped Louis in his arms. “Louis, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know,” Louis whimpered, because it was true. He had no fucking idea why he was crying, just that he was. He’d felt fine, a little tired maybe, but now…He pushed Liam away, curling in on himself and burying his face in his hands. Through the gaps in his fingers he could see Liam reaching for him, heart-breaking when he stopped short. Louis’ eyes flickered up, painfully hopeful, but Liam merely had the grace to look guilty before grabbing Louis’ arm and marching him to his bed.

“Sleep Louis,” he ordered, leaving the room and returning shortly with a box of tablets and a glass of water. “Take your medicine and sleep.”

Louis rolled the tablet in his hand dejectedly until Liam coughed pointedly. Louis hunched in on himself. “Liam, I’m sorry.”

Liam froze. He then whisked to his feet, eyes cold. “So am I.”

 

***

 

Louis didn’t remember much of the afternoon. It was as though he’d been running on borrowed time for days and the very second he’d stopped, his body had decided it had had enough. He’d burrowed under his duvet and hadn’t stirred except for the two – maybe three? – times Liam had come in to force medicine down his throat. They hadn’t spoken and Louis had been relieved that he’d slipped back into unconsciousness so quickly each time.

He was, however, awoken by an unusually heavy weight on his chest. Cracking open an eye, Louis couldn’t help but grin when he saw Georgia sitting on his chest, hands fisted on her hips as she frowned down at him.

“What have I done now baby?” he asked, coughing in the middle when he heard the hoarseness in his voice.

“You didn’t wash your hands,” she informed him primly.

“I…what?”

Georgia rolled her eyes. “If you don’t wash your hands, you get sick.” When she said it, it was so obvious.

“Of course darling,” Louis agreed with an eyeroll of his own. “Which is why you’re gonna wash your hands extra good after being in here with me, yeah?”

She nodded, moving off his chest obligingly when Louis attempted to sit up. He managed it and she crawled into his lap. “Daddy, I’m sorry.”

Louis halted his combing of her hair so he could twist her face, linking them eye-to-eye. “What are you sorry about? Did something happen?”

Her hands knotted together nervously and she squirmed under his piercing gaze. “I’m sorry I got you in trouble. I’m sorry I made Liam mad at you.”

Georgia-Rose,” Louis said firmly, catching sight of movement in the doorway but ignoring it in favour of his daughter. “You have nothing to be sorry for. I did the wrong thing. I hurt Liam’s feelings and I lied to him. What I did was very wrong and Liam has every right to be mad at me.” He shook his head. “I shouldn’t have let Zayn come over.”

“But I was the one what told you to call him!” she protested, looking almost distraught. “I was the one that made Zayn draw on my arms. It was me! You wouldn’t have even called Zaynie if it wasn’t for me!”

“You don’t know that,” Louis consoled, tucking her hair behind her ears gently.

She pouted. “Yes I do. You were gonna take me to work! I was the one who wanted Zayn over.”

“But I should have said no,” Louis pointed out, holding up a hand when she went to argue. “I’m the grown-up here Georgia, and I knew asking Zayn over was wrong. I should have done the right thing and said no. This is not your fault, do you understand? Promise me you understand.”

Georgia ducked her head. “I understand.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “But I’m still sorry I made Liam mad. I don’t want Liam to be mad at us.” She wrapped her arms around Louis’ neck. “And I don’t ever want to see you cry.”

Louis hugged her tightly. “Then I won’t cry anymore.”

She nodded against his chest. “Good.”

“Now-”

“Georgie, bed please love.”

Louis shied at Liam’s voice when it rung out across the room from the doorway. Georgia looked between Louis and Liam with wide eyes, her tiny fingers interlacing with Louis’ desperately but once he glanced at the clock and saw the time, he sighed. Another day. He’d missed a whole nother fucking day with his daughter. Two in row. He was aces at this parenting thing.

Stomping the emotions down, Louis shook his head ever so slightly at Georgia’s pleading face. “Sorry baby, but Liam’s right. You need to go to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”

For a horrible moment, she looked like she might cry, bottom lip wobbling traitorously. “Can’t I stay with you?”

This one Louis could be firm on. “No. I don’t want you getting sick.” He kissed both her cheeks. “Love you tons and see you in the morning. Now off you go poppet.”

Reluctantly, Georgia did as asked, sliding off the bed and trudging past Liam. When Louis dared to glance up at Liam, he was caught off guard by the odd expression he saw there. It was a mixture of hurt and anger still but there was also what almost looked like guilt and understanding. From the awkward silence that was only punctuated by Georgia crashing around in her bedroom, it was obvious neither of them knew what to say. In the end, Louis said the only thing he could think of:

“He didn’t ask to see me, you know?”

There was a long moment and then Liam nodded slowly. When he next spoke, there was a tad of warmth in his voice again.

“Sleep well Lou’. I’ll see you in the morning.”

 

***

Chapter Text

The sound of someone typing at a laptop was what brought Louis out of his slumber. Perhaps “brought out” was too light a phrase. It was more like a battle to consciousness, like someone drowning and using the last of their strength to kick to the surface. Ironically, waking up also felt like breaking through waves, Louis taking a deep breath as he woke. He hacked as the air rushed down his windpipe, making his eyes water and his head throb. Louis bit back a whine, pushing back the sheets and stumbling into his en suite. A trip to the loo and a splash of cold water had Louis ready to face Liam and he shuffled his way out into the dining room where he’d tracked his best mate to.

Liam eyed him up critically. “Alright Lou’?”

“Been better,” he admitted, wavering as he wondered if he had the energy to make himself a tea or not. Eventually he decided he did, especially if this conversation was going to go the way he thought it would. “Georgia at school?” Louis asked as he pottered about.

“Yeah,” Liam replied, frowning and leaning forward to scrutinise his screen more.

“Li, go to work,” Louis ordered softly, Liam’s eyes flying up just as the kettle boiled, giving Louis an excuse to look away.

“Excuse me?”

Louis waved his hand. “You’re busy with work, I can tell. And I know,” he added, dumping his tea bag in the bin, “That you could do it in half the time at your desk. You and laptops never did get on.”

Louis snickered at the pout that statement earned him. “It’s not my fault!” Liam whined. “The tracker pad thing never works and the keys are too small!”

“They’re the same size as a normal computer’s,” Louis told him for the hundredth time, rolling his eyes for good measure and sitting opposite his friend.

Liam merely shrugged. “Well, anyway, someone’s gotta make sure you don’t die.”

Louis scrunched up his nose. “I’m not gonna die. Don’t be dramatic.”

Liam levelled him with a look. “You had a pretty bad fever Lou’. Hell, you weren’t even lucid for any part of yesterday. I ended up calling one of them all night doctors just to make sure you were alright.” He then flushed. “The lady laughed and said I was “over-reacting”. Apparently all you’ve got is a bit of the flu.”

The grumbled “she thinks” made Louis cackle, whining when it made his headache spike. “Liam, no joking. Hurts,” he complained, burying his head in his hands.

“I should think so,” Liam replied, reaching across the table to lightly cuff him across the head. “The lady said you’d probably have things like headaches and joint pains. Sound about right?”

Louis shrugged, lifting his head enough to take a sip of his tea, wincing as it burnt his tongue. “Maybe. I thought it was just from working out at the Saville house, you know? Been awhile since I did manual labour. Properly out of shape these days and all.”

Liam hummed thoughtfully. “Working out in the rain and getting saturated probably didn’t help any either.”

Louis had to admit he was right, conceding the point with a simple nod. Taking another gulp of tea, Louis then leant back in his chair, raising his eyebrows when Liam attempted to look innocent.

“Don’t,” Louis sighed, shaking his head. “I know what you wanna ask…And yeah, I should tell you because…it was wrong. I know that Li’. But he…it’s…”

“With Georgia it’s harder,” Liam finished, surprising Louis slightly. Liam offered a half-shrug. “I heard Georgia yesterday. She misses him. She doesn’t understand.” He then scoffed. “I don’t understand.”

“Who the fuck does?” Louis muttered, drawing his feet onto the dining chair and hugging his knees. “It was just…like, Zayn text me first ages ago and I told him exactly what I thought about him. He left me alone after that and I thought, yeah, all good, this was him out of my life. Which was fine.”

Liam had the grace to look, of all things, sympathetic.

“It was fine,” Louis repeated firmly, though which of them he was trying to convince, he didn’t know. “But then there was that day that Georgie and I came to your football game, remember?” Liam nodded and Louis ran a hand through his hair. “She was crying Li’. Crying about how her mum didn’t want to see her, and how Zayn’d left, and then you’d left. I don’t blame you!” he snapped when Liam wilted. “Fuck knows I don’t blame you…but…she’s six. She didn’t…doesn’t…understand, and then Zayn text me again and I don’t know, I just said yes!” Louis squeezed his knees tighter. “And that opened the door, I s’pose. Once Georgia had seen him once, she thought it was okay to do it again. Which was why she asked Sunday-”

Okay, half-lie, but excusable in this instance. Liam was already looking guilty enough as it was.

“-and, again, like an idiot, I said yes.” Louis looked out across the room forlornly. “I’m such a fuck up Li’.” That made the twenty-five-year-old jump in response. “I see Zayn twice and exchange all of two sentences with him and…” Louis trailed off, fighting against the lump in his throat…and also blatantly ignoring his slight stretch of the truth.

His eyes flew open when he felt his chair being dragged backwards, voicing a protest that only stopped when he found Liam at eye-level.

“Careful who you’re calling a fuck up,” Liam warned, eyes flashing. “That could possibly be my best mate.”

Louis’ eyes shied to the floor. “Don’t feel like it,” he admitted.

“Yeah, me neither.” At Louis’ frown, Liam sighed, dropping into a crouch. “Look, I got right into you Louis and like…before I even knew anything. I didn’t even ask. You didn’t deserve that shit.”

Louis snorted. “Think I did. Trust me, I’d have done the same.”

That got a laugh out of Liam, who returned to his feet and headed into the kitchen, returning with a muffin a moment later. “Eat that,” he instructed before sliding into his original seat, “And yeah, you would have.” He went to type and then paused, blinking. “Hang on…”

Dutifully, Louis paused mid-bite, earning him a swift kick to the shin.

“Two sentences?” Liam repeated quizzically. “You mean you and Zayn…”

“Didn’t sit down to have coffee and a chat?” Louis asked, shaking his head when Liam made an affirmative gesture. He scoffed loudly. “Please. After what that wanker did? He’s not coming to me before he comes to you.”

Liam, the fucking saint, then actually said, “Maybe he needs someone to talk to? Before he comes to me?”

Louis narrowed his eyes. “If he does, then he can say it to whoever it is he’s fucked off to with. I couldn’t care less.” He took a rather aggressive bite of his muffin to back up his point.

“Don’t be like that,” Liam chided.

“I’ll be how I want!” Louis snapped, wincing at his own volume, which made Liam giggle. “And don’t giggle at me Payne, it’s unmanly!”

Liam rolled his eyes, returning his attention to his laptop once more. “We’re both gay Tommo. How much more unmanly can we get?”

“Excuse me!” Louis huffed, pushing his plate aside and grabbing his own laptop from the end of the table, thanking God when it still had battery enough to power on. “But there are twice as many men in a gay relationship as in a straight one. If anything, we’re doubley manly, yeah?”

“You’re full of shit,” Liam laughed, and then groaned as he messed up something.

“For fuck’s sake!” Louis exclaimed, half in amusement, half in frustration. “Liam, mate, go to work. Do your job. You sitting there is only going to make me want to rip that bloody thing out of your hands and do it myself!”

Liam eyed him up suspiciously. “Louis, are you trying to get rid of me?”

Louis gaped, the thought legitimately having never crossed his mind – this time. He then pouted. “Actually, no. And I am offended you thought that.”

Liam stared at him a moment longer before throwing his hands up. “Alright! I’ll head into the office. To be honest, I’ll probably be back here quicker, and finished, if I do it all there.”

“You know it,” Louis agreed under his breath. Liam heard him though, tugging on his hair. “Watch it!”

“Alright to pick up Georgia?”

Louis glanced at the time and then did a quick internal assessment, working out his aches and pains. “Yeah, think so.”

Liam teetered a moment longer, even as he was sliding things into his satchel. “Promise to call if you can’t? Or you feel worse again? And you will take your medicine, right? I left it on the bedside table. Should I text you when it’s time to text you? Yes, I’ll text you.”

Mum!” Louis cut in, rubbing his temples. “Yes, yes, and yes, to all of the above except texting me. Leave me alone, I promise to do it, I’m an adult.”

“Oh, so today you’re an adult,” Liam teased, waggling his eyebrows.

Louis lobbed a piece of his breakfast Liam’s way. “Piss off Payno.”

Mercifully, he did.

 

***

 

The flu, as it turned out, was extremely inconvenient. Not that Louis had never had the flu before, it had just been awhile since he’d gotten it. He got the seasonal cold that everyone else got but the flu was a step-up from that and he certainly noticed. He’d shamelessly spent most of Tuesday after Liam had left in his bed with his laptop. He’d only relocated to the couch once Georgia had come home and she’d curled up next to him, quietly doing her homework before bringing her dolls into the living room and playing on the floor in front of him.

True to his word, Liam had returned not long afterwards, mothering Louis something terrible and Louis almost wished him back to work. Almost. Georgia was happy to have Liam back, even more so after she realised that he was apparently no longer angry with them. Though Louis would admit that Liam could have apologised in a way that was something other than asking Georgia to bake cookies with him. Louis would be finding flour all through the house for weeks, he could tell. But it’d made her happy so he had let it slide. He may have also taken too much joy in watching Liam fruitlessly attempt to scrub butter out from under his nails and his hair but that was neither here nor there.

After a hot dinner Louis had been feeling much better, chipper and brighter and starting to get his feet back under him. Liam had warned him to take it slow and Louis had, turning in not long after Georgia. It said that a lot that Louis didn’t even find that shameful. A twenty-seven-year-old in bed just after eight. He would have mocked himself in his teen years. Now he couldn’t find it in himself to care. His bed had been soft, warm, and vaguely horizontal.

Requirements: met.

He’d been feeling well enough that Liam had confidently left for the night, promising to call in the morning. He’d forgotten to but Louis had text him around lunch time saying he was well on the road to recovery and yes dad, he was still taking his meds on the hour, every hour. No, he didn’t mean that literally, it was a figure of speech. And yes, he was well aware of the dangers of over-dosing. God.

Of course, it all went horribly wrong when Louis had decided that because he was feeling so well, he’d take Georgia out after school. So, upon leaving the house to pick her up, he’d stuffed his football under his arm and brought it along. Georgia had been ecstatic when she’d seen it, though Louis had noticed the disapproving look on Miss Sarah’s face. He’d ignored it though and taken Georgia to the local park. They’d run and they’d played and they’d kicked to and fro until the little girl had had enough, hair wild and cheeks flushed. The walk back to the house had been done in silence and, as Georgia had gone to flop onto the couch, Louis had had to grab the edge of the dining table as his legs had given out. Cursing, Louis scolded himself on having pushed too hard too fast. His eyes had desperately flown to the time and while it was early, it could work.

“Georgie sweetheart?”

“Yes Daddy?”

He had to laugh; she sounded as exhausted as he did. “Soup for dinner and then bed?”

“Do I have to do my homework?”

“Does Miss Sarah want it back tomorrow?”

“No. She wants it Friday.”

Thank God.

“Then no,” Louis declared, forcing his legs to co-operate as far as the pantry.

Perhaps it wasn’t the most nutritional choice but Louis figured a cup-a-soup for dinner this once wasn’t going to kill his daughter. At worst, she’d probably just wake up in the middle of the night hungry and well, he’d deal with that when they got there. Emptying the sachets into mugs and waiting the exceptionally long two minutes they took in the microwave, Louis then slumped down next to Georgia on the couch. She crawled onto her knees, sniffing each one tentatively.

“Tomato or pumpkin,” he replied to her unasked question.

“Pumpkin!” she decided with a nod, taking the offered mug and blowing on it. Louis mimicked her, sliding down the couch a little more until his feet could rest on the coffee table. “Daddy, Liam says that’s yucky,” Georgia said, pushing his legs with her hands.

“Hey, hey, hot soup!” he cried, holding his cup aloft. “And anyways, it’s my table.”

“Still yucky,” Georgia told him, poking her tongue out.

You’re yucky,” Louis shot back, pinching her nose.

She squealed, kicking him lightly. “Am not! You’re more yucky.”

“You’re the yuckiest.”

“Yuckiest isn’t a word,” she taunted and Louis merely laughed, handing her the victory and sliding an arm around her shoulder. He probably would have fallen asleep there minutes later had he not nearly dropped his mug, something that had him bolting upright in panic. Georgia wasn’t much better, eyes taking longer and longer blinks and head bending lower. Glancing down the hall, the distance to Georgia’s room seemed enormous.

“Not bloody likely,” Louis muttered, plucking Georgia’s cup out of her hands and setting them both on the coffee table. “Come on love,” he whispered, taking her hand and guiding her to her feet as he struggled to the same. “Bed, yeah?”

“Sleepy,” she agreed, blindly letting him lead her into his en suite. She raised her head in confusion when he tugged on hem of her school shirt. “Daddy?”

“Shower,” he explained, waiting for her to start undressing before leaning over her to turn the tap on. As Georgia set her stockings in the washing pile, Louis pulled his shirt over his head.

“Are you coming too Daddy?” Georgia asked, frowning. “I thought you said I was too big now.”

Louis shrugged, gesturing for her to hop in, though not before he checked the temperature for himself. “It’s just this once and we’re both really tired and we both stink, so yeah, we both need showers.”

“Boys stink more,” Georgia told him matter-of-factly, shuffling over accordingly when Louis joined her.

If there was a rule about this, Louis didn’t care. Growing up with four sisters, he was more than used to girls in various states of undress. Plus, he’d always been a firm believer in the fact that nudity wasn’t sexual. Of course he didn’t wave anything in Georgia’s face, more kept his body turned away to be honest, but to him he didn’t see the issue.

Louis was, however, hyper-aware that something like this would undoubtedly be blown out of proportions should somebody hear about it.

He sighed. Why couldn’t parents mind their own business? He was about to tell Georgia to not mention this at school – though wouldn’t that only make him more suspicious, that he’d asked her to hide it? – when she’d gotten shampoo in her eyes. That had become the only pressing matter in her mind for the next ten minutes and once that whole fiasco had died down, Louis had only had the energy to pull on some briefs and pants before stuffing Georgia in one of his Vans tanks. It was basically a dress on her, which meant success! – because he no longer had to go and find her pants. Taking her hand, Louis had then flicked off the light and carried her to his bed. Just this once, they could share.

 

***

 

“You ever planning on telling me?”

Harry looked up from his phone to find Niall standing over him, hands on his hips. Glancing at the top of his screen, Harry frowned. “Shouldn’t you be finishing up now?”

Niall huffed, sending Harry an exasperated look. “I would, if it weren’t for the fact that you’ve been a mopey little shite for the past three days and I’m sick of waiting for you to come and talk to me!” He looked vaguely hurt by the end and Harry ducked his head.

“Sorry Ni’. It’s just…” he picked at the corner of his phone’s case. “Just something with Louis.”

Niall’s expression turned deadpan. “Isn’t it always?” He then sat himself on the step beside Harry. “But this is different. You’ve been…off.”

The way Niall said “off” told Harry more than words ever could. That was Niall’s seriously-concerned voice and it only got pulled out very rarely. The last time had been when he and Harry had still been at college and they’d stumbled across Harry’s supposed boyfriend at the time making out with someone else. Harry had frozen, Niall had exploded. Hours later, when Harry had insisted he was fine, that was when “the voice” had come out. To hear it again, now, had him squirming.

“Harry.”

Harry pointedly did not look at Niall, preferring to look down the dirty alley that was the side of Sweet Nothings. “Something might be happening and I don’t know to do about it.”

Niall’s eyebrows knotted together. “What sort of thing?” He sounded like he didn’t want to ask.

“Georgia came in the other day. Said Louis was crying…because of Liam.” Harry’s hands curled into fists on his knees. “Said she wasn’t supposed to tell why. Said she wasn’t allowed to tell.”

Jesus,” Niall hissed.

“I know.” Harry dug his fingers into the denim of his jeans. “It’s just…it’s so wrong.”

“Harry, she can’t say that.” Niall’s eyes were burning and Harry could only nod.

“I know, I know that Ni’. But…” he shook his head. “Look, I didn’t think I’d ever be the one to say this but Liam…” he shook his head once more, curls bouncing.

“Liam what?” Niall prompted, a hand coming to rub Harry’s back soothingly.

“He was nice.”

Niall looked at him blankly.

Exactly!” Harry exclaimed, hands flying into the air as he swept to his feet. “When he came in the other day Niall, I had him built up as this-” he gestured vaguely “-thing in my head but when he came in…he wasn’t like that. And I know what Georgia said, and shit, Niall, it’s so wrong but Liam…like, if he was hurting Louis in some way it’d almost be like…like…”

“Like he didn’t even know he was doing it,” Niall provided when Harry couldn’t find the answer.

Harry latched onto the idea. “Yeah! Just like that! But…I…”

Niall’s face pulled itself into a grim smile. “But you can’t ask for more details because what if you’re wrong? And, even if you’re right, it don’t mean Louis would own up to it. Isn’t that the problem?” Niall asked as he got to his feet, dusting his hands off. “That people getting abused hide it?”

Harry grimaced. “Something like that. I just…” He went to pull on his hair, only stopping because Niall grabbed a hold of his wrist. His voice, when he next spoke, sounded cracked, even to him. “Why is he with him Niall? Why doesn’t Louis leave? He’s only making himself miserable.” Niall’s grip on his arm tightened as Harry felt his eyes start to tear up. “He should be happy Niall. Louis deserves to be happy.”

Niall slung an arm around his shoulder, leading him towards the shop. “Don’t we all?”

Pulling open the door to the bakery, Harry froze while Niall gave an incredulous laugh at the voice that lilted out to them from the front of the store.

“Well, it is designated Tomlinson visiting hours,” Niall pointed out when Harry remained stationery. A hard shove had him stumbling over the step. “Come on, it’s you he’s here to see.”

“’S not,” Harry protested, to which Niall only rolled his eyes, stepping out to the counter.

“Ah, here’s Harry now,” Ed said, beckoning him over and pointing to Louis before moving to the other register, calling forward the next customer.

Harry raised an eyebrow at the odd display. It was Louis’ voice that brought him out of his stupor.

“Georgia’s gonna be upset,” he remarked dryly, leaning forward to tug on Harry’s curls. “No bun, no braids, no scarves, honestly Styles. Not sure I like this new look.”

“Not sure I like yours,” Harry countered. Only after he said it did he realise how true it was. Because Louis looked awful. His eyes were rid-rimmed and slightly squinted, as if the interior lighting was hurting them. His hair was flat and unwashed, his clothes far more casual than Harry had ever seen. He also suspected Louis’ shoes didn’t match.

“Not nice kicking a man when he’s down,” Louis sniffed, folding his arms stiffly. “A bit of a cold, what’s it to you?”

“That all it is?” Harry pressed, his conversation with Niall still fresh in his mind.

Confusion spread across Louis’ face. “Um, yeah?” He eyed Harry up before flicking a look over his shoulder to see where Georgia was. Spotting her at a booth with a book spread on her lap, he decided to continue. “So I spoke to Ed before and he said I should talk to you because I want cupcakes. Like, it’s Georgia’s birthday,” he explained, when Harry looked bewildered because context was apparently a hard thing for Louis to grasp. “And there are allergy kids in her class. So I thought maybe you could make them? Ed said you did that kind of thing. Cupcake orders, that is.”

Harry struggled to keep up with the conversation but, once he’d gotten up to speed, he nodded. “Yeah sure, we can do that. Do you know what allergies they have? The kids in her class?”

“I did…” Louis said, patting his pockets and then groaning. “It’s in me other pants,” he confessed. “I…whatever, I had a list, somewhere…another time, yeah? I’ll bring them in another time.”

Realistically there were a list of questions Harry should have been asking but he figured they could wait until Louis looked less frazzled, maybe had the actual allergy list, and they could sit down to talk shop properly. He was quite confident that anything he said to Louis now would go in one ear and out the other, if it even made it that far. He looked as though it was taking all of his effort to remain standing.

“Anyway, can I grab something for Liam too?” Louis asked, finishing writing something in his phone, a reminder perhaps.

Unbidden, Harry scoffed. “Yeah, cause expecting him to come here would be too much.”

Louis froze. “Excuse me?”

Harry had never heard a voice so cold. “Sorry,” he said quickly, knowing he’d over-stepped a line and God, what on earth had made him say that? Why? “I shouldn’t have said that.”

Louis raised an eyebrow challengingly. “Which is code for but-I-still-think-it’s-true. Don’t bother lying,” he snapped when Harry went to apologise again. “I work with people, I use the same tricks to bullshit them myself. And if you’ve got something to say about Liam, say it to my face, yeah?”

“It’s not-”

“I won’t report you Styles. Just show some fucking balls and let me have it.”

It was Harry’s turn to feel his hackles rise, Louis’ condescending tone rubbing him the wrong way. “Okay, well let it be known that I think it’s real grand of him to have you crying outside my shop.”

Louis stiffened, chin tucking into his chest. “That wasn’t…”

“Wasn’t what?” Harry demanded, leaning over the counter to try and catch Louis’ eye. “Wasn’t what it looked like? Having a shit day was he? Took it out on you?”

“He had every right to!” Louis snarled, making Harry’s eyes widen exponentially.

“He gets to treat you like shit?” he asked incredulously.

Louis curled in tighter on himself. “Like I deserved any less.”

“No,” Harry told him, shaking his head. He lowered his voice, finally making eye-contact. “You deserve better Louis.”

“You have no fucking idea what you’re talking about!” Louis shouted, the entire bakery falling silent and staring at them. “Sorry,” Louis spat, storming over to Georgia and whisking her up. He then sent Harry one last look, so distraught that it hurt. “And for what it’s worth, I could never deserve Liam.”

 

***

Chapter Text

Storming away from the bakery, Louis barely made it passed two shops before he had to stop, a hand flying out to rest on the wall beside him. Two gentle hands came to cup his face and Louis looked down to find Georgia staring up at him concernedly from her spot in his arms.

“I’m fine,” he tried, watching her stubbornly shake her head.

“No you’re not. You’re grumpy at Harry and I think you’re still sick.”

“I’m not sick.”

Daddy.” Georgia had the nerve to huff, sending a curl bouncing off her forehead. “You let me sleep in your bed. You never do that.” She scrunched up her button nose. “People do weird things when they’re sick. I think you’re sick.”

“I am maybe a little tired,” Louis compromised, taking a deep breath before setting his daughter on the ground. He then slipped his hand in hers and led her to the tiny park across the road that housed a pitiful attempt at a playground. “But only maybe,” he added, waggling a finger at her as he dropped onto a bench. “Now, go and play, shoo.”

Her little head snapped up. “Play?” she squeaked in delight.

Louis nodded. “Yep, play, love. Off you pop!”

Georgia squeezed him for all of a second before dumping her belongings at his feet. She was then flying across the grass and grappling her way up the monkey bars. Louis watched her with a soft smile. Well, if it made her happy, that was enough. Enough right now because it was normal; held the barest particle of sunshine to it. Held something. And Louis really needed that something right now. Even if he couldn’t name it, couldn’t describe it, he needed it; needed it so badly. He was tired, he was sick, and he had been pegging everything on today being improved by seeing Harry. But no, life had had to go and throw that one in his face too. Because seriously, what the hell? Harry had never been like that in his life. Louis had never heard Harry say a negative word about anyone. And to pick Liam, of all people?

What the ever loving fuck?

Louis dropped his head into his hands, muffling a whimper in his palms. He just wanted a best friend and a cute boy to serve him food two days a week. Why did the universe deem that too hard? What had he done to deserve this?

Been a mistake from the start? Hey, he hadn’t had any choice in that one.

Come out as gay in his teenage years? Okay, so he could have hidden that one but his mum had been relatively open to the idea. And yes, Mark had taken some time but he’d eventually come round.

Been a shit room-mate to Liam? Admittedly, yes, that one was on him but he’d made friends with Liam since then!

Gotten his girlfriend pregnant? Louis had to say that, yes, that was his biggest mistake in life but he’d kept Georgia when Eleanor wouldn’t and didn’t that make up for it?!

He helped his family when they were short of money, he didn’t flaunt his sexuality, he supported Liam as best he could – with the only exception being the whole Zayn-debacle - and, as he’d already mentioned, he’d taken in Georgia. What more did the universe want from him? When was it ever going to deem it recompense enough?

“Daddy?”

Coming out of his internal melt-down, Louis blinked several times, pained by the weak sunshine. He looked over at where Georgia was sitting next to him, swinging her feet. “Yeah baby?”

She continued swinging them, toes scuffing along the ground. “I don’t wanna play anymore so can I play games on your phone?”

Louis fished his phone out of his pocket, frowning at the time. Had it really been that long? He then grimaced. Knowing him, probably. “How about we just go home?”

Georgia shook her head firmly, holding out her hand. “I wanna play a game.”

Louis tapped her nose warningly. “Excuse me.”

She drew her hand back meekly. “May I have a turn please Daddy?”

“Much better,” he praised, rewarding her with a kiss to the head and a phone in her hand.

Beaming, Georgia skipped off, climbing to the top of slide and taking a seat before unlocking the device. Louis rolled his eyes. Kids were odd. He’d learnt that and he’d also learnt that, more often than not, it really was better to simply not ask.

Well, not ask until he heard Georgia’s voice wafting across the playground, “And he hasn’t moved in ages Liam! I said he was sick but he won’t listen…”

“Georgia-Rose!” Louis exclaimed, indignant. The little minx! How dare she?!

“Daddy’s staring at me. I think he wants the phone,” Georgia dutifully relayed, head tilting to the side as she listened to Liam’s reply. “Should I give him the phone?”

Yes!” Louis called, wearily pushing himself to his feet.

“Liam says no!” Georgia called back, scampering higher up the climbing frame. “He’s standing up now. He’s a little wobbly…Harry made him sad-”

“Georgia!”

“-…I don’t know, I was at the table…Hmm, no…No…” Her eyebrows scrunched together, though she giggled when Louis made a swipe at her feet. “Daddy!” She then hopped away, still listening to Liam and God only knew what ideas he was putting in her head. “…He’s trying to catch me. It’s okay, I’m too tall!”

Louis set his hands on his hips. “Don’t count on it little lady!”

“…No, we only had soup…But Liam, we were tired…Oh, and I got to sleep in Daddy’s bed!”

That was it.

“Georgia-Rose Tomli-”

The phone was abruptly thrust in his face. Louis frowned at the despondent look on Georgia’s face. “Liam wants to talk to you,” she whispered. “He sounds angry again.”

Louis brought the phone to his ear, the first thing he heard being a heavy sigh followed by the words, “I’m not angry.”

“Liam’s not angry darling,” Louis assured, kissing his daughter’s cheek. “He promises. He was just concerned…worried,” he expanded, watching the confusion in her eyes disperse.

“Of course I am!” Liam hollered from the other end of the line. “Georgia says you’ve been-”

“Liam,” Louis interrupted sharply, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Just listen, yeah?” He was, for once, obeyed. Huh. “I was feeling better but then I thought I’d take Georgia out to play football yesterday afternoon.”

Liam made an understanding noise. “Because you were feeling better. And now you’re not. Paying for it, right Tommo?”

Louis hummed an affirmative, twirling Georgia’s hair around his fingers, making her smile. His fingers caught in a knot and he made an ‘oops’ face when she winced. The face made Georgia giggle before she latched onto his arm, pushing his sleeve up and reverently tracing his tattoos, though she’d seen them hundreds of times.

“Can you get home?” Liam asked.

“Yeah.”

“Lou’?”

Louis groaned, head flopping back in frustration. “Yes Liam, I can, I promise. I just needed a sit down. We’re only a block from the flat anyways.” He then hesitated, chewing on his lip tentatively. “Come round for tea?”

When Liam didn’t respond immediately, Louis could perfectly envision the sad smile he would have adopted. “Sure Boo. Meet you at the flat. I’m at the gym near yours as is. Fifteen?”

“You’ve got a key,” Louis reminded him as he gestured for Georgia to collect her bag even as he shouldered his own satchel. “But yeah, we’ll be home by then. Although Payno, shower first! No musk in my house, you hear?”

Liam laughed out a “piss off Tommo!” before ending the call. Sliding the phone into his pocket, Louis took the hand that Georgia was holding out for him. He interlaced their fingers, making her beam, gaily swinging their joined hands. She was about to tug him out of the entrance of the park when Louis pulled her back, crouching down to her level. Her “Daddy?” was lost as Louis wrapped his arms around her tightly. She returned the hug immediately, though whether it was because she simply loved them or if she knew he only ever initiated them like this when upset, Louis didn’t know.

Pushing her away slightly, Louis took her face in his hands. “Georgie, thank you.”

She frowned. “For what?”

Louis smiled gently, thumbing her cheek and nearly tearing up when she leant into the gesture. “For looking after me, even if I get cranky at you for doing it. Thank you for always looking out for me. I’d be lost without you.”

Georgia rolled her eyes. “You could always buy a map,” she told him, completely missing the point and causing Louis to cackle. “And it’s okay Daddy. I do it because I love you. You’re my favourite person in the whole world.”

Louis felt his breath catch in his throat.

It was Georgia’s turn to reach out, grabbing his face and rubbing their noses together before kissing him. “I love you Daddy.”

And just like that, Louis was crushing her in his arms again. “Love you too, love you so much.”

This was it. This was what the universe had given him. Louis could live with that.

***

 

The rain provided the perfect back-drop to Harry’s yoga session. Normally he would have done an hour practice or so, but today he had already passed ninety minutes and had no intentions of stopping. As long as he focussed on his routine, his mind didn’t wander. Which was good because a wandering mind was dangerous. Especially after today’s altercation with one Louis Tomlinson. Harry would be the first to admit that he wasn’t proud with how that had gone down. He also wasn’t entirely sure which bits to be apologetic for and which bits not to be. Because he still had questions that needed answering, still had alarm bells ringing in his head, still had a hundred and one concerns.

The flat door opening, followed by the stamping of feet and muttered cursing, made the corners of his mouth lift. Niall would no doubt be soaked through after playing football in weather like this. Besides Harry’s abysmal sense of both balance and co-ordination, this was another reason why he refused to join any sorts of sports team. Outside in the rain did not hold any appeal to him; none whatsoever.

Having expected Niall to head straight to the shower, Harry was suitably surprised when he heard his friend drag the spare yoga mat out from under the coffee table. Cracking open one eye, a light went off in his head when he saw Niall grimace as he attempted to copy Harry’s stance, rubbing his knee agitatedly. Slippery grass, strenuous effort…yep, Niall was undoubtedly in a lot of pain right now. Coming out of the position, Harry dedicated the next twenty minutes to poses that would help ease the tension and strain, Niall quickly clocking on and throwing himself completely into the work-out.

“Oh thank Christ,” Niall groaned when Harry ended their session. He dropped onto his mat, hugging his knee close with one hand and rubbing it with the other. “That’s killing me.”

“Need ice?” Harry offered, “Or maybe, like, a heat pack?”

Niall had been in the process of shaking his head but swapped it to a nod at the second suggestion. Once Harry had returned with the warmed wheat pack, Niall wrapped it around his abused joint, eyes sinking shut. “You’re a god-send Haz. Cheers mate.”

Harry smiled, bumping their shoulders together. “’S what friends are for.”

Niall then opened his eyes to stare at him, eyebrows raised. “Yeah? Well, do friends tell their other friends when they’re being little shites? Because I think they do.”

Harry hunkered down. “Niall…”

“No Harry,” he said firmly, gaze piercing. “Because I get that you’re annoyed at Liam, or whatever, but you can’t take that out on Louis. And especially not at work.” He levelled Harry a stern look. “You know that if I said anything, Babs could fire you on the spot? So could Louis, if he suddenly decided you’d taken it too far today.”

“I know…” Harry whispered, watching his socked feet toe at the wooden floor boards.

“Do you though?” Niall challenged, flopping onto his back, staring at the ceiling. “Because I thought you were Louis’ friend.”

Harry gaped down at him. “I am!”

Niall snorted. “Yeah. Because friends make their friends choose.” He kicked Harry none too gently when he only looked confused. “You’ve known Louis all of two months and you basically went in there today and told him to dump Liam, who Louis’ known for God knows how long might I add. And for what? You? So he can come and eat at a bakery with his daughter?”

Harry shied away, curling into a smaller and smaller ball.

“Mate, you can’t do that to him. Louis needs you to support him, not attack him.” Niall ran a hand through his hair. “I mean, Jesus Harry, all he wanted was cupcakes for his little girl.”

The first tears pricked at his eyes and Harry sniffled a little. “Niall…”

For what it was worth, the Irishman merely sighed, shuffling closer and looping an arm around Harry’s shoulders. “You’re sorry, I know. You were angry at Liam and Louis copped it. I know that.” His cheek slotted up against Harry’s. “But Louis doesn’t. Next time you see him, just say sorry yeah?”

“If he’ll let me,” Harry pointed out, making Niall shrug.

“If you didn’t want to deal with his stubbornness, shouldn’t have pissed him off Styles.”

 

***

 

Louis had rounded the corner to his flat just as Liam had been scaling the stairs. Georgia’s callout had halted him and, upon getting a closer look at Louis, Liam had handed him Georgia’s bag and whisked the girl away, ordering him to take a nap while Liam handled dinner. On the condition that the pair did not order takeaway – because Liam’s only form of takeaway was pizza and Louis would much prefer Georgia eat something along the lines of Indian or Thai – Louis had left them to it. He’d practically fallen into bed, only stirring when Georgia gently shook awake him two hours later. Needless to say, Louis had been less than impressed to find that Liam’s “dinner” was corn chips with mince and salsa on top.

Nachos: yes.

Healthy: not so much.

Liam had poked Louis’ frown and reminded him that one night wouldn’t hurt. Thinking of the soup they’d had the night before, Louis let it slide. He then didn’t know whether to cry tears of joy or frustration when Georgia had proceeded to pull mini-tubs of Ben and Jerry’s out of the freezer. Liam was too good to her, really, he was. But she’d been so excited, munching happily away as they watched Beauty and the Beast, Louis flat out refusing to watch Frozen one more time. Though why Georgia had chosen Beauty and the Beast was beyond him considering she hid in the crook of his arm every time the Beast came on screen. Still, it had made Louis smile and Liam chuckle so all was right in the world.

Movie over, Louis had ushered his daughter to bed, taking the time and care today to help her wash her hair and comb it and restyle it appropriately. He’d watched her brush her teeth, laid out her clothes for the next day, read her a story – or four – and tucked her in, kissing her forehead before turning out the light. Padding back to the living room, the hum of the washing machine could be heard, meaning Liam had put a load on. A glance into the kitchen showed him that the dishes had also been done, each one scrubbed until sparkling and sitting in the drying rack, neatly stacked. Finally arriving at the living room, Louis found Liam moulded into the couch, beer in his hand and another one already cracked open and waiting on the coffee table, set out for Louis’ return.

He suddenly found it very hard to breathe, lump in his throat and tears stinging in his arms.

He wanted this. Why couldn’t he have this?

Crossing the room quickly, Louis threw himself down beside Liam, curling into his side. He could almost feel Liam frowning even as an arm came to settle around his back, thumb rubbing his shoulder tenderly.

“Boo?”

Whimpering, Louis fisted his hands in Liam’s shirt. “Why couldn’t we fall in love?”

Liam’s hand stilled, his chest also stiff under Louis’ cheek. “Sorry?”

Liam’s hands came to push him away and Louis didn’t fight it, letting himself be pried up and pushed back onto his ankles. Liam went to wipe at the tears on his face but Louis knocked his hands away, preferring to scour the ceiling.

“Louis, you what mate?”

Louis shrugged weakly, finally dropping his eyes to Liam’s, finding a weird sense of comfort in the concern he saw there – it was so Liam. “You,” he elaborated, tapping Liam’s chest with a finger. “Why couldn’t we fall in love with each other?” He sniffed pathetically. “I think I’d like to love you.”

Liam stared at him for a long, long time before eventually shaking his head, leaning forward to set his beer down. He then swivelled so Louis was the centre of his focus. “Maybe I’d like that too. But…it is what it is,” he quoted, fingers brushing over the tattoo hidden beneath Louis’ shirt.

Louis rubbed at the ink himself. “Why didn’t we?”

Liam outright laughed, making Louis’ head snap up in surprise…not to mention adopt a pout. “God Louis, we’d never work. We wouldn’t be able to do…” he waved a hand awkwardly. “…that.”

“But why?” Louis urged, eyebrows knitting together.

Something about the desperation in his tone had Liam’s face softening. “Because we’re too different. Lou’…” He shifted, tucking a foot under his leg and pressing their knees together. “We would never last. If people are too similar, the relationship doesn’t work because there’s no spark. If they’re too different…they find themselves pulling against each other to often, making compromises they can’t handle, or being constantly forced outside their comfort zone.” He gave Louis a knowing look, nodding when Louis flushed accordingly. “Exactly. You know that’s what would happen between us.”

“Maybe…” Louis said begrudgingly.

“You know…” Liam murmured, tugging on the edge of his sock. “I always thought you and Zayn would have been the ultimate power couple.”

Louis openly gaped. “What?”

Liam laughed, if a tad morosely. “Come on Louis, admit it. You two would have been mental. You’re crazy enough to bring Zayn out of his shell when he slips too far inside himself and Zayn’s grounded enough to stop you from getting into too much mischief. You would’ve balanced each other out nicely. Not to mention enough cheekbones between you to slay the nation.”

Louis was still in shock. Not only had Liam brought up Zayn – and without cohesion – he’d actually involved him in a, honestly, delicate scenario. And tacked on a joke! Unbidden, Louis’ hand curled around Liam’s wrist. Liam gave him a watery smile. Almost of its own accord, Louis’ hand released Liam’s wrist and moved to his face, cupping his cheek and tracing the smile with his thumb.

“We could try,” he whispered.

Liam frowned. “Try what?”

“This,” Louis explained, gesturing between them. “Us. Liam, could we…?”

His gaze shifted from Liam’s eyes to Liam’s lips, noting the way his tongue darted out subconsciously to wet them. Flicking his blue eyes up once more and seeing only confusion, no denial or rejection, Louis leant forward. His thumb ran across Liam’s bottom lip once more, making it painfully obvious what he intended to do, giving Liam a chance to say no, to push him away, to drag him in perhaps. They had to be all but touching when Liam tilted his head ever so slightly, lips brushing against Louis’ cheek instead. Louis cracked, hiccoughing into Liam’s neck even as Liam pulled him in, shushing him and peppering his temple with the softest of kisses.

“Oh Boo,” Liam sighed, a hand coming to massage his scalp even as Louis whined. “Louis, you don’t want me. You don’t want this.”

“Maybe I do,” Louis protested, though even as he said it he was shaking his head.

“You know that you don’t. I know that you know that.”

“I know, you know, I know, you…” Louis petered off in a grumble. “Stop it.” He then sighed loudly. “You still love him, don’t you?”

Liam’s fingers tightened momentarily. “Yes, I think so. Every day I think so.”

“He loves you too.”

It was Liam’s turn to sigh. “Does he?”

Yes,” Louis insisted.

Against his ear, he could feel the shift in Liam’s ribs as he took a shaky inhale. “You wanna tell me what’s really wrong though Louis? Because last I looked, you were pining over a “flower child”-”

Louis made the effort to leer up at Liam’s blatant quoting of him.

“-named Harry Styles. So…” A nudge. “What changed?”

Subject change, he could handle that. Liam had earned that much.

Louis sighed, twisting Liam’s shirt between his fingers. “Don’t know…” he admitted, which was the honest to God truth. What had happened? “It was like…you know what how you said Harry was standoffish?”

Liam nodded.

“Yeah, but he’s never like that with me, like ever but then today…I could see why you said that.” He picked at a seam on Liam’s jeans. “It was so weird Li’.”

His friend frowned thoughtfully. “You maybe say something to upset him?”

“Would I ever?” Louis demanded, winking when Liam shot him a deadpan expression. “But no, I didn’t, actually. Actually…” he said after a moment’s realisation. “He had a go at you.”

“At me?” Liam repeated, dumbfounded.

“Yeah, that’s what we fought…fought, such a silly word…we didn’t fight…I maybe yelled at him and swore at him in front of the whole shop…”

Louis…” Liam groaned.

“But he like had a go at you cause we’d had that row on Monday?”

“He was angry at me for being angry at you?”

“Think it was more that you upset me.”

Louis was instantly suspicious of how Liam’s face brightened at that. “Oh really?”

“Payno, no. Whatever it is, no.”

Liam waggled his eyebrows. “I don’t know. Ridiculously cute boy you fancy, and who you think fancies you, might I add-”

“I never said that!”

“-gets angry when someone makes you cry? Over-protective boyfriend Tommo, that’s what you’ve got.”

Louis slapped him. “Shut up.”

“A hundred quid I’m right.”

“Hey, if you wanted some money so bad all you had to do was ask!”

Louis squawked as Liam dug his fingers into his ribs. “You just don’t wanna admit I’m right.”

“It’s all lies!” Louis screeched, trying to squirm away even as Liam kept tickling him. A swift, and entirely accidental, heel to the balls made Liam surrender immediately. Louis did apologise, but that didn’t mean he wiped the smug look off his face either.

“You’re such a shit head,” Liam muttered, possibly the only person on the planet who could make that sound like an endearment. “Now!” he announced, holding out an arm. “Come cuddle and watch shit telly.”

Louis sidled over, hooking an ankle between Liam’s legs. “What are my choices?”

“Snog, Marry, or Avoid or Bargain Hunt?”

“Liam, we’ve committed ourselves to trash telly,” Louis reminded him, nudging Liam until he got the hint and returned his arm to around Louis’ shoulders. “Snog, Marry, or Avoid without question.”

The channel was changed accordingly and Louis let the steady beat of Liam’s heartbeat lull him to sleep, barely stirring when Liam grabbed the throw off the back of the sofa and wrapped it around them. He also didn’t stir when Liam’s lips brushed against the shell of his ear, a soft “love you Lou” following them. He did, however, hold onto the feeling of warmth those words left them. Held them tight as he drifted off to sleep, thoughts of Harry chased far from the front of his mind.

 

***

Chapter Text

“If you fall, I won’t be paying out any compensation, have you got that?”

Harry grinned cheekily at Barbara’s disapproving face. She glanced once more at his chosen perch of the staff half door before waving her wooden spoon at him. Harry chuckled as she disappeared out the back, squawking when Ed shook the door as he walked past.

“Ed!”

“Well if you will sit there…” Ed taunted, mocking Harry’s sense of balance, or rather lack thereof, before turning to face the customer just arriving at the counter.

“Alright Harry?” Perrie asked, glancing between him and clock pointedly.

He gave her a breezy smile. “Alright. Just waiting for Niall.”

Her face turned sympathetic. “How’s he going on that knee of his?”

Harry scrunched up his nose. “Not sure. Seems, like, better but still not one hundred percent. Said he was gonna go the doctor’s but you know.”

Perrie arched an eyebrow. “Are you going with?” she asked, voice dripping in sweet sarcasm.

Harry flushed. “Nah, we’re going out for drinks. After we stop by the shelter, that is.”

“Too sick to work but well enough to drink,” Ed scoffed from the counter.

“Oi!” Harry defended, folding his arms. “Sitting with a beer is different to being on your feet all day.”

Perrie and Ed exchanged looks. “If you say so…”

“I-”

“Honestly!” Babs exclaimed, coming between them all with her hands on her hips. “It’s times like this I’m reminded that all my staff are under thirty. Gossipers, the lot of you. You,” she said, pointing at Harry, “Hop down before you end up off with an injury. And you two,” she continued, rounding on the others once convinced Harry was appropriately cowed, “Leave Niall alone. The boy’s got real problems with that knee and you know it. Work please, all of you.”

“Love you Babs,” they chorused together.

She tried to maintain a serious face but couldn’t help the smile that tugged at the corners of her lips. Her hands flew up in exasperation. “You lot will be the death of me, you hear. Now, hop to it!”

The trio burst out laughing but did as asked; Perrie and Ed in the way she had intended, and Harry not so much. Not so much because while Barbara had asked him to hop off the door, she most likely hadn’t meant for him to do so in a way which was him toppling to the ground in a panicked heap when a piercing “Hi Harry!” startled him half to death. Perrie had to duck out the back to try and hide her laughter. Ed had no such qualms, bellowing laugh echoing out from the front of the store. Even as Harry was attempting to get his feet under him, he could hear a male voice growing ever louder, spewing apologies.

“Sorry, sorry, oh my god, I’m so sorry! She knows better than to do that. Georgia! Sorry, again.”

Finally finding his feet, Harry pushed his hair off his face, smiling up at Liam. He didn’t like Liam per se but his panicked tone was more than amusing enough. “’S fine,” he promised, grabbing the edge of the counter to pull himself up.

“I’m sorry,” Liam repeated, eyes wide and woeful, though they turned scolding as he looked to his left, where Harry could only assume Georgia was standing. “Love, you can’t do that. You scared Harry and made him fall. He could have hurt himself.”

“Sorry Harry,” Georgia mumbled once his head popped over the door. She was shuffling her feet sheepishly. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, I promise,” he assured her, patting her head and making her beam. “I’m a bit clumsy anyway.”

Harry pointedly ignored Ed’s loud cackle from the counter. Liam seemed relieved but, Harry couldn’t help but notice, now that he did, his brow was pinched with something else. Before he had time to question it, Liam was already speaking. “If you’re not working Harry, would you like to sit with Georgia and I?”

“Uh…” Harry wouldn’t say he was one for panicking but he was definitely panicking now. Oh god, what had he done? Liam wanted him to sit him. Did he know? Did he know what Harry had said the day before? Had Louis told him, felt obligated to tell him?

“Please Harry!” Georgia’s voice cut through his thoughts like a knife. “Please come and sit with us,” she wheedled.

Glancing at the door and still seeing no sign of Niall, Harry forced a grin on his face. “Sure, sounds like fun. But I can only stay til Niall comes, alright?”

It was aimed at Liam but Georgia hummed an “a’ight” before dragging Liam over to the displays. She pointed out several options, Liam shaking his head each time. “Not anything too sugary,” Harry heard Liam murmur to her as he knelt by the little girl’s side. “You don’t want to be too hyper before you go to your mum’s.”

Wait?

Mum?!

Of course, obviously, Harry was aware that there had to be a mother somewhere, someone who had carried Georgia and given birth to her but a mother she still visited…? That made Georgia less of Louis and Liam’s, and more of a part of a past relationship. Probably explained why she never called Liam any variation of “dad” either. Because she was Louis’. That part was undeniable. She was so Louis you couldn’t hide it even if you wanted to.

Seeing that the pair were struggling to make an agreement, Harry cautiously approached, still ever so slightly wary of Liam. He pointed to a berry tart covered in glitter. “What about that one?” he suggested.

Georgia gasped when she saw it, nodding fervently and hugging Liam when he told her she could have it. They’d barely paid for their purchases and taken a seat when the door was flung up.

“Harry, mate! Get your arse in gear!”

Several customers made disapproving titters but Niall ignored them, eyes roaming until they locked on Harry. He was mid-way through bounding over when he seemed to realise that Harry wasn’t alone; Harry, for one, thought that Georgia all but sitting on his lap was a pretty big giveaway but hey, what did he know? The confusion only slammed into him when, upon hearing Georgia call “Niall!” and Liam subsequently turned around, both Niall and Liam froze.

Liam was the first to snap-back. “Horan?”

Niall clapped his hands together delightedly. “Payno!” He then looked between Harry, Georgia, and Liam and dissolved into a fit of giggles. Liam shot Harry a questioning look but Harry could only shrug. Only shrug until Niall approached the table, shoving Liam across the booth with a “budge over mate, come on”. He then tutted at Harry. “No, no, no,” he crowed loudly, pointing at Liam. “I told you you were wrong about “Liam” and yep, I was right! You can stop crying yourself to sleep at night Haz. No, no way, he’s not-”

“I’m sorry,” Liam cut in, clearly lost. “But what is-”

“Well, Harry said-”

“I never sai-”

“Liam, I need the loo.”

Those five words were all that were needed to make the entire table’s conversation ground to a halt. Georgia squirmed uncomfortably in her chair under the sudden scrutiny. Once again, Niall collapsed into a laughing mess, while Liam became quite anxious.

“Oh, um, okay. Loo, yeah? Um, we can…uh…”

“We have a toilet here for staff,” Harry offered, seeing that Liam was at a loss. “I’m sure she can, like, use it…” He waved Perrie over. “Hey, can you help us out and take little Rosie here to the loo?”

Perrie rolled her eyes at Harry but nodded, holding out a hand. “You alright to pop out the back with me hun?”

Georgia looked indecisive but then her gaze flickered up and caught sight of Perrie’s pastel purple hair. “Your hair is so pretty!” she squeaked, scrambling over Harry’s lap and all but throwing herself at the older girl. “I didn’t know it could be those colours! It’s so pretty! How did you do it?”

Laughing, Perrie whisked Georgia away, giving Harry a significant look, to which he nodded. Perrie returned the nod and Harry knew she would “accidentally” show Georgia some cupcakes or something out the back, at least for the next ten minutes or so.

“So Harry, Liam is no way affiliated with Louis!” Niall announced, slinging an arm around Liam’s shoulders and making Liam startle. “At least, not in the way you’re thinking. See, I’ve played football against this lad’s team and no, mate, no. He’s got this gorgeous one that’s his own. Engaged and everything! Where’s he from?” Niall asked, poking Liam when he seemed to be struggling to keep up, not that Harry blamed him one bit. “Iran? Dubai?”

“Pakistan,” Liam replied, though Harry frowned at Liam’s tone, one that was as if he was operating on auto-pilot and when had he shut down?

“Right, Pakistan,” Niall said, chewing that over for a moment before shaking it away. “But anyway Haz, you should see him. I tell you now, there’s at least one, if not two, people on every team that say they would make the switch if he was the one they got in return, if you know what I mean.”

Harry did know. Niall didn’t need to add the wiggling eyebrows. But it was Liam he was suddenly concerned for. Concern for someone he’d, up until thirty seconds ago, been trying to hate. Because Liam was suddenly curling in on himself. Liam’s shoulders were now hunched, his hands fisted tightly on top of the table.

“Quiet one, that one,” Niall recalled, tapping his chin. “Had a nice name though. Zeke? Zen? No!” he snapped his fingers. “Zayd!”

“Zayn,” Liam corrected quietly.

“Right, Zayn! Haven’t seen him in awhile though. He sick? He used to be at every game.”

And suddenly it hit Harry, his eyes widening. Louis’ friend Zayn, who he became sullen about every time his name was mentioned. Zayn, whose stories were more often than not wrapped around Liam’s. And, oh shit, the ring…The ring that was being “kept safe” for someone. If it wasn’t Liam’s and it wasn’t Louis’ that only left…

“Niall!” Harry hissed, causing his friend to stop dead.

Niall sent Harry a curious look but Harry only had eyes for Liam. Liam who, honestly, looked like he was doing everything in his power to not cry. Niall’s own face went grey. “Shit,” he swore, wrapping his arms around Liam. “Fuck, shit, mate, no. You were…he was…Fuck, mate. What happened?”

“He left,” Liam replied shortly, clinically.

Niall raised an eyebrow. “What? Just upped and left without a word?” Liam didn’t answer. “Holy fuck!” Niall gasped, Harry openly gaping as well. “What the hell? No! He’s been on the side of that fucking field for years! He wouldn’t…”

“He did,” Harry murmured, because he so obviously had. Without thought, Harry reached across the table, gripping Liam’s hand tightly. “I’m sorry Liam.”

“You don’t even know me,” Liam laughed, though it didn’t sound mean or cruel, just disbelieving.

“Yeah, but like, it still hurts, right? I’m sorry for that bit.”

Liam squeezed his hand before leaning back, rubbing his eyes with his hands. “I get why Louis thinks you’re a saint now,” he said, sending Harry a watery smile. “You don’t know me but you’re already feeling sorry for me. Decent thing to do.”

“Oh, so Louis talks about Harry?” Niall prodded, winking exaggeratedly.

“Does he ever stop?” Liam shot back, rolling his eyes around a loud sniff. “Harry this, Harry that, more like.”

“There you go Haz,” Niall said breezily, slipping his foot between Harry’s legs and kicking his balls, making Harry yelp and slap his foot away. “Make your move now while you know that Louis’ still single and not married to Liam.”

Liam choked on an inhale. “I…E-excuse me, what?” he spluttered.

Niall grinned at Harry. “Did you not tell him?” He then turned to Liam. Innocent, as if. If they only knew, Harry thought. “Harry’s been so upset that Louis’ apparently sleeping with you.”

Liam let out a loud laugh, dropping his head into his hands. “Oh my god, no. Louis and I…Would you believe we had this exact conversation last night? So, for whatever reason the universe wants to make me say it, Louis and I are not together; never have been, never will be.” He held his hands out. “There, did it, everyone pleased?”

“Very,” Niall replied smugly.

The next part of their conversation went over Harry’s head as Perrie chose that moment to return with Georgia…who had chocolate frosting smeared all around her mouth. And in her hair. He glared up at Perrie and she simply smiled at him sweetly. Harry sighed. Louis was going to kill him.

 

***

 

“Remind me again why we have to go out?” Louis called, voice muffled as he stuffed his head through the neck of yet another sweater.

“Because we haven’t gone out in age-…Christ Louis. Can you sit in those jeans?”

Louis waggled his bum in Liam’s direction. “Admit it, my arse looks amazing in these.”

“I have no comment on that,” Liam remarked dryly, “But seriously, sitting?”

“Not sure yet,” Louis admitted, inspecting himself in the mirror and unconsciously scrunching up his nose, shaking the grey knit with a hint of dissatisfaction. “Li’, how do I-”

“Fine. Louis, you look fine,” Liam groaned, wrapping an arm around his upper arm and forcefully removing him from the mirror. “You’ve looked fine for the past half hour.”

“I don’t want to be fine!” Louis argued even as Liam dragged him towards the front door of his flat.

Liam huffed, tossing two shoes in Louis’ direction, Louis stuffing his feet into them petulantly. “Okay. Louis William Tomlinson, you are the most bespoke man I have ever seen.”

Louis promptly threw one of the shoes back at Liam. “Worst compliment ever Liam. Never try your hand at being a wingman, you hear?”

“Wingman or not, two shoes are better than one right?” Liam asked, holding out the shoe impatiently. Louis took it back meekly. Okay, yes, they were too old for whatever bizarre version of shoe-tag they were currently playing.

Snagging his wallet and keys, Louis primped his hair once more in the hall mirror, sweeping it to the side and off his face a little more before allowing Liam to lead him out of the flat. To be honest, despite his grumblings, Louis was actually quite excited for a night out. The last drunk stint to Liam’s door had been a piss-poor attempt and he was more than ready to make up for it tonight. And if he wouldn’t be able to sit because of his, admittedly, very tight jeans or remain warm because his sweater was much too thin but the view it gave of his collarbones?, well, too bad. Comfort had to sometimes be sacrificed in the name of style.

He didn’t even know the name of the pub Liam led them into, merely pointed Liam in the direction of a free table while he slipped off to buy the first round. Really, the first clue Louis should have picked up on was when his head snapped up and to the tiny pub stage upon recognising the voice. His ears weren’t mistaken and he found himself squinting at Ed from Sweet Nothings, casually playing and singing away as if this was his day job.

“Hey, I know him!” Louis remarked when Liam returned from the bar, downing the shot without thought and already reaching for his second beer. “He works at that bakery.”

“Yeah, Ed,” Liam said with a nod.

Louis’ head cocked to the side. “You know him?”

“Heard him singing one afternoon,” Liam replied with a shrug. “Complimented his voice and he said he did the pub scene. Said I’d pop round one time he was playing.”

Louis mulled it over, eventually nodding. “He’s good.”

“He is,” Liam agreed. To Louis’ horror, he then looked over his shoulder and brightened. “Niall! Harry!”

Oh fuck no.

Catching sight of Liam’s pathetic attempt at innocence, Louis narrowed his eyes at him. The devious little witch.

The fuck Liam?!” he hissed, even as he turned to wave.

“You’ll thank me when you see him,” Liam muttered and Louis…yes, yes he did.

The moment his eyes landed on Harry, Louis knew it: Harry was the most ridiculous man to ever exist. After all, no sane man would enter a pub wearing a sheer black shirt with a floral print, nor would they wear such shiny black boots. The painted-on black jeans Louis couldn’t argue with because his weren’t much better but, honestly, such an outfit had to be illegal. Surely, it was. Especially when Harry had bothered to button, what, two out of the six buttons? Illegal, illegal!

“Close your mouth, he’s coming closer,” Liam teased.

Whirling around, Louis had time to spit out a “fuck you!” before Niall was, quite literally, bumping into their tables. “Hi lads!” he yelled, dropping himself beside Liam and…how was that not a pointed move? It had to be a pointed move. At Louis’ glare, Niall merely grinned. Irish fucker. “Ed’s aces, isn’t he?”

“Already told Lou’ he was,” Liam agreed. He then caught sight of Louis’ burning stare and visibly gulped, excusing himself under the pretence of getting drinks.

It was going to have to be more then pretence Louis decided the moment he felt something hot press against his thigh. “Mind if I sit here?” Harry drawled, seemingly unaware that they were now touching all the way from hip to knee. Personal space much?

Louis smiled tightly. “Nah, go for it. Plenty of room. Niall drag you out too?”

Harry took a moment to answer, eyes very obviously taking Louis in and maybe he preened a little under the attention, maybe. “Not dragged,” Harry chuckled, sidling closer and, fuck, Louis was not handling the heat of Harry’s body against his. “I like coming out with Niall. Though I usually lose him halfway through the night.”

“It’s me Irish charm,” Niall told Louis, making him snort. “The ladies can’t contain themselves. They-…Bless you Liam!”

The arrival of drinks was welcomed and Louis latched onto it; that is, to both his drink and to Liam. He could lean into Liam, giving himself and Harry some breathing room. If Harry noticed it, he didn’t mention it. He simply commented on Liam’s tattoo and if that wasn’t enough of a conversation starter with their group, Louis didn’t know what was. After Niall’s admittance of being terrified of needles, he didn’t have any qualms in pawing at fabric to get a look at everyone else’s ink. Louis didn’t think he’d ever been nearly disrobed in front of an entire bar but he’d made it close at one stage, begging for Liam’s intervention. It was Harry that had come to his aid, swatting Niall away, though not at the expense of having all his buttons undone.

Louis didn’t know what did it. Whether it was the rather lavish amount of alcohol he’d consumed or the sudden lack of noise due to Ed’s set finishing or the set of laurel leaves revealed on Harry’s hips but whatever it was, Louis needed out. Suddenly, it was all too much.

“Loo,” he gasped, shoving at Liam to let him passed.

“It’s just some skin Louis,” Liam laughed, probably a little more tipsy than he usually allowed himself to get.

“Liam Payne, I’m not against pissing all over you,” Louis warned.

Liam was smart enough to not doubt the validity of his statement, hastily shuffling aside. Louis flicked his ear in passing and disappeared into the bathroom, letting the door thud shut behind him. His brain was buzzing and Louis shook his head, hoping that would help. It didn’t. If anything, it only made it worse. The next second the door was being pushed open and Harry’s head popped in.

Louis quirked an eyebrow. “Thought I’d need a hand?”

Harry startled at his brisk tone but didn’t counter, moving over to the urinals. “Ever thought maybe I just needed a wee too?”

Louis snorted, jumping up onto the sink bench. “What? Same time as me?”

Zipping up his fly, Harry moved to the sink next to Louis, turning the tap on with his elbows before washing his hands. Shaking them, Harry decided to forego drying them, instead using their wetness to tame his hair somewhat. His eyes though, they were watching Louis and Louis knew it, blatantly staring back.

“You just seemed…off,” Harry eventually said. He stepped closer, Louis opening his legs to Harry could stand between them. He nearly lost himself in the green colour of Harry’s eyes. Had they always been so mesmerising? “Okay Louis?”

But Louis barely heard the question, hands coming up to tug on Harry’s hair. “It’s so long.”

Right…” Harry laughed, making to pull back. “Okay, you’re drunk. Shall I get Liam?”

“Not drunk,” Louis protested, pulling Harry back even as a part of his mind screamed, yes you are! “Just…it’s long. Why do you wear it like this?” he asked, tugging on a curl and watching it spring back into place.

“Dunno,” Harry admitted, running a hand through it once more, an action Louis followed attentively. “Just like it, I guess.”

“I hate it.”

Harry blinked. “What?”

Louis folded his arms gruffly. “I hate it.”

Harry chuckled, eyes twinkling and Louis whined because how was that fair?! “No you don’t.”

“I do!” he insisted, kicking his heels into the bench emphatically. “I…” he continued to curl one of the brown strands around his fingers. “Do you know when you hate something but love it too? You know, that confusing thing?”

Harry frowned before shrugging vaguely. “I s’pose. You mean like a love-hate relationship? You hate to love it?”

Louis shook his head. “No. You don’t love it. You hate it. But you love it because you hate it. Make sense, yeah?”

Harry nodded, wincing when Louis’ finger caught, pulling too hard. Louis breathed an apology. “I think I get it. So…” Harry nudged Louis’ knee with his thigh. “What’s yours? The thing that you love to hate?”

“Your hair,” Louis answered as if it was obvious. He leant forward to comb his fingers through it, nearly toppling off and only being saved by Harry’s hands on his chest.

“Oops,” Harry snickered.

“Hi,” Louis giggled, leaning back and realising something. “Hey, we’re like the same height now. Turn round!”

Harry furrowed his brow. “What’s that got to do with my height? I don’t do piggy-backs. Bad back and all.”

Louis just shook his head, gesturing furiously until Harry did as asked. “You’re always so tall, I never thought of this,” he tried to explained, leaning over Harry’s shoulder, a hand open. “You got an elastic?”

“Always,” Harry laughed, pulling one off his wrist and placing it in Louis’ hand.

“Ta.”

“…Are you seriously braiding my hair?”

“I’ll have you know,” Louis stated grandly, “That I am a master of “Elsa plaits”, thank you very much!”

Louis couldn’t see Harry’s face but he could tell he was smiling. Louis poked his tongue out at the back of his head before resuming his braiding. He had to hand it to Harry, he looked after his hair. It was smooth between his fingers, easy to twist and shift from hand to hand. Something about the repeated over-under movement was soothing and Louis could almost forget he was in a pub, braiding a ridiculously attractive man’s hair while undeniably drunk.

“Let it go, let it go, can’t hold it back anymore.”

Louis swiftly pinched Harry’s bicep, making him grunt. “Sing anymore of that fucking song and I swear I’ll end you Curly.”

Harry mock-gasped. “You don’t like it?”

“Not after the thousandth go around,” Louis retorted.

“Ouch.”

“Yeah, not fun. Disney received a strongly worded letter.”

Harry tried to turn his head, something Louis allowed as he was running out of hair as it was. “I’ll bet you did. Got quite the mouth on you.”

Louis licked his lips, leaning forward teasingly. “You have no idea what my mouth can do.”

Harry’s eyes widened exponentially, dropping to Louis’ lips and- fuck! What the fuck was he doing?!

“Here,” Louis snapped, shoving the elastic into Harry’s hand and all but tearing out of the bathroom. Harry’s “Louis?” followed him out but he ignored it. He pulled up at the table, hooking a hand around Liam’s arm. Liam turned, grinning up at him.

“Hey Louis! That took a while. Did you and Har-…” He suddenly seemed to catch sight of Louis’ expression. “Louis?”

“Go,” Louis pleaded, tugging on Liam’s arm. “Can we go? Please Li’?”

“Lou’, what’s wrong?” Liam asked, Niall and Ed, who had apparently since joined their table, now also frowning in concern. Harry was also right behind him, Louis could tell.

He didn’t outright jerk away from Harry’s hand on his shoulder, something that made Liam’s frame unwind slightly – good Liam, good protector – but it certainly made him stiffen. “Just too many drinks. I don’t wanna be this drunk. Home. I wanna go home.” He sounded like an over-tired child but he didn’t even care.

Shit,” Liam cursed, moving so rapidly it made Louis’ eyes hurt. “He’s been sick all week,” Liam explained to the watching, and worried, group. “God, alcohol was probably the last thing he needed.”

“I can still hear you,” Louis grumbled, though the fact that he willingly let Liam bundle him up in his coat said more than words ever could. “And was only the flu. Stop being dramatic.”

Liam merely kissed his temple, making their goodbyes and escorting Louis out of the bar. Once they were in a cab on their way back to the flat, Louis caved into Liam’s side. “Liam, I think I like Harry.”

 

***

Chapter Text

Whatever time it was when Louis woke up, it was too early. Any time was too early when he was this hungover. God, he didn’t even think he’d drunk that much the night before. Stumbling into the bathroom, Louis chastised himself on letting it get this bad. He was either sicker than he’d thought or he’d been such a saint recently that his alcohol tolerance was all but demolished. Neither option sounded appealing. Like, at all. Starting the shower, Louis tried to remember what had happened last night. He’d shooed Liam off, he remembered that much. Refused to let him out of the cab, shoving a wad of cash at the driver to persuade him to pull away from the curb. Other than that, it was all a blur of drinks and music and Niall and Harry and…

Louis swore, his shampoo bottle slipping out his hand and making that obnoxiously loud thud that items dropped in the shower always made.

He had been in the bathroom with Harry.

Louis distinctly remembered that now.

He recalled sitting on the bathroom vanity and ugh, god, why?! Those things were absolutely covered in germs and why would Harry let him do that in the first place? Liam would have tugged him down instantly. Then again, Zayn would’ve jumped right up beside him so maybe he could forgive Harry for that one. Louis also admitted that he remembered being slightly tripped on being the same height as Harry. Such a small thing but god, had it felt good.

And his hair.

Louis groaned, burying his face in his hands in embarrassment. He had braided Harry’s hair. Why on earth had he done that? Why?

Letting his head thud against the tiles, Louis sighed, the sound reverberating through the bathroom. What a wonderful first impression he must have made on Harry. His first time seeing Harry outside of working hours and it had been an absolute disaster. Louis didn’t have words to describe how badly that had gone. Hell, he’d put more effort into pulling guys for a quick hand job in the bathroom. No, he couldn’t have shown Harry his cheeky grin or wit, or tugged him into the dance floor and made the best with that he had asset-wise. No, he’d decided to woo Harry with his ability to do hair.

‘Nice one Tommo.’

Fist thumping into the wall, Louis had to admit though, the feel of Harry’s hair was still ghosting over his fingers. And those eyes. He could remember them in infinite detail. The shade of green, so different under the harsh halogen lighting but the depth within no different. The shape of Harry’s biceps as they’d moved under his shirt, the heat of his hands as he’d placed them on Louis’ chest. The fact that Harry had had to look up at him ever so slightly.

That image alone was what had Louis tipping, tumbling, falling, slipping into a realm he was often too scared to dive into. A world where he let himself imagine Harry on his knees in front of him, staring up at Louis through his long lashes. Whimpering, Louis slid a hand down to his cock, hissing at how hard it already was. His hand shifted to wrap around the length, Louis biting his lip and imagining it was Harry’s hand; that large hand, with long, long fingers.

Fuck,” Louis swore, tightening his grip and twisting just so. His body jerked in response and Louis only quickened his pace. God, when was the last time he had done this? A vision of Harry’s rippling chest and the ink that marred it made him not even bother following that line of thought, instead only increasing the mantra in his head: more, fuck, Harry, more, more, Harry!

A thumb sliding over the head and a skilful twist were all that was needed to have Louis coming, Louis muffling his cry. His chest heaved as he panted, water from the shower still pounding onto his back, breath echoing through the room. When he felt steady enough, Louis opened his eyes, watching as his come slowly dripped off his fingers. He crinkled his nose. Great, how to look Harry in the eyes from now on?

 

***

 

A few hours later found Louis seated at his desk, various pencils and measuring instruments precariously balanced around him. He was hoping to get this blueprint done before Georgia came home tomorrow and, despite his slight hangover-induced headache, he was actually making quite a bit of progress. His lines were coming together, he was finding the most optimal space solutions easily. Louis was, for once, in the zone. He was in the middle of working out the exact length of a wall when his phone went off. Louis spared it a passing glance only to do a double take at the Caller I.D.

Please don’t kill me it was Niall’s idea too calling.

Brow furrowing, Louis lifted his pencil off the page and pressed accept. “…hello?”

“Hey…Louis?”

And oh God, Louis knew that voice; that deep drawl. It was Harry. Harry Styles. Harry fucking Styles had his number. Had his number and was calling him.

 

“Hey,” Niall whispered, nudging Liam who was watching Harry tweak Georgia’s nose as she bounced around in his lap, curls laced with chocolate icing. “So you know how Louis came in the other day to ask Harry about cupcakes for…well, you know who.”

Liam quirked an eyebrow. “Lou’ wants cupcakes for Voldermort?” Niall snorted a laugh before ribbing him, making Liam answer seriously. “Yeah, I do. I was actually gonna talk about that because Louis said Har-”

Unimportant!” Niall interrupted. “I know where you’re about to go and no, don’t worry. It’ll make a great story to tell when we’re drunk.” Liam made an unimpressed face but Niall barrelled on. “But yeah, Harry needs to discuss it with Louis more so I’m thinking, I better give you Harry’s number yeah? So Louis can call him? And you give me Louis’ to give to Harry?”

At the twinkle in his eye, Liam couldn’t help but grin back. “For cupcake purposes,” he agreed in his most serious voice.

Niall nodded. “Cupcakes purposes.”

 

“Er, Louis?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” Louis hastily replied, scowling at Liam and Niall in his head. “Sorry, just weren’t aware you had me number.”

“Oh.” Harry sounded slightly uncertain. “Niall said you’d asked for it? Did you not want me to-”

“It’s fine,” Louis interrupted, running through the scenarios in his head, quickly finding the excuse Niall undoubtedly would have used. “Am I guessing this is to do with cupcakes?”

“Yeah actually. Now a good time?”

“Good a time as any,” Louis replied, placing the phone on loud-speaker and setting it down so he could continue working. “So, you or me first?”

“S’pose me,” Harry said slowly, clearly deciding where to start. “Okay, I’ll work on the designs before the flavours, I think. So, got any ideas on what you might like?”

Louis ground his teeth. “Not Frozen.”

A laugh came down the line. “You didn’t want to think about that?”

“I have and…Not. Frozen.”

“Not Frozen, got it,” Harry said, sounding as though he was writing that down. “Okay, so I know what you don’t want, but what do you want?”

Louis paused long enough to think that over. “I don’t know,” he eventually admitted. “I want it cute, yeah, obviously, but I don’t want it split boys and girls. No princesses and pirates because I’d give the girls a pirate one if they wanted one but Miss Sarah might not and that’s just…” He waved a hand vaguely.

“Sexist?” Harry suggested, tapping his pencil against something; his chin, perhaps. “I’ve got some ideas, actually. I can email them to you? Save me describing them. They’re kinda hard to visualise anyway.”

“Sure, send ‘em over,” Louis said distractedly. “It’s lt.aid@gmail.com.”

Harry parroted the address back and seconds later Louis heard the distinctive “whoosh” sound of an email being sent. “What’s the ‘a-i-d’?”

“Hmm? Oh, Architecture and Interior Design. L-t is obviously my initials. Work email and all.”

“Wait, so Louis Tomlinson Architecture, you mean?”

“And interior design,” Louis reminded, hearing his email sound and going to his inbox. “Happy coincidence that I could combine everything. Louis Tomlinson AID is a lot easier to say but you still know what I do. Neat little abbreviation. Quite proud of it, if I’m honest.” Louis zoomed in on the images.

“You’re your own business?”

Louis paused at Harry’s incredulous tone. “What? So unbelievable, is it?”

He could almost swear he could hear Harry shaking his head; stupid long hair. “No, no, I didn’t mean it like that. I just…I thought you worked for a firm or something. That…that’s incredible Louis.”

Louis blushed. “S’not,” he argued. “I just…holy fuck.”

“Louis?”

“Harry, can you actually make these?”

“The cupcakes?” He sounded confused.

“Yeah.”

“’Course.”

“Harry, these are the cutest things I’ve ever seen.” Louis flicked through the images again; a ladybird, a bumblebee, a frog, and an owl, all a different primary colour. “God, how? These are…Mate, Georgia would flip over these. Can you honestly make them?”

Harry chuckled. “It’s my job Louis.”

Louis scrunched up his nose, returning the phone and reaching for his calculator instead. “Yeah, well…Can’t imagine Niall doing something like that.”

Harry snorted. “Maybe you’d be surprised.”

“Would I really?” Louis drawled, fumbling the calculation and starting again.

“Actually, no. Niall’s not…I’m good with my hands, s’all.”

Louis froze, very determinedly trying to not picture what he had this morning and fuck, it wasn’t working. He muttered a curse under his breath, shifting awkwardly in his chair.

“Louis?”

Harry sounded concerned, bless him. “Nothing!” Louis answered, far too quickly and in a much too high pitch. “Just…can’t do this calculation is all.”

There was an aborted noise. “Are you working? God, Louis, sorry, I’m so sorry. I didn’t even think of that. I can go if you…?”

“Relax Curly,” Louis sighed, finally punching in the right numbers and drawing the related line. “I can multi-task. I too am very good with my hands.”

…that sounded far more sexual than he had intended. Before he could take it back though or react to the, admittedly very interesting, hitch in Harry’s breath, the doorbell rang. He excused himself and went to answer it, assuring Harry he’d back momentarily.

 

***

 

“Momentarily”, Harry soon found himself discovering, was not to Louis Tomlinson what it was to everyone else. So far he’d been left on the line over ten minutes and it didn’t sound as though Louis was coming back anytime soon. Harry wondered if he’d been caught up in a particularly zealous sales pitch, or perhaps the Jehovah’s Witnesses were attempting to convert him, or had he been kidnapped? While unlikely, it would certainly be interesting. Harry actually had to laugh at the image of Louis being kidnapped. He gave it five blocks before they let him loose simply to regain some semblance of peace and quiet. Harry then rebuked himself; kidnapping happened and it was hardly a joking matter.

His attention was then caught by the sound of raised voices through the phone and then a door being shut. Just before he heard the door click shut, he thought he caught Louis’ voice. There were sounds of pottering about the room though and, if he was on speaker as he suspected due to the reverberation he’d heard on Louis’ voice…

“…hello?”

All sounds in the room ceased.

Harry winced. “Hello?”

“…hello?”

Relief flooded through him. “Georgia! Hey Rosie.”

There was a delighted gasp and then tiny footsteps running across the room. “Harry? Is that you Harry? Harry from the shop Harry?”

He chuckled. “Yes darling, Harry from the bakery.”

“Were you talking to my Daddy?”

“I was,” Harry confirmed. “He had to go answer the door though.”

“That was Mummy,” Georgia realised and Harry could hear her swinging back and forth on the chair. “I was supposed to stay at Mummy’s house but she has to go to a special party with her boyfriend so she dropped me home. Daddy’s mad though.” Georgia then sighed. “I don’t know why Harry. I like Daddy. Why doesn’t he like me?”

Harry’s eyes widened. “He does love you! Georgia-Rose, you know he loves you very much. He’s…” Harry shook his head, knowing exactly why Louis wanted a break, knew that he needed one but… “Louis has to work and when you’re home he wants to play with you. So he tries to do all he can when you’re not home. But now you’re home and he’s not finished so he has to keep working but Louis just wants to play. He doesn’t want you to have to play by yourself.”

There was no response for a moment and Harry thought he’d confused the poor girl but then she finally replied. “I think I get it.” She then hummed, absently opening drawers here and there. “What are you doing Harry?”

Glancing out the window, Harry smiled softly to himself. “I was about to go out, actually. The sun’s out today so I thought I might go to a park and take some photos.”

“I like going to the park,” Georgia told him grandly. “But I don’t take any photos,” she added. “Are you supposed to?”

“No,” Harry laughed, pushing himself up and starting to collect his gear from around his room. “But I like to do it as a hobby, like, just for fun.”

“It sounds like fun.” Her little voice was whimsical. “Can I come?”

Harry’s grip on his camera strap tightened. “Rosie…That’s not-”

A door was abruptly flung open in the background. It wasn’t slammed or anything, but there was probably more force behind it than necessary. There came the sound of footsteps and then Georgia was squealing, giggling and laughing and begging to be put down. Harry felt his heart melt. It formed a puddle on the ground when he heard Louis’ soft laugh join in, heard the rumble of his voice as he whispered in his daughter’s ear…right before tickling her again.

“No!” she cried, laughter loud. “No, Harry, help me!

Harry stiffened and, from the sudden silence on the other end, so did Louis. He heard Louis repeat his name in confusion and then make a halted sound. It sounded as though Louis was moving towards where the phone was when Georgia took it upon herself to announce,

“Harry’s going to the park Daddy! Can we go too, pretty please?”

It was too much of Louis, Harry knew that. Even from their chats in the bakery Harry knew that Louis was busy, had his life organised to the micro-second, stayed in his lane and hovered around those he knew. Something like this, a different place, an unscheduled time, all alone with Harry, that wouldn’t…Louis would never…

“I…Fine. Which park?”

Harry stared at his phone, mouth agape. Wait, what?

 

***

 

The hustle of Kensington Gardens was quite loud, what with it being a Saturday afternoon and all. Harry had set himself up near the Diana Memorial Playground, knowing that if Louis would be able to find any part of the park, it would be this part. His theory proved to be true when, not two minutes later, a blur collided with his legs. Harry toppled to the ground, said blur following him. In a stark contrast to Liam, Louis merely laughed at Harry’s plight rather than apologising for his daughter’s behaviour. He looked every part of someone who’d been intending to stay in all day; jeans and a baseball tee, shoes without socks, a beanie stuffed over his hair. The pink penny board tucked under his arm had Harry raising his eyebrows.

“It’s Georgia’s,” Louis supplied unnecessarily, something that prompted the little girl to jump off of Harry’s chest and attempt to tug the board out of Louis’ grip.

“Harry, Harry, Harry!” she babbled excitedly, setting the board down once Louis relinquished his hold. “Watch me, yeah?”

“Hey, no, wait!” Harry called, making both Tomlinsons look at him quizzically. “Helmet?”

Louis rubbed his neck sheepishly. “Um, no. Don’t have one.”

“Louis!”

He shrugged. “I didn’t buy her the board.”

“I’m extra careful all the time,” Georgia added. She then chewed on her lip before beckoning her father over. The second Louis crouched down, Georgia snatched his beanie and tugged it on her own head, giggling madly. “I got a helmet now!” she sang, beaming up at Louis.

Louis smiled gently down at her before shooing her off. Lowering his camera, Harry watched her go. He had to admit, she’d definitely had practise and could handle a board as well as any six-year-old, maybe even a little bit better. His concern over the lack of helmet was still prevalent though, he just didn’t realise it was so obvious until Louis wrapped a hand around his upper arm and tugged him toward a bench.

“She’s fine,” Louis said with a roll of his eyes, wriggling lower into the bench and lighting a cigarette.

“Those things will kill you,” Harry told him disapprovingly.

Louis sighed. “I know.” He blew smoke high into the air. “Quitting just doesn’t seem to work. S’not like I haven’t tried.”

Harry didn’t reply, preferring to put his attention on his camera instead. He fiddled with the settings, taking photos whenever something caught his attention; a leaf, a ray of sun, a squirrel, a couple holding hands. He flicked back through the view screen, wincing at the over-exposure of some shots, jumping a mile when a hand shot out to grab his wrist.

“Louis, wha-”

But Louis was already leaning across him, tugging the camera closer. He then pulled back, lips pursed. “Did you just take a photo of my daughter without my permission?”

Harry froze. Sure enough, there on the view screen was a picture Harry had taken of Georgia skating down the path, stance perfect, hair flying out in the wind.

Louis’ eyebrows merely arched higher.

“No…I mean, yeah, I did,” Harry stuttered, attempting to tug the camera back. “I didn’t mean to, sorry. I can just…here, lemme have it and I’ll…I’ll delete it, right?”

“Don’t.”

Harry’s grip on the camera slackened. “What?”

“Don’t,” Louis repeated softly, stubbing out his cigarette on the ground. “It’s good. Just…send me a copy, okay? I don’t have enough photos, I think.”

Harry shifted closer at Louis’ sad tone, flicking back some more. He quickly found the one he was looking for: Georgia pulling Louis’ beanie on, a cheeky grin on her face. He tilted the screen so Louis could see. Louis sucked in a breath, nodding weakly.

“Yeah, that one too.”

Harry squeezed Louis’ shoulder gently. “She’s beautiful.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Louis crowed, shaking his sullen mood off and replacing it with pride. “She is the most beautiful girl in all of England. I will fight you on this.”

Harry laughed, not doubting it at all. He handed his camera over when Louis pawed at it, letting him flick through the images. He handed it back with an appraising look.

“For a shitty hipster, you’re not too bad Styles.”

Harry nudged Louis’ knee with his own. “Oi.”

Louis playfully nudged him back, grin open and sincere. “I mean it though, you’re good. Ever studied photography?”

“No, but like, I have my own little side-business with a tumblr and instagram that I sometimes get clients through.”

“You have tumblr?” Louis demanded, pulling out his phone and opening the app.

“Yeah, I…Wait, you do?”

Louis flushed. “Maybe,” he grumbled. “But only for inspiration, okay!”

“Whatever,” Harry teased, adding when Louis pointed at his screen impatiently. “It’s ‘I study rainbows’, hyphens between each word.”

Louis burst out laughing. He dutifully typed in the username, hitting follow before shutting out of tumblr and pulling up instagram, repeating the process there. He then scrolled down Harry’s instagram feed, scrutinising some of the photos and liking a few here and there.

“You should meet with Zayn one time,” Louis told him, voice painfully neutral. “He’s done a couple of galleries and I reckon he’d like to display some of this.” He tapped the screen by way of explanation. “It’s good.”

“Maybe,” Harry replied noncommittally.

Pocketing his phone, Louis stretched out his legs. Harry took a long moment to study his form before hastily looking away, returning his attention to his camera. After a couple of long minutes of silence, he dared to break it, testing out the waters of small-talk once again.

And it worked.

Harry was pretty sure he’d learnt more about Louis in thirty minutes than he had in past two or three months since meeting him. He found out that Louis was the oldest of five, and that he had four half-sisters, two of which were twins. He’d never met his dad and couldn’t care for him either, if he was honest. He’d failed his A-levels but re-tried them the next year and his mum had been so proud when he’d passed.

Louis talked about his university days, how he’d moved from Doncaster to Leeds to study and had thrown himself into a double degree of Business Management and Performance. A year in he’d dropped the Performance aspect and swapped to Architecture and Design. Apparently the switch had also caused a mixed up in dorm allocations somewhere along the line and he’d been forced to share with first-year Liam. Harry found it amusing that they’d hated each other to begin with. And rightly so; some of the pranks Louis had pulled on Liam were downright horrible. From Louis’ sheepish expressions, he now knew it too.

He’d then talked about Georgia being born – the flippant ‘well, her mum didn’t want her and all’ caught Harry off guard – and how he and Liam and Zayn (oh yeah, Zayn had arrived somewhere in the middle there though Harry couldn’t quite remember where) had been so relieved that she was a girl, what with each of them only having multiple sisters and not a brother in sight. Louis also teasingly remarked that he thought the over-exposure to girls growing up was what eventually turned them all off them in the end. Harry laughed, and then immediately felt bad for it, chiding Louis gently. Louis waved him away and spoke about them all getting a flat together, how he’d nearly cried when Liam – who he’d thought still hated him – had suggested it, and how they’d lived together until graduation, at which point they’d all mutually decided to move to London. Liam already had an internship, Zayn had some job interviews lined up, and Louis had been much the same. He admitted to almost accidentally starting to his own business after a client had misinterpreted something he’d said and asked to employ him personally. It had been an avenue he’d never thought about but, after some discussions with Liam, he’d set it up and it had taken. Louis called it his crowning achievement. He then took it back and said no, his crowning achievement was Georgia.

Georgia who had long since returned her board and was climbing up the wooden ship behind them, screaming for them to “look!” with each new height she reached. Louis patiently did so, waving every single time and confessing it had been a long time since he’d taken Georgia skating. Some more prompting from Harry had him admitting that he hated the board entirely because he would have started Georgia on an actual board but the Penny had been a Christmas gift from Liam and Zayn and they’d custom made the thing – from it’s shiny pink wheels to its white glittery top and even to the galaxy design on the underneath. Harry also discovered that Louis was quite the skater and he and Zayn had used to go out every Sunday afternoon, sometimes with Georgia but more often than not without. When Harry had asked, Louis had said he didn’t do that anymore, that he couldn’t, hastily assuring Harry that he didn’t mind.

But Harry could see it in his eyes; he did.

And Harry? Well, he wanted to fix that. And, if he had his way, he would.

 

***

 

Stepping out of the elevator, Louis ensured Georgia had her board and still had his beanie. She did and diligently remained by his side even as he readjusted the takeaway bags in his arms. Arriving at Liam’s door, Louis rapped his knuckles on the wood. Silence met their ears and it dawned on Louis that Liam could very well be out. Mercifully though, the door then opened.

“Hello Louis,” Liam greeted, openly surprised. “And hello Miss Georgia-Rose.”

“We brought dinner,” Georgia informed him, dumping her gear inside and holding out her arms until Liam scooped her up.

Liam ushered Louis in, shutting the door behind him. “What’s up Lou’?” he asked, concern vibrating off him.

“For once, nothing,” Louis admitted, setting the containers down and started to rifle through Liam’s cupboards. “We’ve just been out all day and I don’t think either of us were ready to go home yet.”

“Out all day?” Liam repeated, starting to frown as he looked at Georgia. “Wasn’t she at-”

“We played with Harry!” Georgia revealed, unknowingly cutting Liam off and making Louis hastily duck behind the open pantry cupboard.

“You played with Harry?”

“Yep, all day! At the park! Harry brought his camera and did some photo-ing-”

“’S not a word!” Louis called, and was promptly ignored.

“-and then we went to the palace ‘cause it was open and I wanted to look inside. They had a game to play Liam! I got a special crown, it’s in Daddy’s bag. Oh, and it has stamps all on it that I did.”

“Georgia, breathe,” Louis chuckled, plucking her from Liam’s arms and handing her a fork and a container. “Go turn the telly on love.”

She did as asked and Louis squirmed under Liam’s pointed gaze. “What?” he huffed, brushing his hair off his face. “This is all your fault anyway. You were the one that gave Harry my number!”

Liam, who had been looking indignant, turned sheepish. “Okay…well maybe…but still, day with Harry…”

Louis sighed at the hint. “No Liam. That’s not gonna happen. Just…don’t.”

Liam rounded the counter, lowering his voice and taking Louis’ shoulders in his hands. “And why won’t it?”

Louis shook his head. “Because it can’t.” He pulled away from Liam’s tightening grip. “Look, I get it, Harry’s lovely. But Li…I can’t have lovely. I mean, I have Georgia.”

“She’s not a burden.”

Louis’ eyes hardened. “What would you know?” Liam physically flinched and Louis sighed. “Sorry. Li, it’s just…You don’t get it. She’s first and I…I have to run every part of my life through her. If I date, I have to take her into account. Every person that walks through my door is also walking into her life and I have to make sure they’re good people. Her life shouldn’t be a revolving door of blokes.” He looked out over at where Georgia was swinging her feet, browsing the channels. “I need someone in it for the long-haul and how do you start with that? I need someone who’s there for the both of us.”

He went to walk off, only to have Liam’s voice pull him up. “Don’t know if you’ve noticed Lou’, but Harry’s already doing that.”

Louis scowled. “I don’t want to talk about this with you.”

Liam’s expression turned hurt but Louis didn’t take it back, only gestured for Liam to join him on the bed beside him and Georgia. He did, taking great care to make sure he and Louis were touching, providing support in the only way he knew how. He felt the moment Louis gave in, sinking closer and breathing an apology into his neck. It was only later when both Louis and Georgia had fallen asleep…which, actually, left Liam with no where to sleep, he realised suddenly…Regardless, it occurred to him that Louis had never discussed his feelings with him and Liam maybe started to understand some of Louis’ recent decisions a little more. Maybe he needed someone to talk to, someone that wasn’t Liam, or wasn’t Harry, or Niall, who was perhaps too close to Harry. Maybe he needed to talk to the person he had always talked to.

Which was why Liam fished Louis’ phone out of his pocket, opening a new text message.

Having dinner 4 Georgia on Friday. Mine @ 6. C u there?

Re-reading the message, Liam nodded. He then sent it to Zayn.

 

***

Chapter Text

Birthdays were funny things to children, Louis had long since discovered. The older he got, the less he cared for his own but in comparison with every year Georgia only grew more excited. She was now at an age where she understood the concept, understood that the day was hers alone, the day she got presents, the day she got spoilt, the day she could push a little more than usual and probably get away with it. Georgia was now aware of parties and games and cake and sweets. Her exuberance was exhausting but Louis managed to keep up. Just.

Upon being woken at some ridiculous hour of the morning, Louis hadn’t even complained, instead sucking it up and bringing presents out of the closet. Sometimes, there was a lot that could be said about working from home, thus meaning he could sneak out any time to grab and wrap things without little eyes seeing. The Cinderella dress had cost more than Louis really could have afforded but he counted it worth it – a small price to pay for giving up his chance to see his mum and sisters later in the year. Georgia had pranced around in it all morning until the very last second before she had to get ready for school.

Of course they’d been late but Louis figured birthdays were good enough excuses. He waved goodbye to Georgia, apologising to the class, and left a note with Miss Sarah explaining he’d be back at the allocated time with cupcakes. Louis’d managed to squeeze in three meetings and a skype conference before racing to Sweet Nothings, where Harry and his order had been waiting. Louis had gaped upon seeing the neat little cupcakes; he couldn’t deny it, nor did he want to. What Harry had made was the most exquisite thing he had ever seen. Upon saying so, Harry had merely laughed, handing the box over and explaining that he’d made three extras; an extra for Georgia, one for Louis, and one for the teacher. Louis had screwed up his nose because he was not sharing with Miss Sarah – these were his thank you very much – but he’d keep the spares for Liam and Zayn.

Ah yes, Liam and Zayn. Another interesting development that had taken Louis by surprise.

Upon seeing the reply from Zayn stating a simple, “yeah”, followed by “will Liam be there?”, Louis had gone back through his sent box before confronting Liam. He’d then very pointedly text back, while making sure Liam was watching: “yes he will but you two will not spoil my daughter’s birthday, you got that?”. Zayn had replied with a begrudging affirmative and Liam with a meek nod. Having those two together for the first time in the same place was going to be fun, Louis just knew it. But Georgia was ecstatic about Zayn coming so they’d have to play nice. So help him if they ruined her day.

Returning to the primary school once more, Louis had been met with uproarious cheers from the little pupils, all of whom were bouncing in their seats eagerly. They were only more awed by the cupcakes, the entire class standing around them spellbound. Miss Sarah had snapped them back with a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” before dishing out the sweets and sending them back to their desks. Georgia happily skipped back to her table with a ladybird cupcake and Louis could see her gesturing wildly as she explained to Riley all about her friend Harry and how he was the one who had made her special cakes. Louis had to admit, Harry had more than excelled. Not only were the designs a hit, but he’d stuck to the box a copy of his recipe, as well as smaller versions that were to be sent home with the children who had allergies for their parents to read and check-over.

The end of cupcakes timed perfectly with the end of class and once the children had all gone, Louis had helped Miss Sarah pack up, assuring her he didn’t mind as he was the reason behind the mess in the first place. He’d then gathered Georgia and her belongings, as well as his leftover cupcakes, and herded her out the door.

“Daddy,” Georgia said as they walked towards the flat. “We have three cupcakes left, don’t we?”

He nodded, wondering where this was going. “Yeah…”

“I want to give one to Harry,” she declared. “And maybe Niall.”

Louis cocked his head to the side. “Why baby?”

“As a thank you,” she explained airily, skipping a couple of steps. “They were so pretty Daddy and I want to thank Harry. So we can give him a cupcake, yeah? And Niall because Niall’s Harry’s friend and he’ll be sad if he doesn’t get one.”

Louis rolled his eyes because wasn’t that the truth? But still…

“Love, those cupcakes were Harry’s job. He has to do it. Just like how I have to draw. It’s just his work poppet.”

“But Daddy,” Georgia pouted. “You get presents sometimes – I see them! Like the big chocolates or the bottle with the pretty bow.”

Louis remembered that bottle of wine. Remembered it very well. Also remembered the pounding headache that came after it too.

“Well, yeah…”

“So we can thank Harry then,” Georgia stated matter-of-factly. “Because he did the best job Daddy, didn’t he? Everybody said my cupcakes were the best. I like that stinky Toby got the stinky frog one.”

“Oi!” Louis warned, shaking a finger disapprovingly. “Those frogs were cute and they weren’t stinky at all. Don’t say things like that.”

Georgia took from that only what she wanted. “So, we can give Harry a cupcake?”

Louis was about to say no when he suddenly thought, why? His little girl only wanted to be kind and give someone a gift, thank them for the effort they had put in for her. If anything, Louis should be encouraging such behaviour. Generosity was rare these days. How could he not nurture it?

“Maybe not a cupcake,” he said, pulling Georgia up and crouching in front of her. “But only because I think Harry maybe ate a lot trying to get yours perfect.” Probably bullshit but hey. “And, I thought maybe Zayn and Liam might like to try one? What do you think?” Georgia bit her lip uncertainly. “Could we buy Harry something else instead, something from the shop?”

“And Niall,” Georgia bargained, eyes wide and pleading. “Something for Niall too please Daddy.”

“Alright,” he consented, shaking his head with a quiet chuckle. “Something for Niall too. Now, let’s see what Tesco’ve got, yeah?”

“Yeah!”

What Tesco ended up having, or rather what they ended up buying, were Cadbury Roses which Georgia-Rose thought was hilarious and Louis had to admit he found it slightly amusing himself. They’d bought a box for each of the boys, as well as thank you cards. Louis had laughed louder than was most likely acceptable when Georgia selected a Little Mermaid one for Harry because “he likes mermaids. I saw one on his arm”. And maybe they’d had to borrow a pen from the service desk to write on the cards and maybe they’d had to duck back to buy gift bags because they had to be wrapped but Louis was adamant about not having time for that so bags it was.

They did, eventually, make it to the bakery. Louis was almost relieved to finally get inside. He instantly spotted Perrie working the counter, but no sign of Harry or Niall. Next to him, Georgia visibly deflated.

“He’s not here,” she whispered, sounding almost on the verge of tears.

“Hey, hey, hey,” Louis shushed, sweeping her into his arms. “It’s okay Georgie, promise. Let’s ask Perrie if she’s see-”

“Tommo!”

Louis groaned while Georgia’s head snapped up. She then launched herself into Niall’s arms, something that sent both men off balance. Somehow Niall steadied himself and Louis, though he looked thoroughly bewildered when he realised that he was now holding a squirming six-year-old.

“Uh…top of the mornin’ to ya,” he greeted, making Georgia laugh. “Want to tell me why I’m holding you?”

Georgia held up one of the bags she was holding. “Because I got you a present!”

Niall beamed. “Well didn’t you say so?” He then looked past Georgia to Louis. “Why?”

“Georgia wanted to say thank you for the cupcakes,” Louis explained, brushing his daughter’s hair softly. “She wanted to thank Harry and then decided she couldn’t leave you out.”

Niall blinked once before doing a little jig, bouncing Georgia. “That is the nicest thing. Thank you so much Georgia! Now, Harry’s out the back. Do you want to give him his?”

“Yes, yes, yes!” Georgia babbled, wriggling her way out of Niall’s arms and bolting for the half-door that led to the back of the shop. She didn’t go through though, clearly waiting for permission. Before Niall could give it, Perrie appeared, announcing she’d take Georgia to Harry. Louis watched the pair go suspiciously, all too aware of the frosting incident that had occurred the last time Georgia had been in Perrie’s care.

“Louis, you didn’t have to do this.”

Niall’s voice brought him back but he shrugged. “She wanted to. Why not?”

Niall eyed him up before shaking his head. “Thank you, anyway.” He then tore open the chocolates, offering one to Louis before devouring a handful. “What you up to now?” he asked around a mouthful of chocolate. “She got a party or something?”

“No party,” Louis said, shoulders relaxing. “Which, I’ll admit, I’m grateful for. Those things are hellish. Nah, she’s got dinner with me and the lads tonight and then off to her mum’s for the weekend. Apparently El’s got something planned. We are, however, having a special dinner,” he added grandly. “Butter chicken, I quote “green and orange pasta”, and pineapple.”

Niall stared at him.

Louis groaned. “I know! But it were her choice!”

“Let me know how it goes.”

Louis punched him lightly. “If I die, I’m gonna blame you!”

Niall whacked him back. “How is it my fault?” He then froze, expression turning so serious it made Louis take a step back. “Hang on…You said ‘lads’. You don’t mean…”

Louis rubbed his temples. “Yes, I mean. Liam and Zayn.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah, exactly.”

“Okay now seriously, let me know how it goes.”

Louis kneaded his forehead. “You should just com-…”

Niall frowned as Louis trailed off. “Louis?”

Louis hastily shook his head. “Nah, it’s…nah, be weird, wouldn’t it?”

An index finger stabbed his sternum, making him grunt. “Won’t know if it’s weird til you ask,” Niall pointed out.

Louis ran a hand through his hair. “Look, I…Georgia likes you, you and Harry…and I…I dunno…come round?” At Niall’s still confused look, Louis awkwardly elaborated. “I mean, come for dinner? It’s Georgia’s birthday and all, she’d like you there. If you wanted to…Wait, no, it’s Friday, you do stuff. I’d do stuff if-”

Louis!” Niall interrupted, shaking him a little. “Breathe before you pass out.” Louis did so. “And actually no, Harry and I are free. We shut at five but gotta pack up and all that shit so anytime after five-thirty if that works?”

Louis didn’t know if this was actually happening. Had he just invited Niall and Harry to dinner? At his flat? He thought he had. Shit.

“Um, yeah, six,” he said, thoughts all a blur. “Dinner starts at six, I mean.” He saw Harry appear from out the back, Georgia bouncing along beside him. He quickly turned back to Niall, dropping his voice. “Surprise, yeah? Like, don’t tell Georgia. I’ll text you.”

“Text you what?” Harry asked as he joined them.

As Louis beckoned Georgia back to his side, Niall pulled Harry down by his curls to whisper in his ear. Harry’s eyes widened and then flew to Louis, clearly disbelieving. Louis could feel his cheeks heating up but he nodded ever so slightly. It was worth it though because Harry’s face split into the most beautiful grin. Louis swallowed. God, he was gorgeous. With that thought, Louis turned on his heel and left.

Okay, mental freak out in five, four, three…

 

***

 

“So like, Louis actually invited us to his place?”

“For the hundredth time Harry,” Niall snapped, rolling his eyes and locking the door to the shop. “Yes. He invited us because Georgia likes us and because Zayn is coming.”

Harry sucked in a breath. “Shit,” he muttered lowly. “Have Zayn and Liam…?”

Niall shook his head. “Don’t think so. At least, not since they broke up.”

“Which was…?”

“Dunno. Before we met Louis, definitely. So, what’s that? Three, four months? Shit.”

“Shit is right,” Harry murmured, tightening his grip on his satchel and the left-overs they’d gathered up. After all, it seemed rude to be invited on such short notice and not bring anything. Plus, it wasn’t as though there weren’t always left-overs. Niall led them down the street, making a turn and then crossing to the other side, pulling up outside a row of neat, white flats. He raised his eyebrows at Harry.

“You wanna knock?”

Harry balked. “Why me?!”

Niall shrugged. “Cause if we’re at the wrong place whoever it is more likely to fall in love with you than me. So go, be a martyr. It’s your boyfriend anyway.”

“He’s not…” Harry then sighed, knowing it wasn’t worth it. He rapped on the wood of the door before rocking back onto his heels.

“We’re not interested.” The voice came from behind them, making the pair whirl around and-…bloody hell, was everyone in the Pimlico area unbelievably attractive because who was this model, with those perfect cheekbones and deep brown eyes?! Brown eyes that were, Harry noticed, hard. “Like I said, not interested.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Harry asked.

The young man rolled his eyes, scaling the stairs himself and pushing between them. “Whatever it is you’re selling, we’re not buying, got it?”

Harry didn’t have a response to that but Niall did. Although Harry didn’t know if “Zayn?” could be classified as a response. Nevertheless, it had the young man freezing and his gaze turned from cold to panicked, like a deer caught in the headlights. It meant Niall’s guess was correct, if nothing else.

“How did…”

“Long time no see!” Niall chirped, only making the apparent Zayn even more uncertain, clearly thinking he was supposed to know Niall from somewhere but unable to pinpoint where that was. “Anyway, we’re friends of Liam-” And oh yes, Zayn’s eyes darkened there, “-and Louis. I’m Niall and this is-”

Harry?!” The squeal came from the door that had just been opened. Georgia flew past Zayn’s outstretched arms and straight into Harry’s. “Harry, why are you at my house? And Niall too! Did you both come for my birthday? Zayn, Zaynie, did you see, see? Harry’s here, Harry’s here!”

Zayn clearly did see, if his miffed expression was anything to go by. A little awkwardly, Harry attempted to pass Georgia over. She pouted at him for all of a second before flopping into Zayn’s arms, wrapping her legs around his waist and squeezing him.

“Love you Zayn,” she mumbled. And just like that Zayn’s expression melted and he hugged her tight.

“Happy birthday little G,” he breathed, stepping over the threshold as she snuffled into his neck. He kissed her cheek lightly before thumbing at the spot, making her sigh contentedly.

Once inside, Georgia shimmied her way to the ground and then pulled Harry and Niall in. Glancing at the pile of shoes in the hall, Harry went to ask if shoes needed to be removed only to find that Zayn was already down the hallway, shoes very much still on. He and Niall exchanged glances before the Irishman shrugged, following Zayn blindly, shoes and all. Looking down at his boots once more, Harry shooed Georgia on before bending down to take them off.

In doing so, he found himself coming to eye level with the hall table. It was littered with odd ornaments, a couple of sets of keys, and, which caught Harry’s attention most of all, three photo frames. The one closest was clearly Georgia’s school photo from the last year. Moving to the other two, Harry found them both to be of Louis, Liam, and Zayn. In the first they must have just started being flatmates, all young with ridiculous hair and Louis in blindingly bright red trousers and, oddly enough, suspenders. They were all older in the second photo, though with even more ridiculous expressions and…was Liam pretending to pick Louis’ nose? Either way, the photos were bitter-sweet, nostalgic, Harry could feel it.

“Harry, you lost mate?”

Niall’s voice echoed from the main room and Harry quickly jogged down the hall. Ironically, Niall’s yell was what made both Louis and Liam, who had been leaning across the island to talk to Louis as he cooked, notice their arrival. They also noticed Zayn’s, who had been wavering at the edge of the dining room uncertainly. Liam went ramrod straight, Louis’ eyes flying between the pair and then desperately to Harry. Harry waved meekly, Louis scowling briefly – ouch – before he caught Georgia’s attention, pasting that horrible fake smile that Harry despised onto his face.

“Georgia, love, why don’t you show Harry and Niall around the flat?”

The little girl nodded, taking both their hands and whisking them down the hallway. There was then a flurry of movement as Louis tore passed, slamming the door on their left shut. Niall quirked an eyebrow and Louis placed his hands on his hips.

“’s my room and it’s a mess,” he said defensively. “And it’s private so, no. Off you go.”

The attitude didn’t seem to phase Georgia at all and she happily led Harry and Niall through the flat, leaving Louis to deal with his friends. In all honesty, there wasn’t that much to see. The mural in Louis’ office had been impressive, not to mention surprising, until Georgia had explained that the room had once belonged to Liam and Zayn. She showed them the bathroom, though Harry suspected that was only because she wanted to show off her singing toothbrush. The last stop was her bedroom, a little room with white furniture that all looked like it had come from Ikea. It probably had. The corner where her bed was had been decorated though, a soft blue mural reading “have courage and be kind” surrounded by butterflies.

“Zaynie did that,” Georgia said, noticing Harry’s staring. “Because I liked the Cinderella movie.” She then tugged him over to her bed, waving for Niall to follow. Bounding across the bed, she pointed to a stuffed bear that was apparently called “Mr. Poo”, because he was “positively disgusting” – it truly was - as well as the three pictures she had.

Again, bitter-sweet was the first thought to cross Harry’s mind. There was one of Louis and Georgia from Christmas which was sickeningly adorable, what with both of them in Christmas hats and Georgia smooshing Louis’ face with her hands. The next was her with Zayn and Liam from, judging from the rather large hat on his head, Liam’s birthday but the photo was old; Georgia was so small. It had to be nearly eighteen months old, or something very close. And the last was a photo of a young woman sitting with Louis, a Union Jack draped around their shoulders. Once more, it looked like an early uni photo. Louis barely looked twenty, as opposed to his current twenty-seven.

“That’s my mummy,” Georgia said, thumbing at the frame reverently. “Her name is Eleanor. This from when Daddy thought he liked girls. He likes boys now.” That got a laugh out of Niall and a smile from Harry. Georgia then turned to Harry, brow pulled into a frown. “Do you like boys Harry?”

Harry struggled to keep his face serious. “Yes, but I like girls too. I like both. It’s okay to like both.”

She nodded seriously before turning to Niall, who quickly tried to smother his giggles under her intense scrutiny. “Do you like boys?”

Niall shook his head. “Nah, girls are my thing.”

If anything, Georgia’s frown deepened. “It’s okay to like boys, you know.”

“He knows,” Harry reassured, seeing Niall floundering for a response. At Georgia’s disbelieving face, Harry hauled her into his lap. “But, just like it’s okay for Niall to like boys, it’s also okay for him to like girls. Or, like me, he could like both. You can like anyone and everyone you want, yeah?”

Georgia’s face split into a grin, eyes crinkling shut in an expression that was a carbon copy of Louis’. “Yeah.”

 

***

 

Watching Georgia lead their guests down the hall for a minute, Louis then strode back to the kitchen. Liam was still staring at Zayn, mouth hanging open slightly, and probably would have continued to do so indefinitely had Louis not cleared his throat. Liam hastily snapped back, shooting Louis a sheepish smile before gesturing to a corner of the room. Louis nodded but his eyes held enough warning – stay where I can hear you.

Liam nodded and shifted to the edge of the living room, the barest crook of a finger all that was needed to get Zayn to follow. They stood there awkwardly for so long that Louis rolled his eyes, thinking he would have to intervene before they’d even started. Luckily though, Liam spoke before it came to that.

“…hi.”

Louis groaned internally. Oh for fuck’s sake.

“Um…yeah, hi,” Zayn mumbled, shoving his hands deep into his pockets. His gaze flickered up. “I uh…your hair, the buzzcut thing…I like it.” A soft smile appeared on his face. “Very David Beckham.”

Liam’s hand came up to rub his head self-consciously. “Yeah? Yours is good too…like, it’s long, you know?” He went out to touch it, fingers just brushing the edges before yanking his hand back, bottom lip pulled between his teeth. “Sorry, I…”

Zayn’s body gave a shudder and then he all but flung himself into Liam’s arms. Louis openly gawked, dropping the spatula he had been holding. Liam was already pulling Zayn in, rocking him ever so slightly and whispering into his ear but it was all muscle memory and Louis could see the instant Liam’s head caught up with his limbs. But by then it was too late; Zayn was well and truly moulded into him and Liam, though so confused, would never have the heart to push him away. He did as Louis always knew he would, holding Zayn tighter and muttering soft reassurances. It didn’t take long for Zayn to pull away, but when he did his eyes were wet. He swiped at them angrily, face only dropping its tension when he saw the faint smile on Liam’s face.

“You’re happy,” he breathed, sounding a tad in awe. “I like when you’re happy. Didn’t look happy before.”

Liam stiffened, eyes finding the floor and causing Louis to go on high alert, ready to fly in if needed. “Wasn’t happy before. Haven’t been for awhile.”

And just like that, Zayn’s frame went rigid, arms locking across his chest. “That’s not my faul-”

Liam’s eyes had widened and so help him if Zayn said what Louis thought he was going to then Louis was going to tear him apart personally. And take great pleasure in it. Fortunately for Zayn, he never got to finish that sentence, getting cut off in the middle by a loud thump coming from the hallway, followed by a whimper. The trio froze, knowing from experience that there was a two second window here. A window in which Georgia either:

a) got up and brushed off her fall or

b) decided she had been near murdered and started screaming at the top of her lungs.

“That was a good one!” Niall’s voice sang out, a new factor in this equation. “Your landing was a bit off though, weren’t it?”

More silence…and then Georgia giggled. Louis, Liam, and Zayn all breathed sighs of relief. “Y’alright love?” Louis called before giving Zayn a significant look and adding, “Dinner’s ready!”

Georgia yelled back an affirmative before arriving in the dining room, dressed once more in her Cinderella dress. Her hair was now in a beautiful bun-plait combo that Louis could never hope to replicate. His face soured slightly but he pushed it down as Georgia showed off to Liam and Zayn, spinning round and round to make her dress puff out. Zayn fingered the material and gave Louis a knowing look, very aware of the fact that Louis couldn’t really afford such a thing. Louis ignored it, serving dinner and nodding in satisfaction when Liam and Zayn chose opposite sides of the table to sit at. The distance between himself and Harry was unfortunate? fortunate? Louis wasn’t sure at this point; but either way it was substantial. It wouldn’t have really mattered though because between Georgia and Niall no one got a word in edgewise. Those two were as boisterous as each other and also, most horrifyingly, seemed to possess that unique skill of being able to talk at the same time and yet still understand what the other was saying. D-grade super power for sure. It had to be.

After dinner Georgia had announced that it was, apparently, photo time. At Louis’ blank look, she merely rolled her eyes and repeated herself, only adding this time “because Harry said so”. Harry’s hands immediately flew up and said he’d said no such thing, only that he’d remarked that all Georgia’s photos were old and maybe – maybe – they could take some tonight. Guilted under the knowledge that it was Georgia’s birthday and that Harry had his camera, Louis had given in. Besides, it was true; their photos were all old. Everyone had taken their turn of smiling with the birthday girl as well as every other combination of guests possible – within reason, obviously – before Louis had made his second, and last, concession of the night: Frozen. Once done, he’d ushered Georgia to bed, trusting the four lads to not set his flat on fire any time in the next thirty minutes. Georgia hadn’t been particularly thrilled with the idea and had made quite a fuss in the bathroom until Louis had eventually lost his patience and snapped,

“Georgia-Rose Tomlinson, one more word and Harry and Niall will never visit again, understand?”

That had made her snap her mouth shut but she’d stomped to her room, stubbornly fighting sleep until Louis had sighed and laid beside her, voice low as he sang to her. It wasn’t often he sang, even less often in front of anyone, but it was his only guarantee of sending her straight off. Louis did, however, jump a good honest voice when another voice joined him,

“A man may drink and not be drunk

And man may fight and not be slain”

Whipping around, Louis saw Niall standing ever so cautiously in the doorway. His voice had a beautiful lilt to it, Louis smiling as Niall continued without him.

“A man may court a pretty girl

And perhaps be welcomed back again

But since it has so ought to be

By a time to rise and a time to fall

Come fill to me the parting glass”

Louis smiled sadly, brushing Georgia’s hair off her sleeping face as he whispered the final line,

“Good night and joy be with you all

Good night and joy be with you all.”

Standing up from the bed, Niall nudged Louis when he was close enough. “Since when do you know Irish drinking songs?”

He shrugged, glancing towards the living room. “Zayn down there?”

Niall frowned. “Yeah…Harry’s got him and Liam sharing stories about…something…”

“Good,” Louis grumbled, making straight for the back door and flopping down onto the step, lighting a cigarette. Niall stepped out into the brisk air beside him and Louis groaned at his face. “Yes, smoking, bad. Harry’s already made me aware. As has Liam. Zayn’s the only one that hasn’t.” Louis snorted. “Probably because we egg each other on.”

Niall raised his eyebrows before catching sight of the football wedged between the corner of the house and a long dead plant in a pathetic terracotta pot. “You play?”

Louis shrugged, grudgingly getting to his feet and gesturing for Niall to kick him the ball. He did and Louis bounced it on his knees before sending it back. “A bit. Played in school and sometimes at uni but not anymore.”

“Why not?” Niall spiked the ball and Louis bounced it off his chest, kicking it back and grinning wickedly when it got the blond straight in the gut.

“’Cause Georgia,” he replied simply, inhaling deeply on his cigarette as Niall rubbed his sore midsection. “Plus, footy was Liam and Zayn’s thing. I didn’t want to intrude.”

“Hate to break it to you,” Niall pointed out, unexpectedly shooting and making Louis squawk, dropping his light in the process. “But Zayn doesn’t come any more. You should. Payno’s team needs all the help they can get.”

It was true but Louis just shook his head. “Can’t. Still got Georgia.”

Niall stared at him before marching over and kicking Louis shin. “You’re an idiot.”

Louis’ mouth dropped open. “What?

Niall didn’t reply, stepping back inside and that…That just wasn’t on. Abandoning the football, Louis stomped down the hallway, argument already playing out in his head. Entering the living room, Louis’ mouth was open and the words were already in his throat and then Niall fucking demolished him. And all it took was,

“Liam, didn’t you say your footy team was down a player? Louis says he plays. Harry doesn’t work Thursday nights, he’d be happy to mind Georgia, isn’t that right Harry?”

Three sets of eyes flew to Niall and then to Louis. Louis’ mouth opened and shut a few times, mind blank. How had this happened? Had Niall just played him? Niall, of all people?!

“Yeah, that’s no problem.”

And oh fuck, why was Harry talking?

“Harry, no,” Louis interjected, shaking his head. “I don’t…You don’t have to…”

“It’s alright. I can do it.” There was an edge of suspicion to Zayn’s voice and he narrowed his eyes at Harry; Harry, for his part, merely looked indifferent.

Louis swatted Zayn over the back of the head. “Zee, it’s not that I don’t trust Harry-”

“Another player would actually be really helpful,” Liam mused and could they not hear him?! “You’re brilliant on the field Lou’.”

Niall leaned back in his chair, smiling crookedly up at Louis. “Sounds pretty settled then,” he crowed.

Louis was a businessman. He worked in numbers and figures, statistics and percentages. And this? He sighed, throwing his hands in the air.

“Fine.”

Chapter Text

Harry was attempting to scrub the oily feel of butter from his hands when he heard his phone start ringing. He hastily peeked over his shoulder, relieved to see that Babs was out the front and no longer out the back with him because “phones off” was quite a strict rule. Harry would have ignored it had he not glanced over and seen the caller ID announcing:

The loveliest of Lou-s 8===D ;)

And honestly, Harry really needed to change that before Louis saw. Niall could be such a little shit when he wanted to be.

Harry then furrowed his brow together because Louis? Glancing at the time, felt a spike of concern. Turning off the tap, Harry shot one last look over his shoulder before answering the call, firmly telling himself he didn’t care about the butter smears that now distorted his screen.

“Louis?”

“Harry, thank God!”

Harry stilled, actually asking for silence when Barbara came in and opened her mouth to scold him. Louis sounded panicked, borderline hysterical.

“Harry, mate, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!...I just, I can’t…Fuck, I’m fucked. Look, Liam and I are trying and Zayn won’t answer…! And, fuck! I should not have gone to Reading, not with this piss poor weather, fucking M4!”

“Louis!” Harry called, trying to interrupt the rant but failing, Barbara’s expression now one of concern as well, over-hearing from where she was standing. “What’s going on?”

Louis only seemed to be able to work himself up more. “I can’t Harry, I just can’t! And I…I need to and I’m so sorry and I don’t wanna ask but I didn’t know who else and El is out of town. I don’t know what else to do! You’re busy, I’m sure you’re busy but Harry I-” He dissolved into tears, Harry’s own eyes starting to prick at how outright distressed Louis sounded.

“Lou’, hey, it’s alright-”

“It’s not!”

“Just tell me what’s wrong.”

“I can’t get to Georgia!”

And there it was.

Harry frowned though, because it seemed simple enough. Pouring rain, congestion, approaching end of school hours, Harry only a block or two away. He didn’t see what the problem was. He went to say as much when Louis was off again, voice strained and definitely starting to sound choked.

“I can’t get to her and there’s no after school program and…fuck! I’ve never been stuck like this before Harry. I don’t know what they could do with her. I don’t…I just…”

“So you just, like, want me to pick her up?” Harry asked when Louis paused long enough to breathe. “Bring her back here until you come?”

Louis inhaled sharply. “Harry, I can’t…I can’t ask you do that. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…why did I even call?!”

“Louis, it’s not a problem,” Harry insisted, toe of his boot tapping against the ground. “Like, I don’t mind at all. She’ll be fine. Honestly Lou’, you scared the shit out of me. Thought something serious had happened.”

“This is serious!” Louis protested, though now he sounded less wired and more exhausted.

“Not as serious as you seem to think,” Harry replied, covering the phone to ask Babs if he could duck out only to find her already holding his coat. He wrapped her in a tight squeeze before slipping on the garment. “So, I just go to the school administration?”

“Take some ID!” Barbara called, Harry doubling back to do so and then once more when she added, “And how much longer have these Danishes got?”

“Seventeen minutes!” Harry shot back as he headed for the door, distantly hearing Louis whisper,

“Holy shit…you’re actually doing this. Harry…”

He sounded so grateful it hurt. “Louis, stop thanking me,” Harry said softly, popping up his umbrella and heading off in the direction Louis always came from in the afternoons. “I said it was fine. But can you call the school and tell ‘em I’m coming? Oh and…uh…which school?” he added sheepishly.

Louis had started to answer and then abruptly fell into laughter. “Harry Styles!” he jeered, cackling madly. “Pick up Georgie and you don’t even know where from!”

Harry flushed but held his ground. “Well, it’s Westminster Cathedral or something, innit? Is that like, near Pimlico station?”

“It is actually.” Louis sounded relieved. “Go to the end of the street and turn right. You’ll see a sign about halfway down. I’ll call the school and let them know you’re coming. Thanks…” his voice turned soft once more. “Seriously, Harry, I-”

Harry hung up.

He knew that would make Louis bitch and whine and undoubtedly shout at his device from inside his car but Harry also couldn’t stand there and listen to Louis thank him one more time. He wasn’t even doing that big of a favour. Louis needed help, Harry could provide it. It was as simple as that to him. It made Harry wonder how often Louis had, if ever, leant on someone for support. He seemed so busy supporting others that he hadn’t realised he himself was standing on crumbling ground. Niall was right; Louis needed a friend more than anything.

Seeing the sign Louis had mentioned, Harry followed it until he reached the school, finding the administration and slipping inside. It was a little after pick-up time and the hallways were eerily quiet. A single woman was sitting behind the desk, typing furiously though she paused when Harry approached.

“My name’s Harry Styles, I’m here for little Rosie Tomlinson.” At her raised eyebrow, Harry blushed, stammering, “I mean, Georgia-Rose, Louis Tomlinson’s daughter. I have ID,” he added, as though that might help.

The lady, whose nametag read Frances, surprised him by smiling kindly. “Harry,” she repeated, taking his ID and shaking her head softly. “Rosie? Does Louis really let you get away with that?” At Harry’s startled face, she laughed gently, giving him his card back. “I know Louis very well. He doesn’t usually let people call Georgia anything other than Georgia. He must quite like you.”

“Not really,” Harry mumbled, shuffling his feet which only earned him an endearing look. Which…he wasn’t five, okay? No need for the aww-isn’t-he-adorable? face.

He was only too thankful to be given the directions to Georgia’s classroom. Weaving down several halls, Harry found the classroom easily enough, seeing as how it was one of the only few with the lights still on. In the approaching winter gloom and current rainy weather, it was surprisingly dark for just gone three. Poking his head in, Harry found Georgia sitting at a desk, the teacher beside her and her homework laid out between them. Her tongue was poking out the side of her mouth as she wrote something down and Harry felt the strong urge to coddle her to death. Rocking on his heels, Harry cautiously knocked on the doorframe. The teacher – Miss Sarah, had Louis called her? – frowned but Georgia’s face was one of shock…quickly followed by utter delight.

“Harry!” She flew out of her chair and into his arms. “Harry, Harry, you’re at my school! Why are you at my school? Miss Sarah, look! It’s Harry, Harry from the bakery!” Georgia was all but bouncing in his arms, expression wild. “Why are you here Harry?”

“Georgia,” Miss Sarah called, packing up her homework. “Why don’t you let Harry answer before asking more questions?”

She giggled. “Oops!”

Harry laughed as well, returning her to the ground and pointing towards the only bag left in the room. “Daddy’s stuck in traffic ‘cause of the rain and so is Liam. He asked if I could come get you. Is that okay? You come play at the bakery with me for awhile?”

Georgia, who had been midway through stuffing on her blazer, gasped in delight. “Really? I can play at the bakery?”

“Yep,” Harry grinned, shooing her off to get her pencil case before once more showing his ID. Miss Sarah seemed willing to let Georgia go with him only because of how clearly attached to him Georgia was. From her slightly pinched face, Harry reckoned she would have stayed until midnight if Louis had needed her to. There was something about Louis, something about him that made everyone who knew him fiercely protective of him. Harry should know, he felt the same way himself. “Ready?” he asked as Georgia skipped to his side.

“All ready!” she chirped.

Harry frowned down at her. “You got an umbrella or a coat?”

“Nope, cause it weren’t raining this morning.”

“Wasn’t raining,” Miss Sarah corrected from her desk.

Georgia rolled her eyes. “Daddy says ‘weren’t’.”

“Hey!” Harry chastised, tapping her nose. “That’s a bit rude. Your teacher’s right and you should listen to her regardless.”

Georgia sunk down under his firm gaze. “Sorry Miss Sarah,” she whispered.

Receiving a thanks and a warm smile, Georgia then turned to Harry, impatiently swinging from side to side. “You can’t go like that, you’ll get wet,” Harry pointed out, thinking for a moment before shrugging out of his coat. He then crouched down so Georgia could jump on his back, something she did all too happily. Slipping his coat back on, stretching it over both of them, Harry held out his umbrella. “Now, you have the special job of making sure we don’t get wet, okay?”

“Okay!” Georgia replied with a firm nod, grasping the umbrella tightly while Harry slipped his arms under her knees. They trotted down the hallway and waved once more to Frances before heading out the gate.

“Ready baby?” Harry asked, grimacing at the near torrential downpour that was now occurring. “I think we’re gonna get wet anyway.”

“Harry…why does your umbrella have kittens on it?”

Harry huffed out of a laugh. “Because I like them. Now, can you make us not wet? I don’t want to go to work soggy.”

Georgia giggled into his neck but he could feel her nodding, holding the umbrella out. In the end, they got absolutely saturated, the rain deciding to pick up halfway through the journey back. Harry had all but jogged the last bit, only too thankful to reach Sweet Nothings once more. He deposited Georgia on the ground and when next he blinked, she was gone, Barbara whisking her away with a woollen sweater that he was pretty sure was Ed’s that he’d left one time and a cup of tea. And Harry was left dripping on the doorstep. Lovely.

 

***

 

Perhaps he veritably crashed through the door of Sweet Nothings. It wasn’t proper conduct, no, and yes, Louis attracted many startled, not to mention disapproving, looks but he wasn’t going to dwell on it. No, not until he had Georgia in his arms. It probably didn’t help that his hair was undoubtedly a disaster, given the amount he’d been tugging on it in the last few hours. Flattening it with his hands as best he could, Louis approached the counter with quick steps, heart-rate increasing when he found he couldn’t see Georgia in any of the booths. He was one stop away from Perrie when a hand slipped around his arm. Whirling around, Louis softened upon seeing Babs.

“Hi Babs,” he greeted, trying to hide his impatience. “I was jus-”

“She’s out the back.”

All the tension drained out of Louis’ body, making him flump down, shoulders hunching over. “Yeah?”

“Yes love, she’s back there with Harry. A little wet but certainly not cold. Nothing a hot shower won’t fix.”

Louis sniffed pathetically, giving Babs a watery smile. “Thank you. I know Harry was meant to be working and he probably shouldn’t have even been on his phone-”

He was silenced by a pat to the cheek. “It’s Louis, isn’t it?” He nodded dumbly. Babs merely tutted, startling him by brushing away the traces of his tears. “Louis, darling, it’s okay to ask for help. And it’s okay to accept help. You’re hardly as much trouble as you seem to think you are.”

Louis tucked his chin sharply into his chest, begging his breath not to hitch. “I…”

“You’re worth it honey,” Babs murmured, leading him through the half door and towards the back. “And trust me, Harry is always ready to help. Plus, he adores children.” She shot Louis a smile. “You’ve won his heart already with that one.”

Following her pointed gaze, Louis’ heart melted. There was Harry, hair haphazardly thrown up and still very clearly dripping, guiding Georgia through the process of making scones. Georgia was on a step-stool just to reach the bench, but her lips were pursed with concentration as she carefully cut each individual scone out. Her hair was tucked under a hairnet and, under closer inspection, so was Harry’s; the net in question had been such a similar colour that Louis hadn’t seen it at first. Georgia was also bundled up in a sweater that nearly came to her knees, the sleeves rolled up a ridiculous amount of times. Unable to let this moment pass, Louis pulled his phone out, opening the camera app and taking a photograph.

Of course his phone wasn’t on silent and Louis went bright red as the obnoxiously loud shutter sound echoed around the room. Both subjects whirled around, identical grins breaking out on their faces and it was all too perfect and it made Louis’ heart ache.

“Hi Daddy!” Georgia greeted, jumping down and bounding over. “Did you take a photo? Can I see? Can I see?”

“Not with those grubby hands!” Louis laughed, shooing her away and holding his phone aloft. “Wash them if you’re planning on coming home please.”

“But I can’t reach the sink,” she sulked, pointing at the sink in question.

Louis glanced over at Harry, who was still watching him with raised eyebrows. Louis hastily looked anywhere but those teasing green eyes. “Do you mind if I…?” he gestured to the sink.

“No, go ahead,” Harry said, finally turning back to his baking and finishing up the last of his batch.

“Sorry about the photo,” Louis said, turning on the tap and lifting Georgia so she could reach. “I can delete it. It’s a bit creepy, yeah?”

“Nah, it’s fine.” Harry ducked past him to reach the ovens, the blast of warm out that came out absolutely heavenly. “Besides, ‘s not like I don’t have one of her. And you, from her party.”

“Alright then, fair’s fair,” Louis agreed, depositing Georgia to the ground and asking her to find her bag. He then reached into his pocket, pulling out his wallet and thumbing through it. “Would fifty quid be enough to cover it? I mean, a couple of hours, compensation for loss of work, travel…because walking through the rain is unpleasant enough to be counted as travel.”

“I’m not taking your money Louis.”

Louis blinked at Harry’s steely tone. He raised an eyebrow while Harry folded his arms tightly, looking honest to god offended. “What have I done?” Louis demanded, holding out the money once more. “’S a fair amount and I’d pay any sitter the sa-”

“So I’m a sitter, am I?” Harry sniffed, bitterness in his voice. “How much do you charge Liam? Zayn?”

Louis frowned. “That’s not…That’s different.”

“How?”

“They’re my friends,” Louis said, emphasising the word ‘friend’.

Harry’s hurt look returned. “I thought we were too.”

Louis’ eyes widened. “Shit, no, Harry, we are! I…I just…This is too much too soon, right? I thought…”

A hand came to close over his fingers, folding the note back into his palm. Glancing up, Louis found that Harry’s features had shifted into that ever so gentle look he loved. “Keep your money Louis. Friends?”

Louis’ pulse thrummed under the feel of Harry’s fingers engulfing his. “Friends.”

 

***

 

“The bags under your eyes are telling me it’s worse than that.”

Mum,” Louis groaned, burying his face in his hands to avoid Jay’s piercing gaze through the computer screen. “It’s not that bad, I promise. I’m being over-dramatic. And also, for the record, please note that your comment about my appearance has been stored for future reference. Your Christmas present has been reduced to a bar of soap.”

When Jay didn’t smile, Louis sunk down further in his chair. “I’m not laughing Louis because I’m starting to wonder if I’ll even see you at Christmas.”

He frowned. “You always do!”

She shot him a look. “And yet you just told me you weren’t sure if you could come up at all, depending on contracts.”

“Work is work Mum!” he argued, tilting his head to the side as he heard something fall over in Georgia’s room. He grimaced. Hopefully it wasn’t breakable. “I don’t get a steady income like you lot.”

“I don’t like it Boo.”

At her soft tone, Louis relented, running a hand through his hair. “Yeah, I know. Me neither. But we’re doing okay. We’re fine.”

“Are you really?”

There was an underlying current of desperation in her tone, making Louis frown and edge closer to the screen. “Are you?”

Before Jay could answer, Georgia flounced into the room, freshly showered and dressed in a tutu of all things. She climbed into his lap, getting that weirdly close distance to the screen that all kids did, clapping when she saw her grandma on the other end.

“Hi grandma!” she called, waving enthusiastically.

“Hello poppet!” Jay returned, breaking out into a grin and making exaggerated kissy sounds. “How’s my little sunshine?”

“Wet,” Georgia deadpanned, causing Louis to bark out a laugh. She poked him sullenly and then settled more comfortably on his lap. “But I had a shower and I’m all warm now. Did you know that Daddy was stuck in traffic today so Harry picked me up from school?”

Louis stiffened. “Georgia!” he hissed.

“And then I got to play at the bakery with Harry! And he let me do his hair and we ran through puddles together. And Grandma, Harry made my cupcakes-”

Over Georgia’s head, Louis was getting the most piercing, inquisitive, knowing look ever. “Georgia, that’s not-”

“And Harry even came to my birthday! He brought his friend Niall too but I like Harry more. He’s so pretty. He’s also a terrible dancer. I saw him trying to dance in the shop kitchen.”

That…Louis actually wanted to see. The vision alone was enough to make him snicker.

“But anyway, I’m gonna go play with my dollies Grandma. Talk to you later! And tell Lottie and Fizzy and Daisy and Phoebe I love them, ‘kay? Love you! And,” she added as she slipped off Louis’ lap, “Daddy took a photo of Harry today. His hair’s all silly! You should ask to see.”

With that, Georgia vanished and Louis was severely tempted to slam the laptop screen shut. He had never felt so mortified. Even as his hand twitched, a warning, “Ah!” came through the speakers. “Louis William Tomlinson, don’t you dare. Talk to me. Who is Harry and why haven’t I heard about him before?”

“He’s no one Mum,” Louis insisted, shaking his head emphatically. “He’s a bloke what works nearby and, yeah, alright, I’ll admit he’s nice but we’re not…We’re not anything Mum, I promise.”

Jay was silent for a long time. “Why isn’t he?” she eventually asked, making Louis pause in his mindless toying of his sleeve’s end.

“What?”

Why isn’t he anything?” Jay repeated, studying his face, trying to read him. “It’s okay to have someone.”

“It’s okay not to too,” Louis countered.

His mum sighed heavily, tapping her nails on the table’s edge on her end. “Yes, I think so.”

Louis went to question that when he saw someone slip through the background. “Oi!” he yelled indignantly. “Did my sister just ignore me? Ungrateful sod!”

Within seconds Jay was barged out of the way as Fizzy plopped down in front of the screen. “Oi yourself! What do you want, you wanker?”

“None of that please,” Jay scolded, sending them both warning looks before moving off to, Louis presumed, start dinner. Hmm, he should probably do that too.

“Aren’t you off at uni yet?” Louis asked, puzzled. “Thought you were gonna dorm with Lottie, if her friends would have you? What’s gone wrong?”

“Jesus Lou’…” Fizzy muttered, shaking her head. “That fell through ages ago. Mum…Mum’s just been needing help and Lottie and I didn’t think it would be fair to leave her with the twins, you know?” She shrugged helplessly. “But I couldn’t drag Lottie back either, so I decided to stay. ‘S not so bad anyway, kinda nice, having a gap year and all.”

“Hold up!” Louis ordered, actually holding up a hand. “What’s all this? What’s going on? Have I been living under a rock?”

Fizzy rolled her eyes. “Don’t you always?” She then shrugged again. “It’s nothing too bad. Mum and Dad are just going through a rough patch, is all. It’s getting better though. Think it’s all sorted.”

“Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

His sister actually scoffed at him. “Louis, you look like shit. You didn’t need anything else on your plate.”

“I do not look like shit!” Louis protested, vainly pinching at his features.

“Then you’re blind!” Fizzy paused, gnawing on her lip before adding, “Lottie was actually thinking about transferring to London so she could board with you and give you a hand, you know?”

Louis stilled. “Since when?” he demanded.

“I don’t know Louis!” his sister exploded, glaring at him.  “Maybe since you stopped calling every week! Maybe when you started cancelling visits and not answering texts or emails. Maybe since you didn’t even remember you promised to bring Georgia up for her birthday!”

Louis sucked in a breath, feeling as though he’d been dunked in icy water. Fuck. He…he hadn’t done that. He absolutely had not done that. Shit.

“Fiz…” he tried weakly.

She shook her head, stubbornly blinking away tears. “No Louis, it’s okay, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. Just…you know we’re here for you, yeah? Anytime, okay? We’re your sisters and we love you. You’re our big brother. We want you to be okay.”

He managed a watery smile. “Get off before you make me bawl,” he ordered playfully.

Fizzy give him the bird. “Love you too twat. Take care. Seriously Lou’, take care.”

“I will, now get Mum.”

Mum!” Fizzy bellowed as she left the room, “Boo Bear wants you!”

Louis huffed at the nickname, only letting up when Johannah walked back in. “A bit much, isn’t she? Four girls really does make me appreciate you, my one little man.”

Louis’ cheeks went red. “I’m not so little anymore.” She raised an eyebrow, eyes twinkling. Louis gaped. “Hey! No ribbing at my height! It’s not my fault! I blame your genes.” He shook the mirth away. “Anyways, what’s this about you and Mark? What’s going on?”

The door behind him swung open and Louis heard the sound of boots clomping down the hall. “Lou’?”

“Here Li’!” he hollered, smiling as Liam barrelled into the room, looking as stressed as he had done hours earlier. “Survived the rain then?”

“Only just,” Liam pouted, coming over and then blinking at the screen, squinting slightly to make out what he was seeing. “Oh, sorry. Hi Jay, sorry for interrupting!”

She waved him off. “It’s fine Liam. How are you darling? How are you holding up after, well, everything?”

“Good, thanks very much. I’m getting there. Lou’s been a big help,” he replied warmly, stepping closer and leaning down so he fit into the frame, allowing Louis to nuzzle into his neck.

Jay smiled at them fondly. “I’ll leave you two to it then. Look out for each other and stay safe. Love you Louis and baby, do try to come home for Christmas, alright? Your sisters miss you.”

“I will,” Louis promised, shying away from Liam’s questioning gaze. He waved and promptly logged off when he saw the first lines of suspicion grow on his mother’s face. His phone buzzed a second later – Louis, have you not talked about this with Liam? – but he flipped it to silent and stuffed it in his pocket before Liam could see.

“What’s this about you not going home for Christmas?” Liam asked as Louis got to his feet, stretching his arms above his head. “You always go home.”

“I’m going,” Louis insisted, lied, heading into the kitchen to start cooking. “I just have some things I need to take care of first.” Like bills, which had suddenly multiplied. Not to mention gone up. Thanks David Cameron, thanks. Pig fucker.

“Nothing too serious?” Liam pressed, reaching to grab the roast pan when Louis failed even while standing on his tip-toes.

“I had that,” he grumbled before chucking everything in. “And no, nothing serious. We’re all good here.” He pasted a smile on his face and Liam, naïve as he was, took him at his word. It made guilt worm its way up Louis’ throat, though he immediately willed it down.

“You got to Georgia okay then?”

“Uh…no,” Louis admitted, scratching his neck. At Liam’s frown, he hid behind his fringe. “I maybe had to call Harry…?”

Liam froze, stepping forward and taking Louis’ chin in his hand, tilting his head up. “Did I just hear that you got Harry to pick up your daughter from school?”

“Yes,” Louis huffed, folding his arms tightly across his chest at Liam’s delighted grin.

“And Harry was happy to do that was he? Didn’t mind? He and Georgia had fun at the bakery I suppose?”

“Yes to all three,” Louis snapped, breaking away and moving to wipe down the bench tops. “It’s…he wouldn’t take my money.”

Liam blinked in confusion. “What money?”

“My money!” Louis exclaimed, slapping Liam with the dish cloth. “I tried to pay him for minding her and he refused. Because…” Louis’ voice dropped in volume. “Because we were friends.”

“Louis…”

“Li’…don’t…”

Louis,” Liam repeated, firmer this time. “Look, mate, admit it, Harry likes you. Whether in the way you want or not, he still does actually like you. He said it himself, he’s your friend.” He shrugged. “Don’t be afraid to try for more.”

Louis pinched his eyebrows together. “What?”

“He’s already your friend and no matter what you say, I really think he’d like to be more. But if you’re not sure,” He swatted Louis when he went to interrupt, “Then just start as friends. When is Georgia next at Eleanor’s?”

“Next week.” Louis then scoffed. “Supposedly.”

Liam ignored that last comment. “Okay, then invite Harry over, some beers and telly – the footy, X-factor, yeah? Just as mates, right.”

“I…” Louis started to protest, only to then hesitate, then stop. He rocked indecisively on his toes, Liam waiting ever so patiently in front of him. “You don’t think it’s too much to ask?” he finally asked quietly.

Liam shook his head. “No, I don’t.” He clapped his hands gleefully. “So, is that a yes?”

Louis tugged his bottom lip between his teeth, gnawing on it before giving a single nod. “Yes. Yes, it’s a yes from me.”

 

***

Chapter Text

Louis had actually achieved something. For the first time in a long time he had made a commitment and had every intention of fulfilling it. Georgia’s bags were packed and waiting at home, Eleanor was on her way, and Louis was stepping into Sweet Nothings. He was going to ask Harry to his flat to hang out. As mates, strictly as mates, but it was a step in the right direction. It had to have been, the amount of times Liam had raved about it the past couple of days. Anyone would think Louis had announced he was becoming the next King of England from the way Liam had been talking. It was something though, and Louis did admit that he was mildly proud of himself.

That, of course, all went horribly south the moment they crossed the threshold of the bakery.

Because there was Harry, tucked in one of the back booths, Niall’s arms around his shoulders while he bawled his eyes out.

Georgia made an aborted movement in Harry’s direction before stopping short, glancing at Louis wildly for guidance. “Go,” he urged, nudging her forward and she was off like a rocket, flying to Harry’s side and wrapping her arms around what little Niall wasn’t already holding.

Leaving them to it, Louis marched over to the counter where Babs was looking appropriately frazzled. “What’s all this then?” Louis demanded, jerking a thumb in Harry’s direction.

Barbara hesitated for a moment, giving Louis a calculating look before softening when she looked to Harry once more. “He got a call from his step-dad. His mum’s been in a little car accident. Should be fine,” she assured when Louis paled. “Just bumps I think but it’s shaken him. He’s waiting for Ed before I can send him and Niall off.”

Louis frowned. “Couldn’t Harry just go now and Niall follow later?”

Babs smiled tightly. “Harry’s not exactly the best under pressure. I wouldn’t trust him on a train right now if I’m honest, love.”

Louis pursed his lips. He then glanced once at his phone before making a decision, back straightening. “Right,” he muttered, pushing away from the counter and collecting Georgia before she and Harry entirely knew what was going on. Right. He had a thing to do.

 

***

 

Harry was in a state. He knew it. He knew it and was madly trying to control it. Niall was being so patient with him and Ed was doing everything he could to get here quickly. It just didn’t help that he’d been out at Hounslow. There had been an odd moment when he thought Georgia had been there, koala hugging his body, but when he’d truly started paying attention she’d been gone and it was a Friday and since when did Louis come on a Friday? It must have all been in his head. Surely, that was all it had been.

“Here.”

Maybe not…because Harry knew that voice.

Looking up blearily, Harry found a large cup being shoved in his face by a rather embarrassed looking Louis Tomlinson. He was bouncing on his toes, shaking the pale yellow drink once more. Bewildered, Harry took it.

“What is it?”

Oh God, he sounded like a blubbering baby. His nose crinkled. Louis must find that so attractive.

“It’s a banana frappe,” Louis announced. “I think I remember Niall once saying you like bananas as much as Georgia…which must be a lot because she’s freakishly dedicated to them. And I know you don’t actually live vegan because you ate all that shit at my place last week.”

“Thanks,” Harry whispered, touched by his thoughtfulness, unexpected as it was.

Louis hummed, scuffing a toe on the ground before sucking in a breath which…okay…? Seeing Harry watching him, Louis blushed, pulling his phone out of his pocket. “What hospital’s your mum at?”

Harry blinked. “What?”

“Hospital,” Louis repeated shortly. “Which one?”

“Um…Leighton Hospital, in Crewe,” he answered, perplexed. Next to him, Niall snorted loudly in amusement, earning him a smack to the head from Louis.

“’s not so far,” Louis said with a nod, tapping away at his phone’s screen. “Now, if you’ve got a bag all ready, go get it because I am most definitely illegally parked and I don’t want any fines going into the weekend, got it?”

Harry stared at him blankly, completely unable to comprehend what was going on. Condensation from the drink he was holding dripped onto his hand but he was pretty sure he could have been set on fire and still not really noticed. Harry jumped a mile when something was abruptly dropped into his lap. That something turned out to be his bag, Barbara patting his cheek lovingly before looking over to Niall.

“You get behind the till and wait for Ed, got it? Then you can follow.”

Niall whooped loudly and quite literally clambered over Harry. Harry who was, he would admit, still sitting and staring at Louis. Louis’ cheeks started to heat up but he waved an impatient hand. “Come on then Styles. We gotta go. Your mum’s not getting any younger.”

Harry made a choked sound at the stark reminder and Louis slapped his forehead, swearing at his poor choice of words. Still unsure as to whether this was actually happening or not, Harry forced his legs to co-operate, following Louis out the door and to where his car was set up outside the shop. It truly was illegally parked and causing a traffic obstruction, which was what made Harry finally make his decision, scrambling in even as Louis was tooted at by waiting cars – now that he had been identified as said car’s owner they had a target for their anger. Slipping the car into gear, Louis pulled off the curb, earning him a loud honk from the car behind. Harry was then flung forward in his seat as Louis slammed on the brakes, horn blaring loudly, and sticking a middle finger out the window.

’m already going!” he yelled, accelerating with more speed than was probably necessary and taking the next turn a little too quickly. “Sorry,” he mumbled after catching a glimpse of Harry’s death grip on the arm rest. “They’re just…it doesn’t matter. We’re off now, right? Off, ‘s good?”

“Yeah, ‘s good,” Harry agreed, nodding his head and making his curls bounce, still quite unsure if Louis was really about to drive him halfway across the country or if this was all some bizarre dream. He shifted back into his chair, finding the time to sip at the frappe he had been given. “Thanks,” he said, shaking the cup, “For this, I mean. And for driving me. Georgia with Liam?”

“With her mum actually,” Louis replied, glancing past Harry as he merged onto the ring road. “And I don’t mind. Like you said on Wednesday, friends, right?”

Just like that, Harry’s mood plummeted. “Louis,” he sighed, the other man jumping at his despondent tone. “If you’re just doing this to pay me back, you can let me out now.”

Louis ran a hand through his hair. “I’ll admit that has something to do with it. But only because it made me realise we’re friends.” He leant over to change the radio station, grumbling at the lack of music and abundance of ads. “And I’d do this for Liam in a heartbeat. As would you for Niall.” He shrugged. “Why can’t I do it for you, too? And…”

Harry quirked an eyebrow, noticing how Louis’ cheeks were now dusted pink. He smiled, something that only made Louis duck away more.

“And I…well, I was already coming to ask if you wanted to hang out tonight, like as mates, only as mates!” he hastily added. “That’s why Georgia and me were there in the first place. And so maybe this isn’t that,” Louis said, merging onto the M6, “Maybe you wouldn’t have said yes to X-Factor or the latest Netflix whatever, I don’t know-”

Harry wanted to interject that he would very much have not said no to either of those. Or anything Louis had suggested, for that matter.

“-but we’re doing this instead. It is what it is.”

“Well,” Harry said slowly, once Louis had stopped talking and looked quite nervous. “This is just like hanging out, innit, ‘s just in a car. I think that’s the same.”

Louis nodded primly. “Exactly!”

“And, like, for the record, I love X-Factor.”

There was no end to the relief that spread across Louis’ face at that statement. Harry graced him with a smile, quite proud when he received a crinkly-eyed grin in return. That simple statement also seemed to give Louis a confidence boost, and it was his turn to drag Harry into small talk. Harry was only too happy to talk about his mum, and Robin, and Gemma and how similar he imagined her and Louis to be. He told his own university stories, how he’d met Niall there and how they’d dormed together until Harry had intended to drop out of his degree just six months before finishing because Babs was opening a shop in London and he wanted to do that so much more. His mum had finally managed to knock some sense into him and convince him to finish his course long distance – ‘smart woman, I like her already,’ Louis quipped. Apparently six months had also been long enough for Niall to miss him because he’d turned up not three hours after graduation at Harry’s flat with all his belongings and a simple, “got a couch and a position vacant?” Louis had lost it there and Harry had laughed along; admittedly, it was one of his favourite memories too. It hadn’t taken Niall long to fall in love with working at Sweet Nothings either, and he was the one who had introduced Ed to the mix, having quite literally dragged him in from off the tube one day.

Dinner was a quick sandwich and a chocolate from a services and it wasn’t too long before Louis was pulling up outside the hospital, Harry’s breath becoming stuck in his throat.

“Breathe,” Louis coached, frowning at his poorly masked panic. “She’s fine. Robin said she was fine, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Harry managed to get out, nodding more to himself than anyone else. “I just…”

“You’re just gonna hop out this car and go pop in and see her while I park.” Harry’s head whipped to his right and Louis shrugged. “What? She’s not my mum. I’ll meet you in the lobby when you’re done, alright?”

Harry frowned. “Louis, that’s not-”

“Don’t wanna hear it!” Louis interrupted, slapping a palm across Harry’s mouth, suitably stunning him. “You go see her and I’ll wait. Take as long as you want. Now, off, go!”

Even as Louis was unfastening his seat-belt for him, Harry was protesting. “But I-!”

“Harold St-…” Louis came up short, blinking. “Wait, what is your middle name?”

“Uh, Edward?” he supplied.

Louis arched an eyebrow. “Not sure on that one, are you Curly?” Harry flushed but it was waved off. “Right then, Harold-”

“’s not my name!”

“-Edward Styles, get out of the car this instant or I will never drive you anywhere again!”

Harry looked at Louis for a long, long moment. He then grinned crookedly. “Does that work on Georgia?” he asked cheekily.

Yes!” Louis screeched indignantly, shoving him. “And it’s going to work on you so, go!”

Realising that Louis was never going to be swayed or deterred in any way, Harry gave in. Promising to pass on the room number as soon as he got it, Harry slipped out of the car and jogged into reception. He was calling Robin even as he approached the desk, veering away last minute when he heard his step-dad’s voice both through the phone and in real life. Turning to his left, he caught sight of Robin, flying across the hospital waiting room and into his arms, eyes already filling with tears again.

“Harry,” Robin sighed, bringing him in. “Anne’s fine, she’s absolutely fine. She’s sending me home as it is, as well as trying to get herself home.”

Harry pulled away, eyes wide and arms flailing. “No! She can’t go home! You said she bumped her head, with like, concussion. What if something-”

“She’s not going home,” Robin said, holding up a placating hand. “She’s not winning this argument, no matter how many times she tries,” he added with a chuckle. He gave Harry’s upper arm a comforting squeeze. “Room 418, easy to find, just left of the lifts. Go see her.”

Harry nodded, wiping his eyes before giving Robin one last, tight hug. “Thanks!” he called as he jogged away, tapping his foot impatiently as he waited for the lift. It took much longer to arrive than Harry would have liked – and yes, he had contemplated the stairs for a moment there – but soon enough he was delivered to the fourth floor, quite harried and hair more than a little dishevelled from where he had been raking his hands through it furiously. All it took was a left, one door, two door, three door…

Mum…”

Anne looked up just in time to see a blur all but fling itself onto her hospital bed. “Oh Harry,” she tutted, knowing it couldn’t be anyone but. “I knew you’d do this the second Robin said he’d called you. I’m fine, you know, really, I am. You didn’t have to come all this way.” Harry went to protest but she shook her head. “I know. Nothing would have stopped you.” She smiled. “That’s what makes you you. And I wouldn’t have you any other way.”

Mum,” Harry repeated, unable to form words, only snuffling deeper into Anne’s neck. “I was so worried Mum. Everyone said you were okay but like, all I could hear was ‘car’ and ‘crash’ and I-” God, he was tearing up again, choking on his words. “I was so scared Mum, really properly scared.”

Anne huffed, attempting to tame his curls with a hand. “It was hardly a car crash to start with. A little side-swipe is all. The airbag didn’t even go off for God’s sake.”

Harry squinted up at her in suspicion. “Is this you trying to get me to convince the nurses to let you go home?”

“It might have been,” she laughed, winking at his shocked expression. “But yes, Robin’s made it perfectly clear I’m not going anywhere tonight. They say I’ve got some whiplash but they’re more concerned about concussion. Which I don’t have,” she sniffed.

Despite his efforts to look stern, Harry ended up chuckling, folding his legs up onto the bed and wrapping his arms around his mother. “It’s okay if you don’t. We just wanna make sure. Better safe than sorry, right?”

Anne rolled her eyes. “I know, I know. You’re all right and I know it.” She leant down to kiss his forehead. “Doesn’t mean I like it.”

“I don’t like it either, if that helps,” Harry offered, head resting heavier on her shoulder. He hadn’t felt tired before but now, here in his mother’s arms, knowing she was safe, he was starting to feel the effects of a long day; getting up at four A.M. for work, completing his shift, receiving the news, having his subsequent break-down. Yep, it was all catching up with him. His eyes were taking longer and longer blinks, his brain aware that Anne was talking but not taking any of it in. Within minutes he was asleep, snoring softly. Anne paused in her ramblings, glancing down at her son and huffing out a laugh.

“Only you love, only you.”

 

***

 

The first thing he became aware of was the sound of hushed voices talking over his head.

“I’m sorry. I would have sent him away but he fell straight asleep.”

“It’s alright, we didn’t wake him either. Weren’t any need during the night.”

“But you need him to go now, don’t you?”

“While the doctors do their rounds, yes. I hope that’s not too much of a bother.”

“No, no, it’s fine. I understand.”

Harry groaned as his shoulder was then shaken. Blearily opening his eyes, he tried to get them to focus. “Do I need t’ go?” he slurred, a hand coming to scrub his face.

Anne smiled at him apologetically. “If you could please darling. Only for a couple of minutes. Why don’t you go grab a tea or some breakfast? I saw a café in the lobby,” she added helpfully.

“Mm, ‘kay,” he grumbled, slinging his legs over the side and dropping to the floor. He’d just about reached the doorway when the nurse called out, no doubt in an attempt to be helpful:

“And maybe grab something for your partner? He was waiting so patiently but the poor dear fell asleep and we didn’t have the heart to wake him.”

Both Anne’s and Harry’s face contorted into confusion. Harry’s eyes then bulged. “Louis!

He went to run out the door but Anne was already demanding, “Louis? Who’s Louis? Partner? Harry, who is this?”

Back-tracking, Harry wrung his hands together as he blurted, “He’s not my partner Mum, he’s just a friend. He drove me here and I told him I’d be quick. Oh God, he’s been there all night! Sorry Mum, I have to go. Fuck.”

Harry!” Anne gasped, appalled. “Don’t use that language. And,” she called as Harry made for the door once more, “Don’t think I believe you! A friend wouldn’t drive you halfway up the country. You and this Louis will be having dinner with us tonight. Non-negotiable!”

“Alright, alright!” Harry swiftly promised before bolting for the lifts. He jogged back to reception and yep, fuck, just as the nurse had said, there was Louis. He’d curled up in one of the waiting room chairs, knees tucked against one arm, head tilted to the side to rest on the wall. Harry made to wake him up then decided that the least he could do would be buy Louis a coffee before waking him, a peace offering of sorts. Moving to the coffee shop Anne had mentioned, Harry realised he had no idea what Louis did and didn’t like. Sure, food he could handle, but Sweet Nothings didn’t do tea or coffee which…ugh. Randomly picking, Harry then crossed reception, placing both cups on the ground before tentatively shaking Louis’ shoulder.

Louis groaned, reluctantly peeling himself off the wall, swearing when he attempted to stretch his legs and only succeeded in slamming his shins into the chair’s arm. He seemed suitably disorientated after that, latching onto Harry when he caught sight of him. “Harry? Why are…” His eyes then widened. “Holy shit, your mum! She alright, yeah? She okay? Is she-”

“Louis, Lou’,” Harry intervened, grabbing Louis’ wildly gesticulating hands in his own. “Mum’s fine. I think they’ll let her go home today. Like, this morning even.”

The tension dropped from Louis’ shoulders and a relieved smile made it onto his face. “Yeah? That’s good then.”

“Yeah, it’s good,” Harry agreed before frowning. “But Louis, you sat here all night.”

The older man matched his frown with one of his own. “Yeah, said I would.”

“But all night!” Harry stressed. “Louis, I feel asleep! Why didn’t you call me? Louis, I’m sorry, but I honestly forgot you were here because I fell straight asleep and you…you stayed…Louis, I’m so sorry.”

Louis swatted him over the head. “Forgot me?” He then laughed. “Don’t worry, I think I sat here all of two seconds before I passed out too. Let’s just say yesterday was a big day and leave it at that. Breakfast?” he asked as he got to his feet. “Fucking starving.”

“I could eat,” Harry agreed, collecting his cup and handing the other one to Louis. “Here, got you this too.”

Louis sniffed at it. “What is it?”

“Er…an Americano?”

Something crossed Louis’ face but he accepted the cup, taking a sip. He then stuck out his tongue. “Fuck, that’s hot.”

Harry narrowed his eyes. “You don’t like it.”

Louis shook his head furiously. “I didn’t say that!”

Harry sighed. “But you don’t, do you? Sorry, I shouldn’t have just assumed.”

“It’s fine,” Louis assured, going to take another sip and then deciding against it, leading Harry out of the hospital and onto the streets of Crewe. “I guessed yesterday about that banana thing I bought you. You guessed just then.” He shrugged, tugging Harry along when he seemed to lag.

“But I guessed wrong,” he mumbled bitterly.

“That’s the nature of guessing Curly!” Louis pointed out, making a sudden exclamation and pointing down the street. “Now, take notes, that’s what I’m talking about!”

Peering down the street, Harry saw a sign outside a café that read “Time for Tea! Pot of Yorkshire, £2.25”. He was then quite literally dragged inside, Louis shoving him into a chair before bounding up to the counter and ordering. Minutes later he was back with a teapot, a mug, and two cornish pasties.

“One does not go to the North and not get a pasty!” Louis declared, making Harry chuckle.

“So, tea?” Harry surmised, “That’s your thing? Black with no sugar?”

“Specifically Yorkshire,” Louis told him, gleefully pouring himself a cup and hugging it close to his chest.

“I made earl grey cupcakes the other day,” Harry recalled, sipping his own latte. “Maybe I should make a Yorkshire batch.”

A hand was suddenly clamped around his wrist. “Do that Styles and I swear I will eat the lot.”

Harry laughed at the intensity in Louis’ eyes. “Really? All of them?”

Louis shook a finger at him. “I would fight Niall for them.”

“Jesus.”

“Yep, it’s that serious,” Louis laughed.

Harry returned his grin, making a mental note to definitely make something that included Yorkshire tea within the next week. In the end, they spent the better part of two hours inside the café, swapping stories back and forth, bantering and bickering to and fro. They then exchanged the scenery for the streets of Crewe, slipping in and out of shops. Harry was subjected to an exaggerated eye-roll or loud scoff every time he pulled Louis into a vintage or thrift store, but Harry had his own fun ribbing Louis when he walked out of one shop with three pairs of second-hand Vans. Louis tried to defend himself by saying they were limited edition designs or retro but that didn’t stop Harry at all. Everything then came to a halt then when Harry, upon receiving a text, announced,

“Mum’s invited you to dinner and apparently you can’t say no.”

Louis froze…which, admittedly, Harry didn’t notice for ten or so steps. “…the fuck?”

Harry spun around, jogging back to where Louis was actually looking ashen. “Lou’?”

“Harry, what the hell?” he snapped, breaking Harry’s heart by stepping away from him. “Why am I having dinner with your parents? What? No, why?!”

Harry held up his hands. “I don’t know. She just found out this morning that you drove me here and she wanted to thank you.” Okay, sort of lying but mostly truth so maybe that was okay?

Louis chewed on his lip. “That’s it though,” he pressed, teetering forward slightly. “Right?”

Harry’s brow furrowed. “Why? What else would she think?”

“Nothing,” Louis muttered, stuffing his hands in his pockets.

“Would you have a problem if she thought something else?”

Louis’ eyes flashed. “What did you te-”

“I didn’t tell her anything,” Harry said shortly, irritated at Louis’ current attitude. “I’m just wondering, would there be a problem if she did think something?”

“If you’re asking me if I’m homophobic Styles, the answer is no.”

“Good.”

“Good.”

Good.”

“You already sai-…” Louis shook his head, sighing heavily. “Right, I’ve gone and made a mess of this, haven’t I?” His frame hunkered down and he curled in further on himself rather alarmingly. “Sorry Harry. We can have dinner with your parents and Gemma. Sorry for being a little shit about it. I’m a bit of an arse, if you hadn’t noticed.”

“You’re not an arse,” Harry corrected gently, daring to test the limits and wrap an arm around Louis’ shoulders. “You just maybe act like it sometimes.”

Oi!

Harry chuckled at Louis’ indignant expression, ruffling his hair before bounding away…only to trip on a rise in the footpath and topple over. Louis’ laughter echoed loudly down the street. And, if Harry was being honest, he could live with that.

 

***

 

Finally!” Gemma greeted as the door in front of them swung open. “You took your sweet time getting here baby brother.”

“Apparently Harry has never seen winter in Cheshire before,” Louis drawled from somewhere behind him. “He had to stop and photograph it all. And then complain because he only had his phone rather than this camera.”

Gemma cackled, all but barging Harry out of the way to see around him. “You Louis? I like you.”

Louis mirrored her grin. “I am Louis, Louis I am. And it’s Gemma, yeah?”

“Sure is, now come on in. Mum’s been so desperate to meet you.” Gemma then leant over conspiratorially. “I think she’s just happy to cook for someone who isn’t Niall. It’s like cooking for ten.”

Louis barked out a laugh. “Trust me, I know! God knows where it all goes.”

“Think he just shits it out.”

“Gemma, please,” Anne pleaded as they all trooped into the kitchen. “Can we at least try to have some decorum when we have a guest round?”

“It’s fine,” Louis quickly assured, visibly gulping when that earned him Anne’s undivided attention. “Um, hi?” he tried. “Hope you’re feeling better and, uh, thanks for inviting me over.”

Harry smothered a laugh when Louis floundered upon being drawn into a hug. Louis’ blue eyes shot straight to him but Harry merely grinned, making Louis scowl. “Oh darling, it’s no bother. I heard you drove Harry all the way here, the little worry-wart, so it’s only fair that you eat with us.” She then gave him an apologetic smile. “Sorry I dragged you to Holmes Chapel though. It’s just…”

“Home-cooked is always better?” Louis offered. “Nope, I love it. Nothing beats a home-cooked meal. It was barely a drive anyway.” He then smiled, glancing around. “Your home is lovely too, might I say. Like, with the exposed beams and the…” he trailed off under Anne and Gemma’s inquiring looks.

“Louis’ an architect and interior designer,” Harry explained.

“Oh, and I just thought you were gay,” Gemma teased, winking at Louis.

“Well, I am that too,” he replied, surprising Harry with his forwardness and Gemma with his eagerness to go toe to toe with her.

Before the conversation could degrade further, Anne sent them all in the direction of the dining room, the trio bumping into Robin on the way. Further introductions were made and then dinner was served, food being passed up and down the table and maybe Gemma lobbed a bean in Harry’s direction but Harry stilled denied being the one to put salt in her water. Louis had quietened after his initial entry and really only spoke when directly asked. Harry could only assume he was tired and starting to flag, not that Harry blamed him at all. Louis’ face did light up when his phone went off though, causing Anne, who was sitting closest – besides Harry because obviously – to lean over and point at the lock screen.

“Ooh, who’s this?”

“That’s Georgia,” Louis said proudly, looking up and then seeming to shrink under the weight of all their eyes. Everything went across his face; pride, hostility, fear, shame, before it eventually settled on meekness. “She’s my daughter.”

Anne frowned, setting her cutlery down. “Darling, do you think I have any right to judge you?”

Louis frowned. “I don’t…I don’t know. No, I guess.”

“No is absolutely right,” Anne said firmly, tapping the screen before saying. “And good Lord, she looks about six and I know you’re older than Harry. You weren’t even that young! And regardless, that would give me no reason to judge. Now!” she clapped her hands together, making Louis jump. “Name, age, and please, tell me you have more photos; she’s absolutely adorable.”

Louis’ face exploded like a Christmas tree, talking about Georgia’s recent birthday, about how Harry and Niall came, how it was because of her that he and Harry had even met at all. Anne shot Harry a knowing glance and Gemma snickered from her place. Louis then dismissed several emails alerts before unlocking his phone, scrolling through his camera roll and showing off some of his favourite photos. He crowed whenever a photo had been taken by Harry, though Harry noticed Louis seemed to be getting more and more flustered. It probably had something to do with the increasing rate of alerts and reminders he had to keep cancelling.

“Actually,” Louis finished, eyes flicking to the clock, leg bouncing under the table anxiously. “I should probably start heading back to London. I’ve got a lot of work that needs doing and I’d rather do it when she’s not around, you know?”

Robin nodded in understanding but still frowned. “It’s quite late though. Are you sure you couldn’t stay the night?”

Louis shook his head firmly. “Sorry, but I really have a lot. I’ll probably start first thing, to be honest. It’s…it’s just a lot, at the moment.”

Anne gave Harry a meaningful look and he nodded, starting to collect the nearby plates. “Yeah, I might go too. I think I’ve got an afternoon shift tomorrow and while Babs would give me it off, if I don’t need it…”

“Harry, no,” Louis protested, “You can stay! Don’t feel like you have to leave because I am.”

“I don’t have a problem going now,” Harry assured. “Unless you have a problem with me coming with?”

Seeing it for what it was – i.e. a lost cause – Louis threw his hands in the air and started gathering their meagre belongings. As he did that, Harry took the dishes to the kitchen. He’d barely dumped them in the sink before Anne was grabbing his arm, eyes shining with concern.

“He’s not okay, is he?” she asked, sounding almost heart-broken.

“No, he’s not,” Harry replied, looking out at where Louis was muttering as he furiously typed something into his phone. “That’s why me and Niall are his friends, you know?”

“Good.” Anne said simply, drawing him into a hug. “Look after yourself, be safe, and keep an eye on him too. He’s special and I know that you know that.” She kissed his cheek one last time. “Love you Harry.”

“Love you too Mum.”

“Now, off you go. And drive safe! And no speedin-”

Louis!” Harry bellowed, flying out of the kitchen and collecting Louis on his way down the hall. “We’re going and we’re going now!”

 

***

 

Pulling into his designated space outside the flat, Louis rubbed his eyes tiredly. 1:46 A.M. the clock read. Jesus. Reaching down to grab his phone from the centre console, Louis paused when he found two phones. Two? Fuck. Looking over at the passenger side, Louis found that, yes, Harry was still very much there. He’d fallen asleep so early into the journey that Louis had forgotten all about him. And now he would have to drive Harry to wherever it was he lived and, dammit, Louis had no idea where that was!

“Harry!” he hissed, shaking the taller man awake. He awoke with a snort, something that would have amused Louis greatly had it not been such an ungodly hour of the morning.

“Wha’s going on?” Harry slurred, peering out through the windscreen. “We at your flat?”

Yes,” Louis ground out, vainly trying to hide a yawn. “I just…where do you live?” Harry blinked at him owlishly. “Curly, address!” Louis snapped impatiently. “So I can drive you home.”

Harry squinted at the car’s clock. “I can take the tube. It’s fine.”

Louis stabbed the clock with a finger. “No tube’s for another three hours or so.”

“I could call a taxi?” Harry suggested.

“I…” Louis then flung his door open. “Fine! I was happy to drive you home but if you won’t give me your bloody address then get inside! Sleep on my couch for all I care.”

Harry gaped. “What?”

You, inside, now,” Louis ordered, stomping away from the car and trusting Harry to follow. He marched into his flat, flicking on his bedroom light and the living room light, only to come up short when he saw the living room sofa covered with a large array of pony toys and hair accessories left over from his and Georgia’s whirlwind of a Friday afternoon. Okay, fine, that was…fine. Hearing Harry clomping down the hall, Louis made a split-second decision. “Right, change of plans!” he announced, hauling Harry into his room and pointing at his double bed in two places. “That is my side, this will be your side. Clear?” He then tossed Harry a pair of sweatpants from off the floor while grabbing another set from under his pillow. “You change here, I’ll change in the en suite.”

Stepping into the bathroom, Louis took several deep breaths before changing, dumping his clothes on the floor. He gave his teeth a once over and then returned to the room...returned to the room to find Harry standing there dressed only in his briefs. He squeaked and flung his hands over his eyes. The image of a near naked Harry Styles, plethora of tattoos on display – and had that been one on his thigh?! – was burned into Louis’ eyes and fuck, it was a good image. Amazing, fantastic, ten out of ten, good shit.

“Come off it Louis,” Harry chuckled, bringing his attention back to the present.

“What are you doing wearing that?” Louis demanded.

“Pants were too small and I never wear a shirt so…I can change if it’s a problem.”

Louis peeked through his fingers, pouting at Harry’s cheeky grin. “As if you would,” he huffed, clambering into the bed. “Fine, but don’t spoon me if you get cold.”

“What about if you spoon me?” Harry challenged as he copied Louis, sliding under the sheets and rolling to face him.

“Then you’ll be the luckiest man alive,” Louis informed him primly, grinning when Harry snorted. He then flicked off the light. “Night Harold.”

“Night Lou’. Sweet dreams.”

…sweet dreams? At 2:03 A.M. that morning, Louis made a decision. Tomorrow. Fuck it all. Tomorrow he would ask out Harry Styles.

 

***

Chapter Text

His internal baker’s clock had Harry up only a few hours after they’d gone to bed. His phone was telling him it was 6:08 A.M. – later than his earliest shift, certainly, but still far too early to be getting up. Especially given neither he nor Louis had had much sleep over the past two days. No, Harry was not going to risk getting out of bed if it meant disturbing Louis. Louis, who was still so peacefully asleep beside him. It had taken Harry a couple of moments to realise what the odd weight to his left had been upon waking but once he’d managed to open his eyes and see the unfamiliar surroundings, it had all come rushing back. Him, Louis, sharing a bed, in Louis’ flat. He almost couldn’t wrap his head around it. Looking to his left once more, Harry couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face. Louis was burrowed deep under the duvet, only his nose up visible, hair fluffy in its unwashed and un-brushed state. Harry stroked it lightly, only realising what he was doing once Louis groaned, head turning even more into the pillow.

fuck off…” Louis whined, making Harry smother a giggle behind his hand. Who was the reason behind that particular response? Somehow, he doubted Liam. He was betting on Zayn.

Deciding it was only fair to let Louis sleep some more, seeing as how neither of them had anywhere to be – although hadn’t Louis said something about work? – Harry scrolled through the photos he’d taken yesterday, uploading a couple to Instagram. He also perhaps snuck a couple of Louis and was planning to upload one when he remembered – shit! – that Louis now followed him. Filled with sudden dread, Harry scrolled down to the photo of Louis’ tattoos he’d uploaded weeks ago, feeling no end of relief when he discovered that Louis clearly hadn’t made it that far down his feed. Harry hastily removed the photo because yeah, he had no way to explain that. A couple of minutes on facebook – and Louis still hadn’t accepted his friend request? Did that mean something? – and it was half eight. Surely he was allowed to get out of bed now.

Carefully sliding out of bed, Harry froze by the side of the bed when Louis groaned out a “Liammmmm…” and swatted at the empty space in annoyance. Sure, Harry understood why Louis had said it, but he also couldn’t deny that he wished it was his name Louis was calling out. And perhaps for different reasons, but that was neither here nor there.

Harry then sucked in a breath when Louis’ actions gave him a clear view of his chest and the tattoos that lay there. Peeking up through his lashes to ensure Louis really was asleep still, Harry leant closer to study the cursive font above the “78”, the story behind he would love to get one time. “It is what it is” is what stared back at him. Harry smiled, finger tracing the letters ever so softly. It suited Louis. Fingers reaching Louis’ left shoulder, Harry let them linger before reluctantly pulling away.

“I’d have you Louis, if you’d let me. Would you let me?” Harry wondered aloud.

There was, of course, no response and Harry left the room. He’d make a start on breakfast instead. It was the least he could do after all Louis had done for him over the past couple of days. Deciding to see what Louis actually had before starting, Harry managed to find all the ingredients required for crepes since Louis had such an aversion to sweet things. Honestly, his and Georgia’s tastes were so different, it was a wonder they ever managed to compromise on anything.

Harry was happily humming away when the worst possible thing happened: the doorbell rang.

He stared at the doorway in absolute shock, rooted onto the spot even as his eyes flew to the master bedroom. No movement came from within and, after a second ring, Harry flew to Louis’ bedside, shaking him urgently. “Louis,” he hissed, “Louis, wake up.”

Louis made a pained noise, cracking an eye open. “…’arry?” he asked, sounding thoroughly confused. “What…?”

“Someone’s at the door,” Harry said urgently, pointing as though that might help.

Louis squinted up at him. “What time is it?” He then fumbled for his phone, swearing when he realised he hadn’t plugged it in last night and it now refused to turn on.

“It’s quarter to nine,” Harry supplied.

“On a Sunday?!” Louis demanded incredulously, rolling away and firmly pulling the duvet up once more. “Tell them to fuck off. It’s only gonna be the Mormons or some shit like that.”

The doorbell ringing a third time made the argument in Harry’s throat die and he stuck his tongue out at Louis’ back childishly before jogging down the hallway. It was only after he wrenched open the door and the cold December air hit him that Harry became aware that he was still dressed in nothing but his briefs. He only became more aware of that fact when he came face to face with a woman who looked slightly familiar. Her eyes narrowed and Harry sheepishly ran a hand through his hair.

“Um…hi?” he said awkwardly.

The woman pursed her lips and was clearly about to leave when someone’s head poked out from behind her leg, having stopped their jumping up and down of the steps upon hearing his voice. “Harry?”

Harry’s eyes flew between Georgia and the woman and he suddenly realised when he had seen her. Her photo was up in Georgia’s room, only she was much younger in it. This was Eleanor. Oh God, he was meeting Georgia’s mother for the first time and he was in Louis’ flat in nothing but his underwear. Top impression that was.

“Harry?” Eleanor repeated coldly, stepping past him and pinning Georgia to her side when she attempted to hug him. “Where’s Louis?”

“He’s still asleep. We had a big night last night.”

The instant Eleanor’s eyes darkened was the second Harry realised how bad that sounded. He didn’t get to defend himself before Eleanor was gone, Georgia being dragged along beside her. The pair burst in Louis’ room and Harry slumped back against the wall.

Oh fuck.

 

***

 

Louis had just drifted back into a nice, warm place when the sound of a slamming door jarred him awake. He rolled over to glare at the offender, freezing when he found himself face to face with Eleanor. No, a furious Eleanor. And a very confused, not to mention frightened, looking Georgia.

“El’?” he asked, pushing back the covers and sitting up. “What are you doing here?”

Someone wanted to have a family breakfast,” she said snidely, Louis’ eyes narrowing when Georgia wilted guiltily. How dare Ele- “I messaged you several times.”

“My phone died,” Louis snapped in response to Eleanor’s pointed glare. “I had a big night.”

“Oh I know.”

The venom in that sentence had Louis pausing. He was missing something. He had to be.

Eleanor bent down and picked something up off the floor, tossing it at Louis. He fumbled for it, finding it to be a pair of jeans, jeans that had rips in the knees, something Louis’ never did. Meaning they weren’t his jeans. Louis paled. Jeans, Harry’s jeans, Harry in his briefs. His eyes flew to Eleanor. Harry, in his briefs, opening the door of Louis’ flat after a “big night”.

“El’,” he tried, “It’s not what you-”

“Louis, what the fuck?!

Georgia gasped and Louis finally found his feet, wrenching Georgia to his side. “Don’t use that language around her.” He then turned to little girl, voice softening. “Can you go find Harry please? I need to talk to Mummy.”

Eleanor’s hand shot out but Louis stepped between her and Georgia. Eleanor’s lips curled in distaste. “She’s not-”

“Georgie, sweetheart,” Louis interrupted, sending Eleanor a scowl. “I think I can hear Harry crashing around in the kitchen. Go show him where everything is please love, that’s a girl.” He ushered her out with a pasted on smile, shutting the door and then whirling around. “Don’t ever speak like that in front of her.”

Eleanor rolled her eyes. “As if you don’t.” Louis flushed accordingly and she nodded. “But seriously, Louis, what the fuck? Harry, that’s Harry? Jesus Lou’, I thought Harry was short for Harriet and that she was some new girl in Georgia’s class, what with all the stories Georgia’s been telling me. “I did Harry’s hair”, “I made scones with Harry after school”, “Harry came to my birthday”.”

Louis’ averted his eyes, hands curling into fists because when put like that... “El’, I-”

“And you had the balls to get on my case about Stuart!” Eleanor continued, hands coming to rest on her hips. “You have no fucking ground to stand on Louis! Because at least I introduced them slowly. Stuart’s only met her three times and I’ve never even dreamt of leaving Georgia-Rose alone with him.” She jabbed Louis’ chest with a finger. “And what about you? How many times have you left her with Harry?!”

“Just once!” Because that was actually true. “And it was an emergency!”

“And that makes it okay?”

Yes!

“And if I’d told you I’d done the same with Stuart? Tell me Louis, how would you have taken that?”

Louis’ mouth snapped shut, the foundation for his argument effectively shattered. “I…”

“As you love to wave in my face “I never wanted her” but apparently I understand the concept of boundaries better than you.” Eleanor laughed bitterly. “How many times has this happened Louis? How many blokes have you brought back here? Does Georgia-Rose help them all make breakfast? Is she used to it?” she asked snidely.

“It’s not like that!” Louis whispered desperately, wanting to fight back but just too tired of it all to find the energy to.

Eleanor stared at him for a long moment before throwing her hands in the air. “You know what Louis? Fine! You love being the only person who gets any say over Georgia-Rose so fine, have it. Keep Harry around. Get another one next week. And the next week. Whatever, I don’t care. But when all your shit catches up with you and Harry leaves-”

Louis wanted to argue that Harry would never do that but Eleanor’s next words hit home. And hard.

“-just like Zayn did, and just like Liam did, and just like I did all those years ago. When Harry gets sick of your baggage and leaves, you can be the one to hold Georgia-Rose. You can hold her while she cries, put her heart back together once you’ve broken it for the hundredth time.” Eleanor strode to the door, sending Louis one last disdainful look. “I’m trying to do what’s best for her. Are you?”

With that challenging question, Eleanor left the room, leaving Louis standing in the middle and feeling as though his entire world had just collapsed. His throat felt like it had closed over, his eyes stinging with unshed tears. Oh God, what had he done? He’d told Liam, all those months ago, that he couldn’t like Harry because of Georgia, that he had to think of her first. And this last week he hadn’t. He’d been selfish and put himself first and…Christ, Eleanor was right. Everyone walked out of his life. Harry wouldn’t stay. Why would he? Harry was everything and Louis was nothing. Louis was a mess, he was falling apart at the seams. It would all catch up with him - it had to - and when it did…Harry wouldn’t stay. After all, Liam hadn’t stayed and that was Liam for God’s sake!

“Louis?”

Harry’s voice cut through the air like a knife and Louis whirled around, shying away violently when Harry reached out, face knitted with concern. It quickly turned to hurt but Louis refused to acknowledge it.

“Louis, no…” Harry breathed, as if he knew. He tried stepping forward but Louis only moved away. “Louis, no. Please don’t do this. What happened? What did she say?”

“The truth,” Louis hiccoughed, swearing at his own voice for betraying him. “Don’t!” he cried when Harry attempted to comfort him for the third time. “I’m sorry,” he whimpered, hiding in his face in his hands. “I’m sorry Harry, but you need to go. I can’t do this.”

Harry frowned. “Can’t do what?”

“I just can’t!” Louis insisted, shaking his head. “Please, just…Please leave Harry. I’m sorry but we can’t…I don’t think we can be friends anymore. It’s better if we’re not.”

There was no hiding the shock and devastation that appeared on Harry’s face, only making Louis feel worse. “Louis…”

“You need to leave,” Louis said firmly, picking up Harry’s jeans and shoving them into his hands. “Please, please just go.”

“Louis, I don’t understa-”

“Harry, for fuck’s sake!” Louis screamed, voice echoing throughout the flat and causing Georgia to squeak in alarm from the dining room. “Get out!

There was silence for a long, long time. Then there was the rustling of fabric as Harry pulled his jeans on, not even bothering to button them before throwing a shirt over his exposed chest. As he tugged on his ludicrous gold boots, he shot Louis a look, a look that would haunt him for years to come. “Fuck you,” Harry spat, turning on his heel and storming out of flat.

The front door shutting had never sounded so loud in its life.

 

***

 

He’d been unfair.

That was the conclusion Harry had come to approximately thirty seconds after storming out of Louis’ flat. He’d been hurt and offended, there was no denying that, but the tears in Louis’ eyes had shown that he was in just as much pain. Harry didn’t know what Eleanor had said to him, but it had torn Louis apart, absolutely destroyed him. There had been a hollowness in his eyes that Harry had never seen before. That was what had made him almost turn around instantly and knock on the door, ready to take everything back. But he had decided to give Louis space instead.

In hindsight, that had been a mistake.

Louis had once told Harry he was a man of his word. Harry was now finding out how true that was. Louis was clearly determined to cut all ties between him and Harry. It had been nearly a fortnight now since their fight – a fight, really? A spat, perhaps, at best – and Harry had seen neither Tomlinson for more than a second. They never entered the bakery anymore and it had taken Harry a couple of days to realise that Louis had actually changed which side of the road he walked on in the morning, meaning Georgia could no longer wave through the window. It hurt. There had been one incident where Harry had been putting out a sign and Georgia had fervently yelled at him from across the street but before he could even consider crossing the road, Louis was shaking his head firmly and quickening his pace. Georgia could only wave desperately as she was pulled away.

Sighing glumly, Harry placed the last of his Yorkshire crème filled eclairs into the display case. It was a Thursday afternoon but it was clear that Louis wasn’t coming. Every day Harry baked something with Louis’ favourite tea in it in the desperate hope that he might come but he was ready to give up. Besides, the customers needed some sort of variety.

“Uh…hey,” a voice called tentatively, causing Harry to jerk and knock his head on the lip of the shelf. “Um, apparently coming here is a thing on Thursdays?”

Harry tried to wrap his head around the cryptic question even as he straightened, rubbing his head sourly. Green eyes meeting brown, his mouth suddenly dropped open. “Zayn?!

The other man sent him a crooked grin. “Yeah, and a plus one.”

“Plus one…” Harry repeated blankly before all but throwing himself over the counter. “Rosie!” The little girl raised her arms and Harry hoisted her up, squeezing her with everything he had. “I missed you baby, missed you so much.”

“I missed you too,” Georgia confessed, pressing a kiss to his cheek.

“Um, don’t think that’s quite policy.”

Oh yeah, Zayn.

Harry awkwardly handed Georgia back, wincing when she made to grab for him again. Sure, he and Zayn had had pleasant enough conversation at Georgia’s birthday but there was still a heavy air of scepticism between them. Though Harry had to admit he was none the wiser as to why.

Zayn nodded at having Georgia back, holding her perhaps a little tighter than necessary. Possessive was the word Harry would use. Liam was protective, Zayn was possessive. And Louis…

“How is Louis?” Harry asked, his earnestness making Zayn’s eyes soften.

“He’s being Louis,” Zayn sighed, placing Georgia down and pointing to a booth. “Fucker’s the most stubborn person alive.”

Harry didn’t quite know what to make of that and went to say as much when the door behind them opened. Zayn looked just as irritated at the interruption and Harry could only take that to mean he had been intending to add more. Zayn’s eyes then flew across the shelves before eventually shrugging. He handed Harry a ten pound note and moved to where Georgia was sitting, calling over his shoulder,

“Two of whatever she likes best and something for Lou’, yeah?”

Harry wanted to point out that that wasn’t how things worked around here but by then the reason behind the interruption – which turned out to be a veritable rabble of teenage girls whose eyes lingered too long – had reached the counter. He did manage to run two tarts to the pair before having to duck back behind the counter. Ed arriving and Babs and Niall finishing up out the back happened simultaneously, Niall coming to a dead halt when he caught sight of Zayn, who had since spread a sketchbook out between him and Georgia.

“Is that who I think it is?” he hissed into Harry’s ear.

“It is,” Harry confirmed, bagging three éclairs for Louis and indicating for Niall to follow him. “Hey,” he greeted as he slid into the booth, opting to sit beside Zayn rather than Georgia because, again, possessive. “Here,” he said, handing Zayn the bag. “They’re Yorkshire tea éclairs, and here’s your change.”

Zayn screwed up his nose at the money, pushing Harry’s hand away. “Nah, you keep it. I didn’t expect any back.” He then opened the bag, all but shoving his face inside. “Yorkshire huh? Is it just a coincidence that that’s Louis’ favourite?”

“Is it?” Niall drawled, looking at Harry as if to say that all his suspicions had been confirmed. “And where is Louis on this fine day?”

“Work,” Zayn answered unhelpfully, but he shrugged as though he didn’t really know any more himself. “And since he has football tonight, just was easier for me to pick up Georgia, you know? She does actually come here, right? She said she did.”

I do!” “She does.”

Georgia giggled when she and Harry answered at the same time. Harry shot her a grin. “She comes every Monday morning and every Thursday afternoon.”

Georgia’s expression immediately dimmed. “Yeah, but not anymore because Daddy and Harry can’t be friends.”

Both Niall and Zayn frowned, the latter adding an eye roll for good measure.

“I swear, I’ll throttle some sense into him tonight,” Niall muttered darkly, earning an inquisitive look from Zayn.

“You on the team too?” he asked.

Niall shook his head. “Same sport, different team.” He grinned evilly at Georgia. “I live to beat Liam.”

Georgia merely rolled her eyes, doodling further on the page. “No one can beat Liam.” She then sighed. “I wish Daddy didn’t have to play though. I miss him.”

Zayn’s spare hand curled into a tight fist. “He works, doesn’t he? Even before school and after dinner?”

Always,” Georgia mumbled, switching to colouring in the elaborate tattoo that decorated the back of Zayn’s hand, causing him to chuckle fondly and leading Harry to believe that this was something they did quite often.

Jesus,” Niall muttered, shaking his head. “The lad needs to take a break. He’s doing too much. God knows why he does it.”

There was a loud scoff and Harry was abruptly being asked to move by Zayn. Zayn flicked his hair out of his face, gesturing for Georgia to join before telling them coldly, “Liam may be blind but that doesn’t mean you have to be. Rent doesn’t pay itself.”

With that, Zayn swept off, collecting Georgia and vanishing out the door. Niall had his head cocked to the side but Harry was already thinking furiously. He then gasped, the realisation slamming into him like a train. Even as Niall was calling “Harry?!” he was opening up safari and typing in the search bar. Looking at the results, Harry slammed his phone down, shaking hands running through his hair. Of course. Why hadn’t they seen it? Why hadn’t any of them seen it?

“Harry, mate!” Niall sounded alarmed, quickly coming to join him on his side of the booth, arm sliding around his shoulder. “What is it? What the hell’s gotten into you?”

“Rent,” Harry gasped, only serving to confuse Niall further.

“Yeah, rent, we all pay it. A shitload too, cause it’s London.”

“Exactly,” Harry sobbed, grabbing his phone once more and scrolling down the results. “Three bedroom flats in Pimlico. £750 per week, £795 per week, £810 per week,” he read.

Niall continued to look confused. “Of course. It’s a fancy-arse suburb.”

“Niall,” Harry said bleakly. “We pay £320 a week. Between us, that’s £160 each.” Niall waited for him to go on, making Harry groan. “Do you remember Louis’ office, in his flat? The one thing in it that was out of place?”

“That mural thing,” Niall supplied, thinking back. “Zayn did that, didn’t he? Cause it used to be his and Liam’s room back when they…” Niall trailed off. “No!” he exclaimed, eyes wide as he stared at Harry in disbelief. “No, no, no. Louis’ not…He wouldn’t…Fuck! He would.” Niall took Harry’s phone off him, looking at the results himself. He then swore once more. “It doesn’t get split three-ways anymore. Louis’ trying to pay £800 a week. On his own. Jesus Christ.”

“It’s why he’s so stressed,” Harry said, tugging on his curls. “It’s why Georgia said he’s suddenly working so much more. Why he works weekends. Why his phone is never off. Because it doesn’t stop-”

“-Because he can’t afford for it to stop,” Niall finished. His eyes sunk shut in despair. “Harry, what do we do?”

“Get Liam’s number tonight,” Harry said firmly, pocketing his phone with a determined frown. “We’re staging an intervention.”

 

***

 

It didn’t make sense. Muttering under his breath, Louis leant closer to the page, trying to make heads or tails of the design he had drawn. Even with his glasses on, everything was a blur. It probably had something to do with the fact that he was exhausted after football and he could feel his energy seeping away from his very bones. But still, that wasn’t an excuse. These plans had to be finished by Saturday and with tomorrow being as full as it was, 11:30 P.M. on a Thursday night was all he had. Scrutinising the page once more, Louis slammed his pencil onto the page. It was wrong, he realised in disbelief. It was all wrong.

Fuck!” Louis yelled, picking up his calculator and hurling it at the wall behind him. Louis glared at the wall, positively vibrating. “Fuck you Zayn. Fuck you Liam. I…” he tucked his chin to his chest, even as sobs started to overtake his body. “I need you. I can’t…I can’t do this.” His breath hitched. “Help me.”

But, of course, there was no help. Only silence. Louis scrubbed at his face, weakly telling himself he’d re-start the blueprint in the morning. Right now he needed to sleep. Sleep because he was just so tired.

 

***

 

On Fridays, Louis’ alarm was set to a very generous half five, as opposed to his usual half four. He’d tried half-four once, but football made it impossible to get motivated and so he’d set his alarm forward an hour. However this Friday it wasn’t enough. As soon as he heard his phone go off, Louis merely groaned, hauling his phone over and hitting snooze.

And again.

And once more.

Okay, he really needed to get up now. Rubbing his eyes clumsily, Louis padded to the bathroom and quickly showered. Since his first meeting wasn’t until noon, Louis was able to throw on a simple pair of jeans, a white tee, and a denim jacket. He burrowed into the borg collar of his jacket contentedly before shuffling down to his office. He elbowed the door open even as he checked his emails. Louis had managed to sit and actually reach for his drawing tools before he became aware that there was something already there.

Befuddled, Louis leant forward, sucking in a breath when he found that what he was looking at was the calculator he had hurled at the wall the night before. The only difference now was that instead of being in a mangled heap on the floor, it was stuck together with a ridiculous amount of sticky tape; so much so that he couldn’t use it but still. There was also something next to it, something brightly coloured. Louis almost didn’t want to look at it. And when he did, he felt tears well in his eyes. In the top left corner there was a bright yellow sun, the usual rays drawn as well as a couple of those traditional birds children drew, the ones that basically looked like McDonald’s “M”s. In the middle were two stick figures, one that was him and one that was Georgia. The drawing of him had a sad face that had been crossed out and then a happy face that had been drawn over the top. Underneath it read, please don’t cry Daddy. I love you Daddy. Love Georgia-Rosie. ...Rosie, like Harry called her. And, bless her, Georgia had even included a little flower next to her name. True, it looked nothing like a rose but the attempt was obvious. Louis let out a single sob.

“Daddy?”

“I’m not crying!” Louis denied quickly, scrubbing his face furiously even as he turned around. Georgia was standing in the doorway uncertainly, only coming to join him when Louis held out his arms. “I promise you I’m not crying.”

“You promise?” Georgia pressed, hands fisting in his collar. “I don’t like it when you cry.”

“I am absolutely not crying,” Louis said around a sniffle, wrapping his arms around her tightly. “I just…Did you draw this?” There was a nod against his shoulder. “It’s so beautiful. I love it so much. Is it a present?”

Another nod, followed by a whisper. “Because you were sad.”

Louis bit his lip, forcing back tears. “I’m sorry I was sad. But this picture has made me so much happier. Can I keep it? Can it come to work with me today so I can look at it if I ever start to feel sad?”

He expected her to nod but instead Georgia pulled away, toeing at the floor timidly. She glanced at Louis through her fringe and then tentatively cupped his cheek. “Daddy, I know you don’t want to but Harry makes you happy-”

Louis stiffened at the mention of Harry.

“-I know he does. Even when you tease him and tug his hair - which is mean by the way Daddy, you shouldn’t do it-“ That was accompanied by a stern frown. “-you still smile when you see him. You were so happy when Zayn brought you those things what Harry made.”

Louis couldn’t deny it. He’d been so overwhelmed when Zayn had passed on the éclairs, heart-cracking in guilt when he realised what flavour they were. It meant Harry was still thinking of him, still considered them to be friends. Which was why he didn’t immediately say no when Georgia suggested,

“So please Daddy, can we go and see Harry?”

Under the weight of those pleading eyes and the combination of guilt and longing churning in his chest, Louis gave a single nod. “Okay.”

 

***

Chapter Text

Harry’s eyes kept straying to where Louis and Georgia were sitting. They’d come in not long after seven, early by anyone’s standards let alone Louis’. Upon seeing Harry behind the counter, Louis had shyly murmured a greeting before ushering Georgia forward to order. If Harry wasn’t still slightly irked, he would have deemed it cute. Who was he kidding? It was. And Louis was. Cute, that is.

Niall, who had followed Harry to Sweet Nothings despite his shift not starting for hours, was also watching the Tomlinsons from his place by the half-door. He was flitting between Harry and Perrie out the back, though Babs had chased him away after catching him nicking tidbits every couple of minutes. Even now he was licking chocolate off his fingers as his eyes followed Georgia’s grand gestures, feeble attempts to get Louis to play closer attention to her. And he was, paying attention that was, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t also glancing at his phone whenever she paused for breath. Niall pouted at that, put out by the fact that he’d been unsuccessful in his attempts to get Liam’s number last night. Apparently Louis hadn’t left Liam’s side for anything, making private conversation impossible.

In his next unsubtle glance over, Harry saw that Louis had since gotten to his feet, beckoning Georgia to follow even as he frowned at his phone which had started to ring. He answered it, absently humming confirmations into it as he helped Georgia, who had somehow since become twisted in her bag’s strap. He’d just stepped back from her when his grip on the phone tightened.

You what?” Harry heard him hiss urgently, earning Harry an impatient noise from the old man waiting at the counter.

Then Louis crumpled.

Harry had never seen anything like it. It was as though Louis was a puppet and someone had cut the strings without warning. His knees buckled as he sobbed loudly, the entire store whirling around in alarm. Before Niall had a chance to move, Harry had barged him out of the way, sweeping Louis up before he could hit the ground.

“Hey, hey,” Harry shushed, pulling Louis to his chest, hands drawing him as close as possible. “Louis, what is it? What’s wrong?”

Louis shook his head mutely, one hand curled against his chest, the other gripping his phone for all it was worth, knuckles white.

“…uis? Louis! Boo?!

The voice came from the phone and Harry saw “Mum” on the display. He indicated the phone but Louis shook his head firmly, stunning him by nuzzling into Harry’s neck. Even as Harry pried the phone from Louis’ grip, he shuffled them a little closer to the fridges and out of the middle of the shop.

He raised the phone to his ear awkwardly. “…hello?”

There was a pause on the other end. “Who is this? Where’s Louis?” A woman demanded, sounding extremely worried. Looking at the man in his arms, Harry thought maybe she had every right to.

“My name’s Harry,” he answered slowly. “Louis’ with me. He’s a bit…upset…at the moment.”

At that, Louis sobbed once more, Harry thumbing at his shoulder tenderly when he started to shake. A heavy sigh came down the line. “Harry…Louis, he’s not up to talking, is he?” Harry didn’t even get to reply before she was talking again. “Don’t answer that, I know he’s not. Just…tell him I’m sorry alright? And tell him to call me?

“I will,” Harry promised, ending the call and nosing at Louis’ cheek. “Lou’, what happened?”

“They’re getting a divorce,” Louis managed to croak out, futilely wiping at his eyes.

Harry startled. “Your mum and D-…No, step-dad right? The girls’ dad?”

Louis nodded. “Yeah, Mark. They…She tried…Fizzy said…”

The fragments didn’t make sense to Harry but Louis dissolved into tears once more. Glancing around desperately, Harry saw that Niall had since collected Georgia and had her pinned firmly to his side by the door. Barbara had replaced Harry at the counter, assisting Perrie with the morning rush. Seeing Harry’s questioning gaze, Babs finished serving her latest customer before coming round to join them.

“You’re okay love,” Babs murmured, pinching Louis’ cheek gently. She then turned to Harry. “Make sure she-” She nodded at Georgia, “-gets to school and don’t come back today, you and Niall, understand? Do for him what he did for you. We’ll get on fine.”

“Thanks Babs,” Harry gushed, kissing her cheek before shaking Louis gently. “Wanna grab a coffee?” Even as Louis shook his head, Harry was mentally slapping himself. Hadn’t they established two weeks earlier that Louis didn’t like coffee? He then ran through a list of every shop nearby. “What about an ice-cream?”

Harry went to mentally slap himself again – sweet, no – when Louis surprised him by nodding ever so slightly. “Yeah,” he whispered hoarsely, drying his face on his sleeve.

Ice-cream?” Harry repeated incredulously. “You want an ice-cream?”

“Shut up Styles,” Louis sniffled. “’S my one weakness.”

Harry grinned, kissing Louis’ cheek without meaning to. Louis blinked at him owlishly but Harry merely blushed. As Louis excused himself to clean his face, Harry flicked through the contacts on Louis’ phone until he reached Liam’s number.

Hey,” Liam greeted within a ring, “What’s up Lou’?

“It’s Harry,” Harry corrected, actually hearing Liam stop on the other end, hastily apologising to the people that undoubtedly had had to serve around him.

Harry? What’s going on? Where’s Louis?

Worrying his bottom lip between his teeth and checking once more to make sure Louis wasn’t watching him, Harry mumbled. “Louis’ parents got a divorce.”

“…shit.” There was some muttering before, “Text me where you are and I’ll be there in fifteen.

Before Harry could agree, Liam had hung up. Louis then returned to Harry’s side, taking the phone back with a thick “thanks”. He shuffled over to where Georgia was anxiously shifting from foot to foot, eyes wide and hands gripping Niall’s tightly.

“Daddy, you’re crying,” she stated, eyes wide and bottom lip trembling.

“I’m not!” Louis denied, causing Harry to frown at him severely. “I don’t cry, you-”

Louis!” Harry interrupted, yanking him back a step and hissing into his ear. “You are crying. Don’t lie.”

“Well excuse me Curly, but she doesn’t like it when I cry,” Louis snapped back.

Harry’s eyes flashed. “So you, what? Deny you ever do it?” He shook his head. “Louis, that won’t work. Georgia’s going to get upset sometime in her life. Do you want her to hide that because that’s what you always did? Or do you want her to feel it’s okay to cry and not have to hold it all in? Which do you think will really do her any good in the long run?”

Louis held his gaze for a long time before shakily nodding. He turned back to Georgia, crouching down in front of her. “Sorry poppet, but yes, I was crying.”

“And it’s alright to cry,” Harry added, giving Louis’ shoulder a comforting squeeze. “Even daddy’s cry sometimes.”

Georgia looked between them uncertainly. “Daddy?”

Louis glanced once at Harry before soldiering on. “It’s true. Sometimes people cry because they’re happy, and sometimes when they’re sad.”

“Are you sad?” Georgia pressed, stepping closer tentatively.

“I am,” Louis admitted, having to stop for a moment as tears formed in his eyes once more. “I’m sad because…you know how Violet’s mummy and daddy got a divorce?” A nod. “Well, my Mummy and Mark…they got a divorce.” Louis’ body gave a shudder and Harry tightened his grip. “And I…I’m really sad because I know Mum’s sad, as are the girls.”

“Lottie and Fizzy and Daisy and Phoebe are sad?” Georgia clarified, biting her lip at Louis’ nod. “Violet was sad too,” she confessed. “But she’s happier now.”

“It always gets better,” Harry said, brushing Georgia’s hair off her face even as he pulled Louis back to his feet. Louis looked seconds away from another breakdown so Harry tugged him into his arms once more. He then guided Niall through how to get to Georgia’s school, shooting a text off to Liam before leading Louis down the street. Arriving at the gelato café four doors down, Harry prayed that today would be one of the days Jesy came to study at work rather than at home with her dreadful flatmates. Knocking on the door of Gelatissimo, Harry felt a horrible moment of dread until he saw a head pop up from out the back. Jesy then strode through the shop, opening the door and was about to make a loud remark when she caught sight of Louis. Her expression immediately softened.

“Oh hun,” she soothed, ushering the pair in. She then raised an eyebrow at Harry. “Gelato fixes everything?”

Louis stumbled, looking betrayed. “Gelato? Thought we were getting ice-cream?”

“Uh…this is healthier?” Harry tried, rubbing his neck sheepishly.

“I promise it tastes just as good,” Jesy said, flashing Louis a grin. “Trust me, I’m a Ben and Jerry’s devotee. And,” she added, leaning over the bench to smooth his wayward hair, “it’s on the house today. So, what d’ya want?”

Louis shook his head. “I don’t know.” He stepped towards a table, feebly grasping Harry’s sleeve between his fingers. “Pick for me?”

Jesy gave Harry a look that clearly said “that bad?” before gesturing at the selection. Harry made a split-second decision. “Burnt caramel for him, lychee for me.”

“That’s not even a real ice-cream flavour Harold!” Louis called, attempting to joke. Jesy laughed loudly and handed the two cups to Harry, shooing him off. Harry chose to slide in beside Louis, bumping their shoulders together. “Thanks,” Louis mumbled around his first mouthful. “Thanks for doing this.”

Harry shrugged. “’S what friends do.”

That was clearly the wrong thing to say, Louis burying his face in his hands. “Fuck, don’t. About that I…I’m sorry Harry, really.”

“Shit, Lou’, no,” Harry murmured, hushing him and wrapping an arm around him. “I wasn’t judging you. Whatever happened between us, it’s fine. I just meant I was here for you. What’s happening with your mum, that’s big. I wanna be here to help, okay?”

Louis nodded and then there was a knock on the shop door. Jesy’s head poked out, rolling her eyes when she saw Niall there, grinning broadly with a harried-looking Liam by his side. Niall and Jesy greeted each other with ridiculous amounts of exuberance while Liam made straight for Louis’ side.

“Hey Boo,” Liam murmured, Harry tilting his head to the side because that was twice he’d heard that nickname today and he’d never heard it before. File away under: things about Louis he wanted to know. It was becoming a rather long list.

Li’,” Louis gasped, shifting into his arms. “They’re…they’re…”

“I know love, Harry told me.”

“She tried to tell me,” Louis whimpered, breath hitching as Liam pulled him closer. “She…I knew something was wrong Li’…and Mum, she…she tried but I…I was too busy…I didn’t…”

“It’s okay,” Liam shushed. “You didn-”

It’s not okay!” Louis cried, shaking his head violently. “My own mum Liam! I didn’t eve-”

“Jesus, anyone else Harry?” Jesy called and Harry didn’t have time to question her before something was dumped under the table and Louis was all but yanked out of Liam’s arms. Both Louis and Liam started to protest until they saw who it was. Louis lasted all of second before he collapsed into the waiting arms.

Zee,” he whined, snuffling to Zayn’s neck desperately.

Even as Liam shifted to Louis’ side, Zayn was cradling Louis’ head, his other hand coming to rub his back. “Easy Lou’, let it out. Just let it out. We got you, we’re all here.” Liam backed that statement up by wrapping a hand around Louis’ hip. That was all it took for Louis to lose any semblance of control, chest heaving as he cried into Zayn’s shoulder. Over his head, Zayn’s eyes found Liam’s. “Got thirty quid?”

“Why?” Liam asked quizzically, though Harry noticed he already had his wallet open and was placing the money into Zayn’s open palm.

Zayn pocketed the money before picking up the bag under the table with his foot, holding it up. “I’m sending Louis to Doncaster.”

Liam nodded immediately, kissing Louis’ cheek and muttering assurances to him. Louis refused to let go of Zayn but did reach out a hand to pull Liam into an odd three-way hug. He then turned to Harry and gave him a watery smile, the gratitude in it saying more than words ever could. Niall wished him well before Zayn led Louis to the door, stuffing the bag in his arms before marching back to the table. His eyes, when he met theirs, were murderous.

“Go to the flat. We’re sorting this shit out.”

 

***

 

“Look, there’s one that stops at Doncaster,” Zayn said as the departure boards at King’s Cross changed over. He scrutinised the board, eyes squinting to see up that high. “Platform 12. Let’s go.”

Louis bowed his head, hands clenched by his side. “Zap, Louis said no,” he whispered.

Zayn frowned, spinning on his heel and ducking to meet Louis’ eyes. “Zap, Louis told me why.”

“Because Louis can’t. I can’t,” he stressed, hugging his bag close. “Zayn, you know why. You’re the only one that does,” he tacked on.

Zayn huffed, rolling his eyes before pulling Louis towards the platform. “That’s really not my problem. If you want to be an idiot and not ask for help, fine. But I told you this would happen. Sure,” he said with a shrug, “Your mum set this off, but be honest Louis. We both knew this was coming.”

Louis opened his mouth to protest but quickly backed down, knowing it was true. Even as they swerved around a group of tourists, one of them latching onto Zayn and desperately asking if he knew where Platform 9 ¾ was – they managed to send her in the right direction, so that was something – Louis asked the question that had been bothering him most of all.

“Zee…why are you here?”

Zayn missed a step before recovering flawlessly, as per usual, making Louis pout a little. “Because Liam messaged me. And the second he did, I knew Liam wouldn’t be enough.” He sent a sad look over his shoulder. “We’ve done a lot together Lou’. I know you.”

“So does Liam,” Louis pointed out, hackles rising. “Don’t think he’s enough, do you?”

“Dammit Louis, I didn’t mean it like that!” Zayn growled, running a hand through his hair. “I meant I knew you’d need as much support as possible.”

He looked so sincere that Louis had the grace to look a little sheepish. Zayn sighed at his expression. “Same old shit but a different day.”

Louis tried to smile but it was a piss-poor attempt at best. “It’s all a bit shit.”

He then jerked as Zayn gripped his arm, an odd begging aspect to it. “All of it? Really Louis, is there nothing…?”

Louis went to say ‘no’ but…there was Harry. And Georgia. And football with Liam. A grin spread across his face. And football against Niall. Because God knew that was fun.

“There,” Zayn said with a sloppy grin. “You got this Lou’. Just slow down for awhile. Take a break. Spend some time with your mum.” He ushered Louis towards the train, wincing at the time displayed on the large clocks overhead.

“Zayn?” Louis asked, one foot inside the carriage, still teetering. “What do I do?” At Zayn’s patient look, he added, “With Mum? And Georgia and the flat and…well, everything?”

Zayn’s fingertips gently ran over the inside of Louis’ right forearm, the softest smile on his face. “You’ll figure it out,” he promised.

Louis frowned, twisting his arm so that his hand was clasped around Zayn’s. “When are you going to tell him you still love him?”

Zayn stilled, fingers stopping their imaginary tracing. He seemed to realise what he was subconsciously doing, immediately ripping his hand away. At Louis’ piercing look, he stubbornly shook his head. “Get on the train Louis.”

Louis went to say more but the whistle blew from the front of the platform. And so, with great reluctance that he took the last step inside. As the doors shut, Louis stayed by them, waiting until Zayn was gone from sight, a tiny speck in the distance. He then sighed, shouldering his bag. Right, time to find his seat.

 

***

 

Liam unlocked the flat with practised ease, automatically heading towards Louis’ office, Harry and Niall right on his heels. It only took Harry one quick look at Louis’ desk to see the obvious signs of his current struggles. The tray labelled “contracts” was brimming and the one underneath, labelled “bills”, was much the same. As Liam made for them, Harry joined Niall by the giant wall calendar Louis had plastered up, Niall whistling lowly as he saw the way Louis’ schedule had become more and more hectic as the year progressed. Harry could probably pinpoint Liam and Zayn’s break-up to the day just from studying Louis’ meticulously high-lighted schedule.

Jesus,” Niall breathed, running a hand over the past month or so. “Does he even sleep?”

Glancing up at the only blank spaces that were seemingly between midnight and five A.M., Harry shook his head. They both whirled around at Liam’s hoarse whisper.

“What the hell is this?”

He had a piece of paper in his hands and Harry gently wrapped his hand around Liam’s, tilting it so he could see. He read it with resignation. “He’s putting Georgie in care over the winter term break.”

“He wouldn’t!” Liam exclaimed, eyes wide. “Louis always says that holidays are his favourite because he gets to spend time with her! And this…this isn’t even school hours. This is six til six! He wouldn’t get to see her at all!”

“Mate…” Niall consoled, grasping Liam’s shoulder only to be shaken off.

Liam reached for the next paper, and the next one, muttering under his breath in disbelief. “Final warning, paid, re-financing approved, late notice…” That last sentence was pulled from the rent notice and it finally seemed to hit Liam, his face losing all colour.

“Took you long enough.”

The scoff came from the doorway, all of them snapping around to see Zayn standing there, arms folded tightly. Liam looked between the paper and Zayn a couple of times, eyes narrowing. “Are you saying you knew?

Zayn’s expression turned pitifully condescending. “It wasn’t hard to figure out Li’. One, he called me, ‘nough said there. Two, the second I walked in he burst out of here with his work.” Zayn moved forward to run a hand across the edge of the desk. “As soon as I saw this was an office, I knew what he’d done.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Liam demanded, sounding more hurt than angry and, to Harry’s surprise, that made Zayn wilt, façade crumbling somewhat.

“I…”

“How long…” Liam then turned to the calendar Harry and Niall had been scrutinising, letting out a loud sob. “Oh my god, Lou’.” He ran a shaking hand across his face. “Why didn’t I see? Why…? I…” Liam sucked in a breath. “Tired.”

Harry tilted his head in confusion. “Sorry?”

“Christ, tired,” Liam repeated, hands balling into fists. “Louis kept telling me, kept saying it, over and over. He was tired, he was just so tired. God, I…This is why!”

Distressed was the word Harry would use to describe Liam and he would have comforted him…had Zayn not swooped in and done it. The slender man slid under Liam’s arm, pressing his face into Liam’s neck. “You would have noticed Li’.”

“Would I?”

Zayn rested a hand on his chest soothingly. “You would have. It’s just…like Niall, yeah?”

Niall jolted. “Eh?”

“With your hair, right. You bleach it blond and you just leave it and then one morning, all of sudden, it’s all regrowth and you wonder when that happened.”

“I do not!” Niall protested in vain, clawing at his hair, making both Harry and Liam chuckle.

Zayn gave a slow smile before tilting his head up to Liam’s. “That’s what you did with Louis. You saw him so often you didn’t notice. You would have though, in the end.”

“In the end,” Liam repeated mockingly. “What, like today, you mean? When it all came crashing down? I’m supposed to be his friend! I should have seen!”

“But would Louis have even let you seen?” Zayn pressed gently, nodding when Liam’s frame softened and in that moment Harry could see why they would have worked. “He didn’t want you to notice. Because he’s…well…he’s Louis.”

“And he’s “always alright”,” Niall quoted sourly.

Liam looked between them all before taking a deep breath, nodding. “Yeah, you’re right. Thanks babe.” He went to peck Zayn’s cheek, no doubt on instinct, only to have Zayn shied away violently, putting a very distinct distance between them, frame strung tight.

Don’t!” he snapped when Liam reached for him. “We’re not important right now. Louis is.” He pointed at the wall. “We need to fix this.”

“How?” Harry asked before Liam could open his mouth, which he looked mighty tempted to do.

“Harry’s right,” Niall agreed with a shrug, having long since flopped into Louis’ chair and rocking from side to side in it. “Not a lot we can do.”

Liam finally tore his eyes away from his ex and picked up the letters, re-reading them. “He’s up to date, just.”

“But he can’t keep this up,” Harry pointed out.

“I know,” Liam grumbled, more distracted than anything else. He eventually shrugged. “I’ll move back in. At least until we work something more permanent out.”

“Don’t you have your own place?” Zayn asked, raising an eyebrow. “What are you gonna do with that?”

Liam scowled at Zayn’s sharp tone. “I’m gonna help my friend before I worry about myself.” Zayn flushed accordingly. “But no, I have some money saved…God, I rubbed that in Louis’ face, shit…I can cover rent at both for at least a month.”

“I can pitch in on Sunday,” Zayn offered meekly. “I’ve got a gallery tomorrow and I’ll be selling some paintings so, yeah, I’ll give you what I make.”

“I don’t-”

“For Louis,” Zayn barked, making Niall roll his eyes and get to his feet.

“Alright, ladies, enough! We’ve all established this is for Louis. What do we do about now? You sent him home but what then?”

Harry grimaced. “Yeah, like, wouldn’t he have work today? And what about Georgia?” he suddenly realised.

“I can handle his work contracts,” Liam said, grabbing Louis’ diary of the desk and thumbing through it. “I’ll contact them all and say he’s closed until New Year, family circumstances and all that. They’ll understand.”

“Or they’ll get over it,” Zayn sneered, running a finger down the calendar in revulsion. “And looks like El’s got Georgia from tomorrow til Boxing Day anyway.” He then frowned deeply, turning to Liam. “Until Boxing Day?”

Liam bore a similar frown. “That’s not fair.”

Harry went to ask why but Zayn dismissed it. “I guess Lou’ can fend for himself until then.” He then groaned. “Aw, fuck, I’m setting up the gallery this afternoon. I can’t get G from school.”

“That’s no problem,” Liam said, “I can. I-…shit, no, I can’t. We have a director’s meeting.” Pleading, brown eyes turned to Harry. “Can you?”

“Hey, n-”

Zayn cut off mid-protest when Liam stabbed him in the chest with a surprisingly forceful finger. “Your mess, don’t complain.” Zayn openly gaped but Liam turned his attention back to Harry. “Would that be okay?”

Niall was already nodding but Harry hesitated. “Yeah, I guess,” he replied, running a hand through his hair. “Just…just from school, though. I mean, Louis and I are maybe not friends right now…? It’s complicated. And like, you guys will get Rosie before Eleanor comes, promise?”

Liam and Zayn adopted identical frowns, asking at the same time, “Why?”

“I mean, we would anyway,” Liam hastily assured, “I’ll get her straight after work but…”

“But why?” Zayn prodded, eyes narrowing. “I thought you were into Louis.”

Harry started because when had Zayn been around long enough to figure that out? “I…” Harry spluttered, causing Niall to cackle. Harry silenced him with slap over the head. “I just…Eleanor and I don’t…”

“Hang on!” Liam protested, holding up a hand. “When have you met Eleanor?”

“Wasn’t it when Louis took you to visit your mum?” Niall recalled. He then seemed to remember the rest of the story, laughing so hard he fell off the chair. “Oh, this story. I love this one mate!”

Feeling his face heat up more and more under Liam’s baffled expression and Zayn’s Cheshire cat grin, Harry spoke next more to the floor. “I…Louis and I drove home late and so I crashed here and I maybe opened the door…”

Liam and Zayn waited expectantly.

Harry groaned. “…In my underwear.”

Only his underwear!” Niall clarified while Zayn threw his head back in laughter. Liam looked mortified and Harry decided that yes, out of this lot, Liam was his best friend. Screw Niall. Niall laughed at him.

“Oh.” Liam’s gasp cut through the other two’s laughter. “Oh. She…Eleanor got entirely the wrong impression, didn’t she?”

Harry nodded sheepishly, flinching when Zayn swore loudly.

“She got into him,” Zayn growled, rounding on Liam, eyes flashing. “El’ tore into Louis, you know she would have!”

Liam gave a half-hearted shrug. “She has a boyfriend.”

Zayn ceased pacing at that revelation. He then ran a hand through his hair. “Right, brilliant! And, Louis being Louis, he would have made a fuss about that because he has hawk-eyes on Georgia and he wouldn’t want some new man around her. Which of course Eleanor is going to throw back in his face the second she found out about Harry. Don’t give me that face Liam, you know it’s true!”

Niall looked incredulous. “Wait, are you trying to tell me that Louis would “dump” Harry just because his ex told him to?”

Harry went to assure them he was okay with that – he wasn’t – but they were both already shaking their heads. “It’s more than that,” Liam explained. “El’ would have said it’s best for Georgia. Maybe she thinks it is, I don’t know. But, Harry,” he implored, “Louis didn’t mean to hurt you. He honestly likes you. He just…He’d give up anything for Georgia. Hell, he’d give her up if someone told him it was what’s best for her.”

“But like Eleanor can talk,” Zayn spat, folding his arms across his chest tightly. “She didn’t even see Georgia from the second she pushed her out of her vag’-”

Jesus Zayn.”

“-til she was three. And even then,” he continued to rant, “She only started this whole one-weekend-a-month thing once Georgia started school.” Zayn pointed between him and Liam. “We’ve had more to do with her!”

Ah, that explained the possessiveness.

Niall cackled, swatting at Zayn teasingly. “Aren’t you a mama bear?”

Even as Zayn was pouting, Liam was nudging him playfully. “You are Georgia’s godmother.”

I am not!” Zayn protested, looking indignant. “Louis nominated us as godparents. No genders were given.”

“Pretty sure he labelled me godfather. Daddy Payne and all.”

At Liam’s waggling eyebrows, Zayn rolled his eyes. He then turned to Harry, jerking a thumb at Liam. “This one aside, solved, yeah? You pick up Georgia from school?”

Harry nodded furtively. “Yep, I can do that.” He looked over Zayn’s head to Liam. “What time should I meet you here?”

Liam consulted his phone. “Six-thirty alright?”

“Fine,” Harry chirped, rocking on his heels.

“Settled then!” Niall announced. “Now, Harry, you and I have the day off so fuck you losers!” He called to Liam and Zayn as he bounded away, yanking Harry along. Harry let him. With Niall, that was generally the easiest solution.  

 

***

 

Jumping off the bus at the bottom of his street, Louis slung his bag onto his back before trudging home. It seemed almost like a dream, that everything looked exactly as he remembered it and yet so much had changed in a year. He kicked a pebble up the street, grumbling to himself when it fell down a drain almost straight away. Well that was no fun. Still, he wasn’t here to kick rocks. Fingering the packet of smokes Zayn had thoughtfully packed, Louis decided he’d keep that for later, save the scolding for when he thought he could handle it.

Jumping the half-fence, Louis rapped on the front door. There were footsteps on the other side and then the door opened, Jay stepping out. “L-Louis?” she stammered, hastily gathering him into her arms. “Oh Boo, what are you doing here? Why didn’t you call?”

Louis shook his head mutely, hands curling into his mother’s cardigan. “Mum, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

“Louis,” she tutted, stroking his hair softly and only serving to make Louis feel worse. “Honey, I’m a big girl. I can handle this on my own.”

“You shouldn’t have to!” Louis snapped, backing away and angrily swiping at his eyes. “I’m supposed to be there for you!”

“Well I could say the same for you!” Jay huffed, Louis’ eyes widening. “I know you haven’t been telling me everything and I know there’s things wrong but I haven’t been able to do anything about them. Because my own son won’t tell me when he’s struggling!” Louis ducked his head in shame. Jay sighed, rubbing his arm. “But I’ve done the same to you, haven’t I? We really are too alike.”

Louis matched her sad smile with one of his own. “Maybe.” There was the sound of the gate being pushed open and two disbelieving, “Is that Louis?” “Louis?!”. As Louis turned to face the twins, he clasped his mother’s hand. “Talk later?”

She nodded solemnly even as Daisy and Phoebe barrelled closer. “After tea. And Louis, the whole story.”

Wrapping his sisters in his arms, Louis still managed to send his mother a weathered smile. “Yeah, the whole story.”

 

***

Chapter Text

Meandering down the school hallway, Harry rounded the corner just in time to hear Miss Sarah say,

“She’s been like this all day. I haven’t gotten a single word out of her.”

Upon closer inspection, Harry found that Miss Sarah was standing in the door of Georgia’s classroom, the front attendant – Harry thought her name was Frances – standing next to her. Both were frowning at someone inside the room and from the sinking feeling in his gut, Harry knew exactly who it was.

“I didn’t recognise who dropped her off this morning,” Frances said quietly, lips pursed. “He was nice enough and Georgia was attached to him-”

Confirmed. 

“-but still.”

“It’s…” Miss Sarah abruptly halted when she caught sight of Harry.

Harry blushed and stepped forward with an awkward wave. “Er…Georgia had a bad day?” he guessed, figuring he may as well as he’d already been caught eavesdropping.

Both women frowned at him, obviously displeased that he wasn’t Louis. Well, he couldn’t exactly fix that now, could he? Before Harry could say anything more, a yell came from inside the classroom.

“Miss Sarah said sit down!”

“Shut up!”

All three adults whipped around at that, Miss Sarah ready to reprimand and Harry cringing because he recognised that voice. A boy was standing from where he’d tried to intervene and Georgia was careening across the classroom, colliding with Harry’s legs and promptly bursting into tears.

“Harry, I want to go home!” She sobbed hysterically, Harry hurrying to crouch and pull her into his arms. “I want Daddy! He’s sad and I don’t want him sad and I want to give him cuddles. Where is he Harry? Where’s Daddy? I want him Harry, please, please, please!”

Eyes sinking shut in despair, Harry only held her tighter before saying, “Daddy’s not here love. He’s gone to visit his mum.”

Georgia gave a choked wail, all but wrapping herself around him. Harry felt his eyes begin to burn but there was nothing he could do, nothing except hold her tight. Over her head, he could see both school staff exchanging meaningful looks, something akin to despair on their faces. And, if Harry wasn’t mistaken, a look that almost seemed to suggest they’d been waiting for this to happen. It made him wonder, had they noticed too? Noticed Louis slipping? Noticed him falling apart to the point where he couldn’t hold himself together anymore? Because yes, Harry had known it was bad, but he hadn’t known it was this bad.

“It’s Harry, isn’t it?” Frances asked, causing Harry to nod and clamber to his feet, Georgia still crying into his shirt. “Louis…Is Mr. Tomlinson alright?”

Gnawing on his lip, Harry eventually shook his head. “If I er…said, like, a bit of a mental breakdown, would you…er…” He trailed off uncertainly.

“Would I be surprised?” Miss Sarah surmised, sighing when Harry nodded. “Not really.” Her gaze turned sharp. “He’s alright though, isn’t he? You, you and whoever dropped Georgia off, and Liam and Zayn, you’re all helping him?”

Harry nodded curtly. “Yes ma’am. We’re…we’re just sorry it got to this point,” he murmured, hefting Georgia up a bit and kissing her cheek, breathing soft “’s alright”s into her ear.

Miss Sarah shook her head sadly before gently tapping Georgia’s arm. “Georgia-Rose, darling, let’s go get your bag. You can go home with Harry.” Georgia shook her head stubbornly. “What about the Christmas presents you made?” Miss Sarah suggested, finally getting Georgia to lift her head. “Let’s go get those, okay? You can take them home, since it’s the last school day before Christmas.”

“Daddy’s present,” Georgia whispered, eyes pleading.

Her teacher smiled softly. “Of course. It wouldn’t do to forget Daddy’s birthday present now would it?”

Even as Georgia was shimmying out of his arms, Harry was stuttering dumbly, “B-birthday? Louis’ birthday? When is that?”

“It’s Christmas Eve Day,” Georgia answered promptly before skittering back into the classroom, hastily collecting her things and…oh. That was why Zayn had said Eleanor taking Georgia until Boxing Day had been unfair. Because Georgia would miss her own father’s birthday. And, perhaps more importantly, Louis wouldn’t get to see her. Christ, why did Louis make it his mission to make his life miserable?

By the time Georgia had packed everything away and was back at his side, Harry had a plan in mind. As her hand slipped into his, Harry gave her a smile. “My dear Rosie,” he announced grandly, “Shall we go shopping? I think it’s time to get Daddy a special present!”

Georgia’s face brightened in wonder. “Yes please Harry!” He suddenly found a mess of limbs wrapped around his legs. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

 

***

 

Their shopping trip had taken them awhile because once Georgia had bought something for Louis’ birthday, she’d wanted to buy him a Christmas present. And then she’d wanted to buy presents for all her aunties. And Liam. And Zayn. And Harry and Niall and Harry had had to eventually set some ground rules, only letting Georgia buy little things and one present each. He knew Louis would flip once he’d found out Harry had done this and would attempt to pay him back but that was later’s problem.

Georgia had happily bounced alongside him all afternoon. Occasionally she flagged, a sad look crossing her face, and it was obvious she was missing Louis. Harry didn’t blame her. For a seven-year-old, this had to be confusing, not to mention heart-breaking. He’d always managed to bring her around though, pointing out a Christmas display or some street carollers. She’d skipped into Sweet Nothings as if she owned the place and who was Harry kidding? She basically did. Harry had collected the leftovers and contemplated only a moment before taking Georgia with him to the homeless shelter he often visited. Stepping in the door and taking a moment to appreciate the heating vents just inside the door, Harry then walked towards the kitchen, only stopping when he felt someone tug on his jeans. He looked down to see Georgia staring up at him quizzically.

“Yes Rosie?” he asked.

“Where are we Harry?” Georgia’s eyes were wide as they roamed the large eating area, people of all genders and ages spread throughout the room.

“This is called Where We Land,” Harry explained patiently. “It’s shelter for people who don’t have a home.”

Georgia frowned in confusion. “They don’t have a home? Then where do they live?”

Harry smiled sadly. “Nowhere sweetheart. They don’t have anywhere to live so they come here when they need a bed, or something to eat, or the weather is too bad outside.”

“They’re homeless,” Georgia realised, studying the crowd once more. “Daddy gives them money sometimes. He says some of them made bad choices. But sometimes he says that wasn’t their fault and that they’re trying really hard.”

“That’s exactly right,” Harry agreed firmly. “They’re doing the best they can. And that,” he said, indicating the boxes in his arms, “Is why we give the food no one is going to buy. Instead of putting it in the bin, we give it to people who need it. Besides, everyone likes something special, don’t they?”

Georgia nodded seriously, eyes locked on a little girl and her brother who were sitting on the floor with some paper and crayons. “Can I play with them?” she asked timidly. “I have a Frozen book we could share.”

Harry contemplated it for a moment before nodding. He’d only be a minute anyway. Dropping his supplies off and hugging each of the volunteers, Nick squeezing him far too tightly as always, Harry scuttled back to the main room. He made his way over to where Georgia was sitting, her Frozen colouring book indeed spread between the three of them.

“Harry did my hair,” Georgia was saying, shaking her hair to show off the plaits and bun. “He did it because I’m a princess.”

The girl opposite sighed glumly. “I’m not a princess. I don’t have pretty clothes like you.”

Georgia’s face contorted into that deep frown. “Excuse me!” she screeched, making Harry laugh because, oh god!, she sounded exactly like Louis. “All girls are princesses. Liam said so and Daddy agreed so it must be true.”

The little girl was now staring at Georgia in disbelief. “Do you really think so?”

“Of course,” Georgia huffed, rolling her eyes and changing colouring pencils. “Every girl is a princess. And you’re a girl. So you’re a princess.”

“I’m a princess too!” exclaimed the little boy who completed their trio.

“No you’re not Andrew!” Came the girl’s protest, only to stop when Georgia held out a hand.

“Actually, anyone can be a princess,” Georgia explained, making Harry beam with pride. “If Andrew wants to be a princess, then he is.” She then caught sight of Harry, beckoning him over furiously. “This is Harry,” she introduced, “He does the best hair. I bet he could make you look pretty Molly.”

The girl, Molly, gasped, hands clasped as she looked at Harry. “Could you really? Pretty please?”

Spotting the couple that had to be Molly and Andrew’s parents, Harry asked sheepishly, “That okay with you?”

“Go ahead,” the mother said, “I was never any good at hair.”

So Harry sat down, taking Molly’s hair in his hands and twisting it into an elaborate braid, thanking Georgia when she found an elastic in her bag and handed it to him. Andrew then demanded a turn and though he didn’t really have enough hair to do anything too much, Harry did manage a little fountain ponytail, removing his own hair band to tie it off. The pair gave him and Georgia tight hugs before zipping off to show their parents.

“Harry,” Georgia said, startling Harry by how serious she was, “Molly’s mummy looks like Daddy.”

Harry’s head whipped in the mother’s direction which…only made him more confused because she had tight black curls and a pointed face. “What?” Because he couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“She’s tired,” Georgia said, slipping her hand into his. “Daddy looks like that when he works all the time. I don’t understand. Daddy tries to make everyone happy but it only makes him sad. Why?”

Harry blinked twice in stunned silence. What on earth was Louis raising? What kind of child asked these kinds of questions? Weren’t they supposed to be older before they started asking things like this?

He then shook his head, taking Georgia’s hand and leading her towards the door. “It’s like this. Pretend you got a packet of Smarties, yeah?” Georgia slowly nodded. “Now, you bought those all for yourself, they’re yours. But like, then someone else wants one so you give them some. And then your friend is sad, so you give them some to make them happy. And you keep doing this until you have no smarties left.”

Georgia’s nose crinkled in protest. “But I didn’t get any!”

“Aha,” Harry agreed. “So you buy more. But guess what? Even though people aren’t asking for them, you know your friends want them so you share. And then they’re all gone again. So you have to buy more!”

“But chocolates cost money!” Georgia argued. “Why don’t I get any smarties?”

Harry raised an eyebrow. “But aren’t you happy you made your friends happy?”

Georgia thought for a moment, shuffling from side to side. “Well, I s’pose…but I still want some!”

“And that’s Lo-…Daddy,” Harry said, bopping Georgia’s nose gently. “He doesn’t have Smarties, but what he has is time. Louis wants to sit down, to watch tv, to not have to work or go out or be busy but people keep taking up his time.”

“And because he wants to make them happy he does it?” Georgia guessed. “And then he gets sad and tired.”

Harry nodded sombrely. “Yeah. But it’s okay now. We’re fixing it, okay?”

“It was fixed when Liam and Zayn lived at home.”

Harry sucked in a sharp breath, not having the courage to face her at that admission.

“Can they come home?”

And, fuck, how did he answer that? Because Harry knew, he knew that he knew, Zayn was never coming home.

“No,” he finally answered, “They can’t.”

 

***

 

Louis was currently sitting cross-legged on his mother’s bed, a mug of tea in his hand and a plate of tea cakes between him and Johannah. The twins were in bed and Fizzy was singing in the shower. Needless to say, Fizzy had absolutely flipped upon seeing Louis at home. He wasn’t sure whether she was trying to hug him or strangle him; a combination of both was probably most accurate. And don’t think Louis didn’t hear her calling Lottie while hidden in the loo. He was a big brother, he knew things.

Across from him, Jay was watching him over the rim of her own mug. Seeing she had Louis’ attention, she lowered her tea. “I think I’d like the whole story now.” And so Louis told her. Told her everything. How Zayn had walked out, how Liam had broken down, how Louis’d tried to put him back together while attempting to stay together himself. How he’d managed to stay on top of everything until he’d had a lull and then everything had hit at once. How from then on it had been constant and Louis had felt like he couldn’t stop, how everyday was just a mission to get to the end, only to repeat that over and over until he couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. And how, just like that, Mark leaving brought it all down. Jay simply sighed, drawing him in and running a hand through his hair. Louis let her, too tired to even cry at this point.

Eventually though, he had to pull away, taking a large sip of his tea. “And so,” he said with a half-shrug, “That’s me.”

What he wasn’t expecting was for his mum to then raise an eyebrow. “Ah ha,” she hummed in disbelief. “And what about Harry then?”

Louis very carefully lowered his mug. “What about him?”

Jay caught him off guard by sending him a stern look. “You promised me the whole story and I know this Harry’s a part of that. Between what Georgia told me and the fact that he answered your phone this morning…I’m not dumb Louis, nor am I blind. So?” She prompted.

Louis sighed, running a hand through his hair. “Fine…Yeah, Harry’s a bloke I like. But that’s it. That’s all it is and that’s all it’ll ever be.”

Jay frowned. “Why?”

“Just because,” Louis replied defensively. He then caught sight of the strikingly bare space in the closet to his right. “What’s the point anyway?”

“Oh Louis.” His mother must have followed his gaze because her voice was as broken as he felt. “Don’t, love. Don’t say it isn’t worth it just because of Mark and I.”

“Was it though?” Louis challenged, though there was more curiousity than actual bite. “Worth it, I mean?”

“He’s your father, isn’t he?” Jay reminded, hand wrapping around Louis’ wrist. “You’re still a Tomlinson, aren’t you? What do you think Louis? Was it worth it?”

Faced with that logic, with all the memories he had of Mark, Louis could only nod, meeting his mum’s eyes once more. “Yeah, guess it was. Me dad’s great.”

“And so…do you think you and Harry…would that be worth it?”

Louis shook his head. “Mum, I have a kid!

Johannah looked nonplussed. “If you recall, so did I. I happen to be looking straight at him.” Louis gaped and Jay laughed, making him pout. “Mark understood that.”

“But Mum…” Louis whined and seriously, he was running out of arguments here. “I…But Eleanor was right!” Jay started to frown but Louis ploughed right over the top of her. “Georgia can’t grow up around bloke after bloke; it’s not good for her! And what if I try with Harry and it doesn’t work? She loves him already! It’ll break her heart if he goes! She already saw Liam and Zayn fall apart and I don’t want her to have to see that with Harry and me. I want what’s best for her!”

“And what’s best for her? A happy dad, possibly two, or a miserable one?” Jay asked, voice harsh, unrelenting.

Louis halted. He…he had never thought of it like that. “I…”

“Because it sounds like that’s what you want,” Jay said levelly. “To be alone and miserable and struggling all so you don’t break her. What’s that going to leave her with Louis? Memories of a dad who was always stressed to the point of tears?”

“I only want her to be happy,” Louis implored.

Jay rolled her eyes. “She is. Boo Bear, honestly, have you looked at your daughter recently? She’s like sunshine. She is happy. She loves you so much and she knows you feel the same.”

Louis wrung his hands together. “Do you really think so?”

Jay’s hands slipped into his, interlacing their fingers. “I do.” She then gave his hands a squeeze. “And now let me debunk all your arguments because one, Eleanor does not rule your life nor does she see Georgia enough to get as much say as you give her. Two, Georgia can’t grow up around, what was it?, bloke after bloke? Okay, yes, I agree there-”

“See!”

“-but I think it’s also safe to ask, if the last seven years – hear me Louis, years – how many men have you brought into the flat?”

Louis blinked because…um, yeah. None. The answer was none. He could probably count the number of strangers he’d gotten hand-jobs or blow-jobs from on two hands too.

“From your face, I’d say none,” Jay said evenly. “I think one in seven years sounds fair, don’t you? And everything else you ranted about basically boils down to you assuming Harry’s going to leave you before you’ve even started to date him. Louis, love, please. Give the poor man a chance.” Louis flushed and Jay’s eyebrows shut up. “Oh, tried more than once has he? Tried to prove what he wanted?”

“He’s so nice Mum” Louis whispered, clutching his phone tightly because Harry was in there, there in his camera roll. Alongside his friends, alongside his daughter. There in his photos where everything he treasured in his heart was plain to see. “But I…I can’t break Georgia’s heart.”

“I’m afraid it’s too late.”

Louis’ head snapped up in alarm. “You what?

Apologetic eyes met his. “You said it yourself Louis, Georgia already loves him. Whether you push him away now or it doesn’t work out later, it’s going to hurt her. It’s going to hurt you. The only question is, will you ruin this before you even let it start?”

And when his mother laid it out like that, it all made sense and – fuck! – Louis was an idiot. Such an idiot, a fool, a madman, any and every variation there upon. Setting his jaw, Louis gave a firm nod. He then unlocked his phone, scooting on his bum to his mother’s side.

Now!” he said grandly, opening up his camera roll. “Do you want to see photos of Harry because I swear to God Mum, he is ridiculous! Seriously, the clothes he wears. A hipster, like, honest to God…something I would expect of Lottie…No, don’t laugh Mum, seriously…no, just look!

 

***

 

If you asked Harry exactly how he ended up driving Louis Tomlinson’s car to Doncaster on Boxing Day-

 

“Zayn, I already told Lou’ I could do it.”

A flick of hair off the face. “I know you can do it Liam, but it’s been so long since you’ve seen your family and Harry saw his only a couple of weeks ago. Isn’t that right Harry? You wouldn’t mind skipping out a bit early?”

 

-he wasn’t sure he’d be able to tell you. He would probably also point out the fact that he had to go to Doncaster via Manchester because yes, he was also picking up Georgia from Eleanor’s.

 

“But Eleanor doesn’t like me!”

“Fuck her!”

“Zayn!”

“No Li’, seriously! Her taking little G on Louis’ birthday is bullshit enough. She’s not gonna stop Harry from picking her up. How could she?”

“…well, it’s not like Georgia wouldn’t go with Harry…”

“Exactly!”

“Don’t I get to-”

No. And ‘sides, you’re the one that likes him. Show Louis you like him. Show El’ you’re gonna stick around.”

A snort.

Sharp, narrowed eyes. “Something you’d like to say Liam?”

Hands flung in the air. “Alright, I’ll pick Georgia up! You two sort this shit out.”

“Glad-” “Later.”

“What was that Zayn?”

“Later.”

Narrowed eyes. “It’s always later with you. There’s only so long I can wait.”

“I-”

“No, sort your shit out first. Then come talk to me.”

 

Rubbing his temples tiredly, Harry made the turn-off to Eleanor’s street, address given to him courtesy of Liam. Liam hadn’t exactly told Eleanor who would be picking up Georgia nor had he, Harry highly suspected, told Louis either. Zayn had had a hand in that, Harry was sure. He seemed the one with the sly side, a little sharper and edgier than Liam. And weren’t those two at each other’s throats more often than not now? The only time Harry hadn’t seen them shooting barely concealed daggers at each other was when Liam had remarked that Louis had probably already started buying presents for his family and could Harry run them up too?

 

“Where would they be?”

Both Liam and Zayn rolled their eyes. “There’s only one place Louis ever hides presents,” Zayn deadpanned, the pair marching down to Louis’ bedroom in sync. Harry had then watched in confusion as they split up without realising, Liam pulling a box down from the top of Louis’ wardrobe while Zayn dragged an identical one out from under his bed. Turning to face each other, both Zayn and Liam’s mouths had dropped open while Harry erupted into laughter.

“That fucking liar!” Zayn yelled, slamming the box onto the bed with a laugh.

“I knew it!” Liam exclaimed. “I knew it! No way was I never just not seeing my presents. That wanker!”

 

Peering through the windscreen and finding the number that apparently belonged to Eleanor’s parents, Harry pulled in, grimacing when the back of the car didn’t quite make it in. He then shrugged it off. England, small driveways, small roads, it’s not like everyone wasn’t used to it. And besides, it was Boxing Day. Hardly anyone but him was out anyway. Readjusting his scarf, Harry slipped out into the biting cold and jogged to the front door. He rapped his knuckles against the wood sharply. Running feet came from inside and the door was wrenched open, leaving Harry staring at a boy – Harry guessed he was probably ten? - who looked as bewildered as he felt.

“You’re not Eleanor’s mum and dad.”

Harry attempted a smile. “No, I’m not. I’m here to pick up Georgia?”

The boy gave him one last once over before calling over his shoulder, “Dad!”, even as another boy quite literally crashed into him, all the while babbling, “Who is it? Who is it Braxton?”

“Braxton, Romeo, away from the door please.”

The pair split faster than anything Harry had ever seen, leaving him tentatively smiling at the man who had since filled the door. “Dad” the first boy had called so…Eleanor’s partner, maybe? He assumed, since the kids had said Eleanor’s parents, not grandma or grandpa or some variation thereupon.

“Harry Styles,” he said, extending a hand. “I’m picking up Georgia-Rose. Eleanor was told I’d be here.”

Well, sort of…

“Stuart,” the man said, shaking his hand and if Eleanor thought Harry was going to keep this quiet when he met Louis…Okay, maybe Harry would keep it quiet but he really didn’t think she had a right to talk now when it was obvious that she and Stuart were more involved than she’d led Louis to believe. And why was Stuart staying with her parents? And kids? Stuart had kids of his own?! “Georgia-Rose is around here somewhere.”

“I’m here!” called an all too familiar voice accompanied by little thumps as Georgia clearly dragged some sort of bag down the stairs. Her eyes then widened. “Harry!

“Harry?!”

Harry winced at the displeased yell that came from further within the house and he counted it a success that he already had Georgia in his arms – she’d all but scaled him – when Eleanor arrived in the entry way. Her expression was tight and Stuart was looking between them uncertainly, though the looks Harry was receiving were slowly growing more and more suspicious.

“El’, do you know him? He said you knew he was coming.”

Eleanor nodded curtly. “But I was told Liam was coming.”

“Liam got caught up with family,” Harry said with a shrug and why did he have to deal with this shit? He wasn’t even dating Louis! Yet, his brain kindly added. Yes, thank you for that. “He asked me to do a favour.”

Eleanor let out a laugh. “A favour? What, like you’re actually Liam’s friend.”

“Harry is everyone’s friend.” All eyes turned to Georgia. She squirmed but tightened her grip around Harry’s neck determinedly. “You’re being mean Mummy and I don’t know why. Harry is nice to everyone. He has lots of friends. He’s friends with Daddy-”

Harry didn’t miss Eleanor’s disbelieving snort there.

“-and Liam and Zayn and Niall and Ed and Perrie and…” she trailed off, before clapping her hands. “And Babs! Harry is friends with Babs too.” She gave herself a proud nod at being able to reel off such an extensive list.

Eleanor looked quite caught off guard and Harry decided to make the best of it, jumping in. “Look, whatever you think is happening between Louis and I, I can guarantee that we’re friends first. And I’m sorry if you don’t like that but that’s just how it is.” He bent down to pick up Georgia’s bag. “So, like, Rosie and I are gonna go. You have a problem with that, take it up with Louis. Actually, don’t, because this wasn’t his idea. Go and call Zayn. I have his number, if you need it.”

It gave Harry some sort of satisfaction that Eleanor looked almost a little intimidated by that. Obviously Zayn and Eleanor had a history of their own. Huh, good to know.

Eleanor then deflated, shaking her head and kissing Georgia’s cheek. “Look, I don’t know what you and Louis are and, quite frankly, I don’t care. I just want her looked after.”

Harry shrugged slowly. “Then we want the same thing.”

With that, Harry whisked Georgia away, tucking her into the backseat of the car before popping her bag in the boot. Sliding back into the front seat and turning up the heating, Harry spun around and grinned.

“Ready Rosie?”

“Ready Harry!”

 

***

 

Louis heard it first, the telltale sound of his car’s engine over the din of the telly. A grin threatened to split his face in two and he all but shot to his feet, ignoring Lottie’s indignant squawk as she was uprooted in the process.

“Li’ here?” she guessed.

“Yep!” Louis chirped, skipping to the hallway only to frown at the sound of footsteps following him. He turned and scowled at his sisters. “No, you lot piss off! I haven’t seen my baby girl in a week. Give me some time with her.”

“But we haven’t seen her in forever,” Daisy whined.

“Girls, Louis’ right,” Jay intervened, ushering them all back to the living room much to Louis’ relief.

They all grumbled and sulked their way back out of the hall but Louis didn’t care. He shot his mum a thankful look before jogging the last few steps to the front door. Yanking it open and shutting it just as quickly – lest a very determined sister or two attempt to break out – Louis couldn’t control the way his heart swelled at the sight of Georgia running down the path. Louis had her in his arms before he even knew it, whirling her round and round while kissing every part of her face he could reach. She was laughing breathlessly, bouncing and squirming and trying to hug him and talking to him all at once.

“I missed you, missed you so much!” Louis gushed over the top of her, tightening his hold. “It’s been so long baby! Tell me the lot, yeah? Everything! What mischief did you and Lia-”

“-and Harry drives bette-”

Louis’ mind went blank.

Wait, what?

Harry?!

Gaze snapping up, Louis froze, Georgia’s prattling going entirely unnoticed because, yes – how, when, why? – Harry was there. Harry was standing in the middle of the path that led to Louis’ childhood home on the day after Christmas. He was rubbing his neck sheepishly, hands full with bags that were clearly Georgia’s. And what…what was Louis supposed to do with this information?

Very carefully, he placed a hand over Georgia’s mouth. “Sorry poppet, but can I talk to Harry please? Wait on the step, yeah?”

Georgia nodded silently, sliding to the ground and collecting her things from Harry before doing as asked. Louis then walked the two steps to where Harry was.

“Harry…”

He sounded disbelieving. Scratch that, he was.

“Guess that confirms that Liam never told you,” Harry chuckled nervously.

“Liam?” Louis repeated blankly. Because Liam wouldn’t… “Li’…”

Harry shook his head. “Think it were mostly Zayn’s idea. He just got Liam to agree.”

And that, okay Louis was filing that away, but right now, not important. “Harry…why are you here?”

“Cause Georgia needed to be. S’not like it was far. She were happy to come with me from Eleanor’s.”

Louis sucked in a sharp breath, a spike of panic jolting through his chest. “El’? Shit! She-”

Even as he was wrenching his phone out of his pocket, Harry was curling his hand over Louis’. He looked up at him quizzically. “Louis, we’ve been driving over an hour,” Harry pointed out gently. “If she had a problem, don’t you, like, think she would have called before now?”

Louis hesitated. Fair point.

“And Lou’, I…” Harry ran a hand through his hair and…was that a pair of reindeer antlers on his head? Good lord, it was. Louis sent his eyes skyward. God help him. “Look, Louis, I…I know you’re not an idiot Lou’ and I think you know why I’m here.”

Did he? Louis hoped he did.

“You wanna be mates Louis,” Harry said slowly, tentatively maybe, like he was waiting for Louis to either bolt or interrupt. “But I, I don’t. I wanna be more,” he added before Louis had time to start creating horrible scenarios in his head. “Thing is,” he said, tightening his grip on Louis’ hand, thumb stroking the back ever so tenderly. “I like you Lou’, really, I do. And I can’t keep pretending that I don’t. So I…” When Louis chanced a glance up, Harry’s cheeks were burning but his eyes so sincere. “Can we try Louis? Can I, like, date you?”

Louis swallowed thickly. His gaze travelled the length of Harry’s body, from his suede boots, to his atrocious Christmas sweater, to the hair that was wild in the winter air but topped with those stupid antlers. Those soulful, green eyes, the dimples that burst in his cheeks but were hidden at the moment. With a dry mouth, Louis turned away, ignoring the shattered expression he caught in his peripheral vision, and looking back towards where Georgia was sitting patiently.

“Georgia-Rose Tomlinson!” he called loudly, “Would it be alright with you if I kissed Harry?”

There was a sharp intake from behind him that made Louis grin devilishly.

Georgia’s nose screwed up. “If you have to,” she grumbled.

Louis laughed sharp and clear as he turned back to Harry, emboldened by his daughter’s cheek. He raised an eyebrow. “Well Curly, do we have to?”

“No,” Harry breathed, looking slightly lost, as if wondering if this was even real. “But…I’d like to.”

“Funny coincidence that,” Louis quipped, rocking forward on his toes. “Because so would I.”

And just like that, Louis did what he’d been tempted to do ever since he walked into that damned bakery on its very opening day: he kissed Harry Styles.

 

***

 

Chapter Text

Harry was pretty confident he’d gone into shock the second he’d felt Louis’ lips press against his. Because this…this was not what he expected. What he wanted, yes. What he expected, no. To be kissing Louis Tomlinson on Boxing Day was a fantasy, barely even a concept, and now, suddenly, it was a reality. But even as those thoughts were whirling through his head, Harry’s hands were coming to settle on Louis’ waist, pulling him closer. Louis came willingly, hands fisting in his sweater, dragging Harry down to his level. Harry was more than okay with that, lips moving against Louis’, trying to commit the feel of his lips to memory, pressing harder because he wanted more. Louis huffed against the added pressure but Harry could feel the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. That smile vanished the instant Harry’s tongue ran across the seam though, a desperate whine taking its place and – holy fuck – that sound.

Harry was about to use everything in his power to wring that sound out of Louis again when a loud catcall came from somewhere above his head. And just like that, Louis’ lips vanished, Louis groaning as he threw his head back in frustration.

“Thought I told you lot to piss off?” he demanded, turning and glaring and yep, Harry saw four girls all but hanging out of the first storey window.

“You also told us it was Liam,” one of them, the middle one Harry would say, countered.

“And that,” said the oldest – Lottie, right? – pointing straight at him, “Is certainly not Liam.”

Louis gave an exasperated sigh before turning back to Harry with a grimace. “Well, that’s the fam’. Guess you’d better meet them now before they all barge out here.” He arched an eyebrow. “Think you can handle it Curly?”

“I have a sister too,” Harry pointed out.

Louis let out a bark of laughter. “Oh Harry. You have one. And she’s older. This will be nothing like that.” He gave Harry a long, sweeping look, head to toe, before heading towards the house, collecting Georgia from the step. “Shout if you lose a limb. Otherwise, you’re on your own.”

There was an element of seriousness in that remark that made Harry pause. Oh God, what was he getting into?

 

***

 

All things considered, Harry had thought his day at the Tomlinsons had gone rather well. Louis hadn’t been lying though; Gemma was nothing compared to four inquisitive teenage girls. Teenage girls who, horrifyingly enough, all seemed to share Louis’ stubborn personality and lack of tact. If they wanted to ask a question, they would. Everything from where he bought his boots from to “how had he met Louis again?” to “yeah, but, is he a good kisser or not because I reckon he’d be awful!”. Louis and Jay, as Harry had been firmly told to call her, had intervened but even then Harry was sure they weren’t even trying sometimes – what with Louis looking like he was enjoying watching Harry squirm a little too much and Jay clearly interested in some of the girls’ questions but would never dare ask herself.

Harry’s real saving grace was Georgia. The little girl was usually the first to get bored of their topics and would try to steer them back towards herself. Louis’ sisters always accommodated and Harry would get a couple of minutes rest…and then one would spring him again, and the others would follow. Lottie was the real trouble maker, Harry could already see that, but he suspected Daisy wasn’t far behind. He’d nominated Phoebe as his favourite and said as much, making her blush while Fizzy looked offended. And of course all the while Louis simply laughed in the background. And maybe that laughter made it all worth it, worth every blush and every stammer, because Harry had never seen Louis so carefree. Never seen him smile so much, or laugh until he nearly toppled out of his chair, or playfully poke and prod whoever was closest. This was Louis, the real one.

But as night time came they’d finally had to end the festivities. Louis had long since put Georgia to bed after she’d passed out in his lap hours earlier. The twins were next, the other girls only going once Louis called it a night, reminiscing that he’d have to leave tomorrow. Harry had been given Louis’ room and while he’d protested because Louis would have to share with his mum and Georgia, the other man had waved him off, assuring him he didn’t mind sharing, it wasn’t like he wasn’t used to it. Harry had begrudgingly given in, crawling into sheets that smelt like Louis in a room surrounded by snapshots of Louis’ childhood – a poster, a trophy, an old pair of trainers. Unfortunately for Harry, internal baker’s clock had woken him once again at a ridiculous hour and he’d only waited – barely – until he’d heard the sounds of someone moving downstairs before he was throwing off the covers and padding down himself. Rounding the door that led to the kitchen, Harry found himself face-to-face with Jay.

“Harry,” she said, clearly surprised. “I would have thought Georgia.” She then snapped her fingers. “No, hang on, baker. Got it.”

Harry spread his hands sheepishly. “That’s me. Anything you want me to do?”

Jay tsk-ed at him. “You’re my guest love. Bit rude of me to expect you to make us breakfast.”

“Well, maybe,” Harry said, watching her pull things from the pantry. “But, you know, baker. It’s not like I don’t enjoy doing it.”

“I’m sure you do,” Jay said with a laugh, dipping bread into a thick egg mixture. “But it’s also not everyday I get to cook for all my children. God knows I don’t see Louis often enough and Lottie’s almost as bad.” A thumping noise then came from the stairs. “And that’s your cue. If you want to be useful, go and entertain Georgia if you could please Harry.”

“Good morning Grandma!” Georgia sang right as Jay finished talking. She gave the woman a hug before bounding to Harry’s side, tugging on his hand. “Hello Harry. Did you sleep well? I slept well,” she crowed before Harry could even open his mouth. “Daddy must have too because he’s still asleep. Do you want me to wake him? I can!”

Whoa, whoa!” Harry called, grabbing the girl as she went to bolt for the stairs and whisking her into his arms. “Let’s let Louis sleep, yeah? How about we watch cartoons?”

Yeah!” Georgia cheered, smacking a kiss to his cheek before running to the living room. Harry was about to follow when he heard Jay call his name. Turning around, Harry frowned at the expression she now wore, something far more serious than he’d seen all weekend.

“Harry,” Jay eventually said, breaking her scrutiny long enough to flip on the stove. “I have three things I need to say to you, do you understand?”

Harry gulped at her tone, nodding furtively even as he felt his palms begin to sweat.

“One,” she said, “You treat my son as best you can, do you hear? You break his heart and there’ll be more than one angry Tomlinson female on your doorstep.” She waited for Harry to nod before continuing, “Two, Louis has a daughter.”

Harry went to interrupt but Jay held up a hand.

“I know that you know that. But you need to really think about what that entails. Don’t bother with Louis if you don’t think you’re ready for late nights, tantrums, and a little girl that is never going to go away. She and Louis go hand-in-hand and you’ll have to win them both over.”

That one Harry could easily nod along to because that was something he’d thought about long ago. Louis was so involved in Georgia that you couldn’t not think of them as a combined unit. And as if Georgia hadn’t already wormed her way into his heart. If anything, Harry was the one who felt lucky, lucky to get her.

“What’s the third thing?” he asked.

To his surprise, Jay set down her utensils, looking at Harry with sad eyes. “Third thing is this Harry: I love my son to death. God knows he’s so lovely and kind, and generous…but I also know he can be selfish when he wants to be. He can hurt you so easily, even if he doesn’t entirely mean to. He really is sweet Harry,” she added, as though afraid he would leave at such a revelation.

Harry quickly shook his head. “No, I know that. I know how kind he is. And I know he sometimes hides it behind a loud mouth. That’s just part of who he is.”

“It is,” Jay agreed before sighing heavily. “But, still…I asked you to treat Louis as best you could. But also, I want Louis to treat you as best as he can. And Harry, if he doesn’t…” Jay trailed off, setting her shoulders in the way Louis did when he was trying to pull everything back in, to stay in control. “Just…make sure he treats you right Harry. You deserve that. Don’t settle for less.”

Seeing her shoulders shake, Harry stepped forward, pulling her into a side hug. “It’s okay,” he murmured.

Jay gave a weak laugh, patting his arms where they were looped around her. “You’re exactly as Louis described you.”

“Is that good?” Harry asked cheekily.

He was swatted over the head for that and promptly shooed away. “That’s for me to know. Now, didn’t I ask you to entertain Georgia? Leave me to brood in peace.”

Harry chuckled but did as asked. Georgia beamed when he sat down beside her. Once he’d done her hair and popped in Frozen, Georgia curled into his side, tiny fists scrunching up in his jumper. By now even Harry had seen the movie enough times to sing along to all the songs, Georgia giggling when he sang Anna’s parts in a terrible falsetto. The movie had to nearly be over when he heard murmured voices from the doorway.

“…ink he’s perfect.”

“He is though, isn’t he?”

“And why do you make that sound like a problem?”

Harry had to agree with Jay’s question, eyes fixed to the screen as he feigned obliviousness, desperately aching for Louis’ reply.

“’s just…’m scared.”

“Oh Lou’.”

“I don’t wanna be scared Mum.”

“We’re all scared. That’s love, and that’s life Boo.”

From behind him, Louis sighed. “Yeah, s’pose so.”

“Out of everyone you could have brought home Louis, you picked the right one.”

Harry waited, ears straining, but Louis never replied to that. Harry soon found out why…because the next second what was possibly every piece of wrapping paper from Christmas was dumped on his head.

“Good day Harold!”

Harry groaned. What had he gotten himself into?

 

***

 

“What are you two up to?”

No sooner had Louis asked the question than had Harry and Georgia attempted to look innocent. Eyes narrowing in suspicion, Louis glared over at Harry…Harry who was currently finding his phone very interesting, fingers tap-tapping away.

“Curly, why was my daughter winking at you?”

“Practise!” Harry blurted the same moment he finished his text.

Louis raised an eyebrow. “Practise? What the bloody hell for?”

“Well, like, see, when we were driving to yours from Eleanor’s Rosie, like, tried it yeah? And she couldn’t do it,” Harry rambled, hands rolling together awkwardly, “So I was trying to teach her? She’s a bit better now, isn’t that right Rosie?”

Georgia hesitated before giving a sheepish nod. She then attempted a wink. Louis thought it fair to say that attempted really was the proper word there because it more looked like she was scrunching up her entire face. He rolled his eyes at Harry’s blatantly impressed look.

“Don’t know what you’re smiling about,” he muttered, “That’s a piss poor effort in my opinion. You’re a horrible teacher.”

“Think we just need more lessons!” Harry chirped brightly, causing Georgia to giggle.

Abandoning them to their particular brand of weirdness, Louis focused more on making sure he didn’t miss his turn-off. They’d already been caught in enough traffic to make Louis wonder if he wasn’t somehow caught in an alternate version of hell; to miss his exit now would be the last blow. Spending over five hours in a vehicle was never fun, let alone with a restless seven-year-old. Still, at least she wasn’t three anymore – that drive had actually been hell, no arguments – and Harry was proving useful at providing entertainment.

Although, that being said, Louis wasn’t quite sure if explaining about recycling and solar power and world change through love could be classified as entertainment. Not to mention that hour long rant against SeaWorld. No matter how many times Louis had pointed out that they didn’t actually live in America, it hadn’t deterred Harry at all.

He had spirit, Louis wasn’t denying that.

He then breathed a sigh of relief, seeing the flat approaching. Nabbing his usual parking space, Louis ordered everyone out while he popped up the boot and starting collecting their belongings. He could hear Georgia and Harry mumbling together and he was contemplating breaking them up when Harry joined him, hoisting Georgia’s suitcase up. While Georgia collected her assortment of presents, Louis unlocked the flat, dumping everything in the living room. He was already making for the kettle when,

“Daddy, can we go to Harry’s please?”

Louis careened to a halt, whirling around to find Harry’s eyes as wide as his undoubtedly were. “Sorry love, but what?”

Harry’s,” Georgia repeated, tugging on said man’s hand by way of clarification. “Harry always comes to our house but we never go to Harry’s house.”

Louis frowned. “Yeah, but-”

“I don’t mind.”

Blue eyes met green. “Pardon?”

“I don’t mind,” Harry said slowly. “I mean, Niall’s not supposed to be back til tonight so…’s the cleanest the flat’s ever gonna be.”

Big, pleading eyes turned towards him and Louis felt his heart fall because no, no, no! He just wanted to whip up dinner and crash but…Georgia was all but dancing on her toes and Harry was just as antsy, rocking back and forth, hands pressed together tightly. Louis cast a mournful look towards his room before nodding.

“Alright,” he agreed, “Let’s just unpack first, alright?”

He was one step towards his room when, “No!”

Shocked at the tone, Louis’ eyes were already narrowed when he turned back to Georgia. “Excuse me?” Never had he heard her speak to him like that, so firmly and so loudly.

To her credit, the little girl wilted, eyes glistening even as she tugged on the collar of her jacket nervously. Above her Harry was looking marginally guilty, like this was somehow his fault.

“We won’t be going anywhere with that attitude,” Louis warned, tone firm.

Georgia whimpered out a protest. “No, Daddy, please! Can we please just go now, I really want to go and I, I-”

“Hey, hey, hey!” Louis cried, bolting forward and pulling her into his arms when she honest to God started to get hysterical. “What’s this then? Baby, what’s going on?”

She only shook her head against his shoulder. “Daddy…please?

Dumbfounded, Louis could only nod. He wiped away his daughter’s tears and went to press the matter because what even was going on? but Georgia brushed him away, instead slipping her hand into his. Harry still looked dreadfully guilty but Louis merely gave him a wan smile, trying to assure him it was fine. He beckoned him to follow as they left the flat. Heading towards the nearest tube station, Louis’ breath caught when he happened to glance down and see that Georgia had since taken hold of Harry’s hand as well as his own. Walking down the frosty streets, Georgia skipping happily between them, they must have looked like some sort of family unit. One part of him was appropriately chuffed. The other part…the other part of him wanted to dig in his heels before running the other way.

That wasn’t an option for him though and maybe that was a good thing. After all, if Louis was “with” Harry, he’d have to spend some time with him, wouldn’t he? And if Georgia forced him to do that, well, yeah. That would have to be that. Plus, she made for an excellent buffer. Even as they were sitting together on the tube, Georgia had sat herself on Harry’s lap while peering over at Louis’ phone as he went through all their photos of Christmas. Every time she found one she liked, she had to point it out to Harry and maybe they exchanged fond looks over her head that made Louis’ cheeks heat up. And maybe Harry pressed a kiss to his temple and maybe that did more to his insides than it probably should have.

It may have also caused the teenage girls opposite them to take a photo. Harry might have been oblivious to the shutter sound but Louis wasn’t – especially when both girls had panicked upon hearing it, hastily pretending it hadn’t happened. But they were still gushing over the photo, Louis realised soon enough, chuckling quietly at their gall. Catching the quickest glance of instagram’s background, Louis grinned widely before leaning forward and tapping the top of the phone to get their attention. Both girls’ eyes widened in horror and glancing down, yep, there was the photo of him, Harry, and Georgia. And, holy fuck, it was gorgeous. Fuck, he wanted it.

“Oh my god, sorry, sorry! We’re so sorry, we ju-”

Louis interrupted their ramblings with, “Just so you know, it’s hashtag ‘Tomlinson’.” He then leant forward before throwing a wink at Harry. “And also, hashtag ‘my arse is better’.”

There was a loud guffaw from behind him and the girl holding the phone hid her giggles behind her hand. The other one pointed at Harry and said, “yeah, but he has dimples.”

Looking behind him and ignoring Georgia’s bewildered look in favour of Harry’s shy blush, Louis slowly drawled, “Yeah, s’pose he does.” He took great satisfaction in the way Harry’s blush only grew deeper.

“So, like, is she yours?” The same girl asked, pointing between them and Georgia.

Louis froze but the other girl quickly slapped her friend’s arm, appalled. “Chloe! You can’t just ask something like that. Come on!” she said, hauling her friend up and dragging her towards the carriage door quickly. “The door’s closing!”

That sparked some reaction and the two all but leapt out of the train even as the doors were closing. Louis watched them laugh breathlessly as they stood together on the platform. He felt a presence move closer to his ear, holding still and doing his best not to jump when Harry whispered, “You’re right though. You do have a great arse.” Louis gave a disbelieving cackle, swatting Harry playfully before settling back down with Georgia.

They soon arrived at Harry’s stop, climbing the steps and shivering at the cold air that hit them the second they left the station. Harry led them on to an apartment complex that Louis probably ranked one up from “dubious” but it wasn’t really his place to judge. Scaling the stairs, Harry pulled up outside his flat, wringing his hands together nervously.

“So, um, this is me…?” he offered weakly, pushing the door open.

Louis raised an eyebrow. “Guests first?”

Harry shrugged. “I guess…”

Seeing that Harry really did have no intention of going first, Louis finally rolled his eyes and stepped in, calling over his shoulder. “Well, if I get lost I-”

“SURPRISE!”

“Fucking hell!”

“Daddy!”

There was so much going on that Louis didn’t know what to focus on first: the fact that he’d just sworn in front of his daughter or the fact that Niall, Liam, and Zayn had just screamed at him from a room dotted with balloons. Ever so slowly, Louis turned to Harry, who was looking incredibly proud and incredibly nervous all at the same time.

“What is this Styles?” he demanded.

A snort came from behind him and Louis spun around to see Zayn rolling his eyes. “It’s a birthday party Tommo. What’s it look like?”

Louis looked between them all in disbelief. “But…what? Why?

Liam stepped forward, clapping him on the shoulder. “Because did you really think we wouldn’t after the shit year you’ve had? Plus,” he added with a laugh, “Harry and Niall were furious when they found out.”

That’s right!” Niall exclaimed indignantly from his position atop the coffee table. “How dare you not tell us! We had to find out from Georgia!”

“Georgia?” Louis repeated blankly, turning once again – and okay, that was making him dizzy – to find his little girl now perched on Harry’s hip.

“She helped me plan everything,” Harry revealed softly. “S’all we talked about on our way to get you. She was very good at keeping secrets…and acting.” He finished with a wink and…oh.

Plucking Georgia from Harry’s arms, Louis tilted her chin so their eyes were meeting. “Georgia-Rose, is this why you wanted to go to Harry’s so bad?” A nod. “Then I’m sorry, I’m so sorry I got angry. I didn’t know you had this surprise planned.”

“Do you like the surprise?” she asked timidly.

“Well…” he started dramatically before bumping their noses together. “Of course! I love everything my little girl does. And thank you, this is so, so lovely!”

Georgia beamed, grinning excitedly back at Harry. Harry then crooked a finger. “Hey angel, wanna show Daddy the thing we talked about way back when I got you from school?”

Louis was sure he and Georgia were wearing matching expressions until Georgia gasped, scrambling out of his arms and following Harry into the kitchen eagerly. Louis went to follow but Zayn tugged him back with a smug look. Louis pouted at him but Zayn simply poked his cheek with a laugh. There was some fussing about and then the pair returned, Louis’ jaw dropping when he saw the cake spread out on the board Harry was holding. Harry had made him a Manchester United cake. A fucking United cake, with the logo and little cupcakes topped with jerseys and soccer balls and…

Harry…” he croaked.

“Oh Louis,” Liam sighed, drawing him into a side hug. “Babe, he wanted to do this. We all did.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “You deserve this, love.”

Louis’ bottom lip trembled and no, he was not going to cry. Not over a fucking cake! He desperately looked to Niall and, thank God above, Niall actually seemed to get it, pulling the other lads into a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday!” Georgia tugged him towards the burning candles while they sang, singing along in her typical child off-key voice. Louis blew out his candles while everyone cheered and proceeded to cut the cake, making sure to kiss the closest girl.

“That’s not fair!” Niall whined even as Harry was handing him a piece. “Tommo’s gay so he should have to kiss the nearest boy!”

“Here, here!” Liam heartily agreed before seeming to become aware that he was the closest boy.

“Aww, Li’,” Louis fake-gushed, patting his cheek condescendingly. “If you wanted to kiss me you should have just said.”

“Didn’t I just?” Liam teased.

Louis huffed, smacking Liam’s cheek with the most slobbery kiss he could manage. “Love you Liam Payne!” he sang.

Liam made a disgusted noise but there was no denying the fondness in his tone when he similarly replied, “Love you too.”

Leaving Liam to grab his own slice, Louis grinned when he felt Harry come up beside him. That smile swapped to a frown when he caught sight of Harry’s pinched expression. “What?”

“Don’t think Zayn appreciated that too much,” Harry murmured.

Flicking a glance over his shoulder, sure enough, Zayn was grumpily stabbing at his cake, scowling at where Liam was bracketing Georgia with Niall. “Yeah, well, fuck him,” Louis spat. He then hesitated before pressing a kiss to Harry’s jaw. Harry startled before grinning down at him happily. And god, why did he have such a goofy expression?

“What was that for?”

“Don’t know,” Louis admitted, shifting closer so their shoulders were most definitely touching. “Just…everything. This,” he said, gesturing loosely at the room. “Picking up Georgie, helping me that day in the shop, being nice to me when I was a twat…for putting up with all my shit.”

Hey,” Harry said firmly, shifting so they were more facing each other. “Don’t make it sound like being with you is a burden. I know what I want Louis and I know what I can handle. And what I want, is you. All of you,” he emphasised when Louis went to argue.

Louis made a displeased sound but backed down nonetheless. He then moved to where Zayn was sitting, though not before adding slyly, “Not sure you could handle all of me. How good are you at deep-throating?”

From the spluttering sounds coming from behind him as Harry choked on his beer, Louis thought he’d timed that perfectly. Excellent.

 

***

 

Wrapping the last piece of cake and placing it in the fridge, Harry surveyed his living room with a smile. Given that there had been a child over, their party hadn’t gotten too out of control – nothing compared to the aftermath of some of Niall’s parties, bloody hell – and everything had been easy to tidy up. Footsteps made him look up, Harry’s smile only growing when he saw Liam. Liam returned it easily.

“Thanks for doing all this Harry.”

Harry waved him off, moving to the drying rack and starting to put things away. “It was no problem. I’m sure you would have done something too.”

“Yeah,” Liam agreed, leaning over the counter. “But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t always get lost in the hype of Christmas. And besides, staying in isn’t Louis’ usual party style.” At Harry’s questioning look, Liam laughed. “If there’s one night a year Louis consents to a babysitter, it’s his birthday. Still,” he said, shaking his head. “I think this was great for him. He really enjoyed it Harry, really.”

Harry stopped what he was doing at the sincerity in Liam’s voice. He waited a moment, carefully listening for the sounds of breathing from his room, where both Georgia and Louis were passed out, Niall’s snores permeating out from his own room and Zayn long since gone. “Liam, can I say something, about Louis?”

Liam immediately straightened, arms crossing tightly and eyebrows knitting together. “What?”

“Not bad,” Harry assured. “Just, with everything that happened, and you said you hadn’t noticed…” Liam flushed, still looking angry at himself for that. “Look, Niall and I didn’t know Louis before this whole you and Zayn thing so maybe we see what you don’t but…he misses having Zayn around.”

“I-”

“Not like that,” Harry interrupted, curls bouncing as he shook his head. “I mean, Louis misses having someone he can do things with. He misses being able to just pop out and leave Georgia at home.”

“That’s why I moved back in,” Liam reminded him. “Which…he still doesn’t know about.”

Harry groaned. “I know. Georgia had to keep him out of his room when he got home just so he wouldn’t see your stuff.”

Liam winced. “She got in trouble for that, didn’t she?”

Harry made a non-committal grunt. “More like she panicked and kind of just yelled at him. Louis’ forgiven her now. But anyway,” he said, trying to get back to the topic at hand. “I know you’re moving in and that’s gonna help with a lot of things but…Louis and Zayn were close yeah?” Harry thought it a safe assumption, especially since Louis had once told him he and Liam had barely been able to exchange sentences before Zayn had moved in.

“Yeah,” Liam agreed. “They like a lot of the same stuff.”

“And stuff you don’t?” Harry pressed, making Liam nod cautiously. “So, like, who does Louis do that stuff with now? Who listens to his tattoo ideas? Who goes skating with him?”

Liam gaped, before swearing. “Lou’ gave all that up, didn’t he? He had to. Jesus, Harry, I never even thought of it like that. God, I can’t even remember the last time he got a tattoo.”

“We took Georgia out skate-boarding once,” Harry told him, resuming his stacking of the dishes once more. “Louis said he didn’t miss it. He does Li’, he really does.”

“I can’t skate,” Liam objected.

Harry shot him a look. “Well maybe you could try. Or maybe just go along with him. I’d be happy to watch Georgia,” he added kindly. “I think Louis misses just having you as his friend, you know? Like, just hanging out as mates and not…”

“Miserable at the flat?” Liam finished. He mulled over Harry’s words before nodding. “So…if I took Louis straight from here tomorrow morning and left you my key, would you be able to mind Georgia?”

Harry grinned. “I’m free all day. I can have her as long as you need me to.”

Liam nodded, leaning forward to wrap his hand around Harry’s wrist. “Thanks Harry. You’re a life saver, I swear.” He then ran a hand down his face. “I think it’s time Louis and I actually talked.”

“Yeah, it is.”

 

***

 

Chapter Text

“But you don’t skate!” Louis protested for what had to be the hundredth time.

To his credit, Liam merely rolled his eyes, hoisting the board tucked under his arm a little higher. “So you’ve told me. But we’re still going.”

“But I don’t want to,” Louis whined even as he followed Liam down the street. “I’m more interested in why the fuck I walked into my bedroom to find my closet full of your clothes and why your no-brand shampoo is in my shower!” Because yes, Louis thought that was something that demanded an answer. “And, what about Georgia?”

“Harry has her,” Liam ground out. When Louis went to protest, Liam slapped a hand over his mouth, frowning at him sternly. “Now, enough Louis, seriously. Come on. We’re going to go have some fun.”

Louis ripped Liam’s hand away, folding his arms tightly. “Why?”

“Oh my god!” Liam cried, throwing a hand in the air. “Why do you have to be so bloody stubborn? Just,” he curled a hand around Louis’ arm. “Come on.

Louis yelped as he was hauled down the street against his will. Finding his feet, he muttered darkly before shaking Liam off and readjusting the beanie that had been rammed onto his head not ten minutes earlier. Liam had been weirdly cryptic all morning and Louis really, really just wanted to know why. Though, in his heart, he already knew. The second he’d seen Liam’s belongings in the flat, he’d known. Liam had finally figured it out, of course he had. And now it was Louis’ turn to bear the consequences.

The skateboard though…Either Liam had come up with a surprisingly inventive way to kill him or there was some ulterior motive here.

Curiosity alone was what got him to follow his best friend all the way to Regent’s Park. Yes, it was no undercroft but there paths enough for him to skate on. If Liam would ever give him his board, that was. Louis then openly gaped when Liam set the board on the ground and gave him a sheepish shrug.

“Teach me?”

Louis legitimately stuttered out his next words. “W-what? You…you want me to teach you? Like, actually? For real?”

“Well…yeah,” Liam admitted, blushing as he scratched at his neck. “I’m gonna be bloody rubbish but I thought…would be a laugh, right?”

Screwing up his nose in suspicion, Louis eventually nodded. He then set about teaching Liam how to stand on the board, how to work out which foot to lead with, when to change his foot positioning, how to steer properly. Maybe it was stupid, but Louis thought perhaps it was the most fun he’d had with Liam in months. Liam truly was atrocious. He couldn’t turn the board for shit and he basically tripped over the thing every time he tried to stop. Louis had had to wipe tears of laughter off his face more than once before Liam had finally kicked the board in his direction sourly and told him to piss off. Louis had grinned fiendishly before doing exactly that, Liam shouting in surprise and having to sprint to catch him. Louis had screamed the second he’d felt Liam’s fingers curl in the back of his coat but that hadn’t stopped him trying to escape. Quite the opposite really. He’d ended up tumbling off his skateboard and flopping onto the frosty grass next to the path but he hadn’t cared, chest heaving as he’d laughed and laughed.

A shutter sound had him groaning and lifting his head enough to look at Liam, who was standing over him with a wide smile. “Piss off Li’!”

“Not a chance,” Liam chuckled, telling him to hold still while he moved to a better angle. Louis huffed but did as asked, flipping Liam off just as he took the photo. Liam kicked him lightly before offering him a hand up. “You’re all wet,” Liam tsk-ed, brushing down the back of his coat.

Mum, stop,” Louis grumped.

Liam swatted him over the back of the head. “Drop the attitude Tommo. You love the attention.”

Louis preened. “It is one of my kinks. Being fawned over.”

Liam fake gagged. “More than I needed to know. And I’m not fawning over you.”

“Sure you’re not,” Louis teased, pecking his cheek before grabbing his board and slumping down onto a nearby bench. A heavenly smell bombarding his nostrils made Louis’ eyes snap open, lunging for the bag of roasted chestnuts Liam was now holding out. “Fucking hell mate, yes! Mmm, best part of winter,” he moaned around his mouthful.

“You’re gross.”

Louis only widened his smile. Liam rolled his eyes fondly before reaching into his own bag, selecting a nut and popping it into his mouth. Seconds later his eyes sunk shut. “They are good, aren’t they?”

Licking the sugar and spices off his fingers, Louis nodded. “So good.”

Liam watched him for a long moment before sighing, eyes dropping to his hands. “Lou’…can we talk?”

And just like that, every good feeling drained from Louis’ body. Head bowing, he nodded once. “Course.”

“Why do you sound like your first boyfriend’s about to break up with you?”

Louis’ head snapped up, blinking in surprise at the concern on Liam’s face. “I…I don’t know…Are you…”

Liam raised an eyebrow. “Am I what?”

“Aren’t you mad?” Louis whispered.

“Mad?” Liam repeated, forehead creasing. “No Boo, not mad. Honestly? I don’t know what I am. That’s why I’d like to talk.”

Louis exhaled heavily, toeing his board back and forward. “Okay, so…What did you want to talk about?”

Liam ducked down to meet Louis where he was hiding behind his hair. “Can I say everything? Can we start there?”

“…okay.”

“Oh Louis…” Liam then shook his head. “Okay, simple start, why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you tell me about everything that was happening with the flat? Why did you let me think everything was fine?”

“Because you needed to get out,” Louis said simply, honestly. At Liam’s bewildered look, he ran a hand through his hair. “Look, Zayn left and you…you weren’t okay with that. None of us were. But you took it the worst, obviously. And when you said you had to get away, I understood. I…” his gaze dropped to his hands. “I couldn’t be the reason you stayed miserable.”

“So you made me the reason you were miserable.”

Liam’s blunt tone made Louis flinch. “It wasn’t like that!”

Liam snorted. “Really? Do you know how much it hurt, Louis, to find out that Zayn knew? That Zayn knew you were in trouble but I didn’t? And, god, I was round nearly every day mate and you never thought to mention it!”

“But you were so happy!” Louis argued, voice breaking and making Liam’s eyes widen. “You loved your flat, you loved being away from it all…How could I take that all away from you?” He shook his head. “I couldn’t.” His voice was barely a gasp by the end but he didn’t care.

Strong arms wrapped around him, engulfing his chest with warmth. Louis sobbed just once, Liam swearing and tightening his hold. “Boo, love, why do you do this? You deserve to be happy too.”

“I’m trying!” Louis insisted, hands fisting in Liam’s shirt. “I’m doing my be-”

He was cut off by Liam pressing a stern finger to his lips. “No Louis,” he growled, Louis’ eyes widening in shock. “You shouldn’t have to try and act happy. You should just be happy. Which is why,” he added, eyes melting into that usual warm kindness, “I’m lending you a hand for awhile. Me and Zayn, pitching in, just for a bit.”

“You and Zayn…?” Louis repeated blankly.

Liam hummed in agreement, popping his last chestnut in his mouth and scrunching up the bag. “We both moved out. It’s only fair we help fix it. But, only til we find a solution, yeah? One month, got it?”

Louis poked his best friend in the ribs, making him grunt. “Um, excuse me, are you saying that that’s as long as you can stand me?”

“Exactly.”

Louis lobbed his own bag at Liam’s head for that, making him chuckle. He then toyed with the hem of his jumper before saying, “So…you and Zayn then…?”

Liam’s jaw clenched. “Nope.”

Louis frowned. “Nope what?”

“Not talking about it. We’re over.”

“Liam!”

“No Louis!” Liam snapped, getting to his feet. “I’ve given him space, I’ve given him time. What more do you want from me?”

Louis followed suit angrily, Vans scuffing on the ground. “I want you to fight him! I want you to sit him the fuck down and get a goddamn fucking explanation out of him because what he did…that’s not on!”

“You think I don’t know that?”

“I think he knows you’ll let him get away with it,” Louis scoffed, chin jutting out when Liam turned on him, eyes blazing. “He’s playing you Liam.”

“Wow, since when did you hate Zayn so much?” Liam asked acidly.

“Since he walked out on my best mate!” Liam hunkered down at that, Louis stamping a foot impatiently. “And if you won’t hate him, then I have to do it for you!”

“Louis…”

“See?!” Louis threw his hands in the air. “Already defending him! Why? Because you love him.” He shrugged. “Liam, you love him. You’ve loved him a long time and you haven’t stopped yet.”

Liam’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed thickly. He then toyed with the ring on his finger. “I…I think I do, yeah. Louis, I really do.”

“I know,” Louis whispered, pulling Liam in when his eyes began to water. “Which is why you need to talk. He feels the same. You just gotta start again, do it proper this time.”

Liam stared down at him, head tilted to the side. “Properly? What bit were we missing last time?”

“Certainly not the sex,” Louis snorted, cackling when Liam went bright red. “But no,” he said, stepping away and collecting his board, leading Liam out of the park. “You and Zayn started your relationship all wrong. You asked him out and then within a week he was moved in.”

It was true. Only four days after announcing he had a new boyfriend to an indifferent Louis, Liam had found said boyfriend on the step of their uni flat, eyes red-rimmed and bags in his arms. Even Louis had been able to thrust aside his dislike of Liam because hello, crying boy. It had only taken a little bit of prying to find that Zayn’s assigned dorm mates had been total wankers who had also been decidedly racist, just for an extra kick, you know? Because who didn’t like picking on the Paki kid, the Muslim kid? Zayn had put up with it, put up with it until he’d found all his art books and supplies mangled beyond repair and he’d bolted for the only place he’d been able to think of: Liam’s arms. And there he’d stayed ever since.

“You never dated him,” Louis explained. “You both skipped the dating stage, the romance, the sparks bit, whatever you call it,” he said with an airy gesture. “And I think everyone needs that bit. You became too familiar too fast. You sort of…” He squinted up at Liam, “Is it bad if I say you grew used to each other more than in love with each other? But, you did love each other too.” He shook his head. “You do. You just gotta find that spark again.”

Liam was silent for a long, long time. “You think so?”

The question was so quiet Louis had to strain to hear it but he nodded adamantly. “Yep.” His thoughts went back to that day on the train platform and Zayn tracing Liam’s tattoo on his arm. His expression morphed into a full-blown grin. “Definitely.”

Liam made that face that seemed to suggest he knew he was missing something but he dismissed it, pulling Louis up. The abrupt stop made Louis squawk and he went to complain when he saw the store Liam was now attempting to tug him into.

“Li’?”

“Come on,” he said softly, guiding Louis to the threshold. “I’ve…I’ve been thinking about this for awhile. Think of this as my Christmas present, yeah?”

“But I-”

Liam huffed, waggling a finger at him knowingly. “As if you don’t have anything in mind.”

A memory flashed and Louis rolled his eyes at Liam’s cheeky grin. “Alright, you got me Payno. Let’s do this.”

 

***

 

“I still think Elsa is better. She has ice powers.”

Okay, the implied “duh” in there was so flawless Harry couldn’t even pull Georgia up on it.

“But Tiana is cool too. She made her own restaurant. My daddy did that. Well, not a restaurant, but his work. He does that all on his own.” Georgia’s chest was swelling with pride by the end and Harry swore he nearly swooned.

“So, does that mean Niall and I picked a good movie then?” he teased, sneaking a bite of the cookie batter as Georgia stirred, nose crinkling in distaste before he dumped in more vanilla essence.

“Mmhmm,” Georgia said with a nod, frowning down at the mixture with alarming seriousness for a seven-year-old.

“Rosie?”

“Needs more chocolate chips.”

Harry burst out laughing at her sour expression. He pinched her nose between his index finger and middle finger. “Sorry baby, but Louis would actually kill me if I did that.” His eyes roamed the kitchen. “What about adding banana instead? Banana choc chip cookies?”

Georgia clapped her hands together, jumping down from the stool and bolting to where the fruit bowl was, picking the largest banana possible. “Just one?”

“Just one,” Harry confirmed, setting out another bowl for her to mash it in.

As she set about doing that whilst humming happily, Harry let himself zone out. After all, no one could hurt themselves mashing bananas. All in all, he thought he’d had a pretty successful day with Georgia. After having breakfast back at the flat with Niall, Liam, and Louis, the odd pair had settled in for a morning of cartoons before heading back to Louis’. There, they’d unpacked all Georgia’s suitcases and presents before watching the Princess and the Frog; Harry having been offended when he’d discovered weeks earlier than she hadn’t so much as heard of it, let alone seen it. And then they’d decided to bake. It had to have been nearly a week since Harry had done so and yeah, he was feeling it.

“Harry, I’m done,” Georgia called, holding up her cookie dough which already had the bananas incorporated in.

“Wow, so fast?” he asked, chuckling at her blush. “Let’s get them on the trays then, yeah?”

They were nearly finished when the front door opened. “Daddy!” Georgia screamed, making to run until Harry looped his arms around her waist, pulling her up. No matter how much Louis loved her, he probably didn’t want to get hugged with hands that were covered with cookie batter.

“Baby?” Louis called, clearly confused that no small body had collided with his.

“In the kitchen!” Harry replied, guiding Georgia to the sink. “Someone’s hands are just a bit sticky!”

“Sticky?” Louis demanded, marching into the kitchen and placing his hands on his hips playfully, making Georgia giggle. His eyes then landed on the baking trays, rolling his eyes. “Really Harry? We’ve been back, what…a day?”

Harry flushed but shooed the now clean Georgia off, popping the trays into the oven. “She wanted to and it’s fun. Why not?”

“Daddy, Daddy!” Georgia squealed, cutting Louis off as she pawed at his sleeve. “A new one? Yay! Liam!” she screamed as he entered the room. “You got one too! It’s big and a bit scary.”

Snorting at that, Harry turned to see what she was on about, throat clogging when he saw that both Louis and Liam had their arms wrapped up, skin underneath red but with vibrant black ink on top. Oh God, new tattoos. God have mercy. Liam was closer so Harry ended up inspecting his first, sucking in a breath at the roses and skull that decorated his forearm but what caught him more off guard was the hand. He’d never picked Liam to get a hand tattoo.

“You got a bird too!” Georgia was saying, touching the edges ever so lightly. “Now you and Daddy and Zaynie and Harry all have birds. You all match!”

Harry raised his eyebrows, unaware that Zayn had birds too – he must have missed them in amongst all the other ink – but Liam merely smiled tightly. “I guess so.”

“Just Niall now,” Louis remarked, grinning at Harry.

Harry snorted. “Not happening. Niall hates needles.” He studied Liam’s design a little more closely. “Awesome mate.”

Liam looked quite chuffed. “Thanks Harry.”

“What are the blank spaces for?” Harry asked, poking at them gently.

“’S for me and Georgia, of course,” Louis crowed, earning him an elbow to the ribs.

Liam shook his head. “Not sure yet. I’ll figure it out one day though.”

Harry nodded before turning his attention to Louis. “Got one too huh?”

“Got tw-”

“Yep, just one,” Louis said with a tight-lipped grin, Harry not entirely sure if he’d seen the other man stomp on Liam’s foot or not. “Here.” An arm was thrust in his face before he could even think about it. “Like it?”

It was simple, just three small words, but it made Harry’s throat go dry. Given a chance. Did that…? Was Louis referring to them…? What…What was Harry supposed to take away from this?

“You like it.” Louis’ quiet voice brought him out of his head. Harry could only nod. Louis gave a nod of his own. “Good.”

 

***

 

“Need the light on Lou’?”

Louis looked up from his phone, Liam standing in the doorway of the en suite, hand hovering over the light switch. “Nah,” he replied, rolling over to plug his phone into the charger on his bedside table. The bed next to him dipped as Liam climbed in, the room now shrouded in darkness save for the irregular flashes of light that reflected from cars driving on the street outside.

“So Harry and Georgia seem to get on well.”

Louis groaned. For a minute there, he thought he’d gotten lucky and that Liam would simply drift off to sleep. Apparently not. With a huff, he flopped onto his back. It wasn’t like either of them had work tomorrow anyway.

“Yeah, they do,” he agreed.

It was Liam’s turn to groan. “You’re gonna make this hard for me, aren’t you?”

“Make what hard?”

“Talking about Harry. Like, Louis, I know nothing. Are you two going out? Does he even know you like him?”

“He knows,” Louis admitted quietly.

Liam’s hand immediately stopped its drumming on his bicep. “Wait…you…Are you and Harry actually going out?”

“S’pose so.” Louis yelped when Liam pinched him. “Alright, alright!” he cried, knocking Liam off him with flapping hands. “When he came up for Christmas we talked and…yeah, we’re giving it a go. Just seeing, okay?”

“Better than okay.” Louis could hear the smile in his voice. “That’s good Louis. For what it’s worth, I really do think he properly likes you.” Liam then shimmied closer. “Did you kiss him?”

“Liam!” Louis screeched, face heating up as his friend laughed. “We’re not twelve year olds on a sleepover! We are two mature adults sharing a bed and I did not sign up for this kind of interrogation. Watch it – I’ll go kip with Georgia.”

“…so that’s a yes then?”

Louis threw his eyes skyward, finally rolling over to face Liam. “Yes.”

“Good. When’s your first date?”

Louis blinked. “Date?”

“Yes, love, dates. You know, that thing you do with people you like? Alone time?”

“Haven’t talked about it,” he confessed, shaking his head. “Besides, it’s me and Georgia Harry has to get used to. Shouldn’t separate the two like that.”

Liam made a disapproving noise. “Louis.” His voice was surprisingly serious. “You’re doing exactly what you said was the reason Zayn and I broke up. You’re skipping the romance, the sparks. You realise that, right?”

Louis had not realised that. Hadn’t thought about it at all, to be honest.

“When have you and Harry ever been alone?” Liam continued.

“When we went to visit his mum,” Louis replied swiftly.

“So…when Harry was beside himself with worry and when on the drive back he admitted to being asleep the entire time?” Louis remained silent. “See?”

“We were alone at the bar,” Louis pointed out. “That night. When I told you I liked Harry?” He toyed with the edge of the blanket. “Figured it out that night, drunk and all.”

“Figured what out?”

“…that I liked him.”

Liam’s fingers came to trace his jaw tenderly. “How? You two were only in the loos together for, like, ten. Some impression he made. What’d he do?”

Louis had never been so thankful for the dark, glad that Liam couldn’t see the stupid grin on his face. “I fell off the vanity. Harry caught me.”

“And then what?”

“Oops. Hi.”

Louis protested loudly when the room was suddenly flooded with light, Liam having turned on the bedside lamp. His hand was wrapped around Louis’ right forearm, stabbing just below a spot with his finger. “Oops?” he demanded.

Louis’ eyes scoured the bed, free hand drawing mindless patterns. “I…’s what he said and I…that was it, you know?” He met Liam’s curious gaze. “The moment I realised I liked him.”

Liam softened at his sincere tone, chuckling to himself as he thumbed the tattoo gently. “No wonder you didn’t want him to see.”

“Could be a bit much,” Louis agreed, finally managing to wrestle his arm free and burrowing under the duvet. “Now, light off. We’re sleeping.”

“Love you Louis,” Liam chuckled as he leant over to turn the light off.

Louis smiled, curling a little closer to Liam’s warmth. “Yeah, you too mate.”

 

***

Chapter Text

 

If Harry had said that someone knocking on the door of his flat mid-morning wasn’t the reason he’d lost his balance during warrior three pose and ending up in a tangled mess on the floor, he’d be lying. As it was, he pushed the curls that had escaped his bandana off his face whilst pouting at the door petulantly. He did, however, begrudgingly walk over to the offending piece of wood, not even bothering to look through the peep-hole before wrenching it open.

Which was probably why his grand opening statement upon seeing exactly who was on the other side was, “…Louis?!”

Louis ran his eyes up Harry’s frame disapprovingly, tugging on a sweaty curl with distaste. “Please don’t tell me you were doing yoga Harold.”

“Erm…”

“Ugh, remind me why I like you?” Louis scoffed, clearly going to step over the threshold before pulling up, suddenly sheepish. “Oh, um…is it alright if I come in? It’s okay if you can’t, unannounced and all,” he rambled, holding up his hands.

No!” Harry said a little too quickly and a little too loudly. Louis’ eyes crinkled in delight and Harry rolled his own fondly. “You can come in. But, yeah…was just doing come yoga,” he admitted as Louis kicked off his shoes.

“You can keep doing that,” Louis remarked, heading straight for the kitchen. “I wouldn’t want to interrupt.” He dumped some things on the bench before pointing at Harry’s room. “Not that I haven’t seen it before, but mind if I look? I promise to stay out of your underwear drawer.”

“Afraid Niall took my last lace panties.”

Louis barked out a laugh before waving him back to the living room. “Go, finish your hipster trash hobbies. I’m in no hurry.”

With that, Louis left the living room, leaving Harry standing there blankly. Was this a thing with Louis? Was he actually this confident normally? After all, the only side of him Harry had seen was the slightly meek and mostly stressed side. Disconnecting his phone from his speakers, Harry abandoned his yoga practise and padded to his room. Louis didn’t seem to notice him, instead studying the large array of pictures Harry had tacked up on the board opposite his bed.

“Funny sort of yoga.”

Harry jumped, shrugging when Louis turned to him with an arched eyebrow. “Like I was gonna do yoga with you here.”

Louis flushed, batting Harry away playfully before freezing. Following his line of sight, Harry also stiffened somewhat. Because, yes, he’d found the picture those girls had taken on the tube – they really did hashtag it ‘my arse is better’ - and yes, he’d printed it. “Louis?” he asked tentatively.

“’S alright,” Louis replied, shaking his head and reaching out to touch the photograph reverently. “I saved it too…Just different seeing it in hard copy.”

“You sure it’s okay?” Harry pressed, shifting closer til his chest was all but pressing against Louis’ back.

Louis’ head tilted back to look up at him, features scrunched up in exasperation. “Pretty sure I already said it was fine. Now,” he said, stepping away and bouncing on his toes. “I maybe might have a confession.”

“Sounds ominous,” Harry joked, Louis’ expression souring.

“Be nice or I won’t share.”

Harry put his hands up in surrender. “Share, O Tomlinson.”

Louis looked at him as if he’d sprouted a second head before huffing. “Fine, but okay. So, while I was up in Donny with Mum, she maybe got me addicted to this stupid baking show and, fuck, I don’t even like baking! But Harry, the sexual tension…” He toed the floor, expression disarmingly bashful. “And I…I thought since you liked baking…maybe we could watch some together? I brought my laptop!” he hastily added. “And snacks!”

Harry silenced him with a beaming smile. “You had me sold at ‘baking’.”

“Really?”

Louis’ tone was so hopeful it made Harry’s heart melt. He wrapped a hand around Louis’ arm, leading him back to the kitchen. “Really. So, what show and what food?”

“Well, I brought bananas and nutella,” Louis said, fossicking through his bag and holding them both aloft. “You like bananas and everyone likes nutella. Seemed like a good combination,” he muttered distractedly, placing them down and pulling out his laptop. “And it’s Great British Bake Off. Apparently everyone goes a bit mental over it? At least, that’s what Mum says but I’d never heard of it.”

Harry made an aborted noise, scandalised. “Never heard of it?!”

Louis edged away from him ever so warily. “Is it really that big of a deal?” he asked, running a hand through his hair despairingly.

Yes!” Harry cried, collecting the various food supplies and some cutlery. He pointed at the couch. “Sit and start that computer up Lou’!” He folded his legs under himself as he settled in next to Louis. “Sexual tension you said? Oh…James and John?”

Louis snapped his fingers. “That was it! They’re so having it on.”

“Definitely,” Harry agreed, nodding sagely. “You seen the marshmallow incident?”

Louis frowned as he typed in his password. “No…? Last I saw, John got his fingers all sliced up in that…” he waved a hand as he tried to find the word. “Blender-thing. Nasty incident that. What’s the marshmallow?”

Harry impatiently jabbed at the screen, causing Louis to chuckle while starting to search for the episode he was up to. “Um, so like, James needs to test his marshmallow so he pipes it onto John’s hand so he can lick it off.”

Louis paused his opening of the nutella, eyes wide. “You’re shitting me.”

“I am not,” Harry vowed.

Louis’ eyes turned back to the laptop, voice barely even a whisper. “…the fuck?”

With that, he pressed play.

 

***

 

Four hours later, Louis was slamming the laptop lid down, bouncing excitedly as he turned to Harry. “John won! He totally won! That was…yeah, he deserved it.”

Harry huffed out a laugh into Louis’ neck. “Would you hate me if I said all I wanna do now is bake for the next twenty four hours?”

“I couldn’t even think of that many things to bake,” Louis bemoaned, nudging Harry enough so that he could extract his phone from his back pocket. He threw his eyes skyward at the time, worrying his bottom lip as he typed out a message.

“Louis?” Harry asked, tentatively reaching out to brush Louis’ hair.

He was promptly shaken off, Louis popping to his feet with that detestable fake smile on his face. “It’s been fun Curly, but it’s time for us real adults to return to the world.”

“You’re not working,” Harry pointed out, eyes narrowing slightly in suspicion. “Liam told me you weren’t.”

“Just because I’m not at an actual meeting doesn’t mean I don’t have work.”

Harry’s frown became very pronounced, stepping forward and plucking Louis’ phone out of his hands. “You’re not working,” he repeated and, oh fuck, that was a mistake. Because he visibly saw Louis’ hackles rise, his frame go bow-string tight, his lips purse.

“Right. Of course I’m not,” Louis spat. “Didn’t realise I had to clock my hours through you now.”

“God Louis,” Harry groaned. “That’s not what I’m saying.” He pushed the phone into Louis’ hands. “I just wanted you to stop stressing for five minutes. We were having fun, it was nice.”

“I don’t have endless hours to myself Harry,” Louis said coldly.

“No, you refuse to make hours. Liam’s helping you. Accept that Louis, let him help.” He gestured back at the tv. “Stay,” he implored. “Niall’s got games. I’m shit at Fifa but I’m always up for a go.”

“Yeah, cause it’s not like I have a daughter or anything.”

Hang on, what?

Harry ceased tugging on his hair, tilting his head sideways. If anything, the look only seemed to frustrate Louis more.

“Georgia-Rose,” Louis reminded him in an oh so condescending tone, which, yeah, not okay. He shook his phone. “There’s only so long I can leave her with Zayn. He has a life too you know.”

A beat passed between them, the air in flat so thick with tension it could have been cut with a knife.

Fuck you Louis.”

Louis physically reeled at that, startled eyes snapping to Harry.

“Why do you do that?” Harry demanded.

“Do what?”

Lie.” Another flinch. “God, you were so ready to fight over this and all because you let me think you were freaking out over your job. If you’d just said you had to go home because of Georgia…”

“You would have been okay with that?”

Louis’ tone was sharp and it made Harry frown. “Of course.” He shrugged. “She’s your daughter Louis. She’s always gonna come first.”

Louis held his gaze for a long moment before his eyes started to well up. “Fuck!” he muttered, scrubbing at his eyes angrily. “Harry, fuck, sorry. God…Sorry, sorry, you’re really trying and I…I’m shit at this. I don’t…” Louis looked up at him with pleading blue eyes. “I’m sorry Harry. I…Look, I haven’t been in a relationship since Eleanor-”

And okay, wow, Harry had not known that. Jesus, what was that? Seven years?

“-and I know that’s not an excuse – I really am sorry! – I’m just…”

“Out of practise?” Harry supplied. Louis gave the barest of nods. “You know that’s fine Louis.” He spread his hands. “Like, I haven’t been with anyone since uni either…well, I mean, besides the time Niall forced Ed and I to “give it a go”-”

Louis looked like he didn’t know whether to laugh or hurl. Harry grinned.

“But considering we made it as far as a single kiss and, quoting Ed here, “nah, fuck that’s weird mate”-”

Louis really did laugh there.

“-I haven’t done anything serious in a long while myself.”

Harry waited as Louis shuffled his weight from foot to foot, bottom lip drawn between his teeth. He eventually squared his shoulders, hands slipping into his back pockets. “So we can do slow then?”

“As slow as you want,” Harry promised.

At that admission, some of the tension dropped from Louis’ frame, a smile taking its place. “Right then…” he said awkwardly, rocking back on his heels. “Still gotta go though but…thanks for having me Harry. Was fun, and all that.”

“We should do it again,” Harry prompted, watching Louis stumble as he went to tug on his shoes.

“Yes, yes we should,” Louis agreed hastily, grumbling when the back of his Vans got tucked under his heel. “I…We can text yeah? Come up with a time? I…” He fumbled with his phone once more. “Anyway, Georgie, yes. Did I tell you she calls herself Georgia-Rosie these days? Impossible! It’s not like I named her or anything!” Louis proclaimed indignantly as he paraded out of the flat. “Bad influence Harry,” he called, waving as he reached the top of the stairs, Harry giggling as he waved back. “Bad!

Louis’ head has just disappeared from view when Harry suddenly called, “wait!” He tore off across the hall, finding Louis staring up at him inquiringly from halfway down the flight of stairs. “Forgot this,” Harry muttered before pressing their lips together chastely.

“Slowly,” Louis reminded him, tutting playfully before leaning onto his tiptoes. “But, not denying I liked it.”

With that, Louis gave Harry a kiss of his own before actually leaving. This time, Harry was content to let him. Returning to the flat, Harry crinkled his nose at the sight of his yoga mat, stuffing it away without too much regret. All thoughts of yoga had long since disappeared from his mind. Nabbing a couple of belongings, Harry instead set off towards Sweet Nothings. While they were closed until the New Year, Babs still had them coming in to do little jobs that couldn’t be done while they were open – extra cleaning, re-arranging of furniture. And yes, it was Niall’s day to help but hey, it wasn’t as though Harry minded. He did, however, phone Gemma along the way. The texts demanding updates on his and Louis’ relationship status had been constant since he’d revealed at Christmas he was going to visit the Tomlinsons.

“But yeah, that was that,” Harry finished just as he arrived at the bakery door, Gemma humming on the other end.

“He’s a lark that one,” Gemma commented, smile evident in her tone. “Keep a hold of him; I like him.”

“Think I already picked up on that bit Gems,” Harry teased, rapping on the shop door.

“He’s still stressing though.” Harry paused at that, eyebrows knitting together. At his silence, Gemma sighed. “Trust me, I know. He needs to relax. He’s worked himself up to the point where if he’s not stressing, he’s stressing about the fact that he isn’t…Probably because he thinks that means he’s forgotten something.”

Harry thought he got it. Maybe.

“But yes, relax. Teach Louis how to do that again Haz.”

“And how do I get him to relax?” Harry asked, thanking Barbara as she held the door open for him.

“Get him drunk!” “Get him drunk!”

The answer came both through the phone and from across the room. “You don’t even know what I’m talking about!” Harry called to Niall, the blond cackling and returning to his scrubbing of the booths.

“See, Niall gets it!”

“Gem, that’s Niall’s solution to everything,” Harry deadpanned, yelping when Niall leant far enough over to slap him with his soapy cloth. Gross.

“Doesn’t mean he’s not right,” Gemma shot back. “Anyway, go hang with the roomie. And tell him I said hi.”

“I will,” Harry promised. “Love you,” he added before hanging up.

“Who are we getting drunk?” Niall inquired once he saw Harry pocket his phone.

Harry rolled his eyes, collecting a dustpan and starting to sweep the mess that had been left behind by yesterday’s plaster men.  “You know who. And you know what he’ll will say.”

“He has Georgia,” Niall mocked sourly, face contorted into a pout.

“Is this Louis?” Babs asked, causing the pair to jump apart.

“Yeah,” Niall said, poking Harry in the ribs with a finger. “He’s Harry’s new boyfriend.”

Barbara’s expression turned delighted. “Oh love,” she gushed, Harry whining good-naturedly when she pinched his cheeks. “He’s a lucky one that one. Mind you, he’s a little precious himself. You two…so wonderful.” She went to potter off before frowning, turning back with her hands on her hips. “And Georgia?” Her face then softened. “Oh yes, Louis’ girl. The sweetest thing, isn’t she? If you think Louis would have a bar of it, I’m more than happy to watch her sometime. It’d be no trouble at all.”

Before Harry could comment Niall was already jumping on his back, legs hooking around his waist. “Holy fuck Haz, yes! Louis would be totally okay with that! He would, wouldn’t he? New Years, can we do New Years?!”

“Uh…”

“Go on,” Barbara urged gently, stepping around the bench and starting to sort through their latest recipe collection – it was a rather impressive size, Harry had to admit. “If there’s ever a night for you young boys to be out, that would be it. You and Niall go, and take those other boys that sometimes come with Georgia. They seem nice.”

“We’re twenty-five!” “We’re not boys!

Niall and Harry glanced at each other before erupting into laughter. “Okay,” Harry wheezed, extracting his phone with one hand as he held his side with the other. “Okay, I’ll text them.”

“Yes!”

 

***

 

“Doesn’t look like your shopping went well.”

It took Louis a moment to catch up with what Zayn was on about…until he remembered that yeah, he’d lied to Zayn about why he needed him to come around and why had he done that? No point correctly himself now and looking like a tit, Louis decided, instead giving Zayn a closed-lip smile.

“Yeah, no, not too well,” he lied airily. “It wasn’t like I needed much anyway. More just…”

“Needed alone time?” Zayn guessed, stretching his arms as he peeled himself off the couch.

“Expelliarmus Marshmallow!”

Louis peered down towards his daughter’s room, eyebrows nearly reaching his hairline. “Did my daughter just pretend to disarm a snow monster?

“Think so,” Zayn snorted. “She said Harry started reading her Harry Potter the other day but apparently he does the voices wrong.” At Louis’ bewildered face, he simply shrugged. “Hey, don’t look at me. She says Harry’s Malfoy is terrible and that she likes yours only. Harry does, however, do a better Harry and…fuck, that’s confusing.”

Louis snickered at Zayn’s pained expression, flipping the kettle on just as his phone went off, Zayn’s chiming at the exact same time. Exchanging puzzled looks, they both unlocked their phones, coming face to face with a new group chat.

“Drinks on New Year’s Eve. Club to be decided,” Zayn read out, Louis going to object when Zayn peered closer at the screen. “Someone called Babs is offering to mind Georgia?” His eyes flickered to Louis. “Babs?”

“She works at the bakery,” Louis muttered by way of explanation, reading the message for himself. He really shouldn’t have been surprised to find that his was identical to Zayn’s. It was the same message for crying out loud. He groaned. “They’re doing this on purpose!”

“They want you to have fun,” Zayn remarked dryly. “God forbid Lou’.”

The front door opened before Louis could reply. “Home babe!”

“Don’t call me th-” “Hi Li’!”

Zayn’s eyes were steely when they met Louis’ but Louis simply blinked at him owlishly. What? He didn’t get to voice the question before Liam entered the kitchen, wrapping an arm around Louis’ waist and kissing his cheek. “Started dinner?”

“Not yet. Only just got home,” Louis admitted.

“S’alright, I’ll make it. Was thinking bangers and mash.” Liam then seemed to realise Zayn was there. “Oh. You’re still here.”

Louis winced and Zayn glowered. “Yes, I am. What’s it to you?”

“Nothing,” Liam snapped. “Just…thought you’d have left once Lou’ got home. It’s not like you to stick around.”

“Li’…” Louis chided softly because if they were gonna fight, this was not the time or place. “Right, how about I make some Yorkshire puddings to go with dinner?” Louis suggested, trying to stop the imminent shouting match. “You like those, right Liam?”

“Yeah,” Liam answered distractedly, finally tearing his eyes away from Zayn long enough to open the freezer and grab the sausages from inside. Both he and Louis whipped around when they heard Zayn’s sharp inhale. Zayn’s eyes were locked on Liam’s hand. Or perhaps, more specifically, the new ink that lay there.

“You…”

“Just a new tattoo. Louis got one too; it’s not a big deal,” Liam said stonily, tone effectively blocking Zayn from asking any more questions.

Zayn looked between them, something foreign in his eyes. “You, like, went together?”

“Held his hand and everything,” Louis joked, kissing Liam’s nose and laughing when Liam tried to punch him in the nads. “It was fun. Been too long.”

“It really had been,” Liam said with a nod, missing Zayn’s narrowed eyes as Louis’ phone went off, his friend muttering something about “so many god dammed emojis” and “what the fuck is with that fucking fish?” “Louis?”

“Harry and Niall want us to go out New Year’s Eve.” Zayn’s voice was sharp, ice-like, startling them both. “I’m going,” he announced, storming away and slipping on his coat. “I need a night out.”

Zayn’s slamming of the front door left both Louis and Liam speechless, staring at the wood in varying degrees of confusion. “Okay…” Louis said slowly, eyes dropping to his phone when it went off, Zayn’s agreement to coming now appearing in the chat.

:D :D :D :D :D .xx

…and there was Harry’s reply.

“When was this all organised?” Liam asked, baffled until he pulled his own phone out and inspected the side. “Oops. Forgot I silenced it for that meeting.” He read through the messages himself. He sent Louis a hopeful look. “Babs offered to babysit,” he wheedled.

“I-”

“Babs is coming over?” The squeak came from the doorway and Louis spun around to find Georgia standing there, hands clasped and eyes shining with wonder. She was then tugging on Louis’ arms, hopping up and down. “Is she coming? Is she really? Can we play here, please?

How was Louis supposed to argue with that? “Sure baby,” he answered, smiling when she squealed in delight. “But!” he added sternly, “I won’t be here. I’ll be going out so you’ll be home alone with Babs. Is that alright?”

Georgia frowned. “Where are you going?”

‘To get blind drunk, hopefully.’

“We haven’t decided yet,” Louis answered, smile tight.

“Is it a grown-up party?” Georgia asked, scrunching her nose up. “Where you all just drink and talk and be boring? Can Harry come here too then?”

“Sorry love, but Harry’s coming with us,” Liam told her. “Him and Niall…and Zayn are all coming. Big party. For grown-ups,” he tacked on, lest she get any ideas.

“Well, alright,” she eventually sighed dramatically, throwing her hands into the air. “But after the party will Harry move in?”

Louis, who had been about to pick up his cup of tea, abruptly slammed it down. “Georgia-Rose, you what?” he demanded, ignoring Liam’s howl of laughter.

“He’s your boyfriend, I saw you kissing,” Georgia said matter-of-factly. “And when you’re boyfriends you live together. Zayn and Liam used to do it, Mummy and Stuart do it sometimes…so that means you and Harry have to do it too.”

Seeing her innocent face and Liam’s poorly masked glee, Louis buried his head in his hands. “We are not having this conversation. Not now, not ever.”

It wasn’t until hours later that Louis remembered the messages on his phone, finally typing back a “I’m in lads!” Staring at it a long time, Louis threw his eyes skyward before changing his phone’s keyboard. After all, it couldn’t hurt. He added three confetti bursts to the end of his message, pressing send before he could change his mind.

The fact that his reply from Harry contained ten confetti bursts didn’t make it any more worth it. Nope, not at all.

 

***

 

“Zaaaaynie!”

Looping his arm around said friend’s shoulder, Louis would admit that his plan to get absolutely plastered had been more than a success. There was less than half an hour til midnight and he was seriously contemplating if he would even make it that long. Not that that had stopped him from downing the shot Niall had placed in front of him not five minutes earlier. The shot he’d downed before spotting Zayn emerging from the bathrooms, barrelling across the room to ensnare his friend.

“Sup Louis,” Zayn greeted, nose pressed into the top of his head.

“Having fun?” Louis yelled, attempting to be heard over the music…although the way Zayn cringed made him believe he’d more than done that. Oops.

Zayn smiled down at him crookedly. “Of course Lou’. Always.”

Louis pouted at his lack of enthusiasm, blinking when he found Zayn’s gaze to be locked somewhere further across the room. Squinting, Louis was able to make out Liam, laughing loudly as Niall made grand gestures with his hands and…was he trying to get Harry to dance on the tabletop? Louis was so down for that.

Still, Zayn, yes? Zayn, right, he was dealing with Zayn. Zayn and Liam. “He’s pretty, isn’t he?” At Zayn’s bewildered face, because yeah, good context Tommo, Louis elaborated. “Like, Li’. Fucking gorgeous. He is, isn’t he?”

Zayn’s jaw clenched slightly. “Yeah, he is.”

“Got nothing on you though,” Louis prattled on, shifting closer and pressing his face into Zayn’s neck. “You, Malik, sex on legs. That’s what you are.” He ran the back of his hand over Zayn’s cheekbones, chuckling when his friend grabbed his wrist. “Come on, you know you are. And you and Li…God, you two were aces. Looked so fucking good together.” He ignored the way Zayn stiffened in favour of giggling as he interlaced their fingers. “You know Liam said we’d look good together?”

“Liam said what?

And ouch, Zayn was snapping at him? Why? “Easy Zaynie,” he said soothingly. “He told me you and I would look good together once, you know? When I asked him out? He wouldn’t go out with me!” Louis whined, expression indignant. “Why not? Am I not loveable enough?”

The grip on his hand was suddenly painfully tight. “You asked Liam out?”

“Uh huh,” Louis confirmed, making a quick glance right before swiping the abandoned shot off the table next to him, downing it before Zayn could lecture him about health and safety in clubs. He could feel Zayn’s eyes boring into his but Louis, who had gone to look back at Liam, had since become distracted by the sight of Harry, neck long as he tilted his head back to down the last of his glass. Some of the liquid spilt down Harry’s chin and Louis was going to make it his sole mission to lick it all off.

Well, he would have done, had Zayn not pulled him back, eyes hooded. “What?” Louis demanded because, hello!, hot boyfriend – Harry was his boyfriend, wasn’t he?

“Do you think we would?” Zayn asked huskily, tugging him closer until they were nearly chest to chest. “Look good together?”

Louis frowned, suddenly becoming all too hot when Zayn’s hands settled on his body, one sliding around his neck and the other hovering just shy of too low on his waist. “Zayn…?”

“We would though, wouldn’t we?”

And when had he gotten so close? Louis blinked, eyes swapping between Zayn’s lips and his eyes, something unreadable in them but maybe that was just the lighting? It was quite bright and flashing and hazy so Louis probably wasn’t the best judge. Maybe he and Zayn would look good together, but he and Harry…God. That, that…Louis would like to see that because Harry.

The next thing he knew, a pair of lips were smashed against his own and Louis could only kiss back. Kiss back because it was New Years and he was drunk and out in a club with his friends and his new boyfriend – boyfriend! – and he was allowed to kiss his boyfriend, right? His hands came to cup the face in front of him, Louis deepening the kiss, moaning when the lips parted, let his tongue dive in. He…had Harry always tasted like this? Like alcohol and nicotine? He remembered the kiss on Christmas being much different but they hadn’t been drinking then so maybe…? But didn’t Harry taste like sugar and spices, not smoke and cheap vodka? It was all a blur anyway, shouting coming from behind them but Louis didn’t care, didn’t care because he had Harry kissing him. Harry with his ridiculous hair and-

Wait.

Louis’ thoughts came careening to a halt when his fingers brushed over short, shaved hair because no, that wasn’t Harry. Harry didn’t have short hair. Wrenching himself away, Louis found himself looking at Zayn and what the fuck? Louis didn’t know what to focus on, the fact that Zayn looked almost victorious or the fact that Niall was inches away, arms bunched up like he’d been seconds away from tearing them apart.

No, the only thing Louis wanted right now was the one thing he couldn’t see.

“Harry?” he called, whirling around desperately. “Harry? Harry?!

“Louis, mate, cal-”

“Louis?”

Completely bypassing Liam, Louis bolted straight to Harry, grabbing fistfuls of his hair before forcing their lips together. Harry made a startled sound in the back of his throat but his hands still came to curl around Louis’ hips, mercifully kissing back. Louis sunk into it, whimpering quietly. This, this was what he had wanted.

Pulling away and leaving Harry wide-eyed and slack-jawed, Louis rounded on Zayn, eyes narrowed. “I. Like. Harry.” Each word was a bullet. “Not you.” He went to grab Zayn, only being stopped by the arm Liam threw across his chest, blocking his way. “You ever pull a stunt like that again Malik, we’ll see which of us ends up in the A&E first, got it?”

Zayn, for his part, was glancing between him and Harry quickly. “Wait, are you actua-”

Someone screaming “ten, nine, ei-” cut them all off, their messed up group waiting until the countdown was over, cringing at the deafening roar that filled the club. It was Niall that moved first, in the end, shoving Louis in Liam’s direction and hooking his arm around Harry’s, guiding him towards the exit.

“Happy fucking New Year lads.”

 

***

Chapter Text

Never again.

Louis was never drinking again. Like, ever. His head was pounding behind his tightly shut eyes and even then it was already too bright. All his muscles ached and Louis had a hand pressed against his stomach, willing the nausea away. Why had he thought this was a good idea? Why? He let out a noise similar to that of a wounded animal as he rolled onto his side.

“You awake over there Lou’?”

Louis groaned as Liam’s voice hammered against his skull, futilely tugging the blankets higher up the bed.

“I’ll take that as a yes. Breakfast?”

“Don’t even mention food,” Louis begged, managing to crack an eye open, watching Liam pad around the flat seemingly without agony. How? How was he doing that? “Ugh,” Louis complained as he caught a whiff of his own breath. “My breath is gross. And, oh my god, what did I even drink? What is that taste?”

Liam’s shoulders went stiff. “Don’t know. Maybe my ex-fiancé?”

Louis stared at him for a long minute before last night came rushing back and, oh shit! Hand flying to his mouth, Louis tore across Liam’s tiny flat, sinking in front of the toilet just in time to throw up.

“Shit, Louis, sorry!” Liam was already at his side, rubbing his back and brushing his hair off his face. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have brought it up like that.”

Blindly feeling for the cup on the vanity, Louis was eternally grateful when Liam proceeded to fill it for him and hand it to him. Swishing the water in his mouth, Louis spat it into the bowl before getting to his feet shakily, flushing the toilet and then slumping down onto the lid.

“God Liam, I’m so sorry.” He reached out, slipping his hand into Liam’s. “I promise I didn’t do it on purpose.”

Liam’s eyes were sad, but understanding. “I know you wouldn’t Boo.”

Louis shook his head as much as his raging headache would allow. “I don’t even know what happened Li’…One minute we were talking about you-”

“About me?” Liam squeaked.

“-and then…then…” Louis frowned, letting his head flop into his hands as it all fell into place. “He was jealous. Fuck, he was jealous and he wanted to make you jealous.”

Liam poked at his knee, somewhat alarmed. “Who?”

“Who do you think?” Louis snapped, launching to his feet and starting to pace the bathroom rather unsteadily. “Your bloody boyfriend!”

Liam’s eyes hardened. “He’s not-”

“He’s been weird ever since my party when you said you loved me and I know, it was all a joke, but mate, it’s gotta be raw for Zayn too.” He turned to Liam, counting off on his fingers, “Then the casual kisses, the ‘babe’s and ‘love’s, oh god, the tattoos…”

“We always used to do that,” Liam pointed out, voice clipped. “And besides, he can’t complain.”

“No, he can’t.” Louis agreed whole-heartedly. “But, you know what really set him off?” Liam teetered before hesitantly nodding. “When I told him I’d asked you out.”

Liam’s mouth dropped open. “Louis!”

“I know, I know!” Louis said, waving his hand. “It’s not even remotely true but drunk Louis likes to embellish things apparently. And yeah, maybe I whined to Zayn that you wouldn’t date me and then…Clearly no one goes near his Liam.”

If he had to guess, Louis would say that Liam’s expression was somewhere between outright indignant and touched. On one hand, furious that Zayn still thought he had any right to any aspect of him…but on the other hand, so, so hopeful because it meant that there was something tangible still between them. Louis went to speak but Liam shook his head, clapping him on the shoulder.

“I need to think about all this Louis,” he whispered. “Let me?”

Louis could only nod. Nod and freshen himself up because there was another conversation he desperately needed to have.

 

***

 

Rapping on the door of the flat, Louis had to hold back a groan at how downright cheerful Niall looked. The Irishman looked none the worse for wear which had to be some sort of cruel joke because maybe Louis had lost count of exactly how many shots they’d done, but regardless it had been enough that Niall should at least have looked as awful as he felt. Niall gave him a once over before grinning smarmily.

“I hate you,” Louis declared as he stepped inside, Niall’s laughter following him. He shrugged off the trench coat he’d nicked from Liam’s as he asked, “Harry in?”

Just like that, Niall’s face turned sombre. “Yeah, he’s in. And awake, shockingly.”

Louis toed the floor…and did Liam know he’d stolen his favourite boots on the way out? No. Was he ever intending to tell him? Also, no. “Niall, I…”

“Louis, mate, you know what, it’s fine. Well, not fine,” Niall corrected but he wrapped an arm around Louis’ shoulders. “The way you bollocked Zayn made it pretty clear to everyone that you weren’t exactly into it.” He then pinched Louis’ stomach. “’S what happens when Englishmen try to keep up with the Irish.”

“Oh piss off,” Louis laughed, going to swat Niall as he danced away only to freeze when Harry strolled out of his room, dressed in nothing but yoga pants and towelling off his hair.

“Niall? Who’s…” He petered off at the sight of Louis.

“Harry…”

Niall looked between them. “Right, I’ll leave you two to it then,” he said, grabbing his crisps off the table and heading down to his room.

“How serious do you think we’re gonna be?” Harry called after him, Louis giving a nervous chuckle. He then squirmed as Harry’s gaze rounded on him. He must have looked slightly panicked because Harry’s eyes softened, pulling him in. “You don’t have to explain Louis.”

“Thanks, but think I do,” Louis disagreed, ignoring the fact that Harry’s bare chest was pressed against him, radiating a ridiculous amount of heat. “Christ, are you an actual furnace?”

Harry guffawed but released him, jerking a thumb in the direction of his bedroom. “I can just…grab a shirt, you know?”

“Doesn’t bother me,” Louis said offhandedly. “Quite the opposite really but…uh…should probably not stay too long.”

“Oh?”

“Gotta let Babs go and…” his blue eyes scoured the floor with a surprising amount of severity. “Think there’s someone else I need to talk to.”

Harry made an understanding noise. “Zayn.”

“Yeah, think it’s about time,” Louis admitted. “But,” he continued, stepping forward and wrapping his hand around Harry’s bicep, “We’re okay, right? I mean, despite me being a right arse last night? Which, again, I am so sorry about.”

“No, like, I get it,” Harry promised, Louis searching his eyes for any traces of lies – stunned when he couldn’t find them. “There’s a lot going on in that weird little group of yours-”

“Tell me about it!”

“-and stuff always happens when we’re drunk. Things we don’t mean. Maybe I didn’t like it but…” he shrugged. “I also know you didn’t mean it.”

“…I thought it was you.”

Harry, who had been turning away to hang up his towel, stopped dead. “Pardon?”

Louis twisted his hands together. “Zayn. I thought…we’d been looking at Li’ and I saw you and all I wanted was to kiss you because you looked so amazing and…” He ran a hand through his hair, sighing loudly. “Then Zayn kissed me – and can I just say he tastes gross? How did Liam even do it for five years?” Harry let out a startled bubble of laughter. “–but…all I was thinking was that it was you.”

Harry quirked an eyebrow. “What broke Zayn’s magic?” 

Louis chuckled. “Your hair.”

“My what?” Harry spluttered.

“This,” Louis said, twirling one of Harry’s curls around his finger. “The second I realised this-” A tug. “-wasn’t there, I knew it wasn’t you.”

“And then you panicked,” Harry realised. “’S why you were shouting for me.”

“Wasn’t shouting,” Louis admonished. Under Harry’s knowing look, he grinned sheepishly. “Well, maybe. But either way, it wasn’t my finest moment. How about this year, from today, fresh start?”

“No deal.”

Louis gaped, not only at the answer itself but the speed in which it was given.

“No deal,” Harry repeated, slipping his hands into Louis’, completely dwarfing them. “Because I don’t want to nullify everything we’ve done so far. We’ve already made so many memories that I don’t want to forget. So we have one bad one? Big deal.”

“Favourite memory so far?” Louis asked curiously, eyes bright and smile cheeky.

Harry tapped his chin in thought. “Hmm…Probably you coming into the shop with a snotty nose and mismatched shoes, all snuffly and squinty.”

“What?!” Louis squawked, ripping his hands out of Harry’s so he could cross his arms petulantly. “Fine. Then mine’s fairly similar,” he sniffed. “Except in mine, you’re a blubbering mess and I look like a knight in shining armour, what with my banana frappe and all.”

It was Harry’s turn to look mortified before he dissolved into giggles. “Alright, alright,” he conceded, “A truce. But, Louis, I mean it. I don’t want to start again. Not when it look us this long just to get here. And hey, all roads have bumps. ‘S how we face them that matters.”

Louis squinted up at him. “If I google that is it going to be a quote from someone like Nigella Lawson or Meryl Streep?”

“Nope,” Harry said. “Although, I do like Queen Nigella.”

Louis snorted. “You would.”

Harry poked his side before pressing their lips together, cancelling out Louis’ sour expression. “Now, didn’t you say you had to meet Zayn? Go,” he ordered softly. “Because we could probably swap banter all day but I think you and Zayn really need to do this. I’d say with Liam but…”

He cringed and Louis nodded. “No, I get it. Those two together isn’t gonna get us anywhere but screaming at the moment. But yes, Zayn. Better go.” He hopped back to Harry’s side, leaning up to kiss him. “If Niall suggests drinking again any time soon, say no, alright Curly?”

Harry huffed out a laugh. “Hate to break it to you Lou, but I learnt that long ago.”

“Poor you,” Louis commiserated, taking a step towards the door before abruptly whirling around to kiss Harry one last time. “Love that I can do that,” he mumbled as he pulled away. The simple admission seemed to render Harry speechless. Before he could find his words, Louis had slipped out of the door. His phone was out before he even reached the stairwell.

Nandos. Half hour. BE THERE.

 

***

 

A bag being dumped on the opposite side of the booth had Louis looking up from his burger – extra grease because, hey, he was a model of healthy living at the moment. Above him, Zayn was pulling his headphones out, setting his tray down before slumping into seat opposite. His sunglasses stayed firmly in place. Louis cracked the tiniest of smiles.

“That bad?”

“Shut up.”

“Not likely,” Louis countered, wiping sauce off his fingers and balling up the napkin. “You’re gonna tell me the whole story and you will answer every damn question.” To emphasise his point, Louis stretched his feet out so that they were propped up next to Zayn, effectively trapping him.

“And if I say no?” Zayn challenged.

Louis’ eyes flashed. “Then I’ll drag out back to the flat by your precious hair and proceed to tear you a new one right in front of your ex-fiancé.” He folded his arms. “Fair?”

Amazingly, Zayn shrunk down a little. “Fair.”

Louis blinked in surprise. “Okay…um, so…”

Zayn gave an exasperated huff, whipping off his glasses and wincing at the light. “Lou’…just ask.”

“Fine, start easy then. Where are you even living right now?”

“At Shahid’s.”

Louis choked on his water, hastily removing the bottle from his mouth. “Shahid?!

Zayn’s eyes hardened and okay, yeah, it was different being on the receiving end of that look. “Problem?”

“I hate him. And, like, since when have the two of you even been friends?”

“Don’t think it’s any concern of mine if you like my friends or not,” Zayn snapped, matching Louis glare for glare. “And maybe you didn’t notice but we used to hang out all the time. I did heaps of projects with him. Not my fault you didn’t pay attention.”

Louis thought he showed an exemplary amount of self-control by not responding to that. Instead, he simply swiped one of Zayn’s chips, popping it in his mouth. “Alright, so you live with Shahid. Now, why don’t you live with Liam? Or perhaps, more accurately, why the fuck did you walk out on him?”

The woman across the way scowled at his language but Louis couldn’t find it in himself to care. Zayn toyed with his burger before dumping it down. “Because, we could never work.”

“So you’ve said,” Louis said coldly. “That’s all you’ve said. Wanna tell me why you think that? And don’t feed me that bullshit about no longer loving Liam,” Louis growled when Zayn opened his mouth, “Because that’s all it is, bullshit! I’m not blind Zayn, not after the stunt you pulled last night.”

“…I didn’t know about you and Harry.”

Louis thumped a fist on the table. “I don’t give a flying fuck about me and Harry right now! You’re the one I’m dragging!”

“Look Louis, Liam and I just don’t work.”

“Bullshit!”

“No, Louis,” Zayn repeated, harder, firmer. “We don’t. Maybe we did. But we don’t anymore.” He shook his head. “Who we were, that’s not who we are now. We live different lives.”

Louis frowned, leaning forward on his elbows. “Explain.”

Zayn tugged on his earing, nose crinkling as he gathered his thoughts. “I don’t know what you want me to say. Liam has his life all figured out. He wants to be a PR manager, he knows what he wants. He’s already on track to do that and he’s happy. And I…I’m still working it out. Like, Shahid’s been getting me all these opportunities and really getting me linked into the modelling community-”

“You said you never wanted to do that!” Louis protested. “You said it was too much pressure, too much hype. You said you wanted to live a normal life.”

If Louis thought his words would help, he was wrong. If anything, they only seemed to antagonise Zayn more. “See?” he demanded, gesturing between them. “This is exactly what I’m talking about! You have this idea in your head as to who I am and what I want to be, based on something I said maybe four years ago. People change Louis. Fuck, Liam and I were kids back then. And yes, I’m glad he hasn’t changed and that life is still all he imagined but it’s not for me. I’ve changed. I’m different.”

“So tell Liam.”

Zayn’s mouth snapped shut at Louis’ quiet tone.

Jesus Zayn, tell him everything you just told me.” Louis rolled his balled up napkin between his hands. “Maybe I don’t get it…Maybe I think Shahid’s just planting ideas in your head and using you-”

“Louis.”

The tone was warning enough.

“But okay, then. If you think that’s you then…then tell Liam that. Fucking hell Zayn, I shouldn’t even have to be telling you this! It’s called courtesy. If you felt like you and Liam weren’t in sync anymore, why the hell didn’t you just tell him?” Louis was fired up by the end of his speech but, in his defence, he thought he had a pretty fair point.

Zayn shook his head. “Because Louis. I knew we wouldn’t work. We’d run our course. What Liam and I had…” his whole demeanour turned sad but Louis didn’t let him sway him; not yet, not until he knew it was genuine. “…fuck, it was special. I know that. But it wouldn’t have lasted. When we met, we were perfect. As we matured? Not so much. And I…if Liam and I had talked, he would have tried to compromise.”

“Exactly!”

“Yes, exactly,” Zayn shot back, Louis leaning back in surprise. “He would have compromised and compromised until he was miserable. And then he wouldn’t have mentioned it. I couldn’t do that to him! I loved him that much at least. Enough to break his heart hard and fast, to have him get over me without ever thinking he could have done more.”

“Fuck you Malik.”

It was Zayn’s turn to be surprised, eyes widening.

“No, seriously,” Louis hissed, so, so tempted to lean across the table and knock some sense into the man opposite. “Because you’re full of shit. Liam compromise until it becomes too much? Hate to break it to you Zayn, but that’s not compromising, that’s you being a dominating little bitch. Compromise goes both ways. And really, you don’t think Liam would have loved you anyway? Zayn, he’s gone for you. He’s still gone for you.”

Zayn sniffed. “Well I’m n-”

“Don’t even bother finishing that,” Louis said, rolling his eyes. “Anyone with eyes knows you’re lying-”

“So you say.”

“-And so, I’m going to give you the only advice you should be listening to at the moment.”

A condescending eyebrow raise was sent his way. “Oh yes?”

“Yes, talk to your fucking fiancé!” Everyone in the restaurant whipped around at the sheer volume of Louis’ voice. Even as Zayn hastily tried to stop him from causing a scene, Louis was barrelling over him. “You grow some fucking balls for once Malik and you walk him step by step through everything! And, god willing, if you beg hard enough, Liam might actually take you back!”

“Sir?”

From beside Louis came a timid voice, a teenage girl looking quite nervous as she hovered at the table’s edge. Seeing her Nandos uniform, Louis sent her a tight smile. “Sorry love. I’ll pop off now. ‘S what you’re sent here to do, right?”

She nodded furtively. “Yes sir, thank you. Sorry to be asking this.”

Louis put his hands up, “Nope, fault’s all mine. Sorry to bother you.” He then caught sight of the pride bracelet around her wrist. “Love the bracelet. I’ll be rooting for you.”

She squeaked and held the arm close to her chest, face bright red. Collecting his things, Louis swung his sunglasses by the temple, levelling Zayn a look. “You, Liam, yes?”

Throwing his hands in the air, Zayn gave a single nod. “Fine, yes. If it makes you so damn happy Lou’.”

Louis shook his head. “No, it’ll make Liam happy. He deserves to be happy.” The way Zayn went suspiciously quiet after that made Louis confident he’d done his job. Slipping a tenner into the girl’s hand as a tip, Louis left the store.

 

***

 

“Daddy, Daddy, come on, we’ll be late!”

“Georgia, we have time,” Louis laughed, allowing himself to be tugged along the path.

“And Rosie, do you even know which way to go?”

At Harry’s question, Georgia came to a dead halt, eyes wide with panic. “No,” she whispered in horror.

Over her head, Louis and Harry shared looks before laughing loudly, continuing even when the little girl whined at them to stop. Seeing Harry already consulting the map, Louis silenced any further protests by hoisting Georgia onto his back. At Harry’s pointed nod, Louis started off down the path to their left.

“Baby girl, I promise we won’t miss it.”

‘It’ was actually their scheduled time to walk through the Ice Kingdom set up in Hyde Park. It was the winter wonderland’s last day of opening and Georgia had been begging to go ever since it had opened in November. Louis had eventually conceded to buying tickets, although he’d been told he had to invite Harry. He had, after much deliberation, though Louis still wasn’t sure if he’d been thrilled or disappointed when Harry had replied with a beaming smiling face.

And that in itself had Louis all in a muddle. Because Louis liked Harry. Really liked him. Liked him to the point that it hurt, that it ached, to the point that it completely and utterly terrified him. Part of him wanted Harry to never leave his side. The other side, perhaps his more rational side, was scared shitless by the notion. Because it shouldn’t be normal, couldn’t be normal. Surely. Surely.

“Louis?”

Shaking his head to chase away the thoughts, Louis found Harry to be staring down at him quizzically. And, oh, not only had they reached the line, but they’d reached the very front.

“Oops,” he said airily, fishing the tickets out of his pocket.

“Silly Daddy,” Georgia chided, Louis humming in agreement as he set her down.

Being waved in, Georgia stayed by his side for exactly half a second before tearing off. Harry made to run after her but Louis reached out to tug him back. “Leave her,” he said in reply to Harry’s questioning look. “She can’t go far and she won’t.”

“How do you know?” Harry challenged.

“Because I know my daughter,” Louis replied, wincing at how sharp that sounded. He squeezing Harry’s hand in consolation. “Sorry. And besides, she-”

“Daddy, Harry, look! It’s a fairy made of ice! Look, look, come and see!

Louis ran a hand across his face while Harry muffled a giggle behind his hand. “Because she does that?” he guessed.

“Doesn’t stop,” Louis groaned, bringing Harry after him as they went in search of the little one. They found her barely a metre or so down the path, balancing on tip toes as she got as close as possible to the ice sculpture in question. “If I kiss it, will my lips get stuck?” Louis asked out loud, unlinking his fingers from Harry’s and leaning forward teasingly, lips puckered.

“No Daddy, that’s yucky!” Georgia screeched, trying to pull him away all the while laughing loudly.

Louis didn’t actually end up kissing the fairy, although he genuinely had been tempted to do so. He’d heard Harry’s camera shutter go off though and when he’d sent Harry a “really?” look, the other man had simply given him a thumbs up. Eh, it wasn’t as if Louis wasn’t going to request a copy later anyway. They’d then let Georgia continue to guide them round and round, back-tracking several times and spending an ungodly amount of time in the Ice Castle. It was only Louis’ freezing hands and Harry’s running, red nose that had eventually convinced her to leave.

It had next been nominated as Harry’s turn to choose an activity and he’d led them into the Christmas markets. Really, there hadn’t been any surprise in his choice and they’d wandered up and down the stalls for ages, picking up varying trinkets here and there – putting them back more often than not but that didn’t deter them. Harry had looked honest to God offended when both Louis and Georgia had spotted the mac and cheese stall and torn over with alarming amounts of enthusiasm. Best in London or not, it was mac and cheese and they were at Christmas markets and wouldn’t they rather have chocolate dipped pretzels or Hungarian doughnuts or mulled fruit?! The Tomlinsons answer to that was a resounding no. They had consented to roasting marshmallows over the fire pit though so all was not lost.

It was only when Georgia had slumped against Harry’s side, hand still engulfed in Louis’ that the pair actually looked at their phones. “Shit, it’s half nine,” Louis swore, pulling Georgia into his arms as he clambered to his feet. “She really needs to be in bed.” His face contorted into a deep frown. “And so do you. Aren’t you on the shift from hell tomorrow?”

“It’s not so bad,” Harry defended, bumping his nose against Louis’ cheek. “Once you get used to it.”

“Harry, it’s five in the morning and below zero and pitch black.”

“Hey, I was tryna be positive!”

Louis adjusted his grip on Georgia, hiding his awkward laugh in her hair. “Right, course. Um, sorry, then.”

Harry rolled his eyes fondly. “You don’t always have to be sorry Lou’. And anyway, get her home and you too. Be safe, yeah?”

“Me? What about you?” Louis teased, eyeing him up. “You came dressed like that on my tube alone after ten I might have some sinful thoughts.”

“Get off,” Harry chuckled, lightly bumping his shoulder. “But seriously though, thanks for inviting me today Lou’.” A shy smile spread across his features, dimples popping. “I really enjoyed it.”

Louis hoped the darkness was enough to cover his blush. “Yeah, well, think we enjoyed your company too Curly. You’ve made quite the impression.”

“On her?”

“On the both of us.” Harry stilled before he flung his arms around Louis, limbs wrapping around them like an octopus. “Careful Harold!” Louis cried, mirth clear in his tone. “Precious cargo here.”

Harry softened his grip, a hand coming to brush Georgia’s curls gently. “Yeah, she is.” He then looked at Louis, shuffling nervously. “Um…can I, like…” he gestured to Georgia’s cheek.

Louis tilted his head to the side until he got it, mouth forming an ‘o’. He then nodded, voice soft. “Of course you can. Silly Harry.”

“Silly me,” Harry echoed before leaning down to press a kiss to Georgia’s cheek. Louis swore his heart skipped a beat as she snuffled into his neck. Harry’s lips were then on his own cheek but it didn’t matter. Didn’t matter because the only image burned in his eyes, the only image he wanted to keep forever, was that of Harry kissing his daughter under a sea of fairy lights.

 

***

 

Harry was jolted awake by the sound of his phone ringing. Whining loudly in protest, Harry thumped around until he found it, pulling the screaming device closer. 1:16 A.M. What the bloody hell? He squinted at the screen. Who the hell wou-…

Liam

 Fuck.

 

***

Chapter Text

Liam

 Fuck.

Suddenly wide awake, Harry shot up in bed, answering the call. “Liam?!

The sound of sobbing came down the phone, broken and uncontrollable. “…Harry.” Fuck! Liam’s voice was barely even a whimper.

“Liam, what’s wrong?” Harry was already on his feet, feeling around for his clothes in the dark.

“I fucked up Harry. I fucked up so bad. Harry, Harry please.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Harry said on repeat, yanking on some jeans and whatever hoodie was by the door. “Liam, I’m coming, I’m on the way. Where are you? Are you okay?”

There was a sniffle. “I’m okay. I…Louis.”

Harry paused mid-reach for the door, stomach dropping. “Louis?!”

“Want him.”

Oh thank God.

“You want Louis?” Harry clarified, balancing the phone on his shoulder as he turned the key in the lock.

Want him so bad,” Liam whined, sounding so, so devastated. “But I…Harry, I’m so drunk and I…Georgia’s, Georgie’s home…But I, I…Louis…”

Harry’s eyes widened. Oh shit, of course. Liam didn’t want to barge into the flat a drunken, bawling mess and, honestly, how did that even occur to him given the state he was in?

“Li’, I’m going to Lou’s, okay?” Harry said, keeping his voice calm and reassuring. “I’ll head round the flat and send him out to find you. That alright?”

“Please Harry,” Liam pleaded. “God, mate…you’d be my mate forever. Like, more than forever. It’s late…” he suddenly seemed to realise. “God, no, Harry it’s late. Stay home. I’ll be fi-”

“Don’t you dare finish that,” Harry snapped, flipping to the über app, sending a prayer skywards when he found a driver nearby despite the hour. “You’re not fine and hell if I’m going to sleep when you’re like this. I’ll be at Lou’s in fifteen. Where are you so I know where to send him?”

“I’m in Brixton,” Liam whispered, voice hoarse. “Just like, some club down from the tube station.”

Harry hummed in affirmation as he slipped into the back of the car that had just pulled up, reeling off the address. Brixton wasn’t far from Louis’. Good. He went to say more when Liam cut him off,

“Look, Harry, sorry for all this. I…thanks but I…I wanna be alone. Can I be alone? I promise I’ll be okay.”

He sounded anything but but he hung up before Harry could point that out. Harry cursed and immediately called back. A second curse followed when Liam’s phone went unanswered. Harry alternated between chewing his lip and bouncing his leg the entire way to Louis’, earning him a suspicious eye or two from the driver up front. Said suspicion disappeared the second Harry shoved far more than the fare into his hand before asking him to wait. Delighted at the prospect of more money, the driver happily waited as Harry jogged up the flat’s three steps, pounding on the door. In hindsight, he really should have called Louis first. God knows he’d been sitting in the car long enough to do so.

He actually was scrolling through his contacts when the door in front of him was opened a crack, Louis’ head cautiously poking out. “Who the…Harry?!” The door was ripped open. “Harry, what the fuck are you doing here at…” Louis tilted Harry’s phone to gauge the time. “…quarter to two. Quarter to two?! What the blo-”

“It’s Liam!” Harry blurted, Louis going ramrod straight, lowering Harry’s phone very carefully.

“What?”

“Liam called, he’s at Brixton station,” Harry hastily explained, gesturing for the driver to wait once more before pushing Louis into the flat and towards his bedroom. “Louis, I don’t know what happened but he’s hysterical.” Harry flipped on the light, fossicking through Louis’ drawers and pulling out whatever clothes were on top. “He was drunk but Louis, he was crying. Like, honest to God sobbing. He wanted to talk to you and he wouldn’t say why and I-”

“Fuck!”

Harry whirled around, nearly knocked off balance when Louis all but wrenched the clothes out of his hands. He was tearing off his pyjamas with alarming ferocity, stumbling in his haste to stuff on his jeans. “Louis?”

“Zayn. He went out with Zayn,” Louis said shortly, Harry’s eyes widening. “They…A date. It was supposed to be a date. I…Fuck! I completely forgot.” Grabbing his phone and wallet, Louis jerked a thumb towards the door. “That über for me?”

“Yeah.”

“Thanks Harry!” Louis got halfway down the hallway before he came to a halt, stopping so suddenly he had to grasp at the wall to prevent himself from face-planting. He then turned to Harry, expression so soft. Harry frowned because, why? “Harry…are you here to mind Georgia so I can, you know…?” Harry nodded, nearly toppling over himself when Louis flung himself around him. “Thank you. Fucking godsend you are. Don’t know what I ever did to deserve you.” He was gone just as quickly, hastily calling over his shoulder. “Be home as soon as I can. Sleep! Rosie will be fine; she sleeps through anything! Call me if she doesn’t. Ta Harry!”

The door slammed shut, Louis’ lilting Doncaster accent wafting in from the street as he climbed into the waiting car. And he…

Harry frowned. Wait a second…Rosie. Louis had called her Rosie. Harry grinned. Well, well, well.

 

***

 

The drive to Brixton was probably the longest fifteen minutes of Louis’ life. He’d practically given the poor driver a heart attack when he’d yelled at him to stop, spotting Liam’s hunched over form just off the street. Barely even remembering to pay the driver, Louis hurtled across the road, flinging himself down beside his best friend and pulling him into his arms.

“Oh Li’…”

Liam gave a weak cry, curling into Louis’ chest and desperately fisting his hands in the back of Louis’ hoodie. Louis returned the grip just as tightly, muttering every profanity he could think of under his breath, aiming them all at Zayn. Because how could he do this? How could anyone reduce Liam to this state, let alone his own fiancé?

“Babe,” Louis soothed, nuzzling Liam’s cheek tenderly. “What happened?”

Liam shook his head mutely, stubbornly refusing to move when Louis attempted to pry him off. Louis huffed, tutting softly as he brushed Liam’s hair off his face. He then groaned when a fine drizzle started. Cheers London, cheers.

“Li’, love, come on,” he tried once more, voice still soft and gentle. “Let’s get out of the rain, yeah? Find you someplace warm to sober up.”

His best friend’s body gave a great shudder before he gave a tiny nod. “Yeah, okay,” he rasped, lifting his head off Louis’ shoulder. “Coffee?” he asked around a pathetic sniff. “Can we grab a coffee?” And shit, Liam didn’t even drink coffee of his own volition. It was bad then. Bad.

“We can grab whatever you want,” Louis promised, helping Liam to his feet and leading him down the street.

They ended up stumbling into a McDonald’s, the only thing open at this ungodly hour. Louis ushered Liam into a booth by the window before ordering a coffee and a tea, making sure to grab more sugar than was generally acceptable for Liam. Setting them both down, Louis slid into the seat across, taking his tea before pushing Liam’s over. Liam glumly reached for the steaming cup and that was when Louis saw it, face paling.

Or perhaps, rather, didn’t see it. Because it was gone. The ring was gone. The ring Liam had held onto vigilantly for seven months was gone.

Disbelieving, Louis latched onto Liam’s hand, tracing the faint tan-line. “Li’…” he croaked. “What…?”

Because he’d thought, been so confident, that this had all been a misunderstanding, a small bump. That with a proper talk, Liam and Zayn would work everything out and things would go back to the way they had been. That autumn wedding would still be on, the honeymoon destination would still be a toss up between New York and Fiji, the bickering over Louis’ Spiderman comics would still be a monthly occurrence, but this…Louis swallowed thickly. This wasn’t that. This was final. This was absolute.

“Liam, what happened?”

Setting his cup down – and when had he found the time to down half of that?! – Liam looked shockingly sober, eyes haunted. “We’re over.”

Louis’ jaw dropped. “Liam Payne, what?! What the fuck happened? I thought…”

“I know what you thought,” Liam spat, Louis flinching at the harshness. Liam ran a hand down this face. “Shit, Lou’, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”

Louis peered up through his lashes. “How did you mean it?”

Liam shrugged. “I meant…you were the one that thought Zayn and I could fix this. I wanted to fix this but I…looking back now, I don’t think I ever believed it.” He then scoffed. “Zayn clearly didn’t think so. Like, ever.”

Louis’ eyes narrowed, sitting straighter in the booth. “What does that mean?”

“It means…” Liam turned to gaze out the window, watching the rain run down the glass. “It means the only reason Zayn even agreed to come out tonight was because you made him.”

“What?!” Louis demanded. “I didn’t…! But he…he loves you!” He insisted.

“He really doesn’t.”

Louis paused at Liam’s dejected tone, coaxing his friend’s eyes back to his. “Explain, please?”

Sculling the dregs of his coffee, Liam nodded, taking a deep breath before starting. “So, like, Zayn and I agreed to meet. You knew that. We were meeting at a club, which, yeah, maybe wasn’t my first choice but it was what Zayn wanted, you know?”

Louis’ hands curled into fists because yes, he knew. Knew how manipulative Zayn could be, how underhanded he could be when he wanted to, how he always got his way.

“But anyway, we got a table in the corner and we talked. He…he finally told me why he left.” Liam grimaced when he looked at Louis. “I’m guessing he already filled you in on that bit? On everything he’s doing now-”

“And who he’s doing it with.”

Liam waved him off. “Yeah, that too. But he…he told me he didn’t see us having a future together anymore. I told him that was a load of crap…well, I actually told him “bullshit”.”

“You go Li’,” Louis breathed.

“And Zayn…he just did that look, you know? Like, he gets it and you don’t…”

Louis’ eyes narrowed because, again, yes.

“But then,” Liam shook his head. “It all changed so fast. Next thing I knew, he was saying we could try. That there were some parts of our relationship that were perfect, that we didn’t get everything wrong. And maybe we could see, you know? Just see…See if we still felt the same.” Liam hands shook as he sobbed, head bowing. “We didn’t. We absolutely did not.”

Louis frowned in confusion. “Liam, what…”

“Louis, I fucked him.”

He choked, legitimately choked. “You what?!

Liam’s face was frighteningly blank. “I went back to his flat and fucked him.”

“Li’, no…Jesus Li.” Louis swore, hands coming to fist in his hair. “Are you completely mental? Why would you-”

“Because I love him!”

Louis all but scrambled over the table, ignoring the disgruntled holler from the staff manning the counters. He caught Liam just as he crumpled, rocking him ever so slightly.

“I love him Louis and I…I thought I could show him that and I…god, Lou’, I was so pathetic. I was crying and he…it was like he didn’t even care. Like…”

“Like it was a goodbye fuck,” Louis said bluntly because it needed to be said.

Liam wilted. “Yeah, just like that.” He scrubbed at his eyes tiredly, red-rimmed as they were. “And that…that was it. I just lost it. I swear to god I nearly slapped him Lou’.”

“I would have done more than that,” Louis growled.

Liam managed a hiccoughed laugh. “I know. But I …I couldn’t do it Louis. I was just all too tired, like I didn’t even have the energy to get mad.” Empathetic eyes turned to him. “I get what you meant now; about being ‘just so tired’. It’s shit.”

“Yeah, it really is.”

“I pegged the ring at him though.”

Louis hooted loudly, throwing his head back only to then bury it in Liam’s shoulder. “You’re shitting me.”

“I’m not.”

And…what? Liam actually looked ashamed.

“Oh for fuck’s sake Payno, he deserved that.” Louis then grinned wickedly. “Did it get him in the balls?”

Liam smacked him playfully. “No, you twat. But it was quite a forceful throw so hopefully it’ll leave a mark.”

“I like evil Liam,” Louis cackled, collecting their rubbish and gesturing for Liam to follow. “Now, come on,” he said, consulting his phone. “We gotta get back because Harry’s shift starts in an hour.”

Liam’s face turned into something resembling appalled and he started rambling so fast Louis could barely keep up as he was hauled back onto the street. “Oh my god, does he really?...he didn’t…Oh no, that’s awful! He’s going to be so tired…Breakfast, we should make him breakfast. Does he eat breakfast?...Well, who doesn’t but…it is early…Does he eat now or later?...I wonder if Harry likes continental or English?”

“Liam,” Louis chuckled, hailing a cab and pushing his friend into the back. “Yes Harry eats breakfast. He’s hipster, not an alien. And if you want to make him breakfast, fine. He won’t expect you to though. He also eats anything,” he tacked on when Liam went to protest. “He’d be impressed with a bowl of Weetabix.”

Liam pouted. “That’s not fair.”

Louis shrugged. “Didn’t say it was fair. Just said it was Harry.”

Liam accepted that and they lasted the rest of the way in silence. Piling out, Liam paid the fare as Louis unlocked the door. A quick peek into his bedroom showed it to be empty. Back-tracking to the living room, Louis rolled his eyes at the sight of Harry sprawled across the sofa, snoring softly.

“Silly Harry,” he muttered. “My bed’s always open.”

“Is it now?”

Louis shot Liam a lewd look. “Really? Already making comments like that?” He headed to the kitchen, finding some waffles in the freezer, holding them up for Liam’s inspection. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Liam agreed, slipping past him to the fruit basket. “I’m guessing fruit over chocolate spread.”

“Undoubtedly.”

“What? Like you’re any different Tommo?”

He had a point, Louis just didn’t feel like acknowledging it. He jumped a good foot though when a voice came from the doorway. “Is this your no hangover breakfast?”

“Warn a man Curly!” Louis chided, though he was smiling as he turned to Harry. The other man merely smiled back, lumbering into the kitchen and wrapping his arms around Liam.

“Okay Li’?”

“No,” Liam said honestly, “But, thank you. I was lucky to have you there for me.”

“Always,” Harry replied, tightening the hug for a moment before pulling away. As he went to lean past Liam to turn the kettle on, he caught sight of the missing ring, eyes widening much as Louis’ had. “Oh,” was all he said.

Liam smiled thinly. “Yep, oh.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry offered.

“Don’t,” Liam said, shaking his head and fishing out the spare tea bags from the drawer Louis always seemed to forget they were in. “Just, let me make you breakfast.”

“You…” Harry finally seemed to realise what they were doing, mouth opening and closing a couple of times, making Louis snort in amusement. “Liam, no! You don’t have to make me breakfast! You just had, like, what I assume was the worst night ever.”

“Oh, you mean the one where I got pity-fucked by my ex-fiancé and then dumped on the street?”

It was harder to say who looked more stunned out of the three of them, although Liam went an impressive shade of red while Harry went an equally impressive shade of green.

“Liam…”

“Sorry,” Liam gasped, already fighting back tears once more and Louis was swooping in again – again, too many times. “Fuck, Harry…I didn’t…”

“Liam, that’s disgusting.” Both Louis and Liam shot around at Harry’s whip-like tone. His eyes were burning, hands firmly planted on his hips. “No one should be disrespected like that. You deserve better.”

Liam’s bottom lip trembled and he probably would have lost it completely had not a creak sounded from the hallway, followed by a panicked gasp. Louis sighed heavily.

“Georgia-Rose Tomlinson, here please, now.” Sock-clad feet shuffled around the corner, Georgia’s hands knotting together as she looked between them all tearfully. Extracting himself from Liam, Louis dropped into a crouch, brushing a lock of hair off her face sadly. “How much of that did you hear?”

Georgia’s chin tucked into her chest. “All of it,” she confessed.

Liam winced and Louis couldn’t help but agree – language – but he also couldn’t contest it. What was done was done.

“Daddy,” Georgia asked, placing a hand on his knee, forehead pinched into a frown. “Can I borrow your phone?”

Louis blinked. “Why?”

She merely shook her head. “Please?”

Bewildered, Louis handed the device over. Georgia stared at it a long time before climbing onto the sofa, sliding a finger across the screen and punching in the code to unlock it. Glancing at Liam, he was met with similarly puzzled look. He was about to ask Georgia for an explanation once more when he heard her speak and-…who was she calling at 4A.M.?!

“Geo-”

“Zaynie, it’s Georgia.”

Louis felt the breath leave his lungs, Liam also making an aborted sound. Louis went to snatch the phone away when a warm hand curled around his wrist. Whirling around, he frowned at Harry’s contemplative expression. “Let her?” Harry requested.

“Let her what?” Louis hissed.

Harry shrugged. “Why don’t you wait and see?”

Louis would have argued except Georgia started talking again. “No, Daddy’s here but…Zaynie, I don’t think we can be friends anymore.” She gave a quivering sniff. “No Zayn, I’m sorry but I…Liam was crying Zayn and I…I really like Liam. He’s my friend and he’s Daddy’s friend and he’s really nice and I…I don’t want to see my friends cry.”

Liam’s hand slipped into Louis’ and Louis gripped it tightly, eyes riveted to the little girl moulded into the sofa across the room.

“If people at school are mean to Riley and Violet I don’t talk to them anymore and I…I don’t think I want to talk to you anymore either…” Her face contorted into frown as she listened for a bit and the sharpness of her next words took even Louis aback, a viciousness there he had never been privy too. “No Zayn! You were the one that went away! Liam cried so much when you went away. He loved you and you hurt him and that’s not okay! You never hurt the ones you love.” Her breath hitched but it was Liam who held Louis back this time. “And I know I like playing with you but every time Liam sees you he gets sad and Daddy gets sad too or angry and Daddy got in trouble from Liam when you came over and…I don’t want anyone to be mad or sad. I’m sorry Zaynie,” she said, voice dropping to a whisper. “But we can’t be friends anymore. You really hurt Liam this time. I want to see Liam smile. You don’t make him smile. Not anymore. I think you need to go away.” She squeezed her eyes shut before she managed to gasp out, “bye Zaynie!”

Nothing could hold Louis back that time, scooping up his daughter as she dissolved into tears. Tucking her into his chest, Louis carefully took the phone from her grip, pressing it to his ear.

“G, I-”

“Malik.” Zayn’s end of the line went dead silent. “What my daughter said.”

With that, Louis hung up.

 

***

 

They’d had breakfast together, the four of them, at the most unsightly hour of the morning. Harry had then headed off to work, dressed mainly in Liam’s clothes due to their similar sizes, though how he’d managed to add his own flair to the bland plaid was a mystery to both Louis and Liam. The pair had then been preparing to consume buckets of tea to make it through the day when Georgia had suggested they all just go to bed, that she’d lie with them until they woke up and promising to read if she got bored. Normally, Louis would have labelled it as unfair to her. Today though, he labelled it a godsend and blindly agreed. He’d dragged Liam to bed and they’d both passed out seconds after hitting the pillow, Georgia nestled between them.

Louis was the first to stir just shy of lunchtime. Georgia was silently mouthing along to the book she was reading – Prisoner of Azkaban?! Damn she was fast – but had given him a crinkly-eyed smile after realising he was awake. Together they had read the next chapter aloud, Liam coming to a paragraph or so from the end. Georgia graciously offered him the chance to read the last line, something he pretended to be honoured by, before putting the book away.

It was over lunch that they agreed to do something they’d been putting off for months: repainting Liam and Zayn’s room. Louis had let Georgia pick the colour they’d use to paint over Zayn’s graffiti – god knew white would never work so feature wall it was – and who would have thought choosing a colour was such a big deal? Georgia had um-ed and ah-ed her way up and down the paint aisle at the DIY store for close to a half hour before finally tentatively picking a bleu de France. Louis had been pleasantly surprised by the choice – blue enough to still be classified as an “Elsa-colour” (apparently) but it was also a mature enough shade for a modern home. Throwing open the windows despite the chill, Liam had taken a cruel sense of satisfaction in using some of the shirts Zayn had left behind as drop sheets and if he’d gotten teary-eyed at a couple of them, Louis had been wise enough to give him space and keep his mouth shut.

Between waiting for coats to dry, Louis had had a mini-war with himself before eventually calling his mum. As he’d straight up told her, there wasn’t anything wrong, he just wanted to tell her what was going on, to keep her informed, to tell someone. Johannah had listened with all the understanding and compassion of a mother, thanking him for letting her know before asking to speak to Liam. Louis had passed over the phone and even though Liam came back blotchy faced some time later, it was as though a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Louis had hugged him as he’d taken the phone back, saying his goodbyes before hanging up. And yeah, he felt better. No more secrets, no more hiding, no more lies.

Lying in bed not long after dinner, Georgia asleep and himself and Liam not far behind, Louis rolled over when he heard Liam sigh heavily. “Li’?”

Liam shook his head, the faintest trace of amusement in his eyes. “You know,” he mumbled, “I almost wanna ask the same thing you asked me two months ago.”

Louis threw his mind back, trying to think what he’d asked Liam and then, oh, that.

Liam chuckled at his expression. “Yeah, that.”

Louis poked him. “I’m going to give you the same answer you gave me Payno: maybe I’d like to love you too but…it is what it is.” He shrugged, much as Liam had that night. “Besides, you don’t want this, you don’t want me.”

“I know I don’t,” Liam sighed, studying the ceiling. “But, you know, if you and Harry had never gotten together…I think we would have ended up there.”

Louis couldn’t help but agree. “Perhaps we would have, on a night like tonight. But on a night like last week? On a night in two months? Not so much. And hey,” he quipped, Liam going on high-alert at his teasing tone. “I did offer to set you up with Niall and Ed once upon a time. Fancy giving either of them a go?”

“Ugh, no!” Liam’s nose screwed up in distaste, Louis laughing loudly. “As wonderful blokes as they are just…no Louis, no.”

Louis hummed. “They are wonderful.”

“They all are,” Liam corrected, Louis rolling his eyes at the insinuation.

“Yes, okay, Harry is the most wonderful of them all. He also happens to be mine Liam, mine, so keep your grubby paws to yourself.”

Liam gave Louis that special smile he had, the one that was made up entirely of sunshine and light. “He is Lou’, he really is.”

And Louis could only agree because, he was, he really was.

 

***

 

“Home!”

“’bout time!” Niall called from the sofa, xbox controller balanced on one knee, beer on the other. “Where’s me cookies? You promised me cookies Haz!”

“I got ‘em,” Harry laughed, slipping off his boots and setting them by the door. Rummaging through his satchel, he handed the bag over to Niall, slumping down beside his friend. “You know I hate you,” he said, watching as Niall proceeded to stuff a grand total of five – yes, Harry was counting – cookies into his mouth.

“And why’s that?” Niall asked, spraying him with crumbs as he let out a bellowing laugh. “Cause I wouldn’t sacrifice my sleep just because you had to play hero on Sunday? Sorry, but nope. Tuesday is my day off.”

“Worst friend ever,” Harry grumbled, kicking him half-heartedly before getting to his feet wearily. Even though he’d crashed early last night, he was still behind on sleep and Niall had been immune to his begging and adamantly refused to cover him. Deciding he’d turn in early once more, Harry had his hand on the door to his room when Niall called out,

“Oh, and by the way, I’d be quiet if I were you!”

Harry hesitated, fingers millimetres away from the wood. “Why?”

“Dunno,” Niall said, a shit-eating grin on his face. “Certainly not because there’s a certain Tomlinson passed out in your bed.”

Harry stared at Niall blankly before gasping, all but flinging his door open and…and there, just as Niall had said, was Louis; fast asleep and oblivious to the noises around him. He’d clearly came straight from an on-sight job, boots and hard hat unceremoniously dumped at the side of the bed, high-visibility jacket still on one shoulder. His hair was plastered to his forehead from sweat and the only sign that Louis was still even alive was the barest puffing in and out of his chest.

Feeling Niall come up beside him, Harry dropped his voice to a murmur. “What on earth Niall?”

Niall held up his hands. “How should I know? Turned up here an hour or so ago asking if you were in. When I said you weren’t his face dropped, like a kicked puppy I swear Harry. So I told him he could wait in your room, that you wouldn’t be far away. Went to take a piss and came back to this.” His eyes were fond. “Couldn’t bear to wake him, could I? I phoned Liam, he said to let him stay, him and Georgia are fine.” He then nudged Harry into the room. “Go, snuggle up to your man.”

“He’s not-” Harry started to splutter only to realise that actually, yes, he was.

“He is,” Niall confirmed, catching sight of Harry’s wonderstruck face. “But, fair warning, he also stinks like a sheep’s arse so, you know, there’s that.”

Harry promptly shut the door. Niall’s indignant protest could be heard from the other side but Harry ignored him. Peeling off his jeans, Harry didn’t even bother removing his shirt before climbing in next to Louis. Louis whined at the jostling though he sighed contentedly when Harry smoothed a hand down his back. Harry couldn’t help but bump their noses together lovingly.

“Sweet dreams Lou’.”

 

***

Chapter Text

 

There hadn’t been much to say the morning after Louis had woken up in Harry’s bed. He’d been borderline mortified and also a little put out that no one had thought to wake him – apparently it made him look like a freeloader or something but Harry didn’t quite understand. Either way, Louis had only been woken by his alarm going off. Harry had already been awake but doing a stellar job of pretending not to be because, well, he thought staring at someone while they slept was something that only happened in romance novels and was actually pretty creepy. Louis had then stammered his way through an explanation that Harry had quite honestly heard none of; no, he’d been too busy watching the way Louis rubbed the sleep out of his eyes or how his tousled hair shone in the morning light.

But that had been Wednesday morning and it was currently Sunday evening. Harry was in the middle of pulling on the shirt he’d laid out earlier in the day while down the hall the sound of Louis showering could be heard. An afternoon football match – Harry, Liam, and Georgia versus Louis and Niall – had left them all sweating profusely. But while Liam and Niall had taken Georgia back to the flat, Harry had gone to his own, Louis on his heels because they were going on a date. An actual date. An actual wine-and-dine in-a-restaurant date.

If the word was still being used, Harry would have described himself as giddy.

Even as he was pondering which pair of boots to wear, a muffled shriek came from the bathroom. “Louis?!” Harry was already in the hall.

“What the fuck is wrong with your shower?” Louis screeched, door open just a crack so he could scowl at the younger man. “It just went ice cold.”

Harry’s face turned guilty. “Oh, yeah, it does that sometimes.”

Louis’ eyes narrowed. “And you never thought to mention that?”

“It doesn’t do it that often,” Harry reasoned, scratching his neck sheepishly because it actually kind of did.

Louis leered at him for a long, long moment. He then slammed the door shut. “Think I just lost an inch or so from that traumatic experience.”

Harry gaped at the shut door before going bright red. God, the things that came out of Louis’ mouth sometimes. Willing away the image of a naked Louis and everything that hung below his belt, Harry shuffled awkwardly back to his own room. Right, boots, he needed boots. Eventually deciding on a suede pair, Harry stuffed them on, running a hand through his curls a couple of times just as he heard the bathroom door open. A few seconds later Louis was in his doorway, bouncing on his toes.

“This okay?”

Harry’s heart skipped a beat. Sure, it was just a t-shirt with bloody fangs of all things on it, but when put together with the sinful black jeans, the matching blazer, and that perfect quiff: deadly. Lethal. Number one victim: Harry’s heart. And his cock. But he didn’t want to dwell on that.

“More than alright,” he finally managed to say, Louis arching an eyebrow.

“Take it you like it.” He looked all too pleased with himself and Harry would shower him with compliments all day if it meant he got that kind of reaction. Louis’ eyes then softened. “But you clean up nicely too Curly.” He ran his fingers across the collar of Harry’s burgundy polka-dot shirt. “And look, you even learnt how to do up buttons since we last went out. Such a clever boy.” His grin was cheeky as Harry pouted.

“What a riot you are,” Harry deadpanned, shaking his head as Louis cackled, turning on his heel and heading for the front door. “Now let’s go before we’re late.” He held out his hand and there was only the barest of hesitations before Louis slipped his in, gingerly interlacing their fingers. “This okay?” Harry asked as he locked up.

Louis screwed up his nose, swinging their joined hands as if testing it out. “Yeah, think so.”

“Let me know if it’s not,” Harry said seriously, waiting for Louis to nod before giving a little nod of his own.

“So where are these grand reservations Styles?” Louis asked as he entered the tube station.

“Doesn’t that ruin the surprise?” Harry countered, having to glance at the tube map at the bottom of the stairs before nudging Louis onto the eastbound platform.

“Didn’t realise it was a secret,” Louis drawled though he dropped the subject easily enough.

The ride through town took them a good half hour, depositing them at Canary Wharf, Harry confidently guiding Louis up to Plateau restaurant. Even as they were being seated, Louis was chuckling. “What?” Harry asked.

He merely shook his head incredulously. “You are possibly the only person who could find alfresco dining at an indoor restaurant.”

“Well, it’s the next best thing when it’s this cold out,” Harry said defensively, suddenly self-conscious of the artificial grass underfoot and the numerous trees dotted throughout the room.

“Don’t worry,” Louis said reassuringly, thanking the waiter as he poured them water. “It’s very…you.”

Harry playfully nudged his foot under the table. “You’re making that sound bad.”

Louis eyed him over the rim of his glass. “Not essentially bad. Love-hate. Love-to-hate?” He sounded uncertain but eventually shrugged. “Whatever it is, it’s cute.”

Harry flushed. “I’m not cute,” he grumbled.

“Hate to break it you Harold, but you kind of are.”

The sincerity in Louis’ voice made Harry go light-headed, butterflies fluttering in his chest. He hooked his foot around Louis’ ankle, Louis’ smile slipping from teasing into something that more looked like fondness. Harry didn’t know what to do with that, besides lap it up willingly and hopefully project the same feelings back through his own smile.

Dinner progressed actually quite like a normal date. Harry nearly couldn’t believe it. Realistically, dinner was dinner and they were both adults but Louis had been involved and somehow in Harry’s mind seemed to correlate that with imminent disaster. Maybe disaster was the wrong word; complication was more accurate. And yet, miraculously, it didn’t. They had all that silly conversation that all first dates had – likes, dislikes, favourite movies and bands, tales from childhood, misadventures with Niall and Liam and Zayn respectively. And maybe Louis had balked over Harry fronting the whole cheque but Harry had been adamant and refused to back down.

No, the night had only started to fall apart when, while walking around the wharves, Harry had pulled Louis up, pressing their lips together. Louis had latched onto the front of his shirt, hands bunching up the material as he’d returned the kiss. Harry tilted his head, giving himself better access and coaxing Louis closer. He came willingly, lips soft against Harry’s.

“Love how you taste,” Harry murmured.

“What?” Louis giggled, snuffling into his neck.

Rather than answering, Harry lifted Louis’ chin up once more and continued kissing him. Tugging Louis closer to the side of the path, clearing the way for other pedestrians, Harry ran his tongue over the seam of Louis’ lips. Louis didn’t hesitate before letting him in, a tiny, breathy moan being his only response as Harry licked into his mouth. Shifting his hands from Louis’ cheeks to the small of his back, Harry deepened the kiss, fire spreading through his veins because Louis. Louis was an aphrodisiac, he had to be; the feel of his skin through his shirt dizzying, the taste of his mouth intoxicating.

“Forever,” Harry breathed, a foot shifting in between Louis’ legs, leaving barely an inch between them. “Want to do this forever.”

The next second Harry almost lost his feet as Louis literally tore himself away. He only put a half-metre between them but it may as well have been the world for what it felt like. His eyes were guarded and his posture stiff, rigid, like an impenetrable fortress.

“Louis?” It was all he could think to say because, for the life of him, Harry had no idea what was going on.

Slow,” Louis snapped, holding his hands up when Harry tried to reach for him because he honestly sounded panicked. “You promised me we could do slow.”

Harry frowned. “…we are.”

Louis shook his head firmly. “No. No, this…this is not…”

“Louis, we had dinner. We’re kissing. It’s what people do on dates.” And if there was an edge of exasperation in his tone by the end, Harry couldn’t help it.

The shorter man started to pace in the tiniest route, barely two steps in each direction. “No, I know, I know. I just…Space, please, Harry, I need space. You can’t…not like that.”

Harry actually pulled Louis up, now more concerned than frustrated. “Can’t what? What did I do wrong?”

“Not you,” Louis said immediately, which…wasn’t he already contradicting himself? “Harry, I’m not gonna say it’s not you, it’s me-”

“But you are.” Because he was. He most definitely was.

“Fine, take it like that.” Louis’ tone was harsh before his eyes widened, slapping a hand across his mouth. He then sighed, his turn to reach for Harry, gently placing a hand on his chest. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap. And I’m sorry, there’s…there’s just a lot going on in my head. I like you Harry, I really like you. So much it…” He shook his head. “I don’t want to mess this up.” Pleading blue eyes turned to Harry. “I don’t want to ruin this and the only way I know how to do that is one step at a time. And I…how do I say it…”

“Your steps are smaller?” Harry suggested, watching Louis nod fervently in relief.

“Yes! Yes, exactly! Baby steps!”

Harry dared to press a kiss to Louis’ forehead. “Baby steps. But, like, together.”

Louis gave his hand a squeeze. “Together.”

 

***

 

Nearly four weeks later Harry found himself wondering why he’d ever made such a stupid agreement. Okay, the agreement itself wasn’t stupid – after all, communication was key – but he really shouldn’t have let Louis set the pace. Because, truthfully, Louis had no pace. Louis was basically a stand-still. He had a lane and he was comfortable in it, so comfortable that he refused to be budged. He had gestures that were allowed – hand-holding, simple kisses, somewhat lingering hugs – but every time Harry attempted anything even the slightest bit over that line they would be back to arguing. It was frustrating and it was tiring.

Not to mention confusing.

Confusing because every single one of these instances in which Harry had dared push, there was always a moment in which Louis would start to reciprocate. Then his attitude would change one-eighty and it was like trying to diffuse a bomb. Harry couldn’t even start to pinpoint the problem. He still babysat Georgia on football nights, he was still invited out on little day trips, hell! – he and Louis had even been on a date or two but…

Needless to say, after close to a month, Harry had had enough. Enough of the treatment? Probably yes. But, more accurately, he’d had enough with the lack of explanation.

Which was why he was grumpily stuffing croissants onto the display shelves while constantly eyeing the clock, just waiting for Louis and Georgia to make their usual Monday morning appearance. Even as he was doing so, his conversation from last night with Niall was still fresh in his mind.

 

“I just don’t get it Niall!”

“Well, from the sounds of it, neither does he,” Niall pointed out, tugging Harry onto his bed and putting an end to his haphazard room “cleaning” – which, yes, was more like Harry hurling things across the room without thought.

“But anything Niall, he won’t do anything,” Harry stressed. “It’s like, Louis makes every decision and even then he can’t seem to agree on what he decides. Hot and cold Niall.”

Niall ran a hand through his hair sympathetically. “Bit not good him doing that.”

“No, it’s not,” Harry agreed, whining when Niall’s fingers got snagged in a knot. “And, like, I know sex isn’t everything in a relationship but god, we haven’t even gotten into full-blown making out, let alone blo-”

A hand was slapped over his mouth. “Too much!” Niall cried, shaking his head furiously. “Too much information Harry. I do not need to know all that. Keep me out of your sex life please. Or, in your case, lack thereof.”

Harry glowered at him for only a moment before sighing, removing the hand, voice dropping into a whisper. “Ni’, help?”

Niall tapped his chin before shrugging. “Can’t. My only advice is the obvious thing: talk. Just go and sit Louis down and tell him you don’t like how he’s treating you. Who knows, he might not even realise he’s doing anything wrong. ‘s’all I can give you mate. Just call him out on it.”

 

Sure, call Louis out on it, that would be a good one. Harry then scolded himself. Louis wasn’t unreasonable. And like Jay had told him at Christmas, he really was sweet he just…Louis sometimes needed steering back in the right direction. He never truly meant to hurt anyone. So yes, Harry would organise a time and they would talk, like adults, mature adults.

Little did Harry know that Louis and Liam had had a conversation of their own at the same time.

 

Hearing the door behind him open, Louis sighed, knowing there was only one person it could be. In his peripheral vision he could see Liam’s boots as he came to stand beside him, silence spreading between them until Liam finally dropped down onto the step. Lifting his cigarette to his lips in an attempt to stall whatever conversation Liam had planned, Louis could only shout in outrage when Liam plucked said cigarette from his fingers and dropped it to the ground. “Liam!”

He was levelled with a stern look. “Don’t even bother Lou’. You’re sulking, actually sulking, on the back step. Fill me in?”

Louis slid a foot across the ground, taking a deep breath before chickening out, shaking his head.

Liam shoved him none too gently, eyes hurt, making Louis’ own widen. “Fine. Good to know the honesty system’s already out the window.”

“Li’…”

“No, you don’t wanna talk, okay.”

“No, not okay,” Louis corrected, placing a hand on Liam’s knee as he went to stand. “Please Li’, don’t. I…It’s about Harry.”

Liam lowered himself back down, hand coming to settle over Louis’. “Can I say I pretty much already figured that?” Louis pouted and his friend boxed his ears lightly. “What about Harry?”

“…I like him.”

Liam’s forehead formed deep creases. “I know. You’ve made that more than clear.”

Louis brought his knees up to his chest, hugging them tightly. “No, you don’t know. Because, yes, okay, I like him but Liam…I’m scared. I’m so scared. I like him so much that it frightens me. Like, I’m actually terrified.” Louis’ hands shook where they rested. “My head says take it slow but my heart can’t. I think about him all the time. I can’t not think about him. I go to the shops and “oh, Harry would like that” or in the car, “I wonder if Harry has this song on his iPod?” I…”

“Oh Lou’…” Liam shifted closer. “You don’t like him. You love him.”

“That’s just it!” Louis cried, leaping to his feet, hands curled into fists. “We’ve barely even started dating! It’s not normal to already be missing him every day he’s not in my bed or to be saying in my head Georgia-Rose Eliza Tomlinson-Styles…okay, that’s too long but you get the idea!”

“Stylinson.”

Louis spun on his heel, bewildered. “What?”

“It’d be Georgia-Rose Stylinson,” Liam said looking altogether too proud of himself. “Like Brangelina.”

Louis screwed his nose up. “Ew, no! And anyway, she’s a Tomlinson first so regardless, my name is going at the start.”

“And what, Tomyles? Tomlinyles? What even is that?” Liam snorted and, begrudgingly, Louis had to agree. Liam then got to his feet, wrapping his arms around Louis. “And Lou’, it’s okay. There’s no set time-line for falling in love with someone. For some people it takes years, for some it takes only seconds. When you know, you know.”

“I think I know,” Louis confessed, fingers clenching up in Liam’s shirt.

“Then you know.”

 

Hearing the shop door open, Harry, despite everything, couldn’t help but beam as Louis walked in, Georgia by his side. That smile then dropped away when he saw how disgruntled Georgia looked. Louis, on the other hand, looked absolutely miserable and no, no, no! He hadn’t looked like that since before his parent’s divorce and why oh why had they gone backwards? Something was wrong.

“Louis?”

Louis jumped at his tone, probably because of its unexpected urgency. His eyes then flickered between Harry and Georgia, understanding crossing his face. “It’s fine,” he murmured, going to stroke his daughter’s head and reeling when she slapped his hand away. Just like that, Louis’ face turned viper-sharp. “Go and sit down right now,” he hissed.

Harry was sure his mouth was hanging open as he watched Georgia rock between defiance and fear, finally backing down and stomping over to a booth. Her attitude only seemed to send Louis’ even further plummeting down, voice no louder than a whisper when he ordered. And yes, Harry noticed that he didn’t order for himself and that Louis hadn’t even looked at the money he’d slid across the counter, lost once more in his little word and distractedly sliding in opposite Georgia.

Hastily serving the next two customers, Harry impatiently waited for them to wander out the door before abandoning his position, coming to slide in beside Louis, rubbing his arm gently. “What’s going on Lou’?”

“Nothing,” Louis mumbled, going to tear off a piece of Georgia’s pastry before changing his mind, hand flopping onto the tabletop. “Just not a good morning.”

“Daddy’s sad because I’m angry at him.”

The statement came from Georgia. Harry was shocked at her bluntness while Louis’ eyes narrowed. “You watch it little lady or I’ll start to get angry at you.”

And – Jesus – did both Tomlinsons have to be as stubborn as each other? In an attempt to disperse the situation, Harry kept his voice soft as he spoke to Georgia. “Can I ask why you’re angry at Daddy?”

“Because he’s a liar.” Harry gaped and Louis sunk down, a shaking hand coming to cover his eyes. “Daddy promised me – he promised Harry! – that he would come to my parent day at school right before home time but now he’s not coming. Daddy says he has to work! And Daddy promised he wouldn’t work so much anymore because Liam’s home.” She started hiccoughing on her words, eyes brimming with tears. “But now he won’t come!”

“The meeting changed suddenly!” Louis exclaimed, face desperate and begging as it turned towards Harry. “I had cleared my schedule but then Milton Corp. had to go and change everything and it’s a big contract – I can’t risk losing it!” He grasped Georgia’s hands. “You know I wanted to be there love, you know that.”

She yanked her hands back. “But you’re not gonna be there!” Her voice was near a wail. “You promised! You promised.”

“Georgie, sweetheart, I’m sorry,” Louis tried, the little girl only shaking her head. “I’ve done all I can. I’m sorry, but that’s life. Now, let’s go before we’re late.”

“’m not going,” Georgia snapped, folding her arms.

“Rosie, hey, come on now,” Harry said with a frown. “I get why you’re upset but this isn’t Louis’-”

“Excuse me Styles.”

Harry barely had time to blink before Louis was climbing over him, frame taut. Something about his tone had Georgia shrinking and Harry quickly discovered what that was, watching as Louis physically picked her up and set her on the ground none too gently. Her bag was pushed into her hands and Louis forcefully steered her towards the doorway. For one second she tried to bolt for Harry but Louis simply gripped her arm, tugging her out the door and leaving Harry standing there. The conversation he’d intended to have was gone from his mind and instead, only a heavy feeling was left in his chest. Oh Louis.

 

***

 

A couple of hours later Harry was considering this to be the worst idea he’d ever had but he’d already made it this far so he figured it was too late to back out now. Approaching the classroom door, paper bag rustling in his hand, he poked his head in just in time to hear Miss Sarah say,

“-And can we thank all our parents for coming along today?” As the children chorused back a “thank you” Miss Sarah’s gaze lifted, blinking in surprise when she saw him. Her expression turned quizzical. “Hello Mr. Styles, can I help you?”

“Harry!”

“Sit down!” Harry said hastily, Georgia already halfway out of her seat. She did as told, albeit with a little pout. “And, erm, as for what I’m doing here…” He held up his bag. “Louis was busy so I thought I could pop in?” He bowed his head sheepishly. “I didn’t know the time though so sorry if I’m late.”

“You…” Miss Sarah looked between him and Georgia in astonishment. She then smoothed over her features, though Harry thought he glimpsed a smile tugging at the corner of her lips. “Well, we were just wrapping up but I suppose we have time for one more. What do you think children?”

They umm-ed and uhh-ed…Or rather, they did until the second Georgia yelled that Harry was the one who had made her birthday cupcakes. And just like that, Harry was all but dragged into the room, twenty tiny bodies demanding to see what was in his bag, why he smelt like cookies, why was there flour in his hair, and why did he wear pyjamas to work? Okay, that one felt a little pointed and Harry’s face had soured because yes, his shirt was black with pink feathers on it and had buttons and was trimmed like pyjamas but come on! Pushing that aside though, Harry had then – under Miss Sarah’s instruction – set himself up at one of the tables and shown the children the petit fours he had brought along; profiteroles and various tartlets, mini cakes and the tiniest eclairs. He explained how everything was made from ingredients that usually meant everyone could eat them, even if they had allergies. As the children selected one treat each, that final statement actually had a couple of the parents approaching him, asking for Sweet Nothings’ details. Harry had been taken aback but quickly passed them on.

He’d just been starting to pack up when his phone went off, making him blush and quickly duck out of the room, apologising profusely. There was a message from Liam and, wow, wasn’t that just perfect.

Tube strike in full swing. In a taxi. Lou is too. Traffic shit tho. You near Georgia’s school?

He thumbed back an affirmative as the school bell rang, Georgia delighted when he passed on the news that she would be coming home with him. Running to collect her things, Harry watched her with a smile. Happy; he liked it when she was happy.

 

***

 

Shaking out his coat, Louis hung it up before dumping all his bag and folders onto the dining room table. Liam and Georgia were bundled up on the living room floor, mugs of cocoa in their hands and a scrabble board set up between them. There were three letter racks set up though, Louis arching an eyebrow before plopping down in front of the third one. “This one for me?” he asked.

“Hi Daddy!” Georgia beamed, throwing herself into his lap to hug him which was odd because they hadn’t exactly parted on good terms that morning but he wasn’t about to complain. She then giggled, pushing the rack away from him. “And that’s not yours Daddy. That’s Harry’s!”

Louis froze, head whipping around, searching for another occupant within the flat. “Harry?!”

“He had to duck out, left his keys at the bakery,” Liam explained offhandedly, too busy scrutinising his letters to give Louis his attention. “Think he’s beating us though; sod.”

Oi! Not in front of little ears,” Louis scolded, leaning up to study the board. He didn’t think “selfie” or “fraîche” were words but someone else clearly did. “Why did Harry come around?” He tried to keep his tone casual but judging from Liam’s knowing look, he hadn’t done a good job.

It was Georgia that answered him though. “He didn’t come round. He was already here because he came to school.”

Louis’ brain screeched to a halt. “He what?

“Cause of the strike,” Liam offered.

And oh, okay. Louis was okay with that. They’d done it before. He would have stayed okay with it, had Georgia not then decided to tack on, “No Liam, he was already there because he came to my bring-your-parent-to-school day. Daddy couldn’t come so Harry came instead.” Liam’s mouth dropped open while Louis’ expression turned thunderous. “He showed everyone all the yummy things he made and everyone said Harry was the best mummy or daddy to come today. He’s the best. He-…Daddy?”

But Louis was already gone, front door slamming behind him. He’d only made it as far as the other side of the street when he ran into Harry. Quite literally, given how he was more storming than walking.

“Louis!” Harry exclaimed, seemingly unaware of his mood. “Is there a fire somewhe-”

“What are you playing at?”

Harry came up short, shucking his rucksack higher over his shoulder. “Sorry?”

You,” Louis snapped, jabbing his chest with a finger. “You went to Georgia’s parent day. Parent day Harry.”

“She was upset!” Harry argued. “I know I’m not you but I’m better than no one turning up, right?”

Louis folded his arms tightly. “You’re not her dad Harry.”

Whether it was his tone or his stance, the light suddenly went on behind Harry’s eyes. Louis felt a sense of self-satisfaction…right until Harry turned the same look back on him. He couldn’t deny it, seeing Harry’s green eyes cold and hard threw him. “Well then what am I?”

Louis’ arms unfolded slightly. “What?”

Harry shrugged a shoulder. “What am I to you Louis? I don’t get it. You say you want me but all you ever show me is that you don’t.” Louis’ mouth dropped open but Harry only placed his hands on his hips. “I’m not yours to put on a shelf Lou’, something to be looked at but not touched.” He shook his head, hair falling into his face. “Your mum was right.”

Louis paled, a panicked edge taking over his features. “My mu-…I…what?” His lips smacked together nervously. “What did she say?”

“She told me I had to treat you right.” Louis felt some of the tension leave his body. “But also-” Nope, he lied, tension was back. “She said you had to treat me right.” Harry spread his hands. “I’m being honest here Louis; I think you’re being unfair. I don’t know what you want.”

Louis bowed his head in shame, knowing it was true.

“Do you even know what you want?”

Biting the inside of his cheek – because he was a fucking coward who had nearly lost everything because of it – Louis looked Harry dead in the eye. “You.” Harry’s eyes bulged and Louis dragged him into the alley beside them, hands fisting in Harry’s hair. “You. I want you. So much it hurts.” Lifting himself up, Louis slotted his lips over Harry’s, probably too forceful but too desperate to care. Harry’s fingers dug into his biceps, tightening when Louis slipped his tongue inside, tasting every part of him. Giving Harry’s curls one last tug, Louis broke the kiss off abruptly, Harry watching him dazedly.

He then whined as Louis’ lips traced his jaw. “Louis…”

“Want you so much…” Even as he was tugging on Harry’s bottom lip, teasing him, challenging him, Louis was pulling his phone out of his pocket. “Li’,” he panted as he pressed the device to his ear. “Be a dear and take Georgie out for dinner.” He continued marking his way down Harry’s neck as he listened to the response. “Don’t care,” he grunted. “Liam, love, unless you want a repeat of the ‘why-is-Liam-hurting-Zayn’ incident-”

Harry looked torn between bursting into laughter and being absolutely mortified.

“-you’ll take my daughter out now.” Louis’ eyes flickered up to Harry’s. “Cause I’m gonna fuck Harry.”

Louis smirked as Harry’s pupil’s blew, exhaling shakily. With one eye on his flat, Louis continued to tease Harry, nips and sucks being placed on any piece of exposed skin he could find. Harry’s head was buried in his neck, puffs of air ghosting across his collar. Spotting Liam walk out the flat and head left – though not without an unsubtle glance around as he tried to locate them – Louis led Harry across the street, fingers linked. Stepping into the flat, Louis dragged Harry into his room, making short work of his coat before pushing Harry to sit on the edge of his bed.

Shifting between his open legs, Louis connected their lips together once more, unable to keep quiet when Harry drew his bottom lip between his teeth. Large hands slipped under his shirt and Louis’ back arched as those fingers dipped into the waistband of his trousers.

Harry,” he gasped, trying to regain his control. “I was gonna blow you but I don’t think I can wait that long.” He crouched down and started tugging off Harry’s boots, looking up through his lashes to see Harry watching him with hooded eyes. “Want this too much. Want you too much.”

Harry swallowed, tugging on Louis’ hair gently. “Up here. Get up here.”

“I’m getting there Curly,” Louis chuckled, kicking off his own shoes before pressing Harry back onto the sheets, climbing on top of him. He laughed when Harry lifted him so he could swing his legs onto the bed. Harry’s hands then came to tug on the bottom of his shirt and Louis was only too willing to take it off, letting it fall somewhere over the edge of the bed. “Your turn,” he said, snaking down and starting to undo Harry’s buttons. “Not that I haven’t seen this before. But,” he added, lips just above his sternum. “First time I’m actually allowed to touch.”

Beneath him, Harry arched the second Louis’ lips made contact, hissing sharply. His hands were hot on Louis’ hips, swapping between supporting him and gripping so tightly Louis was sure there would already be red marks. As his mouth made its way down Harry’s chest, his fingers danced across his waistline, popping open the button at the top of Harry’s jeans. He was about to start on the zip when Harry’s hands were suddenly overlapping his, wrapping around his wrists and halting his movements. Louis’ blinked in confusion – what had he done wrong? – and gulped at Harry’s pinched expression. “…Harry?”

Harry took pity on him, leaning up on his elbows so he could capture his lips quickly, softly, reassuringly. “I love everything you’re doing,” he promised. “But, Louis…why?

Louis frowned. “Why what?”

“Yesterday I couldn’t even touch you,” Harry said, gesturing between them. “Now we’re in bed together. Talk to me. Explain this all to me.”

Sighing, Louis shifted back so he was seated on Harry’s thighs, eyes raking over the gorgeous chest below him. “I was scared.”

“Of me?”

Louis shook his head. “Not you. Never you. I…I was scared by how much I wanted you.” When he dared glance up, Harry’s nose was scrunched up in confusion. It made him huff out a laugh. “I told myself I’d take everything slow so that I didn’t ruin everything or get myself hurt but…I thought that if I took things slow I wouldn’t fall for you as hard as I did.” Louis grimaced. “It didn’t work. Think there might be some truth in that whole absence makes the heart grow stronger thing. Seems like my heart and my heart were on different pages and I…I was listening to the wrong one.” He scratched his cheek sheepishly. “I actually talked to Liam last night…or rather, he spoke to me. He called me an idiot.”

“That wasn’t nice,” Harry commented, although his eyes were twinkling.

Louis poked his tongue out in response. “But yeah, he told me that there’s no structure for relationships. It’s not, month one is kissing. Second month is occasional groping. Different strokes for different folks was the gist of what he said.”

“Didn’t know Liam helped you with your masturbation techniques.”

“Oi!” Louis screeched, slapping Harry’s chest lightly. “You were the one what wanted to talk! The least you could do was actually listen.”

“I’m listening,” Harry said, mouth slowing growing into a cheeky smile that had Louis hesitating. “And, from what I gather, it sounds like you’ve been denying yourself for no reason other than you like blue balls.” He flicked Louis’ fly playfully. “I could help with that. But,” he added, dropping into a more serious tone. “Just know that I’ll never push you and, like, if you have a problem, don’t hide it from me. I can’t understand if you don’t tell me what’s wrong, you know?”

Louis’ hands slipped into his, squeezing. “Thanks Haz.” And oh, that was new. Harry’s mind then derailed as Louis’ rocked forward, rubbing their cocks together. “Now, does that mean I can get back to fucking you? Because I really want to do that.”

Fuck…” Harry groaned, hands fisting in the sheets as Louis repeated his movement. “Yes, that, we can do that.”

Louis leant forwards, fingernails scraping over his chest, Harry’s breath hitching when they caught on his nipples. Louis’ voice, when he spoke, was calm though. “You sure? You want this?”

He then squawked as Harry attempted to dislodge them. “No,” Harry growled playfully. “I want to be inside you. No way you’re topping.”

Louis threw his head back as he laughed, gyrating his hips down. “Sorry love, but that’s gonna be my job tonight. Maybe,” he said with a wink as he reached over to his bedside drawer, rummaging through it. “I’ll let you top next time.” He then paused, frowning down at Harry. “Unless that is a legitimate issue? Then we can swap, no problem. I’m flexible.”

Harry whined at that image but shook his head. “No Lou’, don’t stop. I’m okay, promise.”

Louis grinned, hand emerging with a tube of lube and a condom. “Good, that’s settled then. Might have to do something about these pants though.”

Harry was only to keen to assist in that department, raising his hips when Louis asked. As the denim was dragged down over his thighs, Harry took the time to admire Louis in all his glory. His skin near glowed in the rapidly deteriorating bedroom light, tattoos casting shadows across his collarbones, sweat already starting to form a shiny film across his skin, cock red and thick, smearing pre-cum over his stomach. Catching his gaze as he finished pulling off his own pants, Louis raised an eyebrow.

Harry reached out, fingertips running over every bone, every muscle crease. “You’re just so beautiful.” A crimson flush erupted over Louis’ skin but Harry ignored it, too in awe to do otherwise. “Every part of you. So perfect. How could anyone ever resist you?” His hands came to cup Louis’ face, thumbs caressing his cheeks. “I could never. God, Lou’.” Louis whined, leaning into his touch but shaking his head like he didn’t quite believe it and if that meant Harry would have to find time in the near future to take Louis apart while worshipping every inch of his body, who was he to complain?

A hand curling around his cock had Harry’s hands abruptly dropping away though, keening at the touch. Louis’ grip tightened, wrapping around his length and starting to pump leisurely. He was toying with him and god, did Harry know it. And Louis knew that he knew, that cheeky minx.

“Can’t wait to be inside you.” The words were whispered in his ear and they made Harry’s eyes shoot open, a loud moan escaping him. Louis’ hand disappeared but the sound of a cap being opened made it more than clear where it had gone. Lifting his gaze, Harry watched as Louis rubbed the lube between his fingers to warm it before returning his hand to Harry’s cock. “I’ve been wanting to do this for so long.”

“Then why haven’t you?” Harry managed to ground out, hips bucking into the touch.

“Uh uh, none of that,” Louis admonished, removing his hand to hold him down. And before Harry could complain, a finger was prodding against his entrance. “And don’t worry, I intend to make up for lost time.” With that, he slowly pushed his index finger in, slowly, slowly until he was knuckle-deep. “Oh my god Harry. Been so long. You…incredible, already incredible.” Louis’ finger slid in and out a few times until he gathered the courage to add a second, Harry wincing momentarily before relaxing into the touch, panting heavily as Louis’ began to stretch him.

Lou’…

“So good. So glad I get to see you.” Louis pressed their lips together, fingers still maintaining their rhythm. His tongue meeting Harry’s coincided with a third finger joining the other two and whether that was intentional or not Harry didn’t know but he saw stars nonetheless. “Would you do it like this?” Louis asked, voice husky and god, if Harry wasn’t already rock-hard that voice would have done it. “Would you open me up like this? Or would you lie there and watch me open myself up?” Harry groaned at the image, Louis grinning wickedly. “You’d like that, but…” His fingers grazed over Harry’s prostrate and he near screamed, hands scrabbling at Louis’ chest. “I can’t wait to have you opening me up.” Louis’ fingers knotted together with Harry’s. “Jesus, your hands…can you imagine, they’d get so deep, those long fingers of yours. God Harry…” Louis ground down on him, lip drawn between his teeth. “You’d feel amazing.”

“Lou’…please,” Harry begged, nearly sobbing when Louis’ fingers stopped their massaging of his prostrate. “Come on, please. Can’t wait.”

“Neither,” Louis gasped, making a frustrated noise when the condom wrapper refused to open in his slippery hands. Wordlessly, Harry took it off him and proceeded to tear the package open. Before Louis could take it back, Harry was rolling it over his length, Louis hissing at the contact, eyes sinking shut in relief.

“My turn to touch,” Harry whispered, tracing the length, fingers running up and down.

“Please don’t,” Louis whimpered, swapping between leaning into the touch and leaning away from it. “So close. Don’t wanna come yet…Inside. Wanna come inside.”

“Christ, yes,” Harry agreed, letting Louis wriggle out of his grasp. “You can do that. Definitely do that.”

Flashing him a grin, Louis positioned himself at Harry’s entrance, cock nudging the rim. His eyes sought Harry’s once more, waiting for that final nod before starting to push in. Harry gasped, shocks ricocheting through his body. His spine started to bend off the bed, Louis’ hand coming to rest in the middle of his chest, pinning him down. “Don’t wanna hurt you,” Louis murmured, easing in inch by inch until he bottomed out. They both lay there, Harry’s hands gripping Louis’ shoulder blades, Louis’ forehead pressing against his own. “Harry.”

“I got you, I got you.” His lips brushed against Louis’, hips rolling ever so slightly.

Louis gave a tiny cry, the hand that was on his chest curling, nails scratching at his skin. “Harry…” he repeated, lifting himself up and locking their eyes together. Harry expected some sort of wise-crack to come out of his mouth; which was why his eyes rolled back in his head when Louis pulled out only to slam back in. He repeated the gesture and Harry could only say his name, repeat it over and over until it sounded like a prayer. Knowing he would hate himself forever if he didn’t, Harry forced his eyes open, soaking in the sight of Louis Tomlinson on top of him, skin glistening as he continued to rock into him, head thrown back in bliss.

Then Louis shifted and the head of his cock hit his prostrate head on and Harry was powerless, his eyes losing focus completely. A couple of blinks brought them back, Louis’ smile smug. As Harry contented to let his eyes sink shut, they suddenly caught sight of something, making his head snap up.

“Stop. Louis, stop.

Louis instantly froze. His eyes were wild and he was halfway towards pulling out but Harry snapped a hand around his wrist, holding him in place. Even as Louis was opening his mouth Harry was stabbing at his arm in certain spot.

This,” he managed to gasp, thumbing over the letters. “This, what is this?”

“Jesus, is that all?” Louis huffed, running a hand through his matted hair. “Fucking hell Harry. I thought I’d hurt you or something!”

Harry shook his head, prodding at the spot once more. “This?

Louis looked down at the black oops. “You know what it is,” he whispered.

Oh god, had Louis…? Had he really…? Harry swallowed thickly. “The bathroom incident?”

Louis’ eyes crinkled. “If that’s what we’re calling it, then yes. I’ll admit it’s a bit we-…” His words caught in his throat when he saw what Harry was pointing at, the two little letters tattooed on the inside of his left bicep. “Hi,” he read out, throat clogging. “You…did you…?”

“’s when I knew,” Harry admitted, watching as Louis nodded weakly.

“Same. Me too,” Louis said, voice a hoarse whisper. He tenderly kissed the word. He then glanced up through his lashes and Harry felt fire spread through his eyes because, fuck, Louis’ eyes were nearly black the pupils were so blown. “We got fucking matching tattoos,” Louis ground out, hips snapping forward and making Harry cry out as that magical spot was hit dead on. “Fucking matching tattoos on fucking accident. Harry Styles, what even are you?”

“Yours!” Harry cried, thighs opening further, trying to draw Louis in deeper as their skin slapped together. “I’m yours Louis.”

Fuck,” Louis groaned, hand coming to wrap around Harry’s stiff cock, smearing the pre-cum leaking from the tip before starting a rhythm. “Close, Harry, so close…Come? Can you come for me?”

Two more perfectly placed thrusts and Harry was doing exactly that, a cry of “Louis!” echoing throughout the flat, come landing in thick ribbons across his stomach and chest. Louis gasped loudly, hands planting themselves on Harry’s chest as he came, body shuddering even as Harry stroked his sides, murmuring sweet nothings to him. They stayed there, sweat dripping and breath mingling, gazes locked for god knows how long, neither wanting to end the moment, both desperate to make it last infinitely.

Harry was finally the first to break the silence, the back of his hand brushing over Louis’ cheek. “Perfect. You were so perfect Louis.”

He shook his head. “You…it’s you Harry.” His fingers came to tangle in Harry’s hair, lips soft as they brushed against his. “Always in my heart, Harry Styles.”

“And you, Louis Tomlinson, always in mine,” Harry replied, pressing a kiss to both of Louis’ cheeks, his nose, and finally his mouth. “Now, cuddle and sleep?”

“Shower, then cuddle and sleep,” Louis bargained.

“No shower,” Harry groaned too sated to even contemplate moving.

Louis bopped his nose. “Fine. But cleaning up is happening, at the very least.”

A trip or two to the ensuite with flannels and then they were both tucked up into bed, clothes forgone in favour of actually sleeping. There had been an awkward fumbling of limbs on Louis’ part until Harry had finally shown some mercy, rolling onto his side and tugging Louis’ hand over his chest.

“You’re a little spoon?”

If Harry could be bothered to turn his head, he was confident Louis would be raising his eyebrows. But he couldn’t be bothered, so he merely snuffled further into the pillow. “Yes, little spoon. Now, little spoon wants some sleep.”

“Such a bossy spoon,” Louis tutted.

Harry huffed out a laugh. Louis then threw a leg between his and nestled in between his shoulder blades. It was the last thing Harry remembered before he blacked out.

 

***

 

Unlocking the door of the flat, Liam held Georgia to his side while he gingerly listened. When no suspicious moaning sounds came from anywhere within the flat, he relinquished his grip, letting the little girl bounce down the hall. While she’d been surprised by the quick dinner at a Pret, the trip to the movies that had followed had been more than appreciated. She’d giggled and sang and skipped along beside Liam the whole night, accepting his answer of “Daddy’s with Harry” without question when she’d asked.

Nudging open Louis’ door just the barest of cracks, Liam couldn’t help but smile when he saw Louis intertwined with Harry. About bloody time in his opinion. He also snorted at the haphazard pile of clothes strewn about the room because he knew Louis was going to bitch about that in the morning. He was just about to close the door when a figure slipped under his arm and oh no, fuck, shit!

“Liam!” Georgia whined as he swooped her up and slammed the door shut at the same time, cringing and hoping the noise wouldn’t wake the boys inside. “Daddy and Harry are having a sleep over and that’s not fair! I wanna have a sleep over too!” She squirmed valiantly in his arms even as Liam carried her back to the kitchen. “Can I put my pyjamas on and go into Daddy’s bed? Please, please, please!”

Hell no.

Liam could only imagine what sort of torture Louis would come up with if he allowed that to happen.

And hey! Where was he supposed to sleep because Harry had now taken his spot?

“Baby, no,” Liam said firmly, his tone enough to make her drop the issue. He returned her to the ground but took her hand as he walked over to the dryer, rummaging through it for some clean sleep clothes. “Tell you what though, why don’t I slip into my pyjamas and we’ll have a sleep over of our own? Bunk up in your bed?”

Georgia cheered and bounded off to the bathroom to do her teeth. Liam followed though not without one last look towards Louis’ room.

‘You go Louis.’

 

***

 

Chapter Text

 

It was as if cracking the door open just once had suddenly opened the floodgates because ever since Monday night, it was as though Louis was unable to keep his hands off Harry. He’d explained it one day as holding back hadn’t worked, so why not give it his all instead? Harry had allowed it, but only because they still had balance; they still went to their jobs, they still spent time with their friends, they still did things with Georgia. They hadn’t stopped anything they had been doing, only added a little something.

Alright, a big something.

Because sex with Louis was incredible. Mind-blowing. And not just in the orgasm induced haze way. No, in the sparks-flying, soul-piercing sort of way. Maybe Harry was crazy but it was as though he and Louis just fit. Everything about them seemed so natural. Every one of those stupid love expressions – my other half, the missing piece, two sides of the same coin – Harry could apply them all to Louis.

And Harry would also admit that he had never been more thankful in his life for a personally owned and run business because it meant Louis could basically fit anything into his schedule. He could arrange to be home during Harry’s lunch break for a quick hand-job or pop round to Harry’s after work before picking up Georgia, pushing him against the front door and blowing him while Harry writhed and tugged at his hair. Harry also wouldn’t deny going bright red when Louis had pulled himself off, licked the last drop of come off his lips and then declared he was stealing Harry’s toothbrush to brush his teeth because he “kissed his daughter with this mouth”. And don’t think Harry was blind to the way Louis had gone near rock-hard that one time he’d dropped to his knees in front of him – oh no, Harry was intending to take that further another time. But not now.

Because what Harry was most thankful for now was the fact that it was Friday night and Niall had graciously offered to spend the night doing pub gigs with Ed after finding out Georgia had gone to a friend’s for a sleepover. Needless to say, Harry had taken full advantage of the offer. Which would be why he currently was naked in his bed with an equally naked Louis Tomlinson underneath him, squirming and chest heaving as Harry took him apart piece by piece. Which Harry had unashamedly been doing for almost a good forty-five minutes. Even now Louis was whining out a pleading “Harry” as Harry’s teeth ever so gently grazed over his nipples.

“Yeah Boo?” Harry asked teasingly, grinning when Louis raised his head enough to glare at him.

“Did Liam have to tell you about that?” he grumbled.

“What? About the whole “Boo Bear” nickname?” Harry grinned, leaning up to draw Louis’ bottom lip between his teeth. “Thought it was pretty cute to be honest.”

Louis swatted at him playfully but Harry merely ignored him, kissing his way down Louis’ chest, smirking when Louis’ hips subconsciously raised to meet him. He then turned his attention to Louis’ thighs, bypassing that one place that was desperate for his touch. Louis groaned, a hand coming to reach his throbbing, red cock, but Harry knocked it away with a warning ‘ah!’.

“Come on,” Louis begged, throwing an arm over his eyes. “Harry, please.”

Oh god, the begging nearly made him give in but Harry steeled himself. “Nope,” he said firmly, nipping the crease of Louis’ groin before sucking a mark, Louis’ fingers scrambling to find purchase in the sheets. “Not gonna stop until you know how perfect you are. How much I love every part of you.” The words were accompanied by him swapping to Louis’ other thigh, leaving a trail of tiny bite marks from the inside of his knee all the way in. Louis keened high in the back of his throat, Harry’s fingers ghosting over his hip-bones, nails scratching ever so slightly.

“Haz…” Louis gasped, voice choked. “Please, need you. Need something. Come on.”

“So fussy,” Harry tutted, Louis huffing out a laugh because he knew as well as Harry did how true it was. Top or bottom, Louis somehow always managed to be in control. Which was possibly part of the reason as to why Harry was having such fun taking Louis apart now. Watching Louis lose any semblance of control was enough to have his own cock throbbing painfully against his stomach but Harry was ignoring it, ignoring it because he had made it his goal to worship every inch of the golden skin below him. Well, it had been golden to start with. It was now littered with marks ranging from reds to blues and purples and there was a sense of satisfaction that came with that.

Tapping Louis’ thigh to get his attention – and oh fuck, his blue eyes were so, so dark – Harry threw his hair up into a bun before casually asking, “Has anyone ever rimmed you before?”

Fuck,” Louis swore, Harry grinning up with him coyly. He then slipped his hands around Louis’ ankles, coaxing them over his shoulder. “Harry, god, you don’t…”

“Don’t have to?” Harry guessed, watching as Louis nodded weakly. He then rolled his eyes. “Which part of ‘all of you’ do you not understand? Every inch of you is beautiful Lou’, every inch.” He swirled his tongue around the rim, the sound Louis made in response something between a sob and a scream. Glancing up just to make sure Louis was okay, Harry was pleased to find that he was clearly more than so. He smiled to himself before shifting further back on his heels, pulling Louis closer to him and placing a few more wet licks to Louis’ puckered hole. Louis’ legs trembled, though they damn near snapped when Harry started to ease the tip of his tongue in.

“Fuck, Harry!” Louis screamed, fist thumping against the headboard.

Working his tongue in and out, Harry was preparing to slick up his fingers when Louis’ phone started to buzz on the bedside table. Louis sobbed as Harry started to pull out.

“No, no, no!” he cried, eyes squeezed shut. “Leave it, leave it. Don’t fucking care…just, Harry, please…”

Placing a kiss to Louis’ hole – watching as he jerked at the touch – Harry gave a reassuring squeeze with his hands. “Okay. Whatever you want.”

You,” Louis sobbed, hands blinding reaching for Harry. “Just you, only you. I-”

And there went Louis’ phone again.

Fucking hell!” Louis yelled, glaring at the device and snatching it up. His eyes then landed on the screen. “Oh. Shit.”

 

***

 

Maggie Nash

The phone call was accepted and pressed to his ear before he had even thought about it because, “Maggie? It’s Louis. Is Georgie okay?”

Harry sucked in a breath, ducking out from between his legs and shuffling up to lie beside him, Louis absently reaching out to stroke his hair as he listened.

I don’t know Louis. She was fine all evening, was happily playing with Riley, but she’s just come out of Riley’s room saying her stomach hurts.” Louis’ stomach clenched. “It’s quite possibly nothing. Should I send her back to sleep, see if that helps?

“No, no, don’t do that,” Louis said, patting Harry’s cheek before sitting up, already starting to look for his clothes. “Georgia doesn’t complain unless she really does feel sick.” He tugged his shirt over his head, wilting a little when Harry slipped past him to leave the bedroom. “Is she awake?”

He tucked the phone between his shoulder and ear so he could pull his shoes on as he heard Maggie presumably walk to where Georgia was. “She isn’t…but she was a couple of minutes ago. She’s dozing in and out I think.

“I’m on my way now,” Louis said, ending the phone call and getting to his feet. He sighed upon realising Harry hadn’t returned to the bed, shoulders slumping. Stepping out into the hall, he caught sight of Harry in the entryway. “Harry,” he started, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I…She…Fuck, you didn’t get off either and I-” He abruptly stopped when his coat was thrust in his face. It took him a second to realise that Harry was already in his own. “…Harry?”

He could only hold out his arms robotically as Harry proceeded to help him into the garment. “Georgia’s sick, right? Doesn’t that mean we need to go and get her?”

Louis swallowed thickly. “You…”

His eyes started to prick, Harry’s own widening when he saw that. He then swooped in, tucking Louis into his chest. “Boo, of course I’m coming.”

Louis snorted despite his tears. “Coming.”

Harry made an appalled noise, niggling him in the ribs. “Mind out of the gutter you.” With a shake of his head, he took Louis’ hand and pulled him out of the flat. “Now, let’s go.”

“Harry,” Louis whispered even as he was dragged down the stairs. “I really am sorry. I know this isn’t what you wanted.”

He then yelped as he was pulled up harshly, green eyes boring into his. “Louis William Tomlinson, shut the hell up.” Harry tugged him closer, losing none of his intensity. “I don’t care about my dick right now. And I don’t see you complaining about yours.” His features softened. “Your daughter’s sick Louis. That’s what’s important now.” He then blushed, scratching his neck sheepishly. “And if you think I’m mad because I left the bedroom-”

Louis remained stubbornly silent.

“-I, uh…wanted to brush my teeth after…well, you know…”

Louis’ jaw dropped before he dissolved into giggles, a hand coming to clutch at his chest. Harry looked put out for only a second before reluctantly joining in, swinging their hands between them as they trekked down to Louis’ car. Louis had never been so relieved to have been too lazy earlier in the day to catch the tube to Harry’s. Sliding in their respective sides, Louis plugged his phone into the aux port while Harry cranked up the heating. Silence spread between them as they drove to the Nash’s but it was comfortable, ordinary, normal.

And then something suddenly occurred to Louis, his nose screwing up. “Hey, how did you know William was my middle name? I never told you that.”

Harry shot him a condescending look. “I know everything about you Louis.” He winked. “Why do you think I added Lottie on Facebook?”

The car abruptly swerved, Louis quickly regaining control. “You didn’t!”

“Well, she added me,” Harry corrected, tugging on a loose strand of hair, “But hey, we’re friends. She loves to spill all your secrets.”

“Why aren’t you my friend?” Louis demanded, sending a glare Harry’s way as he waited for the light to change.

He got a deadpan look in return. “When was the last time you logged in to Facebook?”

“Uh…”

“Point.” Harry clucked his tongue. “I added you months ago. Why haven’t you accepted my request?” He added to his tone the same indignant tone Louis had given him moments earlier.

“Okay, fine, you win,” Louis begrudgingly mumbled, turning into the right street. He then immediately started grumbling under his breath when he saw cars lining both sides of the road. “Think they’d have better parking…we live here…it’s a city, innit…”

“Think there’s one down there,” Harry said gently, pointing a little further down.

Squinting through the dark, Louis’ eyes lit up seconds later. “Thanks Harry, I…Oh no you don’t!”

Because no, no way in hell was this Prius driving knob about to steal his space. While Louis knew that in all reality it was probably their spot, he wasn’t about to give it up. Gunning the motor, Louis parallel parked quite possibly faster – not to mention messier – than he ever had in his life. Already the man driving the Prius was rolling his window while Harry merely groaned. Louis made a simple ‘what?’ gesture.

Sending his eyes skyward, Harry hopped out of the car, rounding the bonnet even as Louis was climbing out. “Sorry about that,” he was saying. “But I promise we’ll be, like, five minutes, tops.”

“Just do a lap of the block,” Louis ordered flippantly, earning him an elbow to the ribs that made him make a rather undignified ‘oof’ sound. As Harry continued to pass on his apologies to the man, Louis hooked an arm around his elbow and hauled him towards the Nash’s, jogging down the stairs to their basement flat. He rapped on the door and shifted from foot to foot impatiently until it opened. “Hey Maggie,” he greeted, stepping inside. “Doing alright?”

“I’m fine,” Maggie replied, waving him further down the hall. “Georgia’s still asleep but she woke up a couple of minutes ago asking for you.”

Louis grimaced, blinking when Maggie stopped and peered behind him, causing to turn around as well and…oh. “Oh, right, yeah. Um, Harry, this is Maggie, Riley’s mum. Maggie, Harry. He’s, um…He’s Harry.” He gestured between them and pretended not to notice when Maggie raised an eyebrow.

“Hi,” Harry said, giving a little, awkward wave. “I’ve heard a lot about Riley from Georgia.” He then tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Isn’t your husband a paramedic? I think I remember seeing him at the Parent’s Day.”

Maggie started, eyebrow quirking even higher. “He is actually.” She then gave a tiny gasp. “Wait, Harry…Not the Harry that makes all the sweets? The cupcakes and the biscuits?”

Harry gave a bashful smile. “Yeah, ‘s me.”

“I’ll have to grab your details,” Maggie said, Louis starting to look between them in disbelief. “Susan visited your shop one time and hasn’t stopped raving since. Do you do baby shower cakes?” Her hands dropped to rub her rather protruding baby bump. “I still haven’t decided on one yet.”

“We do,” Harry chirped, dimples popping, like the idea of a baby was the single greatest thing he’d ever heard. “Can I ask what you’re having?”

Maggie laughed softly. “Isn’t that the point of a reveal cake?”

“I love those!” Harry exclaimed. “I can defi-”

Alright. That was it.

Excuse me!” Louis interrupted, slapping Harry’s arm. “We’re here to get my daughter not for you to talk business Curly.” His eyes softened as he turned back to Maggie. “I can leave his details in Riley’s bag on Monday if you’d like.”

She had the grace to look embarrassed. “Of course Louis. Sorry about that.” Maggie guided them to the living room, Louis’ heart cracking when he saw Georgia curled up in a ball on the sofa. Within seconds he was dashing over, crouching beside her and brushing her hair off her face. Her nose scrunched up before her eyes opened just the tiniest bit.

“…addy?”

“Here baby, right here,” Louis whispered, pulling her close when she reached for him. “You’re alright love, you’re alright.”

“Wanna go home,” she sniffled, breath hitching.

“Then let’s do that.” He hoisted her up and tutted at Maggie’s apologetic face. “Not your fault Mags. Kids are fickle things.”

“’m not a pickle,” Georgia protested, making Harry cackle, which in turn made her head snap up, tired grin appearing. “Daddy, Harry’s here. Love Harry. He coming for another sleepover?”

Under Maggie’s knowing gaze, both boys went bright red, Louis muttering out a jumble of thanks and farewells. Accepting Harry’s offer to drive, Louis slipped in the back with Georgia cradled on his lap. She wasn’t crying per se but her eyes were most definitely full of tears. When Louis asked what was wrong, she only shrugged and said she didn’t know, only that she felt ‘yucky’. Arriving at the flat, Louis had tucked Georgia into bed and was stepping back into the hall when he realised Liam wasn’t there.

“Alright Louis?” Harry asked, a mug of what smelled like honey tea in his hands.

“Yeah,” he answered dismissively, fishing out his phone. “You seen Liam?”

“Um…no. Should I have?”

“Nope,” Louis said, typing out a simple, Li? Even as Harry was pottering down to Georgia’s room, Louis’ phone was lighting up, Liam’s face flashing across the screen. Answering and being bombarded the general rabble of a pub and what he was pretty confident was Ed’s voice in the background, Louis hung up. He had just texted back a quick -

All good Li. Georgie’s sick so back at flat. Couldn’t see you. If you don’t wanna catch it, stay away.

- when:

“Louis!”

Dropping his phone on the bench, Louis tore down the hall, swearing when he saw that Georgia was now sitting up and had also thrown up all over her bed. He winced, realising she’d also managed to get Harry in the process.

“Shit, sorry, sorry,” he muttered, kissing Harry’s cheek in apology before reaching over him to grab Georgia, her little face covered in tears. “It’s okay poppet. You’re just a bit sick. Let’s wash this off, yeah?”

Carrying her into the bathroom, Louis set her on the floor while he turned on the shower. Peeling his own shirt over his head, Louis contemplated for a moment before helping Georgia in, clothes and all. The water would wash away most of the vomit and hey, better down the drain then through his washing machine. Georgia didn’t want to do anything more than sit which made it awkward when trying to get her out of her pants but they managed, Louis turning the water off and bundling her up in their fluffiest towel. He thumbed her cheeks soothingly, pressing his lips to her forehead.

“Feeling better love?”

She nodded wearily, rubbing at her eyes with a fisted hand. “Can I go sleep now?”

Louis pursed his lips. “Are you gonna be sick again?”

“No.” Georgia stepped closer to his chest, head burrowed in his neck. “I feel better Daddy. Already a little better. Just sleepy now. Please, can I go to bed?”

“Alright,” Louis conceded, slipping an arm under her knees and making for the door. He nearly ran into Harry…Harry who had since stripped to his briefs and had Georgia’s sheets bundled up in his arms, along with his own clothes.

“Was gonna, like, put a load on,” he said by way of explanation. “You got anything to add?”

“Harry…” Louis breathed, heart swelling in his chest.

Harry rolled his eyes, hip checking him. “Don’t you dare say thank you.” He peered over Louis’ shoulder, pointing at the clothes on the tile floor. “Just those? And machine’s in the kitchen, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Louis answered dumbly, watching Harry work. “Straight forward, no fancy settings, I promise.”

Harry nudged him out of the doorway with a half-exasperated smile. “Stop being surprised when people do nice things for you and put Rosie in bed.”

Louis pouted at being ordered about but did trudge down the hall. Laying Georgia down, he drew the blankets up halfway and flicked on her bedside light just in case she needed to hop up in a hurry again. He then padded back through the flat, bypassing the kitchen when he found it to be empty and slipping into his own room, Harry already in his bed with two teas balanced in his hands. Shucking out of his jeans, Louis crawled in, relieving Harry of one of the cups and letting his head flop onto Harry’s chest. Harry’s arm came to wrap around his back, fingertips tracing over the curve of his shoulder. Louis hummed sleepily, taking his first sip of tea, eyes sliding shut in bliss when he found it to be just right.

“Love you,” he mumbled. Louis then hissed as tea splashed onto his hand, not having expected Harry to suddenly sit bolt upright. “Harry!

“You what Louis?”

Louis squinted up at Harry, thoroughly bewildered. “I…what?”

Some of the light left Harry’s eyes and Louis was desperate to know why, hastily replaying everything he’d just said even as Harry was muttering, “’s fine, don’t worry.”

“Love you,” Louis whispered, repeating the words without thought as they came to him. Wide eyes flew to Harry. “That’s what I said.”

“You didn’t mean it,” Harry consoled, attempting to bring Louis back to his chest but maybe now he didn’t want to go. “You’re tired and it’s been a lo-”

No.

Harry blinked. “Sorry?”

Louis sat up, staring down into his tea with an expression similar to a scowl. “No, you’re wrong. Maybe I am tired. And maybe it’s been a long day. But that…” His grip on the mug tightened. “That doesn’t mean I didn’t mean it.”

“Louis…” Harry was shaking his head but Louis couldn’t help notice that his hands were shaking; like half of him was saying ‘no’, the other half desperate for a ‘yes’.

Louis flicked his hair off his face, barely managing to suppress a grin when Harry subconsciously copied him, shaking his hair with a hand and then brushing it back off his face. “I told you Liam called me an idiot,” Louis reminded him. “Because, if I recall correctly – which I do –“ Harry snorted. “- ‘Oh Lou, you don’t like him. You love him’.”

Harry sucked in a breath.

Louis then tapped his chin, looking over with a smug grin. “And who, not hours ago, said ‘love every part of you’? Admittedly, you were face deep in my arse at the time-” Harry went crimson. “-so maybe your head was a little messed up…”

Wasn’t.

It was Harry’s turn to be brusque, sharp tone effectively silencing Louis. He then dropped his gaze to where Harry had taken to gripping his knee. “I…I know it’s too soon.”

“Don’t make excuses,” Harry said, frowning deeply. “You know how you feel and I don’t care if other people think it’s too fast or too rushed because, Louis, to me it feels right.”

“So right,” Louis whispered in agreement, placing his tea to the side and rocking forward into Harry’s lap. His arms came to wrap around Harry’s neck, pressing their foreheads together. “Can I say I love you? Because as stupid as it seems I love you.”

Harry captured his lips, Louis mewling softly when his large hands ghosted across his hip bones. “Then we can be stupid together and I’ll be, like, the happiest idiot alive because I love you too Louis.”

“Not too soon?”

“Not too soon,” Harry promised, kissing away Louis’ troubled expression. His hands went to dip lower but Louis gently stopped him.

“Not tonight love,” he said with a shake of his head. “I want to, fuck do I want to, but I can’t. Not with Georgie like this.” He gave a rueful smile. “Last thing I need is her coming in to find me with your cock down my throat.”

Harry choked on his breath, pounding his chest with a fist. “Louis!

“What?” he asked with a shrug. “It is what it is.” He then settled down, wrapping himself around his tea and unlocking his phone. “But,” he added with wink, something that made Harry a little cautious. “Promise to make it up to you.”

Harry cuffed him over the head affectionately. “I’d like to see you try.”

From the grin he got in return, he knew Louis had taken his words as a challenge. He laughed softly to himself. Eh, so be it from him to stop him.

A couple of minutes later, Louis had finished his tea and had already crashed, soft snores coming from the pillow beside him. Pressing a kiss to his cheek and leaning over to turn off the light, Harry got side-tracked by his phone going off. Two new notifications were on his screen. He inhaled sharply.

“Lou…”

Louis Tomlinson accepted your friend request.

Louis Tomlinson has changed his relationship status to ‘in a relationship with Harry Styles’. To confir-…

Harry would admit he’d never acted on a notification so fast in his life.

 

***

 

For quite possibly the first time in history, Louis was the first one awake the next morning. Harry was still deep in sleep’s hold, hair sprawled across the pillow, mouth parted the barest of amounts. It was only a little after eight but that was actually quite late for him; or rather, late for Georgia. Slipping out of bed and kissing Harry’s bare shoulder to pacify him when he started to stir, Louis trekked down to his daughter’s room. She was still asleep but the pained expression she’d had last nice was gone and she looked peaceful. It alleviated his nerves greatly and if she was simply going to sleep this off, he wasn’t going to complain. No, he was going to go back to his bed and cuddle with his boyfriend.

Louis paused mid-step, nose crinkling. Well, he assumed Harry was his boyfriend. Sure, they’d never said it out loud but they’d confessed their love last night so…?

Shrugging to himself, Louis returned to the master bedroom, surprised when he found Harry to be awake and talking on the phone. His movement caught Harry’s attention though, causing the man to smile and wave him in, pointing at the phone and rolling his eyes.

“No Ni’,” he was saying as Louis plopped into his lap. “’S not my fault you got smashed last night.”

Louis snorted, half a mind to call Liam and see how he was faring. He then decided he wasn’t that cruel.

This time.

“Nope,” Harry chuckled, tugging Louis closer and pressing a kiss to his sternum. “Um, excuse me, but who wouldn’t swap with me?” He then outright laughed. “Don’t care how long ago it was Niall! I’m still holding it against you.”

Louis groaned when he heard Niall’s voice begging and whining from the other end, eventually snatching the phone off Harry, earning him a sluggish “hey!”. “Niall, mate,” Louis snapped, cutting the Irishman off mid-stream. “Saturday morning, same bed, draw your own conclusions.” He hung up even as Niall was fake gagging, handing the phone back and frowning at Harry’s sly smile. “What?”

Harry’s eyes ran down his body unashamedly. “What conclusions am I supposed to be drawing?”

Louis laughed, hopping off Harry’s lap – much to his displeasure – and snagging up his phone instead. His face brightened and then dropped so quickly that Harry dropped his own phone in his haste to slot his chin over Louis’ shoulder. “Lou’?”

“Not bad, just, inconvenient,” Louis sighed, glancing at the time before reluctantly getting up. “I forgot Eleanor was coming round to get Georgia this morning. Really, she’s probably too sick to go but I have to give her the choice, don’t I?” He eventually decided on a shirt, slipping it over his head, voice muffled as he said, “And ‘sides, El’s supposed to be here in ten so she may as well come as not. If I’d remembered I would have texted her last night.” As his head popped out, he narrowed his eyes at Harry. “Your clothes are still in the wash, aren’t they?”

Shit. “Uh…”

“A shirt I don’t care about, but even I think pants are a must. Check the drawers, something of Liam’s might fit!” Louis called as he headed into the kitchen, transferring the washing to the dryer so that, if nothing else, Harry could actually leave in his own clothes. He’d barely finished that when the doorbell rang. He was en route to the door when Harry snagged him, catching him off guard. “Harry?”

“Before you saw that Eleanor was coming, you smiled at your phone. Can I ask why?”

Louis flushed, ducking away from Harry’s inquisitive gaze. “I, erm, maybe saw that you agreed to my relationship status?”

Harry looked at him like he was the most precious thing on earth, cupping Louis’ face and brushing their noses together. “Of course I did. I love you Louis.”

Louis drew his bottom lip between his teeth as butterflies erupted in his chest. “Love you too Harold. Now, go and get some breakfast. I’ll join you soon,” he murmured, leaning up to kiss him before heading to the door. “Oh, and just checking, like, to clear things up…But we’re totally boyfriends, right?”

Harry stumbled over his feet, choking out a ‘yes!’, and making Louis cackle loudly, still laughing as he opened the door, waving Eleanor in with a hand. She looked incredibly suspicious and Louis didn’t really blame her. He hadn’t exactly been the most cheerful person of late. He trusted her to follow him down the hall, absently stroking Harry’s shoulder as he passed where he was sat at the dining table, a piece of toast lathered in honey and banana slices set in front of him.

“Oh. Harry.”

Louis rolled his eyes at Eleanor’s tone, turning back and almost laughing at how comically wide Harry’s own eyes had gotten – which was so stupid because he’d known who was at the door. “Eleanor,” he said around his toast, hand coming to stop crumbs spraying everywhere. “Nice to see you again.” He then frowned at something on her leg, Louis following his gaze and whistling under his breath at the rather substantial bruise on her shin. “That looks…ouch.”

Eleanor looked surprised that Harry was still paying attention to her but waved his remark away. “An accident from Braxton. Football boots and legs don’t match, apparently.”

Louis cocked his head sideways even as Harry was nodding sagely. “Braxton? Who’s Braxton?”

Eleanor’s eyes flew to Harry’s, making Louis’ narrow sharply. “You didn’t tell him?”

Harry raised his hands. “I thought you would. It weren’t my place to say.”

“Who is Braxton?” Louis demanded, voice low and dangerous.

“Stuart’s kid,” Harry blurted, Louis going stock still. “Well, one of. He’s got another one too…Romeo, I think. They were with him at Eleanor’s parents’ house…like, at Christmas?”

Louis was positive he was shaking when he turned to Eleanor. “Is there something you forgot to fucking mention to me?” Because no, how the fuck was she justifying ripping into him when she had been so obviously lying?

He would’ve said more had Georgia not shuffled into the room, hair atrocious and Mr. Poo tucked under her arm. Her gaze swapped between them all before eventually pottering over to Harry, though Louis suspected that that was purely because he was closest and she looked all but dead on her feet. “Hi Daddy, hi Mummy,” she murmured as Harry lifted her up. “Hi Harry. Sorry I threw up on your clothes last night.”

“’S alright,” Harry promised, bumping her cheek with his nose. “As long as you’re feeling better now. Are you feeling better?”

“Much better,” she replied, yawning widely. “But still sleepy. Thanks for coming to get me when I wasn’t well even though it was really late.”

“I’ll always come to get you Rosie,” Harry said, Louis’ heart swelling. “Love my little angel.” The words were accompanied by a tight, but gentle, squeeze.

Georgia swivelled around, wrapping her arms around Harry’s neck. “Love you too. Can we watch cartoons while you do my hair?”

Harry’s eyes found Louis’ and he nodded, risking a glance at Eleanor who…Louis paused. Eleanor, whose face was completely unreadable, attentively following every single one of Harry’s moves. And that…that made Louis do something he’d never actually even attempted to do, even though it should have been the first thing he’d attempted to do. He tapped Eleanor’s arm, not surprised in the least when she jumped a good foot because, Jesus, they hadn’t had actual physical contact in years.

“Tea,” he said in response to the question in her eyes. “Tea and talk.”

“Yeah, that sounds good,” Eleanor breathed, following him into the kitchen, both of them silently watching Harry and Georgia interact whilst Louis prepared two cups, getting a quiet “thanks” when he handed one over.

“El’,” he said, “Can I start by saying I’m sorry?”

Eleanor nearly dropped her tea, head snapping around to him so fast it hurt him let alone her. “What?

Louis shrugged. “I’m sorry. I…Neither of us intended for Georgia to happen and it was selfish of me to expect you to stay with me. We both knew I was gay and, let’s face it, we didn’t even really like each other. You deserved to be happy with someone who loved you and I tried my hardest to stop you from doing that. I’m sorry for that.” He sighed, shifting to lean against one of the counters. “And I’m sorry for all the shit I gave you about Stuart. You found someone you loved. I shouldn’t have been angry at you for that.” His eyes drifted over to Harry, smiling at him softly. “Like Harry and I, we’re…”

“You’re serious.” Louis let Eleanor meet his gaze, watching as she nodded slightly. “You and Harry are serious, I can see that now.” She then shook her head. “No, I think I always saw that…Maybe that’s what I was afraid of,” she confessed, shying away, clasping her hands together tightly. “I know I haven’t been in her life as much as I should have and then she suddenly starting talking non-stop about Harry and when I found out he was a man…I was scared I was going to lose her.” Louis froze, Eleanor laughing humourlessly. “Don’t look so surprised Lou’. From the start she was always more willing to go with Harry than me and that, that hurt. I understand why but…It still hurt. I think that’s why I wanted him gone.” Soulful eyes turned to him. “I know we never loved each other, but I still lost you, you know?”

Yes, Louis knew. He felt the same.

“And I couldn’t bear to lose Georgia too.”

“You won’t lose her,” Louis said firmly.

Eleanor smiled. “I know. I know that now.” She glanced at Harry once more, Louis grinning himself when he found Georgia to now be attempting to tame his hair with so many hair clips it was downright hilarious. “He really is great with her.”

“He is,” Louis agreed, not blind to the way Eleanor was watching with piercing eyes as he couldn’t stop the smile spreading across his face. “He’s so amazing.”

Silence spread between them for a long time before Eleanor next spoke. “Stuart’s thirty-six.” Louis tensed but immediately willed himself to relax because this was what he wanted; peace, closure, a definite end. “He was married and that’s where Braxton and Romeo come in. Romeo’s twelve and Braxton’s eleven. Stuart sees them as often as I see her.” There was a nod in Georgia’s direction. “They’re energetic – but maybe that’s just boys, I swear to God Louis, I don’t even know what kids are actually like – but they’re nice. A little too over-bearing sometimes but they always mean well. They’re nice to Georgia, always.” She teased a lock of hair around her finger as Louis lifted his mug to his lips, taking a large swig. “Even if Stuart and I do stay together, they’ll never be what you and your sisters are. It won’t ever be like that with them.”

Louis nodded, feeling as though literal tons had been removed from his chest. “Will you? Stay together, I mean?”

Eleanor’s nose twitched. “I don’t know. Sometimes I think so and sometimes I don’t. Maybe I’m just being too finicky.”

Louis tutted. “You always gotta trust your gut El’. It knows.”

She huffed, poking her tongue out at him. “And what does yours say about Harry?”

Louis’ heart skipped a beat. “God, El’…he…the one, fucking hell, he’s the one.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Seriously? Are you already saying this? You?

“Don’t look at me like that,” Louis scolded, folding his arms across his chest childishly. “I know it’s me what’s saying it and trust me, I more than know.” He went to playfully swat her when he caught sight of the most bizarre thing: the tender smile on her face. “El’…?”

“You’re just…you’re happy,” she said, sounding so disbelieving. “You looked so terrible last year and I…I never had the courage to ask what was wrong…but you look…You look like you.” Eleanor tentatively reached out to grasp his forearm. “I always liked you when you were yourself. Your lost your way - or maybe we made you lose it? – but, Louis, it’s good to have you back.” She then sucked in a breath. “And I’m not an idiot so I can at least tell my daughter’s sick. I think she’d much prefer to be around you when she’s like that. I can get her next week, if that would work?”

“It would,” Louis admitted, watching Eleanor go to leave before changing his mind, clapping a hand on her shoulder. “And excuse me, but we don’t have a talk like that and at least not get a hug out of it.” He spread his arms. “Come on, love me.”

Eleanor rolled her eyes, nose screwing up in disgust. “I’d never love you.” But she wrapped her arms around him nonetheless.

“Mummy? Daddy?”

Breaking apart, they both spun around to see Georgia – their daughter, for once, theirs – watching them with wide eyes. “Hey poppet,” Louis greeted with a sloppy grin.

“What are you doing?” she asked cautiously, edging further into the room, Harry popping into the doorway.

“Daddy and I were talking,” Eleanor said, giving him a nod. “I think it was long overdue.”

Georgia didn’t seem to quite understand, oscillating between the two of them before throwing her hands in the air – something that had Louis snickering because she’d so learnt that off Liam, the king of exasperation due to Louis’ endless pranks and sass. She then turned to Harry, hands clasped and begging and uh oh, what did she want?

“Harry, now that Mummy and Daddy are friends again, can you take a photo? You take the best photos Harry,” she prattled on as she positioned herself between a speechless Louis and Eleanor, hauling them both down to her level. “Smile!” she ordered.

Louis and Eleanor exchanged looks over her head before Louis made an exaggerated winking face. Eleanor smacked him but dutifully turned to where Harry was, phone out know that he had consent from both of them. They smiled when prompted and when Harry showed them the photo, Louis was pretty sure Eleanor’s expression was the same as his. Because, fuck, they had just taken their first family photo. The first photo ever of him, Eleanor, and Georgia. Louis willed away tears, pretending not to notice when Eleanor dabbed at her own eyes.

It had taken seven years, seven whole years, but they’d done it. By God, they’d done it.

 

***

Chapter Text

 

“Auntie Lottie!”

Georgia was sprinting across the station before Louis had even had time to look up from his phone. He wasn’t bothered though, merely flicking his eyes up for a second before going back to reading his emails. Georgia wasn’t dumb; if she hadn’t genuinely seen Lottie, she wouldn’t have moved. And hey, Lottie was twenty now, it wasn’t like she couldn’t look after her own niece. He then grunted as his chair was kicked.

“What’s this you lazy sod?”

Louis gave Lottie a wan smile. “Did I or did I not take time off to collect you from bloody Paddington station? ‘S not like you couldn’t have gotten across London on your own.” He slipped his bag over his shoulder, leaning over to straighten Georgia’s beret. “What’s the plan then?”

Lottie shot him a look because as if he didn’t know. Yes, he knew very well what the plan was. So maybe he and Lottie had been talking a lot more since Christmas and maybe she’d mentioned coming to visit but it was Louis who had suggested she come down the weekend of Harry’s birthday. Because maybe Eleanor was taking Georgia tomorrow night and there was a low-key surprise bash on at Harry and Niall’s flat before the big shebang that was going to be Saturday, but that didn’t mean that Louis didn’t want to do something private first. And if he could recruit Lottie to help with babysitting…Well hey, she was the one that had offered.

“Think we might have a girl’s afternoon,” Lottie finally said, rolling her eyes at him flawlessly. “Might hit up the shops, see what’s new, do some hair and make-up.”

“Uh uh, no,” Louis protested, holding a finger up. “We don’t do make-up. She’s too little for that.”

“We won’t buy any,” she consoled, holding up one of her bags. “Just what I have here. It’s only a bit of fun Boo Bear.”

He didn’t like it but Louis gave in, grimacing when Georgia cheered. He was glad he’d had the foresight to tell Liam to scram in advance because god knew that if he’d been at home when Lottie and Georgia turned up, he’d spend the rest of the night slathered in every kind of foundation, eye shadow, and lipstick currently on the market.

Letting his sister relieve him of his little girl, Louis started making his way back to Sweet Nothings. He took the long way, stopping by a couple of clients’ offices, making the odd delivery or pick-up here and there, snapping up a couple of supplies for himself. By the time he arrived at the bakery, it was already closed, lights still on as someone finished the last of the day’s cleaning. Hopping up the step, Louis made the silliest face he could once Perrie had noticed him. She sent her eyes skyward in fond exasperation and let him in, tone scolding.

“Why does ‘closed’ never mean anything to you?”

“I’m a rebel at heart,” Louis quipped, winking. “I assume Harry’s still here? Niall said he was closing.”

“He’s out back,” Perrie informed him, wiping down the last of the chairs. “Muttering something about battenburgs and fondant icing.” She chucked her cloth at him, making him squawk. “I’m done. Take that to him, yeah?”

“What am I, your servant?” Louis demanded incredulously.

He was caught off guard by the way Perrie’s smile swapped to a feral grin. “You will be if you want me to leave so you can get up to whatever mischief you’ve obviously got planned.”

Louis’ mouth dropped open, unable to believe he was being blackmailed. Him, of all people. Scowling, Louis grabbed hold of the cloth, spinning on his heel. “Fine. But on the condition that you leave now.”

He was met with a sickeningly sweet smile. “Of course.”

Louis watched Perrie like a hawk until she actually left the store, locking the door behind her with a wave that was far too innocent. Flipping her off – her laughter visible through the window – Louis headed out the back, smiling to himself when he found Harry standing at a bench, a plethora of recipes spread out in front of him, headphones firmly tucked in his ears. Deciding that heart attack was absolutely the way to go, Louis deposited his belongings on the floor before sneaking over, arms snaking around Harry’s waist. Needless to say, Harry rocketed into the air.

“What the-…Louis!

His voice was so high-pitched that Louis had to let go he was laughing so hard. “Sorry, sorry,” he chuckled, sounding anything but as Harry tugged his earbuds out. “I couldn’t help it.”

“Sure you couldn’t,” Harry said gruffly. He turned back to his papers and Louis let out an indignant noise.

“Oi! Where’s my ‘nice to see you’ Curly?”

Harry leered at him over his shoulder but he was obviously fighting a smile – it was a piss poor effort, really, it was. “Nope, you scared me. If you’re not nice to me, I won’t be nice to you.” He returned his attention to his plans. “So I’m gonna work instead.”

Louis felt honest to God offended when it looked like Harry may actually continue to do that. He then felt a smirk tease the corners of his lips. Well, two could play at that game. “Okay,” he said nonchalantly, watching Harry stiffen because he knew that Louis wouldn’t drop it so easily. And too right to, as Louis’ hands came around his waist, oh so casually brushing against his groin, making Harry’s breath hitch. “You keep working then. Don’t let me…distract you.” Those last two words were accompanied by Louis’ fingers tracing the inseam of his jeans.

Louis,” Harry whined, inching back which only pushed him closer into Louis, his own cock starting to pay attention. “Shit, just…let me sort this.”

“I am,” Louis argued, continuing his teasing with one hand while the other came to palm the ever growing bulge in Harry’s pants, cock filling beneath his hand. “I’m not doing anything to stop you. Not messing with your papers or anything.”

“You’re messing with something,” Harry muttered, the words ending on a hiss as Louis’ grip turned into more of a squeeze.

“What was that love? Didn’t quite catch that.” Harry didn’t seem capable of answering and Louis was more than okay with that, leaning up on tip toe so he could latch onto Harry’s neck, teeth sinking in just that little bit more to make Harry cry out, head falling back.

“Fuck, Louis!” His breath had already swapped to pants. “Jesus Lou’, you…” A moan escaped him as Louis’ swapped from biting to sucking. “I…Home, we need to get home…”

“Do we?” Louis asked coyly, breaking away and letting Harry spin around, raising his eyebrows. “Whatever for?”

Harry’s eyes darkened and Louis beamed with triumph. “Not cute Tomlinson.” Harry stepped closer but Louis pushed him back just as quickly, herding him against the bench. “Gonna take you home and take you apart.”

“Yeah?” Louis gasped, hooking his hands into Harry’s waistband. “You finally going to fuck me? Put your fingers inside me? Let me ride you, watch me grind down on you?”

Harry quivered, grip so tight Louis had to hide a wince. He then groaned as those hands slid down to his arse, squeezing, kneading. “That’s the plan.” And fuck, Harry’s voice was nothing more than a hoarse growl.

Taking a deep breath through his nose, Louis centred himself before stepping away, pasting a bright smile on his face. “As lovely as that sounds Harold, I’m afraid it’s not happening.”

Harry’s eyes bulged. “What?”

Louis waggled a finger at him. “We’ve got dinner reservations.” He tapped his chin in thought. “Some ridiculous person’s birthday, I believe? But,” he added, leaning up as though to kiss Harry only to drop to his knees at the last second, loving the choked sound Harry made in response. “Thought I’d blow you first. Sound alright?”

Harry’s hands were already in his hair, clutching desperately. “Louis…

“Thought you’d like that.” Louis tilted his head to press a kiss to the inside of Harry’s wrist before working on his pants, popping the button and starting to tug on the zip.

“Louis, no…I…” Harry’s words caught as Louis finished with the zip and slipped his hand inside, leisurely stroking his cock. “Fuck…God, Lou’, this is my work.”

“No one’s here,” Louis pointed out, though he rocked back enough to squint at the room’s corners. “You got cameras or something?” He shrugged, freeing Harry’s cock and watching him feebly scrabble at the counter’s edge. “Even if you did, s’pose we could just erase them, yeah? Or maybe keep it, let someone watch. You into that?” Harry’s hips snapped forward and Louis’s eyes widened. “Holy shit, you actually are. Fuck Haz.” He grasped Harry’s hips in his hands, guiding him forward. “Mirrors can be arranged for another time.”

Letting Harry bask in that fantasy, Louis proceeded to take the head of his cock into his mouth, soaking in the way Harry cried out. Taking that as invitation enough, Louis swirled his tongue around the tip, dipping in to collect the pre-cum that had already gathered. Bracing himself, Louis relaxed his throat as much as he could before starting to move down the length, bit by bit, taking Harry as deep as he could. Risking a glance up, he found Harry’s eyes to be boring into his, pupils dilated…All until Louis swallowed, his boyfriend’s head lolling back as pleasure tore through him.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Harry stammered, one hand holding him for support while the other pulled on Louis’ hair, making him gag. “Shit, fuck, sorry!” he gasped, releasing Louis instantly.

Pulling off, Louis placed a few kisses to the thick vein underneath while swallowing down as much air as he could. A tender squeeze to Harry’s hand let him know all was forgiven and oh, it was so much more than forgiven. Because maybe Harry hadn’t clocked on yet but Louis had a bit of a thing for roughness, that tinge of pain. Louis hid a smirk behind himself wrapping his lips around Harry once more, cock heavy on his tongue. Perhaps it was time to give Harry a glimpse of that.

Relaxing his throat once more, Louis would have smiled at Harry’s string of curses had his mouth not already been otherwise occupied. He then guided one of those sinfully large hands to his head while his own spare hand gave Harry’s hips a pointed nudge in the right direction. “Lou’…” Harry’s voice cracked and Louis swore he could actually hear him swallow. Harry rocked his hips forward tentatively, Louis giving an appreciative moan. “Louis…oh god, do you…you like that…” Louis hummed again and Harry more than definitely got the picture, taking a more supportive grasp of his neck and starting to thrust in. Louis took it all greedily, jaw aching and throat raw but in that way he loved. He pulled Harry closer, causing his cock to go deeper and, fuck, he couldn’t help but groan, eyes stinging but it was so, so good.

“Lou’, Lou’, I can’t…I’m not gonna last,” Harry rasped, fucking his throat in earnest now that he knew Louis was more than on board with the idea. “I’m not…I’m gonna…” His words became incoherent and he tugged Louis’ hair as a warning, Louis only pulling away enough that he could swallow without choking when Harry came seconds later, Louis’ name echoing off the walls.

As Harry struggled to come down from his high, Louis quickly slipped a hand down his own pants, cock straining against the tight fabric. He’d only given himself one or two sloppy strokes before his hand was ripped away, Harry’s eyes burning. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Getting meself off,” Louis answered easily enough, eyes sinking shut as Harry’s hand came to replace his own. “Didn’t want to make you work on your birthday and all.”

Harry snorted, thumb sliding over the tip and making Louis damn near sob; he was so hard already, nerves tingling like he’d been electrocuted. “Think the birthday boy gets to choose what he wants.” A finger pressed against the sensitive skin behind his balls and Louis fell into Harry’s chest, hands fisting in his shirt. “And what I want is you, my gorgeous Lou’. Want you to come.” His tone was sinful and Louis’ breath hitched, powerless as that magical hand twisted in just the right way. “Come on Louis, know you can. Fuck babe, come for me.”

And Louis? He could never deny Harry anything, back arching as he came into Harry’s fist, nails biting into the skin of his chest.

So they were late for their dinner reservations. Louis couldn’t give a fuck.

 

***

 

Louis finished serving up breakfast just as Lottie and Georgia emerged from the bathroom, Georgia thankfully make-up free and Lottie looking as on point as always. Placing the stack of drop scones in the middle of the dining table, Louis smiled when Georgia’s arms wrapped around his middle.

“Hey baby.”

Oh fuck.

His voice was fucking shot to hell.

Even as Georgia was looking up at him curiously, Lottie was stifling giggles behind her hand. “Do you have a sore throat Daddy?”

And just like that, Lottie lost it, doubling over as laughter exploded out of her. Louis went red right to the tips of his ears, watching Georgia look between them both in confusion. “Yeah, bit sore,” Louis managed, steering her to her chair and sitting her down.

“More like raw,” Lottie snickered.

“Charlotte.”

Lottie immediately snapped her mouth shut, huffing out a ‘sorry’ as she planted herself down. Once Georgia was immersed in her breakfast though, the obscene gestures and knowing smirks were back in full force. Louis glared at her for as long as he could be bothered, eventually just letting his shoulders slump in exasperation. After all, he was the one that asked.

 

***

 

Hours later and Louis’ voice wasn’t much better. He’d downed nearly an entire pot of tea and, at the very least, didn’t sound like he’d shredded his throat with sand paper. He could maybe wave it away with your typical winter cough explanation and Louis knew it was the best he was going to get. He cleared his throat one more time before stepping into the homeless shelter in front of him. Lottie had since abandoned him for London’s city life but Georgia was skipping along beside him, his guide in all this. After all, she was the one who knew where the shelter was, Louis having heard about it more than once after had Harry brought her down. It had been a part of Harry’s life he hadn’t known about, a part that intrigued him, fascinated him.

“Daddy, look, I can already see Harry! I’m going to give him his present, okay?”

Louis’ fingertips only managed to brush the hood of her parka before she was gone, tearing across the room with a familiarity that took him by surprise…And left him standing all alone in the middle of the room looking like a knob. Louis’ lips flattened into a line. Fine, he could handle that.

He didn’t have to for long though thankfully because, predictably, after being ambushed by Georgia, Harry had panicked, no idea as to where she had come from. He all but burst out of the soup kitchen, eyes frantically looking for Louis, shoulders sagging with relief when he spotted him.

“Louis?”

“Heya, alright?” Louis greeted, pulling Harry down by his collar to press their lips together chastely.

“Alright now,” Harry said, eyes crinkling in delight. He shook Georgia’s arm playfully. “This one gave me a right surprise.”

Louis clucked his tongue in disapproval. “Probably shouldn’t have let her barge into the kitchen in retrospect. What with health and safety and all.”

“Nick said it were alright this once…” The silent ‘but never again’ was plain as day and Louis nodded. He then gestured for Harry to open his present over the top of Georgia’s insistent nagging. Louis had given Harry his present the day before but Georgia had been adamant that she get him one too. Harry’s face broke into a delighted grin when he pulled out the three headscarves Georgia had selected, each one covered in a hideous design that Louis could already tell he loved. “These are beautiful,” Harry breathed, sounding almost a tad in awe. Gross.

“And Daddy said I had to be extra sure to tell you they were organic,” Georgia informed him primly, giving a concise nod.

Okay, so Louis had actually said that in a voice dripping in sarcasm and accompanied with rolled eyes but from the impish look on Harry’s face, he’d already guessed as much. “Really?” he asked Georgia, watching her bounce up and down on her toes. “And where did you get organic clothes? I thought Daddy wouldn’t even step into those “hipster” stores.”

“Oh, Daddy didn’t come,” Georgia said with a dismissive hand wave, Louis pouting at her petulantly. “Auntie Lottie took me. We went to the markets on our own because Daddy doesn’t like them.” She then gasped, waving at someone across the room. “Harry, it’s Molly and Andrew! I’m going to say hi!” She started to race off only to zip back and fling her arms around his legs. “Happy birthday Harry!” Then she took off.

Louis watched her closely until she settled down beside two children, a sceptical edge to his voice as he murmured to Harry, “She knows them, right? And you know ‘em too, yeah? They’re okay?”

Everyone here is okay Louis,” Harry snapped, probably harsher than he should have, Louis wincing.

He held his ground though, eyes icy. “Didn’t mean it like that Harold. That’s my fucking daughter and forgive me, but she’s around strangers. As in, people I don’t know. I don’t give a fuck where we are; I’m always gonna ask that.”

Harry deflated accordingly, bowing his head in shame. “Sorry,” he said, brushing their hands together in apology. “You’re not like that Lou’. Sorry I forgot.”

Louis scratched at his cheek. “Sorry I snapped. Didn’t have to do that, weren’t nice and all.”

“Think maybe I needed to hear it though,” Harry admitted, shaking his head when Louis went to protest. He then blinked upon seeing Molly’s mum approaching them. “Hello Uru,” he said with a smile, pointing at Louis. “This is my boyfriend, Louis.”

Louis jumped but then preened a little, liking the way ‘boyfriend’ rolled off Harry’s tongue so naturally. “It’s nice to meet you,” he said, extending a hand.

“More nice for me to meet you,” she said, shaking his hand. “That little one,” Uru pointed straight at Georgia who was in the midst of some grand story from the looks of it. “She’s yours, isn’t she?” Louis nodded, getting a smile in return. “She looks like you; it’s the smile…and the eyes.” She then shook her head. “I just want to say, she’s the most selfless little girl I’ve seen. Whatever you did when raising her, you did it right. She’s the kindest, most generous person I’ve ever met.”

Louis’ bottom lip absolutely did not tremble, nor did his eyes start to brim with tears.

Uru continued on, completely oblivious, though Harry’s thumb was stroking the back of his hand soothingly - a sign that he’d noticed. “Georgia’s always willing to share and she…” Uru gave a tiny, hitching sob, “I don’t have anything to give my children but Georgia makes Molly feel like a princess nonetheless.”

“All girls are princesses,” Louis managed.

“Even when they’re dressed in clothes handed down three times and two sizes too small?” Uru scoffed, but Louis could tell she was more angry at life’s injustice than any of them.

Louis’ hands curled into fists, chin jutting out. “All girls are. Even if they live in tiny old attics, even if they dress in rags, even if they aren’t pretty, or smart, or young, they’re still princesses – all of them!” He folded his arms tightly, squaring off against Uru. “And so help me if you just made me quote a children’s movie from the nineties but I have found nothing more true. Every time Georgia was sad or down, my best mate would sit her down, look her in the eyes, and quote that to her.”

It didn’t take an idiot to work out that was Liam, not after the conversation Harry had heard last time he’d brought Georgia here and Harry thought he fell a little bit more in love with the man.

“And you know what? I’m so grateful he did. Because she-” Louis pointed emphatically at Georgia, “-needs to not just hear that, but believe it. Your little girl? She’s a princess too.” Louis then picked out one of Harry’s scarves, waiting for him to nod before carefully leaning over and wrapping it around Uru’s neck. “And you know what? You are too.”

Louis yelped as he was suddenly pulled into a hug, the poor woman weeping into his shoulder. Smiling sadly, Louis drew her close, palming his phone off to Harry when it started to beep. He held Uru until she pulled away, brushing at her eyes and grasping his hand tightly. “Now I understand. Everything your daughter has, she got from you. You’re a wonderful man Louis. Thank you.”

With that she disappeared, Louis watching her go even as he absently heard Harry calling for Georgia, beckoning her over while still tapping away at Louis’ phone screen. Eyeing off the establishment once more and letting his gaze rake over all the children in the room, Louis did some quick mental calculations. As Harry was ducking away to collect his things, something about Eleanor slipping off his tongue, an idea was forming in Louis’ head. By the time Harry was back, Louis had already decided: his idea was going to become a reality.

 

***

 

It had taken some convincing to get Harry to go back to his own flat after that encounter. After Eleanor had collected Georgia he’d been itching to go out, Louis having to somehow persuade him that a quiet dinner at home was a much better option and if he’d told a lie or two about work related stress, what Harry didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. Finally reaching Harry’s door, having stealthily warned Liam of their arrival via text, Louis was thanking god that he possessed a touch of cunning and a talented tongue – and no, for once, he didn’t mean that in a sexual way, no matter how true that also happened to be.

“I mean, it’s not just about the heat and the sweat,” Harry was stressing, Louis having purposefully remarked “hot yoga’s such a load of bullshit, innit?” a few blocks earlier to ensure Harry was distracted enough to follow him blindly. “It’s about strengthening your mental focus and…” Harry’s voice faded out, Louis crashing into his back rather unceremoniously, having fallen behind after kicking off his shoes in the entryway. Peering around Harry’s broad shoulders, Louis snickered at his boyfriend’s shock upon seeing Liam, Niall, and Ed seated around his dining table, a veritable buffet spread in front of them and holy shit, Niall hadn’t been lying when he said he could cook. “What?”

“Happy birthday love,” Louis whispered, pecking his cheek before ducking to Liam’s side, his best friend slinging an arm around his shoulders.

“But…that’s tomorrow night! And last night!” Harry protested, hands flapping madly.

“Tomorrow you’ll be too drunk to remember and last night…” Something about the way everyone was now looking at him made Louis pause, hands coming to settle on his waist. “What?” His traitorous voice chose that moment to crack and Liam’s eyes went as wide as saucers while Niall and Ed howled like hyenas.

“Mate, I think we all know what you did last night,” Niall crowed, sending them a devious wink.

“Shut it Horan,” Louis snapped, cheeks burning because clearly being out in the cold hadn’t done his throat any good; his voice was basically what it had been that morning.

He then jumped in fright as Harry suddenly appeared right in front of him, one hand cupping his cheek, the other thumbing his throat gingerly. “Fuck Lou’, I’m sorry. I didn’t…I didn’t mean to…”

“Hate to break it to you Haz, but think I knew what I was getting into when I asked you to fuck my throat,” Louis snorted.

Louis!” Liam sounded aghast, his own face turning a blistering red. “No, just no. We don’t need to hear that. Keep your bedroom talk in the bedroom.”

“Didn’t even make it to the bedroom,” Niall chortled as everyone sat down to eat, Louis ushering them along impatiently. “Harry was alone when he came back here and even Tommo wouldn’t go at it with his sister in the flat.”

Ed whooped loudly. “Public bathroom? Harry, mate, you’re fucking mental.”

Louis and Harry remained silent, dishing their food up and passing it on to whoever was closest with tight smiles. Naturally, that only made their friends stare at them even more. Liam’s brow furrowed in bewilderment and Niall’s head cocked to the side, clearly turning over possible locations in his head. It was Ed that made an aborted noise, mouth dropping open.

No,” he gasped, watching them go more and more red. “Holy fuck, you did! Harry!

“Blame Louis, he started it!”

Hey!” Louis screeched, kicking Harry’s shin under the table. “You could have stopped me any time you wanted!”

Niall’s head was snapping back and forth like he was watching a tennis match. “Lads, what…?”

“They fucked at work Niall!”

“Ed!” “Oi Sheeran!”

Niall’s expression turned downright horrified. “What? Harry!” He lobbed his strip of bacon fat at Harry, making him squeal. “I work there you arse! How am I supposed to bake anything knowing that my best mate’s come is all over the shop!”

“Niall, gross,” Liam whined, burying his face in his hands.

“Besides, it seems pretty clear where it all went and it weren’t the shop,” Louis pointed out smugly. Ed clapped him on the back while Niall looked like he genuinely wanted to be ill. Across the table, Harry was glaring at him and Liam’s grip on his knee was painfully tight. “Alright, alright, I’m sorry. Jesus. It won’t happen again Niall.”

“Better fucking not,” the Irishman muttered, stabbing at his mash listlessly.

Whether the conversation would have deteriorated further or not was a question they would never get answered because at the moment the flat was plunged into darkness as the power went out. Chaos descended until Louis yelled for everyone to ‘shut the hell up and pull their bloody phones out’. They’d really only just weaselled their phones out when the lights came back on, though Louis was confident the hum of the thermostat was blaringly absent.

“You’ve got to get that sorted,” Ed said with a shake of his head.

“It’s not like we haven’t tried,” Harry sighed, running a hand through his hair.

Louis’ eyes narrowed. “This has happened before?”

“When it’s not happening?” Niall complained, rocking back in his chair. “It never lasts for long though, never had to chuck out the fridge or whatever. Just…sometimes. Landlord said there’s nothing to be done. We’re not the only flat with troubles.” He resumed eating his dinner without concern. “You get what you pay for.”

“What about the water?” Louis demanded, glaring accusingly at Harry. “That happens more than ‘not that often’, doesn’t it?”

Niall snorted as Harry’s head bowed. “Let’s just say there’s a reason I always shower at the fields after football.”

“I know it sounds bad,” Harry said, shying away from Louis’ heavy scrutiny. “But it’s only six weeks til our lease runs out. Then…maybe we’ll start looking. I don’t know. Flats in London aren’t cheap and finding them can be, like, a real bother so-”

“Move in with me.”

The words were out of Louis’ mouth before he’d even thought about it. That became apparent by the way silence descended like a bomb, Harry looking like a deer caught in the headlights. Liam was opening and closing his mouth like a fish while Niall simply stared at him blankly. And Louis…well, the more Louis thought about it, the more sense it actually made…over the top of the screaming mass of terror his brain had become, something he was dutifully ignoring.

“Not in that way,” he said firmly, leaving no room for questions on that point. “I’m not asking you to move in in that way Harry, not as in like a couple. I’m asking you and Niall to be my flatmates. It’s two birds with one stone, see.” He prodded Liam, who jumped in surprise. “This one’s moving out any day now and that flat will be all mine again.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I can’t manage it on my own, I know that now. I was stupid to attempt otherwise.”

“That’s…that’s actually not a bad idea.” Liam’s forehead was creased in thought. “Like, a proper good idea that one.”

Louis sent him a thankful smile before turning back to Harry and Niall, spreading his hands. “Look, I know it’ll cost more than what you’re paying now and if it’s too much I, of all people, would certainly understand.”

“Yeah, but you’re paying for reliability,” Ed pointed out, flicking his beer bottle in the direction of the lights. “This shit doesn’t happen at Louis’ so what’s a little extra if it means the lights stay on and your balls don’t freeze in the shower?”

“Well, like, we gotta talk but…” Niall turned to Harry, looking a tad hopeful. “But maybe we could make it work?”

Louis held up a hand. “Don’t decide now. Fuck, don’t do that. This requires talking, between you two, between us and me, and,” he dipped his head to meet Harry’s gaze, “between Harry and I.” At Harry’s startled look, Louis rolled his eyes. “Yes Harold, of course we’re talking. This is a big step no matter which way you look at it.”

All eyes turned to Harry, Harry who had been so silent up until this point. Louis wouldn’t deny that he was bouncing his leg under the table or that out of sight his fingers were interlaced with Liam’s. Harry studied the table top before nodding ever so slightly. His tone, when he spoke, was slow and deliberate.

“We talk this through. Promise me that Louis because I don’t want us to do this because it’s simply convenient for both of us and it ends up being what tears us apart.”

“I promise.” And he meant it.

“Okay then,” Harry said with a nod. “And like, talk to Georgia? She’s gotta be okay with it.”

“Harry, she’s been asking for you to move in for weeks,” Louis deadpanned. “Ever since she saw us kiss at Christmas.”

Harry’s jaw dropped and Louis laughed into Liam’s shoulder, his friend quietly chuckling along because he’d been there for that conversation and while Louis had dodged it like a pro, it had never been far from the front of his mind.

“And she’ll be able to handle it. She handled Liam and Zayn. She’ll handle you and Niall. Georgia loves both of you.” He then hesitated, some of his enthusiasm fading away. “Um, but, if a seven-year-old’s too much for you two, I’d understand, yeah? Like, I’d not even be mad about it. It’s full on, I get it.”

“Louis, mate, shut up,” Niall drawled, leaning down the table to smack him over the head. “We get it. And I don’t think either of us would have a problem with her, but that’s something for me and Harry to talk about, alright?”

Liam nodded, tutting and shaking his head when Louis went to talk. “Great chat lads but let’s leave it for now. Everyone needs to talk properly and right now it’s Harry’s birthday so let’s do that.”

“Too right Li’,” Ed agreed, tugging Harry over by his hair teasingly and smacking a sloppy kiss to his cheek. “Let’s get our party on!”

 

***

 

It didn’t really surprise anyone that by the end of the weekend, Louis had a variety of confirmation messages sitting in his inbox and an appointment with his realtor for the next day. Two names off, two names on.

And maybe Louis hit Liam when he turned up at the flat with a nameplate that read Stylinson, Horan, but that didn’t mean he didn’t put it up the moment Liam left.

 

***

Chapter Text

 

Of course moving in was not a simple one day thing. Harry and Louis had curled up on Louis’ couch and talked for a good couple of hours before they’d agreed to it, Harry and Niall having already had a similar, but significantly shorter, chat. Then had come the actual logistics of the move. Both Louis and Harry had been firm on not sharing a bed just yet, which meant that Louis had had to return everything from his office back into his room while Harry and Niall had had to share. They didn’t mind, having done much the same back in uni and it wasn’t as though either of them had amassed a large amount of possessions since then. What didn’t fit around their two beds was either placed in Louis’ room – Harry’s rather exuberant amount of clothes – or in the living room – Niall’s football gear and video games.

There had been teething issues, what with Niall being just that tad bit too loud when on the early shifts and consequently waking up the entire household and Louis being a little too particular on what did and didn’t qualify as “mess”. Georgia had been ecstatic about the change, having been chased out from under their feet multiple times while “helping” the boys move in. There’d been an incident or two there as well, such as Georgia refusing to do her homework because she wanted to watch Niall play guitar instead, or her climbing into Harry’s bed at odd hours of the night and not moving despite Harry’s hushed urging until Louis – who Harry and Niall had since learnt had the ears of a fox – had bellowed “Georgia-Rose Tomlinson, bed, now!” from his room. But once the ground rules had been set and no one had been budged and the novelty had worn off, they’d meshed together seamlessly, a constant clocking in and out of the flat due to their bizarre hours. And by god was it fun. Louis was truly taken aback by how much he’d subconsciously missed having roommates, people his own age to interact with, people to tease, people to help and to be helped by.

It also meant he was able to do things he hadn’t done in such a long time; simple things like duck to the shops whenever because he’d forgotten something, throw a shirt in the wash when someone else was doing a load rather than waiting til the end of the week or rummaging around for other things that didn’t need washing but he could pretend they did. Someone who could read to Georgia or watch her when his phone rang at inopportune moments like bed time or bath time. Or could pick her up from school and mind her while he went on an impromptu date with his boyfriend.

Doing one more lap of the inner circle at Regent’s Park, Louis was resigning himself to parking when he saw a familiar figure approach the crossing behind him. Checking the review mirror quickly, Louis slipped his car into reverse, settling right in the middle of the crossing. The abrupt manoeuvre startled Harry nearly half to death, fearing he was about to be run over despite the fact that Louis was nowhere near him. Louis grinned as he rolled his window down.

“Alright love?” he crowed, voice loud and obnoxious as Harry came closer until… “Harry, the fuck is on your head?”

Harry frowned, tracing the wide brim of his black hat with a finger. “Is there something on my hat? Oh, and nice to see you Louis,” he tacked on as he pulled said hat off his head, starting to inspect it.

“There’s nothing on it,” Louis huffed, screwing up his nose when Harry’s gaze turned questioning. “But it’s winter Styles, winter. In London. Not the summer of love of the seventies on an island in the Caribbean with Mick Jagger and all his entourage. Normal clothes would suffice,” he sniffed.

Harry chuckled, plopping the hat back on and leaning down to kiss him through the window. “Well, when it rains I’ll be the one that’s dry. And,” he added in drawl, fingers coyly teasing the collar of Louis’ shirt, “at least I’m not the one who never grew up and still thinks Vans and Adidas are the peak of fashion and style.”

Hey!” Louis cried, smacking his hands away and…alright, yes, yet another Adidas shirt was wrapped around his torso.

“I’m only joking,” Harry promised, chasing Louis’ troubled expression away with a kiss to the forehead. “I love you just the same.”

Louis burrowed into Harry’s neck as best he could from where he was sitting. “Love you too.”

“Good,” Harry chirped, rocking back on his heels. “So, can I ask what my extremely attractive boyfriend is doing here when he’s got a daughter that needs collecting soon?”

“Ah,” Louis said, waggling a mischievous finger. “Your attractive boyfriend has already thought of this and has the good ship Horan picking up Georgia.” He jerked a thumb towards the shoddily packed duffle bag on the passenger seat. “I don’t have a picnic basket or anything but thought we could have a late lunch out all the same. Sound good to you Curly?”

Harry floundered for a second before nodding hastily, hopping from foot to foot anxiously as Louis reversed into a space and collected everything. Before his feet had even touched the ground Harry was wrapping his gargantuan arms around him, grip octopus-like until Louis begged for mercy. Upon being released, Harry relieved him of the bag despite his protests and led them back through the gate he’d just come from.

Finding a spot to claim as their own, they set everything up before Louis swore, realising he hadn’t remembered any tea. Harry waved it off but Louis was determined. Fuck it all if he wasn’t having a tea in this frigid weather. Spinning around and seeing a woman perched on a deck chair nearby, book in hand and clearly engrossed, Louis trudged over, tapping the top of her book to get her attention. And, oh god, Fifty Shades of Grey? What was the world coming to?

“Sorry to disturb you,” Louis said, completely ignoring her indignant expression. “But my boyfriend and I are gonna pop over to the café and get a tea. Is it alright if we leave our stuff here? We won’t be long. Thanks darling!”

Louis bounded away before she could argue and he quite literally dragged a disapproving Harry along with him. “Louis…”

“She wasn’t going anywhere!” Louis said defensively as they entered the café, passing along his order to the man behind the counter with a breezy smile. “And it’s not like people are gonna nick our shit.”

“I left my camera back there!”

“And she’s watching it! No one but the desperate housewives of London and the bingo nans are out anyway. It’ll be fine,” he insisted, collecting the tray that held their beverages and looking at the door pointedly until Harry held it open for him. “Ta love!”

Harry frowned at him, amusement present but certainly also not without an air of malcontent. “Don’t think that’s going to make me any more happy about what you just did.”

Louis sighed, shoulders slumping a little. “I know. Sorry Harry. I just…I sometimes get carried away, yeah? I don’t always think things through and I guess I thought, I need someone to mind my stuff, she’s free, and I wouldn’t mind if someone asked me so it’s okay?” He gave a weak shrug. “Should have asked first though, rather than dumping it on her.”

Harry gave a little sigh of his own. “Just ask next time Boo. And trust me, with you being you, no one could ever say no.”

Louis snorted. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Harry bumped his shoulder playfully, guiding him back up the hill. “The rose garden is stunning Lou’,” Harry said, changing the subject to show they’d moved on. Louis rolled his eyes at Harry’s declaration but let their joined hands swing between them freely. “They’re not blooming at the moment but I think, like, that gives them more appeal, you know? It’s a different emotion when you photograph them. They’re still beautiful without their flowers and they have a bit of nostalgia to them.”

Louis squinted down at him as he flopped back onto their blanket, their designated bag-watcher eyeing them over the rim of her book. “What, are you a poet as well now Styles?” He then turned to the lady, holding out the tray and making her blink in surprise. “I didn’t know what you liked but there’s a hot chocolate, a mulled fruit tea, and a normal tea so take whichever. Consider it our thanks.”

“I-I…Thank you,” she stammered, taking the fruit tea and looking slightly flustered under Louis’ dazzling smile.

Dropping down beside Harry, Louis passed the hot chocolate on to his boyfriend before digging through their bag, pulling out the food and arranging it between them. He quirked an eyebrow at Harry’s extended stare. “I know I’m beautiful but seriously.”

Harry’s expression turned unimpressed before he leant over to bump their noses together. “You are, beautiful that is.” Louis flushed. “But, that was really nice, what you did there. You’re sweeter than you let on.”

Louis didn’t have an answer to that and Harry was content to let it go. They shared their food and lobbed the odd bit at each other. Louis flicked through Harry’s camera roll, listening to his explanations behind his morning adventures before letting him go, Harry muttering something about lighting that Louis didn’t quite understand. He figured that photography to him was probably what scaffolding permits were to Harry. Watching his boyfriend from his position on his stomach, Louis was not expecting to be disturbed by a throat clearing to his left just as Harry came back to join him.

He frowned at the woman from earlier. “Can I help you?”

She leant forward on her chair, waving a hand covered in glitzy rings as if that was some form of greeting. “Sorry for interrupting, I was just wondering…Are you a photographer?”

Harry nodded. “Of a sorts.”

She tapped her chin thoughtfully. “I’ve been thinking about getting some professional photos of my kids done. Do you work with children? Or, could you recommend me to someone in the industry who does? Those photography companies charge through the nose and I find you’re never happy with the result. The children never quite look natural, in my opinion.”

“Harry’s great with kids,” Louis stated, when Harry seemed to be more speechless than anything else. He pulled out his phone and went into the album labelled “My princess”, offering it to the lady and gesturing for her to swipe through. “Those later ones, the ones you’re seeing now, that’s my daughter. He took them all. You can see they look good.” Because they did – even if Georgia had found Harry’s atrocious flower crown and let Harry take her out for the afternoon for a little mock shoot while he tested out the new lenses he’d gotten for Christmas.

“They are.” There was a hum of agreement. “But, she’s yours. Of course she’d smile for her father.”

Harry’s eyes went wide. “Oh, I’m n-”

“He’s great with all kids,” Louis interrupted, ignoring Harry’s shocked look and showing some pictures from Christmas that had Phoebe and Daisy as the focal point. “He did this one at Christmas and he’d known the girls, what, ten minutes? Fifteen?”

The woman scrutinised the photo before extending a hand, Harry jumping forward to shake it. “I’m Angelique. Your photography is quite stunning…?”

“Harry!” he blurted, scratching his neck sheepishly before trying again. “I’m Harry Styles. And I’d love to work with you and your children. It sounds like fun.”

“Have you got a card?” Angelique inquired.

“Uh…no.”

“What?” Louis gasped, disbelief obvious. “Harold Styles, how do you not?” He ran a hand through his hair and turned back to Angelique with an exasperated look that was purely designed to make her laugh – it did. “I’m sorry about his lack of business skills, he’s still setting up shop. I could give you his details, if you’d like?” Louis said, finding Harry’s name in his phone.

“That would be lovely,” she laughed, taking the phone off him when offered and copying the details across. “I don’t believe I ever caught your name,” she remarked as her fingernails clacked on the screen.

“It’s Louis,” he supplied, taking the phone back.

“Well Louis, I think you should be his P.A.,” Angelique joked, smiling at Harry, who bit his lip shyly.

“Yeah, but he’s got experience,” Harry said, pouting at Louis’ preening. “He runs a firm of his own so, you know, he knows the game.”

“And what’s your game Louis?”

“Architecture,” Louis answered proudly. “And interior design. I do, unlike my partner, have a card.” He flashed it smugly, making a little surprised noise when Angelique snatched it out of his hands. “Sorry, but I-”

“I have this card.”

Louis blinked. “You what?”

“This card,” she said, shaking it emphatically. “Well, my brother has it. He had his flat redesigned last November. I think I nearly die of jealousy every time I see that damned gyrofocus in his sitting room.”

“Glass windows on the west side facing the Thames and induction stove on the floating counter?” Louis demanded incredulously.

Angelique’s mouth dropped open. “Oh my god, it is you. That’s my brother’s flat.”

“Small world,” Harry murmured.

“Impossible world,” Angelique laughed, handing Louis back his card and gathering her belongings. “You two are quite possibly the most creative couple in London. I’m sure we’ll be in contact again. I need photos and I have a bathroom that most definitely needs an upgrade.”

As she walked away in that way that could only be described as “soccer-mom”-like, Louis and Harry burst out laughing, muffling their giggles in each other’s clothes. “What the fuck?” Louis gasped, wiping tears from his eyes. “What the fuck was that and what the bloody hell did we just get ourselves into?”

“I don’t know,” Harry confessed. “I honestly don’t know. Do you think I should have told her I bake?”

“Oh god no!” Louis groaned, flopping onto his back. “She’d employ us personally if she found that out. We’d be like those rich people who had their own chef and all that. No thank you!”

“No thank you indeed,” Harry agreed whole-heartedly, laughter turning into a tender smile as he looked down at Louis who was sprawled on the grass below him.

“What?”

Harry shook his head. “Nothing. Just…love you a lot.” He then lay down beside Louis, readjusting his hat and sunglasses before holding his phone out. “Now, come on love, selfie.”

 

***

 

“Fucking hell!” Louis cried as he all but leapt into the flat, a chiding Liam and a screaming Niall on his heels. The thunderous downpour seemed to chase them indoors, rain lashing at their backs. Slamming the door shut, the boys started to peel off their spray jackets, football boots already in their protective bags but their normal shoes also having to be abandoned by the door, soaked as they were.

“Glad this madness didn’t start up until after our matches were done,” Niall said, head tilted to the side as he slapped water out of his ears.

“Think they would have called it off,” Liam countered, cringing at the way his jeans now stuck to his legs. “Can I have the first shower?”

“Offer you a place to stay for the night to save you from the rain and this is how you repay me Payno?” Louis feigned offence, squealing when Niall slapped him with the sock he’d just peeled off. “Fuck off Horan!”

“Louis, language.”

Harry’s languid voice came from the living room and Louis was set on bitching about being chastised when he rounded the corner and found himself staring at not just Harry, but Georgia as well. Her eyes were narrowed. “Daddy, those are not nice words.”

Louis mumbled incoherently under his breath, toeing the ground sheepishly. Niall squeezed his shoulder in apology and even Liam looked a tad guilty. To be fair though, Georgia was usually in bed long before they returned from football. Louis glanced over at Harry and the other man shrugged.

“Sorry Lou’ but she absolutely wouldn’t go to bed. Said she wanted to wait for you ‘cause you haven’t been around much this week. I tried…”

He trailed off uncertainly but Louis shook his head, stepping across the room because it was true; he had been away a lot this week, working out on a property in Upminster. “’S alright sometimes,” he murmured, brushing his lips against Harry’s and combing Georgia’s hair with his fingers, the little girl nuzzling into his palm. “I gotta shower, poppet, but after that, wanna kip with me tonight? Just this once?”

Georgia clapped her hands together excitedly, throwing her arms around his neck. “Yes please!”

“Are you alright to share with me too?” Liam asked, tickling her sides and making her squeal. “Because Lou’ already promised me we could share.”

Georgia pouted. “No.”

“No?” Liam gasped theatrically, though Louis’ face already had a warning edge to it. “Then…where am I gonna sleep? Not in your room?”

“Of course not in my room,” Georgia said, arms flumping in exasperation. “You can’t sleep in my room; it’s pink.”

“Hey!” Harry hollered from the couch. “Boys can like pink too. You know that.”

Georgia opened her mouth and then shut it, nodding. “Alright Harry, you can like pink.” Everyone except Harry burst out laughing. “But Liam, you can sleep with Niall.”

Liam blinked. “I don’t want to sleep with Niall. Ow!” He yelped as Niall kicked him swiftly.

“No, in his room,” Georgia explained, sounding as exasperated as any parent having a bad day.

“But what about me?” Harry asked, thoroughly confused.

“That’s easy,” Georgia giggled, jumping to Louis’ side and wrapping herself around his leg. “You’re going to sleep with Daddy and me because you and Daddy have sleep overs all the time-” Niall snorted loudly, earning him a sharp pinch from Louis. “-but you never let me sleep over!” She adopted a deep frown. “I want a sleep over!”

Both Louis and Harry looked at each questioningly, Harry eventually spreading his hands. “Well…I think that’s up to your daddy. I can sleep in your room if he says no because I like pink.”

Georgia went to argue but Louis slapped a hand over her mouth, squishing her cheeks playfully. He then looked over her head at Harry, smiling softly. “Lemme shower and then you can hop in me bed Styles.” He hefted Georgia onto his hip as she cheered. “Just a warning, she kicks!”

Georgia protested loudly at that but Louis merely laughed, grabbing her toothbrush from the bathroom and getting her to do her teeth while he showered. Jumping into his pyjamas and quickly doing his own teeth, he opened the door, pleasantly surprised to find Harry in his bed, even if he was shuffling around awkwardly. Georgia scrambled up the bed, flinging herself into the middle and wrapping her arms around Harry. Setting his alarm, Louis flopped down, dragging Georgia with him. While she wriggled and squirmed, Louis gently twisted his fingers in Harry’s hair, pulling him down to brush their lips together. “She loves you,” he reminded softly. “And so do I. You can also leave anytime you want; we won’t mind.”

“Won’t leave,” Harry promised, bumping their noses together before doing the same to Georgia.

She smiled happily before rolling to face her father. “Daddy,” she said seriously. “This is our very first sleepover. That means we need a photo.”

“Does it really?” Louis drawled, watching her nod like this was the most important thing ever. Reaching for his phone, Louis opened the camera, switching it to face them. Once everyone had shuffled accordingly, Louis called a quick “smile!” before snapping the photo. Looking at the image on the screen, Louis felt his throat constrict, nodding gently when Harry asked if he was okay. He then set the photo as his lock screen background, the selfie Harry had taken days ago already his home screen. After a moment, he sent it to Liam, as well as his mum.

He then barked out a laugh when, minutes later, Liam sent back his own re-creation of the photo, only he and Niall had replaced Georgia with a stuffed animal and they were making the most ridiculous kissy faces. Louis huffed. They did not look like that. He messaged back:

Twats.

 

***

 

“No, not like that.”

“What do you mean not like that? That’s how you said to do it!”

Harry slapped his palm to his forehead, making Georgia giggle from her position on the dining table while Louis had to step away momentarily, taking deep breaths that echoed through the flat. It was a Bank Holiday and Niall had been gracious enough – for once, which made Harry highly suspicious – to swap shifts, meaning Harry could spend the morning with Louis and Georgia. Louis had declared that since Georgia didn’t have to go to school, he wouldn’t work. Liam had honestly nearly cried tears of joy upon hearing that and Louis may have sniffled into Liam’s shoulder when he’d been brought into a hug. It only served to highlight how much pressure he’d been under at one stage, to be so relieved to get even a single day off and not have to stress about it.

Although, Louis was doing plenty of stressing now. With Harry now living with them, Georgia’s requirements for school hairstyles had risen above his capabilities. Sure, Harry did her hair when he could but some days he was already at work and while Georgia never complained or threw tantrums when Louis did simple ponytails or his go-to braid, he still felt a little bad. Thus leading to the hairstyle lesson they were currently having. Or rather, attempting to have.

“Louis, it’s more simple than the French braid you already do,” Harry pointed out for what had to be the hundredth time.

“So you say,” Louis snapped, folding his arms petulantly and who knew fishtail braids could ever be so complicated?

Harry prayed for patience, combing his long fingers through Georgia’s hair soothingly as she nonchalantly swung her legs back and forth, completely unfased by Louis’ snark. “We can take a break if you want,” he suggested.

“No!” Louis said, shaking his head adamantly. “I can do it! Just…” He ran a hand across his face. “Okay, let me try again. Once I get it in my head it’ll be fine.”

“Okay…” Harry’s tone was careful and he tentatively pulled Georgia’s hair to the side, passing it over to Louis when he stepped up next to him. “So, we’re gonna split it in two, right? Then the outside of one into two and the outside of two into one.” Each step was followed by a demonstration. “Over and over.”

Louis’ lips pursed as he tried to mimic what Harry had done and Harry was about to have to step in to fix it all again – seriously, how? – when his phone rang. Swiping it up off the bench, Harry smiled, if a tad quizzically, at seeing his mother’s face on the screen.

“Hi Mum,” he greeted, stepping away from the table and leaving Louis to fend for himself. Who knew, perhaps without a guide he’d have to figure it out – throw him in the deep end and all that.

Hi love.” Anne’s voice was warm, calming his nerves somewhat. “I’m only checking in. It’s been awhile. How’s my boy?

“I’m alright,” he chuckled. “Sorry I haven’t called earlier. Been a bit busy with work and all.”

How’s work going? Is Niall still driving you crazy?

“Only sometimes.”

And Louis?” There was a prying edge to Anne’s voice now, making Harry pout.

“Louis is fine,” he grumped, looking over to see Louis now watching him intently, eyebrows raised, Georgia’s expression an exact replica. Oh god, suspicious Tomlinsons were too adorable.

“Is that your mum Harry?” Georgia called loudly, Louis trying to shush her but failing. “I haven’t met your mummy! Is she lovely? I bet she’s lovely. Hi Harry’s mummy!

Hi,” Anne sung back even though Georgia wouldn’t hear, laughter coming through the line. There was then a noticeable pause. “You’re at Louis’ awfully early on a Monday morning.

Harry squirmed at the pointed tone. “Um…yeah, so, like…Niall and I moved in with Louis?”

“Harry Edward Styles!”

Harry jerked the phone away, Louis’ eyes going wide while Georgia sat bolt upright. “Mum!

Don’t use that tone,” Anne scolded, volume dropping enough that Harry could tentatively put the phone back to his ear. “These are the sort of things mothers like to hear Harry. How long has this been an arrangement and why am I only hearing of it now?

“It’s only been a couple of weeks!” Harry assured, very obviously ignoring Louis. “And it’s not like it’s just me and Louis. Like, we didn’t move in cause we’re dating. It was because, well, you know how I said his flatmates had moved out?”

“…Yes.” The silent ‘go on’ was clear.

Harry ran a hand through his hair haphazardly. “So, Louis’ flatmates moved out and Niall’s and my flat was falling apart and it just made sense to move in together. We have separate rooms Mum, I swear!”

Anne sighed. “Harry, darling, I’m not judging you, good grief. I didn’t mean to sound like I was. I…You took me by surprise is all. I-

“Harry’s mum’s mad at us, isn’t she?” Georgia’s tearful voice cut through the room like a knife, her loud sniffle making Anne halt midsentence. Her bottom lip quivered and Louis tucked her into his chest. “I didn’t mean to make her angry. I don’t want her to be angry with us! Not like how Liam was!”

“Hey, hey, Georgie,” Louis soothed, rocking her gently. “She’s not mad.” His eyes flew to Harry desperately. “She’s not mad…?”

Oh for heaven’s sake,” Anne huffed before Harry could speak. “Put me on loud speaker. That boy, I swear…

Harry laughed, crossing the room and setting the phone on his palm, tapping the speaker icon. “You’re on Mum.”

Is there a little Rosie there?” Anne asked, Georgia blinking and nodding.

“She just nodded,” Louis dictated, Georgia hiding an ‘oops’ in her hands.

Well then, little Rosie, my name is Anne.

“Hello Anne,” Georgia said quietly. “Are you Harry’s Mummy?”

I am.

“Are you mad at Daddy and I? For making Harry move in?”

“We did not make him!” Louis cried, so dramatic that both people in the room laughed. “He came on his own volition.”

Which is why I’m not mad,” Anne said, voice warm but firm. “Harry is a big boy; he can make his own decisions. I wasn’t angry. I was just surprised because Harry hadn’t told me before.” Harry winced at the scolding underneath.

Georgia nodded solemnly, curling more into Louis’ side. “You should never keep secrets from your daddy or your mummy. Because they want to keep you safe and they can’t keep you safe if you lie. And if they don’t know where you are, they can’t help you if you get into trouble.”

Harry swore he could almost hear Anne smiling through the phone. “Precisely! You are the cleverest little girl I have ever met.

But you didn’t even meet me,” Georgia said matter-of-factly. “We didn’t even say hi at Christmas or Harry’s birthday. Harry’s mummy, do you know that Harry met my mummy? Her name is Eleanor. And Harry even took a photo of her with me and Daddy. And-”

“And we’re gonna keep talking forever if you let us,” Louis interjected, whisking Georgia off the table. “Sorry Anne, but I think that’s enough rambling from us for one day. I’ll leave you to talk to Harry.” He went to leave the room only to waver and then come back. “But Georgia is right though; she has never met you or Robin. We’d be more than happy to have you some time.”

With that, he left, taking Georgia out the back, football in hand. Anne’s voice echoed through the flat, “Harry…Oh sweetheart, he sounds so different. I imagine he sounds like his real self. He’s okay now, isn’t he?

Harry’s chest filled with warmth as Louis’ laughter wafted in from out back. “Yeah Mum, he is.”

 

***

 

It wasn’t often that Harry felt down. He prided himself on being a rather up-beat person most of the time. He wasn’t on Niall’s level but he didn’t consider himself to be moody or sullen. Which was probably why when he was down, he felt it, felt it like an anvil to the chest. His shoulders were heavy as he scrubbed down the last baking tray, setting it to the side once it was grease-free, all ready to be used tomorrow.

Tomorrow. Also known as February 15th. The day after Valentine’s Day.

The day after he was going to spend the evening at home curled up with Niall because Georgia was spending the night with Liam and Louis was working. Yes, working. Harry knew he’d tried his best to worm his way out the meeting, watched Louis flip through his diary numerous times with an agonised expression, but he hadn’t managed an out. Louis had been bright and cheery this morning however, presenting Harry with breakfast in bed and some lovely flowers – Harry had been similarly armed with flowers and homemade chocolates - but he’d barely apologised about tonight before zipping out.

Harry shook his head as he re-did the bun in his hair, finding his bag and shouldering it. Louis just wasn’t a romantic person. Maybe to him missing tonight was no big deal. He’d already offered they make up for it another night so, really, Harry would just have to suck it up and accept that. Next year he could plan further in advance. Harry frowned mid-way through locking the shop door. Next year. Huh. Good to know his mind was already confident of the fact that they would still be together in a year.

He’d been about to swing into Tescos to grab I’m-all-alone-on-Valentine’s-Day ice-cream when his phone went off:

Think this job is more up your alley. Hipsters, the lot of them. I could use your help with the consult. Half an hour sound good?

An address came through seconds later and Harry gripped his phone a little too tight. Part of him wanted to be immature and tell Louis to go stuff himself but then he forced himself to calm down. He had to remind himself that Louis didn’t like this anymore than he did. And hey, at least if he went he would actually get to see Louis. It wouldn’t be a date but surely it was better than moping on the sofa with Niall. Texting Louis to let him know he was on his way and shooting one off to Niall explaining his change of plans, Harry swapped direction, heading for the Tube. He popped up halfway across London, doing his very best to avoid the loved-up couples with their PDA and abysmal hand-holding as he weaved his way through the Seven Dials, eventually spotting Louis at the entrance of Neal’s Yard. He was bouncing on his toes, looking somewhat harried and Harry almost wished he would make a comment about Harry being late because he was in just the right mood for it.

Louis apparently wasn’t though because his eyes lit up upon sighting him, reaching up to wrap his arms around Harry’s neck. “You made it,” he said softly, nuzzling into Harry’s collar.

And just like that, all of Harry’s anger drained away, his arms drawing Louis as close as possible. “Course I came Lou’.”

“Thought maybe you wouldn’t,” Louis whispered, the tiniest of shakes in his voice. “Thought you’d be mad.”

Guilt slammed into Harry and he hastily showered Louis’ face with kisses, making him giggle and bat him away playfully. “I know you did all you could.” Louis sent him a relieved smile, slipping his hand into Harry’s and then starting down the alley. “So, what’s this job? Why do you think I can help? I’m not a designer.”

Louis poked at his frown. “Well, no. But you are trash so…”

Hey!” Harry whined, nearly tripping when Louis came to an abrupt halt in front of a restaurant.

“You see,” Louis said grandly, removing his hand and placing them on his hips teasingly. “I am one of those people that believes food is food and that’s all it should be. I don’t understand why my dish should be accompanied by a string of letters so I definitely need someone to explain it all to me.”

Harry could only blankly ask “what?” as Louis dragged him over the threshold, passing his name on and being directed to a table by the window. He all but stuffed Harry into his chair, Harry feeling very much as though he was on auto-pilot. Dropping into his own chair, Louis leant over to open Harry’s menu, which, just as he’d said, did have most items’ names followed by V, R, O, and variations thereupon. Harry swallowed thickly. “Lou’…

“I know you’ve been trying to get off processed sugars,” Louis explained, “And I know that with a seven-year-old in the flat that’s near impossible. But I thought…we could do dinner, yeah?” He glanced up at Harry through his lashes. “Dinner with the kind of shitty food you like? I promise I won’t complain. Well, much,” he quickly amended, nose scrunching up. “Harold!

Harry didn’t care, having rounded the table in a split-second and scooping Louis into his arms. His heart was threatening to overflow and even as Louis’ body moulded against his Harry swore he could feel his eyes start to sting. “Why are you so perfect?” he managed to choke out, Louis sighing and tightening his grip. “Boo, this is amazing, incredible. I…I can’t believe you did this. You were right; I was mad,” he rambled, “But I was so stupid to have been. Fuck.”

“Harry Styles!”

Harry stepped away, cupping Louis’ face in his hands. “You are the kindest man I have ever met Louis. Don’t ever let me doubt that.” He pressed their lips together. “I love you.”

Louis kissed an exposed collarbone, shaking his head ever so slightly. “You’re full of shit Curly. But I like it,” he admitted, stepping away and tutting when Harry reached for him. “God Harry, sit down. We’re here for dinner not to star in a romantic comedy.”

Harry chuckled but obliged. His gaze roamed down to the menu and he had to stifle a smile, knowing how much it would have physically pained Louis to make reservations at a place like this. The food here was so far from his usual tastes but, across the table, Louis was doing a remarkable job of keeping his face neutral. He was making an effort – an enormous one – and Harry decided that if Louis tried it and didn’t like it, he’d taken him over to Häagan-Dazs for dessert. Actually, no, Harry would take him regardless. Ice-cream was the least he could do after all this.

Ordering their meals, they ate with varying degrees of enthusiasm, Harry explaining every ingredient to Louis, why it was there, what nutrients it contained, how when combined together they helped the body absorb said nutrients more efficiently. Louis listened with a raised eyebrow and an air of disbelief but the smile never left his face. They chatted back and forth, swapped drinks every so often, maybe played footsie under the table a couple of times until Louis’ foot went a little too high, causing Harry to jump and his thighs to crash into the table. Louis had had to excuse himself under the pretence of going to the bathroom after that but Harry knew he was going purely so he could laugh it all out.

Louis had not long returned to the table when Harry happened to glance out the window, mouth falling open as he saw a man across the yard drop to one knee in front of what was clearly his girlfriend. Her hands flew to her mouth as he started to talk and Harry felt tingles shoot up his spine. He went to point out the couple to Louis only to find that Louis was already watching them. Watching them with a deep scowl.

Wait, what?

“Really?” Louis scoffed, tearing his eyes away and tipping more salt onto his wedges.

“Really what?” Harry asked cautiously, Louis waving a hand dismissively.

“He’s going to propose on Valentine’s Day? That’s the king of originality right there.” His voice was strikingly bitter. “Besides, who would have the heart to reject someone on Valentine’s Day? ‘s like when they do it on live telly. Feel like a right tosser saying ‘no’ in front of the whole world, wouldn’t you?”

Harry glanced once more at the couple who were tearfully embracing each other, shoulders a bit stiffer when he returned his attention to Louis. “Didn’t seem like she didn’t want to accept.”

Louis gave a shrug. “Maybe.”

Harry frowned. “Okay then, when would you propose then?”

“Propose?” Louis repeated in confusion, setting his cutlery down and shaking his head sharply. “I’m not proposing.”

Harry’s mouth opened only to be completely shattered by Louis’ next statement.

“I’ve got no intentions of ever being married.”

“What?”

It was Louis’ turn to frown. “What? It’s not like getting married is anything more than a piece of paper. It’s commitment what matters and that’s only proved by time. Marriage just seems like a waste.”

Harry’s hackles rose. “And this is the first time it ever occurred to you to bring this up?” His voice was a growl, Louis’ eyes widening exponentially. “Is this really how you’re gonna tell me you’re not in this for the long haul? Because maybe I was reading things wrong but I thought that with you not letting me correct Angelique when she called Georgia ours was a pretty good indication that you were serious.”

“Harry, what the hell are you on about?” Louis demanded, narrowing his eyes at him. “Of course I wanna be with you. I never said otherwise!”

Harry folded his arms. “But you won’t marry me.”

“Does it matter?” Louis asked, own voice turning sharp.

“Did it even occur to you to ask me if it mattered?” Harry snapped, Louis flinching. “Make up your mind Louis! Are you in or out?”

“I’ve made it perfectly clear I’m in!” Louis argued. “I don’t know what the fuck you’re on about.”

Harry’s eyes flashed dangerously. “Don’t swear at me Louis. I don’t like it.”

“Yeah, well fuc-” Louis then seemed to think better of his choice, jaw snapping shut. “Okay fine, not swearing. Happy?”

“You’re ridiculous,” Harry huffed, signalling for the cheque and paying for it before Louis could even argue. “Come on, we’re going.”

Louis gaped at him, bottom staying firmly planted in his chair. He raised an eyebrow challengingly. “Are we?”

Harry rolled his eyes. “You’re not Georgia and you’re not seven. Get out of the chair Louis.”

Louis did so, though it was not without a flounce and he followed Harry out of the restaurant, all good feelings forgotten. “I don’t get your problem Styles!” he continued as they marched down the street. “All because we won’t exchange rings sometime in the distant future?”

“That’s not what it is!” Harry cried, pulling Louis up, eyes hurt. “It’s that you won’t commit to me!”

“I said I did!” Louis screamed, pushing him away. “Fucking hell Harry! And no, I’m not swearing at you; I’m just swearing in general!” he added, hands flying into the air in frustration. “I asked you to move in. I know it wasn’t purely because of us but we both knew that was part of it. I told you I loved you, I let you into my daughter’s life. Hell, you went to her parent’s day. Without my permission, but still. I have shared every part of my life with you. What am I doing wrong?” He was nearly in tears by the end and it broke Harry’s heart to step away when Louis tried to interlace their fingers.

“You won’t have me,” Harry said with a dejected shrug. “You openly admit you don’t ever intend to be mine.”

Louis’s eyes steeled over and Harry’s own sunk shut because he knew that look and fuck, it was over. Louis’ heart had hardened and Harry was about to be torn apart.

Fuck you Harry, and yes, I’m fucking saying that to your face now because you’re being a spoilt brat.” He laughed mirthlessly. “I am so fucking thrilled to find out that you only seem to count love as love when we share last names. I am so fucking thrilled to find out that nothing else in our relationship means anything to you. Marriage doesn’t do anything Harry. It doesn’t make people more committed – if anything, it tears them apart. Look at Liam and Zayn. Look at my mum and Mark. Hell, look at your own parents! Marriage doesn’t mean shit! It’s your actions, not your jewellery or your name, that mean anything!” He took several deep breaths, stepping away from Harry, hands gripping his hair. “Okay…Okay, so this gonna be fucking awkward because we live together but I’m going back to the flat; I’m sure you will too.” His index finger jabbed the middle of Harry’s chest – hard. “But you stay the fuck out of my room and the fuck out of my daughter’s. Do you understand?”

Harry’s hands shook by his side and he managed a weak nod. “I understand,” he managed, voice clogged with tears.

Louis’ face morphed into concern instantly and he went to wipe away his tears only to wrench himself back at the last second. He then turned on his heel. “Good.”

 

***

 

Chapter Text

 

Harry had already left for his shift when Louis woke up the next morning. Due to the fact the he was in no way a computer, turning it off and back on again – aka sleeping – had not helped his current condition and, if anything, Louis felt worse. Felt worse because Harry’s words were grating on his soul and the fact that Harry had even had the courage to question Louis’ devotion to him was devastating. Sure, they’d had a tad bit of a rocky start but Louis had thought he’d been doing okay! He had actually been feeling pretty confident in how their relationship was going.

Obviously he’d felt it more than Harry.

Niall’s frantic “Louis!” caught him as he was stuffing on his shoes but it only made Louis duck out of the flat faster, hurling himself into the frosty air and damn near running down the street. Once confident Niall wasn’t following him, Louis slowed his pace, hands stuffed into his pockets and head bowed as he meandered his way down to the Thames. The water was particularly murky and choppy today and if Louis was one for abstract thinking, he’d probably say it mirrored his tumultuous emotions or something like that.

Sighing heavily, and a tad bit shakily, Louis pulled his phone out of his pocket. Dialling, Louis settled back against the stone wall, cold slowly seeping through his jacket. His call was answered within three rings.

“Boo?”

Jay’s voice was already laced with concern as well as sympathy and it made his composure crack altogether. “Mum…”

“Oh Boo Bear, baby, no,” his mother suddenly sounded a lot more alert. “What’s going on Louis? Talk to me.”

“Nothing,” he choked out, clumsily wiping at his eyes. “It’s just…it’s stupid.”

“You’re crying; it’s not nothing,” Jay stated, accepting no arguments. “I also know you don’t cry over ‘nothing’. And I’m guessing that this is to do with Harry, what with Valentine’s Day being yesterday and all.”

There was a despondent edge to her tone and it made Louis’ heart clench. “Oh Mum…shit, this was your first year without Mark. Are you…? How are-”

“Louis Tomlinson, you can stop that right now. I’m fine and you’re avoiding the problem. You, Harry, details now mister; I don’t have all day!”

Louis snorted a laugh, turning around to face the river once more. “Look, I don’t care what you say, but I’m gonna say it’s stupid regardless. But,” he added, rolling his eyes because his mother was already harping on. “We had a fight, okay? And it…Mum, it was pretty bad. We were shouting and I probably cussed at him more than I should have.”

Jay made no comment on that. “Can you tell me what you were fighting about?”

“Marriage.”

“M-Marriage?” Jay spluttered.

Louis frowned. “Jesus Mum, don’t give yourself a heart attack. I just said I didn’t plan on getting married and Harry flipped out, like accusing me of not being committed or whatever. Which, Mum, that’s bullshit! I already told him I loved him. I do love him! Why isn’t that enough for him?”

“Louis, slow down.”

Louis huffed. “I’m not even talking that fast.”

“No.” Louis froze at how hard Jay’s tone was. “I mean, slow down.”

“What?”

“Seven weeks ago you were here bemoaning to me that you couldn’t ask Harry out. Now you’re already in love with him and moved in together. Yes, I know about that,” she snapped when Louis sucked in a sharp breath. “Believe it or not, Lottie talks to Fizzy who talks to the twins who talk to me. And why this was all a big secret only proves to me that you were scared to tell me because you knew what I would say. And I’m saying it now young man, slow down. You have been dating Harry less than two months. Why on earth are you even discussing marriage?”

“It wasn’t like that,” Louis protested, toying with his jacket’s zip. “Mum, it wasn’t like Harry was proposing or anything. We just saw someone else doing it and the conversation went from there, you know?”

Jay hummed in dissatisfaction. “I love you Louis, you know that. I also don’t want you rushing into anything. I know it’s been a long time since you’ve even looked at anyone but that doesn’t mean you need to dive in with the first person who shows you attention. I’m not aiming anything at Harry,” she stressed, “But I am saying that if he is everything I already think he is, then you don’t need to feel pressured to rush. He’ll wait.”

“I…It’s not him doing the rushing,” Louis confessed, toeing at the ground.

“Oh.” The surprise in her voice was clear. “You? Well, that changes everything, doesn’t it?”

Louis groaned at her teasing tone. “Mum.”

She merely laughed. There were several beats of silence before Jay asked the question Louis had been dreading, his shoulders tightening. “Why don’t you want to marry him Boo?”

Louis drew his bottom lip between his teeth. “It’s not that that I don’t want to marry Harry…”

“Is it because of me?”

“Mum…”

“It is, isn’t it?”

Louis’ eyes sank shut at the pain he could so clearly hear. “Mum, no, please. It’s not that. Okay, not all of it,” he amended when she made it clear she didn’t believe him. “But I…it’s just not something I’m interested in. I don’t want to.”

Jay didn’t buy it – why would she? Louis didn’t himself – but she knew a lost cause when she saw one. “Alright Louis. Look, topic aside, as much as I hate to say it, disagreements and fights are part of every relationship. No matter how much you love each other or how similar you are, you’re always going to fight. And you and Harry are quite different.” Louis’ nose scrunched at her emphasis on ‘quite’. “But even from what little I’ve seen, I actually think that’s part of why you work so well together. One disagreement isn’t the end. You find Harry, or let him find you, and you talk and you work it out. Not your view on this whole hypothetical marriage, that’s a conversation for much later down the line, but you work through your argument.” Her words were like a warm hug and perhaps Louis tucked himself a little closer around his phone. “You’re a beautiful young man Louis and Harry’s just as wonderful. You’ll get through this.”

“Thanks Mum,” Louis sniffed, glowering at the sympathetic looks two women jogging past were giving him. He probably looked a right mess, teary-eyed and red-nosed too early on a Saturday. “Anyways, I best get off. Gotta get Georgia and all.”

“Alright love,” Jay said reluctantly. “But you take care now, you hear me?”

Louis ducked his head, hiding a shy smile. “I will Mum. Love you.”

Ending the call, Louis took a moment to orientate himself before heading for the nearest tube. He took it to Liam’s, riding the elevator up to the third floor. Stepping out, Louis stopped dead in his tracks. Because there, next to the door of Liam’s flat, was a stuffed camouflage rainbow bear. It wasn’t the bear itself that made him stop – although the aviators it was wearing certainly contributed – no, it was the piece of paper the bear was holding. “For my Lou Bear. All the love .xx”. Even if Louis hadn’t recognised the hand-writing he would have known the gift was from Harry.

But how? When? Had Harry come all this way in the pitch-black of pre-dawn to drop it off? Or had he detoured even last night, minutes after their fight, on his way home from Covent Garden? Either way, Louis took two steps and threw himself down in front of the bear, hugging it to his chest while his shoulders shook with repressed sobs.

They mustn’t have been as repressed as he’d thought though because thirty seconds later Liam’s head popped out of his flat. His eyes widened and, okay, Louis conceded that he must look odd – a twenty-eight-year-old man kneeling on the floor and clutching a stuffed rainbow bear whilst crying.

“Georgie love, just checking the post, okay?” Liam called before ducking out, pulling the door shut behind and coming to kneel at Louis’ side. “Hey Boo.”

“Did you see him?” Louis asked hoarsely.

Liam frowned, gently prying the bear’s note away and reading over it. His features softened. “No, I didn’t.” He shuffled closer, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and tucking Louis into his chest. “But Niall told me what happened. It’s alright; you don’t have to worry.” He rolled his eyes at Louis’ sour expression. “Yes, I know you already are worrying but don’t.” He tugged the bear’s paw emphatically, Louis growling, already fiercely protective of the stupid thing. “If this is anything to go by, you’re fine. He still loves you. And since you still love him, I think that’s enough for now, don’t you?”

Louis mulled that over for a moment before tentatively nodding, giving Liam a thankful grin, inching back and wiping his face with his sleeve. “Thanks babe.”

Liam kissed his cheek. “Anytime. Now, clean your face up and come inside. Pancakes with lemon and sugar sound good?”

“Sound like heaven.”

Giving him a thumbs up, Liam opened the door to his flat, closing it to give Louis some privacy while he composed himself. “Hey Georgia, I didn’t find any mail but I did see a certain someone’s daddy walking down the street. I reckon we’ve got a couple of minutes. Think we can whip up some pancakes before he gets here?”

“Yeah!”

 

***

 

It wasn’t particularly busy at Sweet Nothings, which was surprising for a Saturday and Harry wished some customers would hurry up and bombard him already. The busier he was, the quicker his day went and the less time he had to brood. But the universe was seemingly taking great delight in crushing those hopes. The morning had dragged and dragged until Niall had popped in not long before nine. They were frowning over a pan of brownies that were literally the height of pancakes – and seriously, how in hell had that happened? – when they heard Babs’ voice from out front.

“Harry? He’s here, yes. I can get him, if you’d like. What did you say your name was?”

By now both Harry and Niall were already at the door, eyes curious because Babs knew Louis on sight and who else would be asking for Harry at the bakery? For one horrible moment Harry had visions of a furious Lottie or Fizzy, ready to defend their big brother. It wasn’t, thank God, instead the pair finding Liam to be standing there, scratching his neck and waving sheepishly. “Hi Harry, Niall.”

“Hey Payno!” Niall greeted, bounding over and wrapping his legs around Liam in some bizarre koala hug.

“Hey, hey!” Liam frantically hollered as he started to lose his balance, managing to catch himself on the half-door last minute while Niall released him, whistling innocently.

“Ah, so that’s why you look familiar,” Babs said, smacking Niall with her wooden spoon and making him yelp. “You’re a friend of Louis’, aren’t you?”

Liam gave the elderly woman a bashful grin. “I am. And these two now, by association.”

Babs sent Harry and Niall fond looks. “They do that; they’re terrible.”

“Nah, they’re aces,” Liam contradicted and Harry groaned, knowing from Babs’ soppy expression that Liam had just won her over hook, line, and sinker. “Erm, so can I just pop out the back and talk with Harry?”

Harry felt fear seize him but Niall tutted, pushing him into the kitchen and hauling Liam after them. As Niall started measuring out the ingredients needed for a second brownie batch, Harry wrung his hands together. “Look, Liam, about Louis-”

“Harry.” Liam’s voice was sharper than he’d expected, Niall’s head also snapping up and his face adopting a frown. “I’m not here to get into you about Louis-” Niall’s frown faded away and he gave a single nod, returning to his work happily, “-That’s between you and Lou’. He spoke to me about what happened last night and I get where he’s coming from.”

Harry wilted because, once he’d walked around for a bit and thought about it, he understood too. He’d been inconsiderate, really, and Louis had quite possibly had every reason to be angry. “I know, I-”

“But I also get where you were coming from,” Liam continued, barrelling right over him, which made Harry blink in shock because how was this Liam? – super polite, ever respectful Liam? “It wasn’t the marriage, or the commitment, or any of that.” He frowned at his feet. “Maybe I’m making assumptions here but I…I think what upset you the most was the fact that Louis had planned out the entire future of your relationship without even consulting you. And Harry, that hurts.”

And that…Harry’s eyes misted over as he nodded weakly because that, that was exactly what he’d been feeling. He hadn’t had the words, hadn’t known what that ugly twisting in his gut had been, but it…it was this. It was the fact that Louis already had everything set out and apparently Harry was just a piece of that plan, a piece that slotted in without question.

Liam’s arms came to wrap around him, Harry shamelessly burrowing into his neck. “Mate, you’re alright.”

Harry’s eyebrows scrunched together because Liam’s voice now sounded shaky and…

“Oh.”

Niall must have reached the same conclusion Harry did. Liam understood because he’d been there. Because that was exactly what Zayn had done to him.

“Liam…” Harry murmured.

Liam poked him in the chest playfully, making Harry squawk because he’d never actually had much to do with Liam and he wasn’t even really aware that Liam had a playful side. Actually, Harry didn’t really know what sides Liam had.

“None of that,” Liam told them sternly. “This isn’t about me, it’s about you. And maybe I’ve been there, but that’s how I know it hurts so much. But Harry, there’s one big difference between you and I.” He gently coaxed Harry’s head up. “Louis’ was accidental. He would never mean to hurt you.” He stepped back, rocking on his heels, usual, sunny smile returning. “Which is why I took pity on him. He’s actually quite pitiful, when you get to know him.”

Harry made a rather loud and unattractive snort, trying to associate the word with Louis. He quickly gave up, shaking his head and then enveloping Liam in a tight hug. “Thank you Liam.”

Liam heartily pounded his back. “You’re more than welcome.”

 

***

 

Maybe they hadn’t really discussed it as much as they should have, maybe they both decided it was later’s problem, maybe they just swept it under the rug, and maybe everything shouldn’t have been made okay with a simple exchange of apologies…But it was. The gifted matching but smaller rainbow bear maybe helped, as did the Walking Dead marathon in Louis’ bed, accompanied with a veritable mountain of Malteasers.

And maybe it had taken them two weeks of awkward interactions and stepping on eggshells, tentative toeing of lines, but then it had all slotted back into place. Louis and Harry were as happy as they’d ever been, the teasing, the early morning talks over tea, the soft kisses and the heated bedroom interactions all back to the way they had been.

A small bump. That’s all it had been.

 

***

 

“No!”

Louis paused mid-way through the front-door, wondering if he’d imagined the shout from inside the flat or not.

“No!”

He hadn’t. Because that was Georgia and-

“No Harry! I don’t want to!”

Louis immediately dumped his bag and was jogging down the hall even as Harry was patiently saying, “I know you don’t Rosie, but, like, we’ll be quick yeah? Two minutes?”

“I said no Harry so go away!

Louis stormed into his daughter’s bedroom, watching her visibly shrink under his stern glare. Louis gestured for Harry to wait before crouching down in front of Georgia, voice like ice. “Excuse me Georgia-Rose Tomlinson. You never speak to someone like that. How rude. Don’t think that just because I’m not here-” And oh yes, Georgia curled up even tighter at that because she knew as well as Louis did how manipulative she could be, “-that you can speak like that. You say sorry Harry.”

“Sorry Harry,” Georgia whispered, shuffling her feet.

Louis raised an eyebrow impatiently. “And?”

Georgia stepped around him to wrap her arms around Harry’s waist, burying her face in his stomach. “I’m sorry I yelled Harry.”

Harry smoothed her hair down with a hand, the other curling around her back to pull her in close. “’S alright.”

Louis waited for them to break apart, Georgia scurrying away and curling up on her bed with Mr. Poo. Jerking his head in the direction of the kitchen, Louis jumped up onto one of the benches, opening his legs when Harry moved to stand between them.

“What was that all about love?” Louis asked, following the movement of Harry running a hand through his hair as he sighed heavily.

“I was gonna do lasagne for dinner but we didn’t have any tomatoes so I thought Georgia and I could pop down the shops and buy some? But…” He scuffed his feet back and forth, glaring at them. “She wouldn’t come? Didn’t want to go out again after school.” He eventually shrugged. “It’s a long day for a kid though so I guess…”

“You guess that makes it alright?” Louis supplied, shaking his head sharply when Harry looked up at him. “Sorry, but it doesn’t. She knows we have to go out sometimes. Did you explain why you had to go?” A nod. “And I heard you tell her you’d be quick.” Another nod. “Then yeah, she doesn’t get to say no.” It was Louis’ turn to run a hand through his hair. “I know it doesn’t seem fair and it seems mean but Harry, Georgia has to learn she doesn’t always get what she wants.” He slid into Harry’s arms. “And trust me, I’ve been the victim of many tantrums because of it. I know you’re not her dad Harry but you’re pretty much the closest thing she has and Georgie needs to learn she can’t push you around, even as much as she pushes Liam. Because Liam’s not forever. He can get away with doing that whole spoiling thing that grandparents do.”

Harry’s arms tightened around him. “I don’t want to be too harsh on her though or do the wrong thing. What if she doesn’t like me?”

Louis stepped back, taking Harry’s face in his hands and leaning up to kiss him. “Haz, you’ve seen me with her, sometimes on me worst days. Fuck knows I’ve lost my patience with her so many more times than I should have. You will never be too harsh on her; bloody hell Harry, you’ll probably be the reasonable parent!”

Louis absolutely did not acknowledge the way Harry’s breathing hitched at that.

“And as for doing the wrong thing…Are you ever going to hit my daughter? Or verbally abuse her? Are you going to put her down and make her think worse of herself?”

Harry drew himself up to his full height, green eyes ferocious. “Of course not,” he hissed.

He then blinked in surprise when Louis presented him with a bright smile. “Then I think you’re all good.” His eyes ran over Harry’s taut frame. “Especially if you’re so uptight about even the concept. And Harry,” he added kindly, “Believe it or not, children actually like when you have boundaries and are firm with them. It makes them feel secure, let’s them know that you’re always watching them, trying to keep them out of danger or that if something went wrong you’d be there in a heartbeat.” He moved back into Harry’s personal space, nuzzling into his neck. “Georgia will always love you.”

Harry clutched at him tightly, snuffling against his ear and making Louis squirm.

“Stop it,” he giggled, huffing when Harry only pressed closer. “Don’t! Your ridiculous hair is tickling me.”

Harry pulled back to send him a sly grin. “Is it?”

“Not a challenge!” Louis squealed as Harry rubbed their cheeks together. “Get off! Go to those stupid shops Harold!” He managed to weasel himself free, pouting petulantly at his boyfriend who looked far too proud of himself. “Now, usually I’d make Georgia go with you on principle alone but seeing as how this is her first tantrum with you, I think I better talk to her.”

Harry nodded, heading towards the door, one boot on before he called, “Did you want me there too or…?”

“Appreciate the thought but no,” Louis called back, stepping into Georgia’s room just as the front door closed. The little girl looked up from the book she’d since grabbed, wriggling on her bottom and looking quite guilty. Louis came to sit on the bed, hauling Georgia into his side and kissing her temple. “Do you want to tell me why you were so angry at Harry? He told me he wanted to go to the shops. Why didn’t you want to go? You like the shops.”

Georgia shrugged mutely, idly picking at the seam of his jeans. “Just didn’t want to.”

“You just didn’t want to?” Louis repeated, not able to keep all his disbelief out of his voice.

Georgia looked up at him and, much to Louis’ surprise – not to mention horror – her eyes started to fill with tears.

“Georgie, love?!” Louis drew her straight into his lap, rocking her as she hiccoughed into his shoulder. “Hey, baby girl, what’s wrong? What’s going on? Please tell me.”

Georgia gave a loud sniff, fingers tight in the back of his blazer. “You love Harry, don’t you?”

Louis frowned. “Yes, of course.”

“You’re going to marry him, aren’t you? Because you love him?”

Louis froze, replaying that a few times before prying Georgia off gently, seating her in front of him and lifting her gaze to his. “Georgia, that would be a long way away…if ever.” He tapped her knee when she sighed in relief, something that made his forehead scrunch together. “Why does that make you happy? Why don’t you want me to marry Harry? I thought you liked Harry.”

“I do!” Georgia cried, nodding furtively, tears starting once more. “And that’s why I don’t want you to marry him! Because I love him!”

“You…Hang on, what?” Louis was so lost. “I can’t marry him because you love him? Are you planning on marrying him?”

Georgia’s mouth formed an ‘o’ before she erupted into giggles and what the hell? Louis ran his hands down his face. What the ever loving fuck was going on? “I don’t want to marry him Daddy!” Georgia kicked him gently. “I just don’t want you to marry him because if you marry him then you’re going to get divorced and he’s going to go away and I don’t want Harry to go away!”

Oh fuck.

Louis’ eyes slammed shut, hands balling into fists.

Georgia had been pushing Harry away because if he was too close it would hurt too much when he left. Oh god. Louis knew she had every reason to think that: Eleanor, Zayn, Liam, hell, he could even throw Mark in there but this was the first time he was seeing just how much damage that had caused. She didn’t want the promise of commitment because she knew how easily it could be broken, how much it hurt when it was broken.

And, oh.

Oh shit. She was him. Georgia had given Louis the exact reasons he’d given Harry. Their lines of thinking were completely identical. Which…Which was actually quite embarrassing considering the fact that Georgia was seven and Louis was an adult. And, he reasoned, eyes opening enough to glare at her duvet, how dare she already have such a negative view on relationships?! She should be dreaming of happily ever afters and beautiful princes or princesses sweeping her off her feet, not building a wall to keep herself safe. She deserved to believe in love, in romance, in walking through life with the person she cared about walking alongside her. Georgia was too young for cynicism.

“Daddy?”

“Georgia, love, that’s bullshit.”

Louis clapped a hand over his mouth. Fuck!

“Daddy!” she gasped, own hands coming to over her mouth, pose a perfect mirror his.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said hurriedly, waving his hands fruitlessly. “But, honestly, it’s true. I don’t care what you’ve seen darling, but if you love someone, truly love someone and that someone is the right person for you, then you don’t have to be scared. Love is love and love will find a way.” He folded his arms. “I’ll marry Harry if I want to. I won’t marry him if I don’t want to. But, either way, Harry is going to stay. He doesn’t want to leave.”

Georgia’s eyes were big and pleading. “Promise he won’t ever leave?”

Louis hesitated but shook his head. “No baby, no promises. Because,” he said, holding up a finger when she started to sniffle, “That doesn’t mean he won’t leave on accident. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future and I know that sometimes things happen and people go away even when they don’t want to.”

“Like when they get cancer?” Georgia asked, frowning at her sock. “Miss Sarah’s sister had cancer and she had to go away. And grandmas and grandpas die when they get old.” Louis flinched and it was Georgia who rolled her eyes. “Daddy, we can say die. It happens.”

“Okay, well, no one in this house is intending to die,” Louis clarified just in case. “Which is good. Because I think that’s the only time me or Harry would ever leave you, yeah?”

Georgia’s face split into a relieved smile and she flung herself into his arms. “And me too!”

The sound of the front door opening had them both perking up, the pair muffling giggles when they heard Harry trip over the step. As Georgia went to zip down the hall, Louis near lunged off the bed, hand snapping around her wrist.

“Georgia, if I wanted to, do I have your permission to marry Harry?”

Georgia frowned at him, as though picking up on his seriousness. Her nose screwed up in thought before she eventually nodded. She then flew back over, bumping their noses together and kissing both of his cheeks. “Silly Daddy. Of course you can.”

With that, she vanished from the room, leaving Louis grasping at thin air. He swallowed thickly. Right then.

 

***

 

Stepping out of his ensuite, Louis meandered over to the living room. “Hey Li, I-…” Louis stopped mid-sentence, going stock still, phone calendar open but his entire train of thought derailed because Liam James Payne was in his living room doing yoga – fucking yoga – with Harry.

“Hey Louis.” Harry’s tone was all too smug and Louis scowled at him.

“It’s my ankle,” Liam protested, sending puppy dog eyes Louis’ way. “I told you I did something funny to it at football.”

Louis shivered in disgust. “…Fine. Just, keep that away from me.”

With that, he marched over to where Niall was sitting on the sofa, feet propped up on the table. Some highly inappropriate movie was playing and Niall was laughing like a hyena, completely denying the fact that he had to be up in five hours. Glancing at Harry and Liam woefully once more, Louis flopped down onto the couch, head flumping into Niall’s lap.

“Entertain me Neil,” he ordered as he unlocked his phone. “Tell me about your match.”

Niall gave him a quizzical look but launched into his grand retellings nonetheless. Louis was basically given a play by play of the entire game, complete with grand gestures and snarky, not to mention biased, commentary. The mindless chatter made his eyelids become heavy and before too long he was basically asleep, coherent enough to hear what was going on around him but unable to gather enough energy to do anything about it.

“And then that shite of a Welshman Howell…is he asleep?

Niall sounded incredulous, which must have caught Harry’s attention if his childishly indignant whine of “hey” was anything to go by. “That’s my boyfriend.”

“He’s the one that snuggled up to me!” Niall pointed out.

A gentle hand ran through his hair, making Louis snuffle a bit. “He used to do this with Zayn.” The voice was Liam’s, soft and nostalgic. “Every week. The second I’d come home, I’d hop in the shower and Louis would drag Zayn into the kitchen to talk.”

“And did he fall asleep on him?” Niall sniffed, sounding so put out that Louis would have laughed if he could have been bothered.

Liam chuckled. “Only every time. To the point that Zayn admitted to me that he actually used to just keep on talking until Louis fell asleep, even if that meant repeating everything twice.”

Louis had not known that.

“Still, gave Zayn a right heart attack once. Cause Louis used to sit on the kitchen bench, yeah? And this one night he must have been more tired than normal and fell asleep straight away, before Zayn even noticed. Next thing I know, Zayn’s screaming and in hysterics because Louis fell dead onto the floor. Hit the tiles head first.”

“Jesus,” Niall whistled, Harry’s concerned noise coming from somewhere by the arm of the couch.

Louis shifted as Liam’s hand moved to the base of his skull. “Yeah, Zayn was freaking out, thought he’d snapped his neck cause Lou’ didn’t wake or anything. We ended up rushing him to the A&E – he had knocked himself out, was fine apparently – and…” Liam gave a nervous laugh. “Zayn and I were absolute idiots and left Georgia here on her own because we thought waking her to take her to the hospital would traumatise her out too much.”

Whoa, whoa, wait…what?

“She was…five, maybe?”

“Liam!” Harry sounded horrified.

Louis couldn’t agree more, cracking an eye open enough to gauge where Liam’s face was before punching his cheek lightly, sending him recoiling backwards, flailing arms and all. “Why is this the first I’m hearing of this Payno?”

“Christ Lou’, thought you were asleep!”

Louis squinted at him. “I might have to feign sleep more often if this is the sort of shit I’m going to find out.” He yawned, eyes sliding shut of their own accord. “Whatevs Li’…I’m not even mad…”

There was a beat.

“…did he seriously just go back to sleep after socking me one?”

Niall laughed. “Either that or he’s somewhere in between.”

“He’s wiped.” Harry’s voice was fond and it was his fingers that ran down the side of Louis’ face that time, he could tell. Harry hummed softly before murmuring something to Niall. Niall shifting slightly was the only warning Louis had before he was unceremoniously lifted into the air, a strong arm around his back and another under his knees.

Harry…!” he cried, fist thumping his boyfriend’s chest pathetically.

“Stop your flailing,” Harry chided good-naturedly, bidding Niall and Liam goodnight. “Let’s just get you to bed, alright?”

Louis buried his face into his pillow the instant he made contact, whimpering when Harry’s weight left the bed. “Harold…”

“Sleep. Good night Lou’. I love y-”

“Harry.”

Harry stopped his closing of the door. “Louis?”

“I…Sleep here tonight, yeah? I…I miss waking up beside you.”

Bare feet padded across room in quick succession and then Harry’s lips were on his exposed shoulder, his neck, his cheek, finally finding his lips. “Of course Lou’. Two minutes, okay?”

“Okay,” Louis murmured sleepily, fumbling for Harry’s face and clumsily kissing it. “Love you Harry.”

“Yeah, love you too.”

 

***

 

The dancing colours reflecting off the tube window as rain lashed against it held Georgia’s attention easily. Louis had barely had to spare her a glance in the last fifteen minutes, which was more than fine with him. Her polka dot rain poncho squeaked every time she so much as breathed so he’d be more than aware if she suddenly decided to move. He was busily typing away on his laptop, shooting off emails left, right, and centre, having long since placed Liam in charge of making sure they got off at the right station.

“Louis, it’s half-eight,” Liam said carefully, causing Louis’ eyes to flick up from the bright screen. “Turn that off, yeah? That’s enough work.”

He was being delicate and Louis sent his eyes skyward, pressing ‘send’ one last time. “Wasn’t working,” he grumbled, stuffing the laptop away and snapping a quick photo of Georgia simply because he could. He then turned his attention to Liam. “So Shepherd’s Bush Empire, right? That’s where you said Ed was playing?”

“Yeah!” Liam gushed excitedly, head bobbing as he nodded, mood instantly switching to ecstatic. “Like, he properly sold out at this venue.”

“Don’t see why that means we all had to come,” Louis said tersely, looking pointedly at Georgia. “It’s late for her.”

“And it’s a sold-out two thousand people capacity show Louis.”

Louis’ jaw dropped. “What?!” Several tube passengers sent him scathing looks but Louis didn’t care. “Are you kidding me? Two thousand?” He ran a hand through his hair. “Holy shit.”

Liam bumped their knees together. “Now that’s the proper response. Once Ed said he was giving it a go, I made sure to buy us all tickets. And she,” he pointed at Georgia, “Can stay out one night. Ed got us backstage passes so we can skip the rowdy crowds too. Think it’ll be an experience.”

Louis let his face morph into a genuine smile. “Yeah, it will be. Fucking hell,” he muttered into his hands. “Two thousand. That’s…Ed’s going places man. He is. He should.”

“Yes he should,” Liam agreed firmly, beckoning Louis to his feet once he saw their stop approaching, Louis hoisting Georgia into his arms just to be sure because there were quite a few people and perhaps they were going to Ed’s show too? The idea alone was mental.

Making their way down from the platform, Louis adjusted Georgia’s raincoat and popped up his own umbrella before nodding to a patiently waiting Liam. He led the way through the streets, pulling them up outside a crowded building and being shown round the side once he’d presented his tickets. Georgia was watching everything with wide eyes and they managed to catch only a brief two minutes with Harry and Niall, who were running errands madly for Ed, before it was time to find their seats. The theatre was packed and the crowd far more enthusiastic than Louis had been anticipating. From the groups of people around them that he’d dragged into conversation, he discovered that Ed had quite a devoted underground following. Georgia had spent the first few songs with her hands cautiously curled into his belt but once she heard a song Niall had sung a couple of times around the flat, she was singing along with the rest of the crowd, Louis recording the whole thing on his phone. He’d winced at some of the lyrics but they seemed to go over her head – small mercies and all that.

His attention was really snagged though when one song ended and Ed announced, “Now, I have someone special coming on stage to join me. He came to me with this idea after a hard night and together we wrote this song around some beers and a table tennis match. So please, put your hands in the air and welcome my friend Harry Styles.”

The crowd cheered along blindly but Louis’ grip on Georgia’s hand tightened. Harry strode out on stage, as confident as if he’d done it a hundred times, hair flowing and dressed in yet another shirt he hadn’t managed to button properly. And, oh god, the gold boots were back. Why? Literally, why?

“Hello,” Harry drawled, hopping onto a stool beside Ed and waving at the crowd. They screamed back and he smiled bashfully.

“Now, so Harry wanted this with piano but my hands were not made to do that,” Ed joked, Louis snorting. “We got it working mostly on guitar now though. Let’s do it, and we hope you enjoy it. If you don’t, it’s gonna be a long four minutes for you.”

The beat was one softer than most of Ed’s material, but not so soft that it felt out of place. But it was when Harry started to sing that Louis had to clutch onto Liam.

“If I could fly, I’d be coming right back home to you
I think I might give up everything just ask me to”

Ed’s voice blended in but Louis swore he barely even noticed.

“Pay attention, I hope that you listen because I let my guard down
Right now I’m completely defenceless.

For your eyes only, I show you my heart
For when you’re lonely and forget who you are
I’m missing half of me when we’re apart
Now you know me, for your eyes only
For your eyes only”

Harry petered off and let Ed sing the second verse but Louis could feel the stinging in his eyes. He knew what the bad night was, he knew what it felt like to be torn away from Harry, he knew that rawness that came from sharing everything, good and ugly with someone and yet still emerge together on the other side. Harry had seen him fall apart and yet had never judged, never been bothered by any of it. Louis’ throat was clogged by the time Harry went solo again and Liam was providing a solid presence against his side.

“I can feel your heart inside of mine
I’ve been going out of my mind
Know that I’m just wasting time
And I…Hope that you don’t run from me.”

“For your eyes only,” Louis whispered, “I show you my heart.”

And as Harry continued to sing, in his heart, Louis knew he would never run. He would never run from Harry Styles, never. Resolve formed in his mind and Louis set his jaw. He could feel Liam’s eyes on his face as the song wrapped up but Louis merely shook his head. He sent Harry a quick text, congratulating him on his performance and professing his love for the song, but also making his excuses for leaving, blatantly lying and saying he had to go because of Georgia.

Since he didn’t want to lie to Liam, Louis simply said goodbye, promising to explain another time before collecting Georgia and exiting the theatre.

“Daddy?” Georgia asked, watching him pace up and down the entrance.

Louis did one more lap before taking the plunge. He held out his hand. “Come on love, there’s something we need to do.”

 

***

 

Chapter Text

 

“Stop photographing me and photograph the bloody view you knob!”

Harry looked up from behind his camera with a cheeky grin. Louis gave an exasperated groan before turning back to look out the window, his phone out, a rare occurrence when Louis wasn’t working. He had the device held between both hands as he took photos of the London skyline and he looked so young, so relaxed, so carefree that Harry couldn’t not photograph it, capture the moment forever.

“Why do you never take my advice?” Louis huffed, throwing himself down next to Harry and dropping his head onto his shoulder.

“Got all the view I need right here,” Harry murmured, snorting when Louis made an appalled sound.

“Harry, no. Don’t be cheesy, I can’t stand cheesy.”

Harry toyed with his camera’s lens. “Thought this date was kinda cheesy,” he confessed.

Louis lifted his head enough to blink at him. “Why?”

“Dunno.” He shrugged, eyes squinting against the sunlight to where he could just make out the dome of St. Paul’s. “Just…London Eye? Isn’t it cliché?”

In a surprising display of affection, Louis merely wrapped his arms around Harry’s and nestled in closer. “Don’t care. Think it’s pretty bril’ to be honest.” His voice dropped to a soft whisper. “Thanks for bringing me here Harry.”

“You’re welcome,” Harry replied, bumping their noses together.

Over a movie weekend whilst Georgia had been at Eleanor’s, Harry had discovered that Louis had never been on the London Eye despite living the city near four years. Liam had been on with his sisters but apparently the one time they’d all agreed to go, Zayn had made it to the front of the line before balking and chickening out completely which had made Georgia, who’d already been undecided about the whole thing, panic and start tearing up. The four had excused themselves from the queue despite Zayn’s protests that he’d mind Georgia and Louis hadn’t made a re-attempt in the two years that had followed, filing it away under a ‘one day’ thing. Well, Harry had decided to make today that day, having passed Georgia over to Liam mid-morning. After all, Louis was more than ahead of him in the surprise date department. Not that it was a contest or anything, but still. Harry felt his turn was long overdue.

“We’re swapping sides now,” Louis remarked, drawing Harry back. “Like, of the wheel?” he offered when Harry looked at him blankly. “Now we can see the western banks. Reckon we could spot Heathrow?”

“That’s too far,” Harry tutted, reluctantly dislodging Louis before trekking over the edge of the capsule, taking another round of photos.

“Think I can see me flat,” Louis drawled, laughing at Harry’s deadpan expression. He then slipped under Harry’s arm, making a contented sound when Harry wrapped an arm around his stomach, pulling him close.

Harry arched an eyebrow. “Hello, what’s this? Since when does my prickly boyfriend snuggle?”

“Not snuggling,” Louis countered. “Just…” He shrugged. “’s nice, is all.”

Harry nudged Louis’ ear with his nose, pressing a tender kiss to the skin behind. “You are very nice.”

“I’ll accept that compliment.” Louis then turned a little more, arms coming to loop around Harry’s waist. “What are we doing after this?”

“Didn’t have anything planned,” Harry admitted. “Thought I’d see what you wanted to do, ‘cause you’ve been so snowed under lately.”

Louis’ nose scrunched up because he knew it was true. He’d been swamped with phone calls and messages these past two weeks, slipping a little bit back into how he had used to have been. But he had a deadline, assuring Harry and Georgia that by the end of the month everything would slow down once again.

Louis hummed in thought, bottom lip drawn between his teeth as he looked up at Harry tentatively. “How long has Li’ got Georgia?”

Harry frowned. “Til dinner. Why?”

Louis rocked back on his heels and Harry was nearly about to ask what was wrong when Louis whispered, “Want you to fuck me.”

Harry felt as though the air had been punched out of his lungs. “W-What?”

“You,” Louis reiterated, tugging on his belt by way of explanation. “Want you to take me back to the flat and do whatever you want with me. Want you inside me. Take me apart piece by pie-”

“Louis, stop,” Harry pleaded, pressing their foreheads together, eyes rammed shut. “We can do that, I promise you we can do that just…Just let us get off here, okay? Ten more minutes, alright?”

There was a tad of coyness to Louis’ expression as he pulled away, a reluctant, “alright” rolling off his tongue and how was Harry supposed to function after that admission? How could anyone think straight after being asked to take Louis Tomlinson to bed? And, god, do whatever he wanted to him? Fuck.

Louis looked all too smug when they hopped off the Eye, slipping his hand into Harry’s and a little bounce in his step as they headed for the Underground. It was only two stops but the line change in the middle nearly killed Harry, especially with the way Louis had gone from sop to sinner, shoving Harry into the only spare seat before plopping down onto his lap. And, naturally, Louis hadn’t just sat there. Oh no, he’d had to wiggle and writhe until Harry had gripped his hips warningly. Harry had maybe fumbled trying to unlock the flat door and Louis had snickered, right up until the moment that Harry had dragged him inside and backed him against the wall. He wasn’t laughing as his pupils dilated, body shivering with anticipation.

“Almost want to leave you like this,” Harry said, watching Louis tense up in horror. He swooped in soon enough though, placating Louis with a gentle kiss to the jaw. “But I’d never do that. Never to you Louis.”

Louis whimpered, hands coming to twist in his hair, Harry carefully taking a hold of his face and pressing their lips together. Louis was quick to respond, arching in closer and prying Harry’s lips open. Harry let him, hands shifting to stroke Louis’ sides even as their tongues brushed together. Breaking away, Harry started to walk Louis back towards his room, lips never leaving his skin for more than a second, his face, his neck, his collarbones. Louis lapped up the attention, tilting his head to give Harry better access, loud moan echoing throughout the empty flat as Harry latched onto his neck.

“Bedroom, now.”

His tone left no room for argument and Louis was quick to obey, stumbling into his room and throwing off his shirt. Louis kicked off his shoes and shimmied out of his jeans before climbing onto the bed, palming the obscene bulge in his pants while raking his eyes up and down Harry’s frame. “Why am I doing all the work?” he teased, giggling and scooting back when Harry prowled closer. “Oi! Can’t fuck me with your clothes on so hurry up and take them off Curly!”

Harry rolled his eyes but did as asked, peeling his shirt over his head. Bending over to unzip his boots, he smothered a laugh. “We’re being watched,” he said, voice low and sounding scandalised.

Following his gaze, Louis huffed out a laugh of his own when he saw their bears atop the dresser behind him. “Naughty bears,” he scolded, hopping off the bed and grabbing two ties, tying them around the bears’ eyes. “There!” He bounced back onto the bed. “I’ve spared them from an afternoon of traumatisation.”

Stepping out of his briefs, Harry pushed Louis onto his back, hovering over him. “Really? Looks like they’re more set for bondage.”

“E-excuse me?” Louis stammered, shaking his head furiously. “Harry Styles, no. Those poor innocent bears!”

Harry chuckled along at the teasing tone but his eyes were knowing when Louis’ met his. “You’re not into that then, are you?”

Louis squirmed uncomfortably. “Maybe not…?”

“’S fine,” Harry shrugged. “Doesn’t bother me.” He then gave Louis a devilish smile. “I’ve got other ways to make you beg and scream.”

Fuck,” Louis groaned, head tilting back as Harry started to kiss a line down his chest. “Please don’t tease me? Not today.”

That softness was back, that vulnerability, and Harry could only nod, snaking up to cradle Louis’ face, thumbing his cheeks. “Whatever you want Boo, whatever you want.”

Capturing Louis’ lips sweetly for just one lingering moment, Harry returned them to his chest, Louis sighing contentedly. Keeping his touch light, Harry traced every one of Louis’ bones with his tongue, paying particular attention to any area that made his breath hitch or eyes squeeze shut; that one spot at the bottom of his left rib cage, his hip bones, the delicate skin between his groin and his thigh.

Harry…

“So beautiful,” Harry murmured, hand coming to wrap around Louis’ cock, awed at the way Louis’ spine bent, the tiny ‘ah!’ that escaped his lips. Holding Louis down with a hand, Harry placed one last kiss to his navel before wrapping his lips around the leaking red tip of his cock. Louis gave a muffled cry, Harry’s name rolling off his lips as Harry proceeded to take him deeper and deeper, only stopping when he felt the head bump against the back of his throat.

“Christ Haz,” Louis panted, hands clenching and unclenching in the sheets because he didn’t know what to do with them. Harry peered up through his lashes, his own cock stiffening at the sight of Louis, breathless and skin glistening with sweat. He continued bobbing his head up and down, occasionally pulling back to swirl his tongue around the tip or to lap at the thick vein underneath. “Harry,” Louis mewled, tugging on his hair weakly. “Haz, please. Too much. Gonna come. Don’t want to. Not yet…Not until you’re inside.”

Pulling off with a sinful ‘pop’, Harry pressed a kiss to the inside of Louis’ wrist. “Lube? Condom?”

“You know where it is,” Louis grumbled, blindly feeling around his bedside table before managing to open the drawer, lobbing the two items Harry’s way.

“Thank you,” he said sweetly, Louis’ expression souring. Opening the lube and pouring a generous amount into his hand, Harry raised his eyebrows at his boyfriend. “Don’t think I’m not gonna enjoy wiping that look off your face.”

Before whatever haughty reply Louis had planned could leave his lips, Harry pressed in a finger. “Fuck!” Louis shouted, so loudly that for one terrible moment Harry thought he’d hurt him. He’d even started to inch his finger out when Louis shook his head desperately, “don’t. No, please. C’mon Harry, more, more!”

“Easy Louis,” Harry breathed, mouthing at his chest even as he started to work his finger in and out, waiting for Louis to relax because Jesus Christ he was tight. “Haven’t done this in awhile, have you?”

Louis keened as Harry started to push in a second finger. “Not since before El’. Used to…fuck…Liam thought I was a slag…ah, Harry!...’cause I did anyone.”

Harry’s eyes flashed, a growl rumbling in his throat. “Not anymore.”

“Not anymore,” Louis assured, rocking back onto Harry’s fingers and loosely gesturing for him to add another. “Not since El’. I…” His breath caught mid-sentence as Harry twisted in that third finger, gasping at the stretch. As Harry’s free hand came to card through his hair calmingly, he found the air to finish. “Had to mature after that, you know? And now…so long Harry, so long.”

“I know, I know,” Harry soothed, curling his fingers just so, finding that spot that made Louis sob, feet kicking out helplessly. “You’re so tight Lou’. Going to be slow, alright? Not gonna hurt you.”

Louis’ continued to give little, tiny gasps as Harry massaged his prostrate. “You’d never hurt me…I know that. Love you Harry, love you so much.”

Harry’s heart swelled in his chest and he was powerless to stop himself from leaning up to capture Louis’ lips. “Love you too.” The words were accompanied by him removing his fingers, something that tore a pitiful sound out of Louis’ throat. “Patience,” Harry chuckled, tearing open the condom wrapper, hissing as he rolled the rubber down his length. Tipping some more lube into his hand, Harry looked up to find Louis watching him attentively, eyes bright with a feral edge to them. “I was gonna ask if you’re sure but…”

Louis matched him grin for grin. “Wouldn’t have asked otherwise.”

Settling between Louis’ legs, Harry tossed him a stern look. “Doesn’t mean you couldn’t have changed your mind since then.” Louis nodded in thanks, gaze locked on Harry’s until he started to ease in, his eyes falling shut as he adjusted to the stretch. “You’re okay,” Harry murmured, stroking his thighs as he waited for Louis to breathe and unclench. “Come on babe, it’s alright. You’ve got this. God, you already feel so good.”

Louis managed a disbelieving huff, taking a deep breath before rolling his hips up ever so slightly. Harry took the hint, carefully pushing in inch by inch until he bottomed out. Louis groaned as their hips bumped together, shoulders tensed in pain but face so clearly displaying bliss. “Haz, fuck…you…fucking hell Harry.” His words were as garbled as Harry’s brain felt. “Come on Harry, move, please.”

Harry gave the tiniest rock in and out, Louis whimpering in response. “You sure?”

“Harry!” Louis shouted, sounding so like his usual bossy, impatient self that Harry didn’t need any more reassurance. He pulled out and snapped back in before Louis could bitch further, his boyfriend crying out at the sudden change in momentum. “Fuck, Harry, yes!”

Repeating the motion, Harry let Louis adjust before finding a rhythm. Louis threw his head back, meeting each of Harry’s thrusts with a roll of his hips, pulling him deeper and deeper and fuck if Harry was going to last much longer. The barest shifting of his weight had Louis swearing profusely, that magic spot inside him being hit once more. Making sure to hit that spot head on, Harry snaked a hand forward to grip Louis’ cock, fingers wrapping around the base. “Close Lou’?”

“You…even need to ask?” Louis panted, whining at a particularly hard brush to his prostrate. “So close…fuck, so close…Harry, please…”

Harry started to pump Louis’ cock in time with his thrusts, desperate to give Louis what he wanted in this room filled with nothing but the smell of their sweat and the sound of their skin slapping together. Louis’ little breathless moans had Harry dangerously close to the edge, that burning in his belly only becoming stronger. “Come on Lou’,” he urged, his motions becoming sloppy as his orgasm started to spark behind his eyes. “Come on love, come for me.”

Twisting his hand in the exact way he knew Louis loved and pounding his prostrate at the same time, Harry was rewarded by Louis screaming his name, body bending up obscenely as he came. Louis clenching around his cock dragged Harry over the edge too, his vision exploding with blinding spots of colour as he shot into the condom. His head came to rest on Louis’ chest, Louis’ hands finding their way into his hair, rubbing his scalp affectionately.

“Harry, babe,” Louis gasped, voice raw but so full of emotion. “You…that was…love you. I love you.”

“I love you,” Harry parroted, pulling out before it became too uncomfortable, Louis fussing at the loss. He pressed their foreheads together in compensation. “It’s all I do; love you.”

Louis gave him a despaired look as he pulled away. “You’re ridiculous.”

Harry nuzzled into his neck. “So you always say. But…would you say I was ridiculous if I suggested a shower?”

Louis gave him a relieved grin, teasingly holding out his arms. “Carry me!”

His eyes then went as wide as saucers and he attempted to scramble away as Harry’s hands found their way under his back.

“Not really!”

 

***

 

Rolling over, Harry winced when his arm accidentally smacked into Louis’ chest. Louis stirred and blearily opened his eyes. “Sorry, sorry,” Harry rambled, brushing Louis’ hair off his face gently. Louis merely groaned, burying his face into his pillow.

“What time is it?” he asked, voice muffled and sounding very much like he was dreading the answer.

Harry craned his neck over his shoulder, locating his phone and reaching to grab it. “Ten past seven,” he read, hiding a grin when Louis whined in disgust.

“Too early,” he complained. “Sundays were not made to be faced this early. Can we just stay here all day?”

“Sorry love,” Harry whispered, massaging his boyfriend’s neck. While yes, Sweet Nothings was shut on Sundays and Louis similarly avoided work like the plague… “Think Georgia might not be too happy with that idea.”

As if she’d heard them, the sound of Georgia’s door being pushed open echoed down the hall. Her footsteps led to the bathroom and Louis gave a deep sigh, pushing himself up only to flop back down seconds later. “Nope, can’t be done.”

Harry snorted in amusement, earning him a quirked eyebrow from Louis. He shrugged but that only served to make Louis’ expression swap to a glare.

“Georgia-Rose!” Louis bellowed upon hearing the bathroom door open.

Tiny feet ran down the hall and Georgia’s head popped into the room. “Yes Daddy?”

Louis stretched an arm out in her direction, Georgia sprinting over and laughing when she was dragged onto the bed. Rolling over, Louis deposited the giggling girl between him and Harry, curling an arm around her chest lovingly.

“I don’t feel like getting up just yet baby. Can you stay with me and Harry for awhile? Would that be okay?”

Georgia swivelled around to peer up at her father, forehead scrunched up in thought. “Like a lie in?”

Louis tweaked her nose. “Exactly!”

Georgia pondered for a moment longer before turning to Harry. “Promise to not get up without me?”

Harry gave a quiet laugh, as did Louis. “Of course Rosie,” he dutifully replied, pressing a kiss to her cheek.

The answer seemed to pacify her and Georgia shifted back until she was pressed right against Louis. Louis tightened his grip and hid his face in her shoulder, eyes already heavy with sleep. Within minutes both Tomlinsons were gone and, looking over at them, father and daughter peacefully asleep and wrapped up in each other, Harry didn’t think he’d ever been in love with Louis more.

 

***

 

“Trust you to pick a fancy place Gems,” Harry grumbled as he slipped his arms into the sleeves of his white, silk shirt, Gemma sparing him a glance over the top of her phone. “And, like, on a day when I’m working late. Why couldn’t we do this tomorrow? I finish early then.”

“Ugh, stop your whining,” Gemma tutted, getting to her feet and straightening out her evening dress. “I come all the way to visit you and all you do is mope.”

Harry pouted. “I’m not moping!”

Gemma poked her tongue out at him. “Are too!”

“Are not!”

His sister held up a hand. “We are so not going there.” She pointed at the jacket hanging next to one of the bakery’s fridges. “Put that on and do something with that mane you call hair. I’ll see if that taxi’s here yet.”

Huffing petulantly, Harry pulled on the suit jacket even as Gemma swept from the room. Don’t get him wrong, he loved that she’d taken time out of her trip to London to visit him but that didn’t mean he liked squeezing into a tight fitted suit after spending hours slaving over hot ovens. Harry would have much rather have snuck in a shower first but Gemma was adamant her reservations could not be changed.

Pulling the black ribbon into a bow, Harry ran a hand through his hair as he stepped out into the front. “’m ready Gems!”

“About time H!” she called, finishing her conversation with the taxi driver and beckoning for him to hop into the back.

“So where are these reservations?” Harry asked as they pulled away from the curb.

“Oh, this new place,” Gemma answered distractedly, peering down as her phone went off once more. “People were talking and I thought, why not?” Before Harry could push, she was turning to him, gaze so piercing it was a tad unnerving. “So…you and Louis?”

Harry groaned, stretching his legs out as best he could in the back of the cab. “I promise you we’re not that interesting. We’re just a normal couple in a normal relationship. I’m happy, Louis’ happy, Georgia’s happy.”

Gemma made an indignant noise at that. “I still haven’t met this munchkin – she sounds precious!”

He quirked an eyebrow. “Well, if someone hadn’t dragged me out you could be meeting her right now.”

“Oh my god, are you ever going to let that go!” Harry laughed and Gemma soon joined in, shaking her head. She shook a finger at him teasingly. “Don’t pretend you don’t like fancy places.” She leant over and tugged his shirt. “What, with your silk shirt and all. You are so pretentious. How does Louis stand it?”

Harry ducked his head, grin threatening to break his face in half. “He hates it.”

“But he loves you.” Gemma’s voice was soft enough to make Harry look up, her hand sliding into his. “He loves you enough that he doesn’t care. Well, I say ‘doesn’t care’ but more like let’s you do it while he mentally smacks his head against a wall.”

Harry guffawed. “Pretty sure that’s exactly what he does.”

There was no answer and Harry glanced over, blinking in surprise when he saw they were stopped outside a gate that was interwoven with fairy lights. Gemma was already climbing out and Harry scrambled to follow, thoroughly confused because he could almost swear that that gate looked familiar. The lights were new, as was the red carpet – what even? – but the…It took him a second but Harry suddenly realised where he was, eyes wide. The primary school. They were at Georgia-Rose’s primary school.

…a school which now had bouquets of tulips and roses leading up to the front entrance and Gemma must have made the driver go around the block a few times because they had to have been driving longer than the time it usually took to get here.

“Gemma, I…”

“Harry!”

There was no surprise as to who that voice belonged to, Harry’s head snapping up as Georgia waved furiously from her position at the top of the stairs. Louis stood by her side and…Harry’s breath caught in his throat. Fuck, he looked gorgeous. His hair was done in the most immaculate quiff, body tucked inside a sharp black suit, the tiniest of black polka dots on his white shirt, and above the top of his brown dress shoes, his ankles peeped out. At Georgia’s yell, he excused himself from the couple he had been talking to, warning Georgia when she went to run and making her walk beside him instead.

“Louis…” Harry breathed, his boyfriend sending him a crooked grin…right before side-stepping him.

“Gemma!” he crowed, carefully pulling her into a hug, mindful of creasing her dress. “Thanks for doing all this. Manage to get him here alright?”

Gemma rolled her eyes as Harry’s mouth dropped open. Those little conspirators! “He pitched a fit at first but I got him here in the end.” She bent down, waggling her fingers at Georgia and making her giggle. “I have been waiting so long to meet you!”

“Me too,” Georgia whispered shyly, swinging back and forth. “You’re so pretty.”

Gemma made an ‘aww’ sound before she caught sight of movement over Louis’ shoulder. “Oh, there’s Niall.” She gave them a wink. “Think I’ll let him show me the way.” With a kiss to both their cheeks she disappeared, leaving Harry standing there with absolutely no idea what to say. Fortunately, he didn’t have to because Georgia was right on that.

“Harry, do you like my dress?” she demanded, twirling once and looking very pleased when the pink fabric fanned out voluminously.

“It’s beautiful.” Because it was true; it was lace and sequins and honestly something that looked like a cross between Cinderella and the Good Witch from the Wizard of Oz. “Are you a princess?”

She swapped from holding Louis’ hand to holding his, shaking her head. “No, I’m a fairy godmother. I make the wishes come true.”

Harry was going to ask her to explain when Louis stepped in, cutting over them both. “Georgie love, why don’t we take Harry inside? We have a lot to show him.”

Georgia nodded enthusiastically, holding out her arms and Louis grinned, tucking her hand into the crease of his elbow. Harry did the same, even if he had to stoop quite a bit, and they headed inside, passing Liam who spared them a wave before continuing to talk to the people grouped around him. Each of them, Harry noted, were dressed to the nines and he had never been more bewildered in his life. What was going on? As they stepped into the school’s hall, Harry couldn’t do it anymore, had to stop because the entire hall was filled with round dining tables, strings of fairy lights, roses, and…

“Louis, what even is this?”

Louis shied away from his gaze, turning to Georgia instead. “Poppet, I think it’s-”

To her credit, the little girl merely rolled her eyes. “Daddy, I know. We talked about it lots of times.”

She zipped off into the crowd of people within the room and Louis took a deep breath, taking one of Harry’s hands in his, watching Georgia intently. “I…I don’t even know how to say this Harry.” His voice was barely audible in the room, Harry having to step closer as he continued, longing to wipe away Louis’ furrowed expression but not even sure as to why it was there. “I wanted to thank you,” Louis finally said, eyes scouring the ground. “You’ve done so much for me, and Georgia, and everyone I know really and I…I’m not good with words Harry.” He risked a glance up, Harry nodding in response. “I don’t always say the things I want to say, don’t know how really, but I can show it. And I…When I thought about how to thank you, I thought about things like overseas trips or fancy clothes but it never seemed right to me because yes, you like that, but what you like more is to make a difference. So I thought that maybe the best way to thank you was to do something for the people that mean a lot to you.”

If Louis had thought his explanation would make things clearer, he was wrong. Harry didn’t have to wait long though because at that moment Georgia came back, pulling two people along behind her and…oh.

“Molly…Andrew…”

“Hi Harry!” the pair chimed.

“Look!” Molly cried, spinning and showing off her twisting up-do that was topped with a tiara. “I’m a princess! Lou made me a princess!”

“And me too!” Andrew exclaimed, indeed in a dress of his own, bouncing up and down ecstatically. “I’m an Elsa! Look, look!”

“You look amazing,” Harry whispered, blinking through his tears. “Both of you.”

“Off you lot go,” Louis instructed gently. “I need to talk with Harry a little more.”

As they disappeared Harry’s gaze swept over the crowd once more and he the more he looked, the more familiar faces he started to see. “They’re…everyone here…they’re from the shelter, aren’t they?”

“They are,” Louis confirmed, squeezing his hand before leading Harry into the room. “I heard what Uru said, about her daughter not feeling like a princess, and I know these people have it rough. So Georgia and I decided to do something for you and, by association, them. Tonight is what we’ve called the ‘I Believe in Magic’ ball. A night for princes and princesses of all ages, complete with clothes, hair-cuts, and a five-star meal – free of charge, all expenses paid.”

I Believe in Magic,” Harry repeated because words, he needed to form words at some point. “Is that…’s that why Rosie’s the fairy godmother?”

Louis grinned. “It is. She’s very proud. Think she thinks she owns this night ‘cause she helped me plan it so much.” At Harry’s startled look, Louis elbowed him. “Why do you think she was so alright with letting me “work” so much lately? Because she knew what I was doing and we had to keep it a secret. Thought it was a great game, she did. Let’s make sure Harry doesn’t find out, being all sneaky and James Bond-like.”

“She’s a minx.” Harry then frowned, pulling Louis to a halt. “Hang on…Molly just said Lou did her hair? Have you been keeping secrets because that was way beyond your abilities.”

Hey!” Louis screeched, offended. “How dare you speak about me like that! But no…see, there?” He gestured to an area flooded with lights and a string of mirrors. “Fizzy’s been working at a beauty place, yeah? She and Lottie came down and her boss Lou came too when she heard about the ball; said it was a wonderful thing and that she’d love to help. They’re trimming the kids’ hair and doing it all fancy and then cutting the parents’ hair too. And oh!” He snapped his fingers, “Lou’s kid Lux is here and if there were ever a rival to Georgia’s cuteness, it would be her. I would not be against eating her!”

“Georgia may not appreciate that,” Harry drawled, Louis waving him off. “Guess that means I should probably say hi to your sisters, right?”

“Later,” Louis requested, pulling him back when he started to move in their direction. “We’ll all have time to catch up when dinner’s on. Gemma’s already wormed her way over there though I see.”

Harry saw it was true, lips pursing. “Think that could be a bit not good. They’re probably going to exchange embarrassing stories.”

“Oh, undoubtedly,” Louis agreed, continuing his tour by pointing to where Liam was flitting from group to group. “Liam is finally putting his PR skills to good use. He helped me with getting some sponsors for tonight and now he’s getting donations from corporate guests we’ve invited along. We’ve already raised over £10, 000.”

W-What?” Harry choked on his breath, pulling Louis up, running a hand through his hair. “Ten thousand? Louis, what the hell? That’s…that’s incredible. That’s…God,” he tried to hide a sniff behind his hand. “Boo, that’ll go so far. So, so far.

Louis thumbed away his tears. “I know. Ed’s already told me. And don’t think,” he added, leading them to the back of the hall, “That Ed hasn’t mentioned that he used to stay at that exact shelter.” His eyes were soft. “I get why it means so much to you.”

“Ed knows about this?”

Louis let out an incredulous laugh. “Harold, how buried in that head of yours are you? He’s right there, playing guitar and singing away, or did you not notice?”

Ed was…Now that Harry looked, Louis was absolutely right. Ed was at the front of the room, him and Niall set up on stools with microphones and guitars, providing the musical backdrop for the evening.

“I just…” Harry swallowed around the lump in his throat. “This…Louis, this is too much. It’s…I can’t take it in. How did you do all this? Why would you do all this?”

Louis folded his arms. “Because I wanted to. Simple as that.” He brought them to a stop right beside a large white screen that was flanked with lights, none of which were turned on yet. He turned to Harry, nervous once again. He gestured to the set up behind him. “You know what this is.”

Harry nodded tentatively. “It’s for photos.”

“Yeah, it is.” Louis picked up a black leather wallet, going to hand it to him before changing his mind, fingers curled tight in the fabric. “Okay…so, you saw Molly in that dress, right?” Harry gave another nod, Louis sighing and going to touch his own hair before clearly remembering it was not meant to be touched, scowling slightly. “Well, all the dresses and suits for kids were donated and I…Gemma and Lottie both said that the parents might like photos of their children dressed up, yeah? I agreed because hey, I have so many photos of Georgia that I have no right to judge anyone. But…photo booth requires a photographer and all that.”

Biting his lip, Louis all but shoved the wallet into his hands. Harry fumbled at the unexpected action but why Louis was so nervous was beyond him. Harry then flipped the book open. All the air left his lungs in one large exhale. Because, holy fuck, Louis had made them. He had actually made business cards. Actual, honest to God, business cards.

I Study Rainbows
Harry Styles – Photographer

The words stared back at him, written in a loopy yet easily legible font. The cards came in two colours, pastel pink or pastel blue. On the back of the card were his details, neatly printed, along with his Instagram username. If Harry had thought he was getting his breath back in the next hour, he was hopelessly wrong.

His shoulders shook. “Louis…”

Louis wrapped him up in a hug, pressing his forehead into Harry’s shoulder. “I didn’t know if you would be okay with it,” he admitted. “I thought…maybe I was being presumptuous, yeah? I…I thought you could give them out to the donors here, get some clients but then I didn’t…I didn’t know if that would be okay. It’s your business.”

“It’s not even a business,” Harry pointed out, folding himself closer around Louis’ petit frame. “I was always too lazy to get it started.” He pulled back, wiping his eyes and sniffing quite unattractively. “So…uh, photograph the shelter children, was it?”

Louis managed a watery smile of his own. “Yeah, ‘s about it.”

Harry immediately winced. “I…I’ll need my camera though. Like…” He was cut off mid-stream as Louis spun him around, pointing at the equipment already set up. Which…was his. It was all his. “How…?”

“Niall,” Louis answered with a smile. He leant over to flip on the lights, drawing the attention of the children closest who had obviously known what the area was for. They were already begging and pleading with their parents, dragging them over, and Louis gave a fond chuckle. His expression then soured dramatically and he sent his eyes skyward. “Fuck. Mr Saville really did turn up. I mean, I know the guy’s rich but, fucking hell. Now I actually have to go and talk to him. Fucking pain in the arse.”

His muttering was lost to Harry as he stomped off, smile perfect once he reached the side of his old client. Harry watched him go with awe, still feeling very much as though he was in a daze. He wondered if he pinched himself hard enough if he would wake up. The weight in his hand begged to differ though…The weight and the insistent tugging on his other hand.

“Hazzy! Lux and I want a photo.”

He blinked down at Georgia who was frowning up at him impatiently. The girl by her side was absolutely adorable and, right, this was Lux. Okay, Harry could see where Louis was coming from. He shooed Georgia off towards the backdrop, stepping in behind his camera before,

“Hey, wait, Hazzy?

“Well if I’m Rosie then you’re Hazzy!”

He laughed, adjusting the zoom. “Alright then. Ready baby? Smile!”

 

***

 

Louis’ voice was little more than a soft murmur when Harry emerged from the bathroom. Giving his hair one last scrub with the towel, Harry placed it back on the rack and tip-toed down to Georgia’s room. Louis had long since stripped out of his suit, hair a chaotic mess and clad in only a pair of boxers. Georgia had swapped into her pyjamas but her hair was as pristine as when Harry had first seen her on the red carpet hours ago.

“Rosie…I think we’re being watched.”

Blinking, Harry flushed when he found both Tomlinsons to be staring at him. “Sorry,” he muttered, moving to back away only to be called back by Louis.

“Come, sit.” Louis gestured to the side of Georgia he wasn’t sitting on, waiting for Harry to join them before returning his attention to the book. “Now darling, is Harry going to help with the voices?” He gave Harry a small smirk. “I think he’d make a great Lord Cucuface.”

Georgia gave her father a playful shove, smile bright and infectious. “No Daddy! You have to be Lord Cucuface because you do the silly voice. Harry can be Miss Clavel!”

Louis folded over with laughter and Harry smacked him over the back of the head, prying the copy of Madeline out of his hands and giving Georgia an over-the-top incredulous look. “While Daddy’s being silly, shall we start? Would you like to read Madeline’s bits?”

Georgia gave an excited nod, wriggling back between them and nominating herself as page turner. Louis truly did do an outrageous French accent whenever the snobby school chairman made an appearance, while Harry did his best to sound like a loving yet firm teacher. By the time they had reached the last page and Madeline was safely back in her bed, Georgia was asleep against Louis’ side. As Harry returned the book to its proper place, Louis kissed his daughter goodnight, tucking her in before carefully climbing over her. He whispered a final ‘good night’ before turning out the light and pulling the door shut.

“I think she’ll sleep well tonight. That ball completely wiped her out,” Louis stated, rubbing his own eyes with a fist clumsily as he entered their bedroom.

“Think she was everywhere all the time,” Harry said in disbelief, crawling under the covers as Louis rummaged around in his bedside drawer. “She probably spoke to more guests than you and Liam combined.”

“Tell me about it.” Finally shutting the drawer, Louis settled into a cross legged position, poking Harry with a finger.

“What?” he managed, blearily turning his head.

“You know…” Louis said, toying with the hem of his boxers. “About a month ago, I did something I thought I’d never do.”

Frowning, Harry forced himself to sit up. “Oh?”

Louis hummed in agreement, suddenly finding the ceiling very interesting. “Yeah. I um…I found meself looking at engagement rings.”

Harry froze, heart no longer beating, lungs no longer expanding, stomach dropping away. He couldn’t even blink, couldn’t risk missing anything that Louis was about to do, say, anything because…Because…

“It was fun,” Louis continued, barely meeting Harry’s gaze before looking away. “I, uh, I even took Georgia, you know? She likes jewellery. The shinier the better, in her opinion.”

One of his hands moved to grasp something from in his lap and it took Harry a moment to realise exactly what Louis had been looking for in his bedside drawer. Before he could even start to comprehend what that meant, Louis was reaching over and grabbing his hand, opening it and setting the black velvet box on his palm. Harry’s hand shook under its weight – so ridiculous because it was so light but the weight behind what it meant so enormous – and he barely dared to open it. In the end, it was Louis’ own shaking breath that spurred him into action. Flipping open the lid, Harry sucked in a breath at the beautiful ring that lay inside. It was a wide silver band, the thinnest inlays of wood just in from each edge. Nestled in the centre were seven tiny diamonds, each one shimmering and shining.

“Louis…” Harry forced the name out through his lumped throat. “I…This is beautiful. The most…” He shook his head. “It’s the most exquisite thing I’ve ever seen.” He managed the barest of laughs, handing the box back. “Maybe not what I would have pictured for you but-”

“’s not for me.”

And oh god, was there even air on this planet? There couldn’t be, it had to have disappeared, because Harry had never been so breathless. “…you…” It wasn’t even a croak.

Louis snapped the box shut, shifting onto his knees and taking Harry’s hands in his. “Harry …I have called you the most ridiculous man in the world so many times but…nothing could be further from the truth. If anyone’s ridiculous, it’s me. It’s me because I should have pursued you from the moment I met you; I should never have kept things from you, never have risked losing you.” His fingers interlaced with Harry’s, blue eyes narrowed as he stared down at their joined hands. “You said once that I would never commit to you. I argued that I already was.” He shook his head firmly. “I wasn’t. I was a liar. I realised, later, and possibly after I’d had some sense knocked into me, that if I was – as I’d said – truly willing to be yours, then I would be yours. Simple as that. No questions, no exemption clauses. How could I ever possibly say I was giving you all I could when I wouldn’t even commit to putting my name beside yours on a piece of paper?”

Harry blinked back tears furiously. “Louis…”

Louis gave a single shake of the head. “No Harry, please. I…After our fight, our stupid, stupid fight, you know what? I remembered something what I’d said to Zayn. He was feeding me bullshit about his whole break-up with Li’ and I told him he had to fucking compromise, that that was what made a relationship. And when we fought, I didn’t do that. Harry, I didn’t. In no way did I stop to consider how you were feeling, or that maybe marriage doesn’t mean anything to me but it means something to you and…And Harry, just like tonight, like with the people from the shelter, if it matters to you and I’m with you then it matters to me too. And so,” he untangled his hands, moving into the best scrunched over kneel he could given his position, Louis opened the box once again. “Harry Edward Styles, I love you. I am so in love with you, from your bloody dimples to your ludicrous boots, from your stubbornness to your endless compassion and unending patience. You have made me into a better person and I…I’d really like you to keep doing that. To walk with me, and Georgie of course, through the rest of my, well our, lives. So, essentially…Harry Styles, will you marry me?”

“Jesus Christ, yes,” Harry sobbed, flinging his arms around Louis, crushing his boyfriend against his chest. “Yes, yes, in every language I can’t even think of at this moment, yes. Louis…” He couldn’t say anything more, biting his lip to stop tears from falling as Louis slid the ring onto his finger before he was dragged back in once more. “Always, yes.”

 

***

 

Grabbing his phone off the bedside table, Louis reached over to grab Harry’s hand, interlacing their fingers. He then tilted their hands so that Harry’s ring was obvious in the shot. He snapped the photo, Harry’s chin coming to slot over his bare shoulder as he brought it up on the screen to inspect. “Good?” he inquired, offering the phone to Harry.

Harry hummed. “Perfect.”

“Here, I’ll send it to you and then I’m sending it to my mum. She’ll have a cow, I know it.”

Harry snorted, leaning over to grab his own phone as a message notification popped up. “Give me a sec’ and we’ll send them together. Lord knows Mum would kill me if she discovered that Jay had found out first.”

Louis cackled, waiting for Harry to compose his message before counting down. “Three, two…one.” They pressed send simultaneously, sharing giddy grins. Louis then opened the group chat they had.

Despite what Harry says, think my photography skills are actually improving.

He attached the photo and sent it, watching as Niall and then Liam’s icon appeared next to the message. Thirty seconds later all hell broke loose as their phones suddenly became beacons of lights, messages coming from everyone: Niall, Liam, Ed, Fizzy, Robin, Anne, Babs…wait, Babs? And yep, sure enough, there was a message from Babs, wishing them her best. And wait, fuck, shit, was that Zayn? Shaking his head, Louis tossed his phone down, Harry mimicking him before rolling into his arms.

“I love you.”

Louis bopped his nose. “I should hope so!” His gaze then softened. “And, for the record, I love you too.”

“Good.”

“Good.”

 

***