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the lucky one

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Liam's elbow deep in soapy water when the doorbell rings. That sets the dog off, barking madly, and he shushes her as he rinses the worst of the suds off.

“Be right there!” he calls as he towels his hands dry, tripping his way to the front door past toys and books and what appears to be his favorite pair of shoes. Or at least, what's left of them. “Damn it, Lady,” he swears under his breath. She's still barking when he swings the door open, and he grabs her by the collar to keep her from running off.

“Sorry,” Liam says hastily. “She's all bark and no bite, I promise, she's just – oh.” He blinks in surprise as he finally processes the scene on his front stoop.

“I think this belongs to you,” says a bloke who Liam strongly suspects is his reclusive next door neighbor. Liam's never seen him up close before, but he looks about the right height, same short, dark hair and everything. His mouth quirking, he tugs on the little hand in his, and Rosie takes a tiny step forward, her face twisted into a mighty pout.

Liam straightens to his full height. “Lady. Kennel. Now.” With a whine, Lady tucks her tail between her legs, but obediently slinks off to her kennel. It leaves Liam free to deal with his less furry, and much more disobedient child. The one who was supposed to be in the back garden, having a kickabout with her twin brother while Liam did the washing up.

The one who's apparently being hand delivered to his front door by the neighbor Liam's only seen once or twice in passing. God, but Liam hopes it's the neighbor. How far can a six-year-old have got in ten minutes?

“Rosemary Anne,” he says in his best Serious Dad voice. Rosie's lower lip wobbles, and she clutches the football she's holding closer to her chest.

“I'm sorry, Daddy,” she bursts out, and when she stamps her foot, Liam knows he's in for a fight. “But I was only next door, and I was going to come straight back, but Jackson, he kicked the ball over the fence, and I was winning, Daddy, so I had to get the ball, and--”

Liam holds his hand up. “That's enough, young lady.” She falls silent, a mulish look on her face that pairs well with the grass stains on the ripped knees of her trousers, and Liam turns his attention upwards. His neighbor – Liam's, like, 95% certain he's definitely, maybe his neighbor – is trying to bite back a smile.

“Found her in the back garden, digging the ball out of my hydrangeas,” he says. Liam's pretty sure that's a type of flower, and winces. Flowers are delicate, and Rosie is a hurricane on legs.

“If she caused any damage, I'm so sor--”

“I didn't Daddy, I swear I didn't, and anyway Harry said it was fine, he's not mad at all, he just wants to make sure I get home safe,” Rosie interrupts, her little voice going shrill, like if she's loud enough, she'll avoid being consequenced. Ten minutes into destroying his flowers, and she's on a first name basis with the bloke Liam hasn't managed to exchange more than a single, hurried hi, how are ya with.

A headache blooms in his temple, and Liam rubs at it with his fingertips. “I'm glad you're home safe, too, pumpkin.” Rosie wraps her arms around his waist, squeezing tight, the forgotten ball bouncing away into the grass. “But you're still not getting any biscuits after dinner tonight,” he adds.

“Daddy, no,” Rosie wails, and Liam hates this part.

“That's the rule, Rosie. Now go inside. Straight up to your room, go on.”

Rosie huffs off in a strop, stamping her feet as loudly as she can manage all the way up the stairs.

“I'd say she's usually better behaved,” Liam says, offering a smile that hopefully doesn't look as tired as he feels, “but it'd be a lie. Um, thank you, by the way, for bringing her back. I swear, I don't normally lose my children.”

“Don't worry about it,” Harry says. “She would have made it back on her own, I'm sure. I just happened to see her go over the fence from the window.”

“Over the--” Liam rubs a hand over his face, eyes closing briefly. It's not that tall, but still. She could have broken her arm, or worse. “She's going to give me a bloody heart attack one of these days.”

“Nah, I think you really got to her with the no biscuits thing. Doubt she'll be making any jail breaks anytime soon.” Harry's mouth is curved into a full-blown smile now, the kind that takes up someone's whole face, eyes crinkled and everything. It looks nice on him, and oddly familiar. Liam thinks he might just have one of those faces.

He shakes his head. “She'll pout the rest of the day and I'll end up folding. I do it every time.”

“Well,” Harry says agreeably. “It's not easy, being a parent, is it?”

It's more charitable than Liam deserves, given what Harry's seen of his parenting skills so far. He clears his throat, tries to smile like the past ten minutes haven't been a complete disaster. “No, I suppose not. Thank you again, really. I, uh, I'm Liam, by the way. Liam Payne. Usually I'm better at manners,” he adds, offering Harry a hand to shake. “This really hasn't been my day.”

Harry's laugh seems to catch them both off guard, loud and sharp before he catches himself. “Harry,” he says, taking Liam's hand. His grip is firm, his palm dry. “Harry Styles.” There's something intense about his gaze as he introduces himself, and his smile gets smaller, almost cautious.

“Pleasure to meet you,” Liam manages. A shout from inside startles him, and he drops Harry's hand. “That'll be my other terror, I expect. I should probably--”

“Yeah, yeah, of course,” Harry says, slipping his hands into his pockets. “I'll see you around, Liam Payne.” He's off down the paved brick walk before Liam can respond, his stroll somehow unhurried despite the way his long legs eat up ground.

“See you,” Liam echoes, but by then Harry's too far away to hear.

-

Liam does end up seeing him around, although it never really goes further than that. Harry will just be pulling away as Liam gets home with the kids from school, or collecting his newspaper from the porch as Liam lets Lady out first thing in the morning, yipping excitedly and chasing after squirrels until her lead pulls tight. The sightings are rare though, always few and far between. It's been like that ever since Harry moved in, a few months after Liam did. Maybe he gets out more when Liam's at work. It's not like Liam would know.

Then comes the morning where Liam finds himself pleading with Jackson to put on his boots (“It's raining, bud, the ground's all muddy. You can't wear your new shoes today, they'll get ruined.” “But Daddy, I want to wear them. I don't want to wear my boots! I want to wear my new shoes!”) and Liam's about to throw in the towel, even though he knows Jackson will come home from school in tears because his white trainers are streaked with mud.

Rosie's been happily jumping in puddles for the past five minutes, soaking her tights, while Lady whines loudly from her kennel, upset that the door is open and she isn't being allowed out. The rain has slowed to a drizzle, but the front hall is still wet because Liam can't close the door and risk taking his eyes off Rosie for even a second.

All in all, it's not one of Liam's better mornings, and that's when Harry comes jogging up the pavement. He's clearly dressed for a run in his black athletic shorts and white, long-sleeve tee, his short hair damp with rain and sticking out in dark tufts, not unlike a porcupine. That's not really the first thing Liam notices, though.

It's the tattoos that catch his attention. He can't make out what they are, but the black ink covering Harry's chest and stomach is clearly visible through the thin, damp material of his shirt. It throws Liam for a second – he didn't have Harry pegged as a tattoo sort of person – but then Jackson sucks in a shaky breath, a sure sign he's seconds away from tears.

“Tell you what, tiger,” Liam says, ducking in close and lifting Jackson's chin with his finger. “You wear the boots today, and we'll stop for ice cream after school, okay?”

As a general rule, he tries not to rely on bribery as a parenting technique. It's just that Harry's stopped by the squatting row of shrubs that separate their yards, nodding thoughtfully while Rosie appears to talk his ear off, her arms waving wildly. Liam feels a little bit like he's got to prove himself.

Jackson sniffles, but no tears spill over. “Chocolate ice cream?” he asks in a small, hopeful voice.

Liam ruffles his curls. “Chocolate ice cream,” he agrees, and Jackson finally sticks his feet out, letting Liam pull on his boots. He's big enough to do it himself, but that's a fight for another day. This victory is fragile enough as is.

By the time Liam gets Jackson's arms through the sleeves of his jacket, and then gets his own jacket on, and then helps Jackson with the straps of his backpack, they're one more breakdown away from being late.

Liam tries to hustle him out the door, but Jackson takes his time, stepping in every single puddle on his way down the brick walk. When they reach the street where Liam's car is parked, Rosie is still chattering away to what Liam hopes is an amused Harry.

“And then,” she says, her brown eyes going wide, “do you know what Elsa did?”

“What did she do?” Harry asks, his mouth twitching at the corners.

“She hit him with an ice beam! Right through the heart! She killed him!”

Liam pinches the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger while Harry tries to stifle a laugh. “You know, I've not yet seen Frozen, but I might have to give it a watch. Sounds like quite the thriller.”

“Rosie's got a very active imagination. Likes to embellish a bit, this one,” Liam explains, clapping a hand onto Rosie's shoulder and attempting to steer her towards the car.

“That's what happened, Daddy,” Rosie says primly. Jackson's gaze bounces back and forth between his sister and Harry, but he's always been the more timid of the two and his nerves win out. He ducks behind Liam, clinging to Liam's hand with both of his.

“Get in, you monsters, before we're late,” Liam says, unlocking the car. Both of them scramble in, arranging themselves in their booster seats. Liam turns to Harry before ducking in to buckle their seat belts.

“Good morning, by the way,” he says. “Sorry, I've not been very neighborly.”

Harry's answering smile is mostly in his eyes, but Liam swears it's there. “Morning,” he says, nodding in Liam's direction. When he turns away, heading for his own house, he starts humming something under his breath that sounds suspiciously like Let It Go.

With a snort, Liam turns his attention to the backseat, reaching for Jackson's seat belt.

-

Things do not improve after school. Liam forgets that he promised Jackson ice cream, which nearly makes them late to the doctor's office for their yearly check-up and booster shots. He shows up with two kids covered in sticky, melted ice cream and a hasty apology, and gets a dirty look from the nurse for his troubles.

It's also the night before a shift, which tends to set both kids on edge, especially after a string of off days.

“But we want to stay home with you, Daddy,” Jackson argues as Liam finally pulls up out front, shutting off the ignition.

“You love going to Nan's,” Liam reminds him. “Bet she'll cook you up something special.”

He's pretty sure Jackson's just being contrary because Liam allowed him to be poked with a sharp needle, and didn't buy him another ice cream to make up for it, but it's been a long day and he's tired.

“C'mon, tiger. Let's get some dinner in you, all right? That ice cream better not have spoiled your appetite.”

“It didn't spoil mine,” Rosie says immediately, skipping up the front walk, rain water splashing under her boots. Jackson follows at a much slower pace, feet dragging with each step.

“Lady,” Rosie calls as they burst through the front door. “Laaaady!”

There's no excited barking from the kennel, which throws Liam for a second, before he remembers that he let Lady out into the back garden before he left to pick the kids up from school.

“Hang your coats up, please,” Liam reminds Rosie and Jackson as they shed their rain gear, dripping water everywhere. Kicking off his own shoes, he makes his way to the back door, cracking it wide enough to stick his head out, calling for Lady.

She doesn't come loping up to the door, and it's not hard to figure out why. The back garden is empty, the unlatched gate swinging in the breeze.

“Shit,” Liam says.

-

Jackson is nearly inconsolable, but Rosie is practically buzzing with excitement.

“Daddy, don't you know why she left?” she asks as Liam cuddles a sniffling Jackson to his chest. He's been leaking snot and tears for the better part of ten minutes now, but won't let Liam wipe his nose.

“She was probably chasing after a squirrel,” Liam says, distracted. Jackson's a bit heavy to hold on his lap, and his leg is starting to fall asleep.

“No,” Rosie says, insistent. “She found her Tramp. She's in love, Dad.”

It was Rosie who named her when they brought Lady home from the pound, though she looks like she's got more pitbull in her than cocker spaniel. Liam says a quick prayer of thanks that she was spayed first if Rosie's theory has any grain of truth to it. He can't handle a houseful of puppies underfoot on top of everything else.

“I'm sure you're right, Rosebud,” he says. “She's probably at the park, having the time of her life,” he adds, trying to appease Jackson. He wonders if he phoned his mum, if she would run over his old copy of Homeward Bound, and maybe also a VHS player, if he asked really nicely.

“Can we go look for her?” Jackson asks, sniffing hard and looking up at Liam through tear-clumped lashes.

It's not as if Liam could say no to that.

Rosie wants to make missing posters first. Jackson wants Liam to call the Prime Minister and also the Queen. Liam tells them they can all walk to the park and back, and if they don't find her, then Liam will call the dog catcher while they eat their dinner.

He's not actually sure the dog catcher is a real thing outside of films, but he's sure there's someone you can call to report a missing dog to. He's also not above faking a phone call, if it means an end to the tears. For all her squirrel chasing, Lady is a dog who likes her creature comforts. She'll come home for a warm bed and the promise of dinner. Liam's nearly sure of it.

He gets both kids bundled back up in their wet rain gear, and they make it as far as the front walk before Rosie recruits their first reinforcement.

“Harry!” she yelps, sprinting as fast as her short legs can carry her to where Harry's just stepped from the front seat of his car. She hugs his legs, the top of her head hitting him about waist high. “Harry, we need your help!”

Harry glances down at Rosie's cherubic little face, then at Liam, who's holding Jackson by the hand. He's managed to wipe away the worst of the snot and tears, but it's still obvious that Jackson's been crying. Liam has to bite back a curse at his terrible, terrible luck.

“Rosie,” he calls. “Personal bubble, remember?”

Dutifully, Rosie takes two little steps back. She still has to crane her neck to look up at Harry, but it's a start.

“What's the matter, love?” he asks, crouching down a little so he's closer to Rosie's height.

“Lady's eloped,” Rosie says, quite seriously.

Liam nearly chokes. “Eloped? Where did you even learn that word?”

“Lady the dog?” Harry asks, mouth twitching.

“She's in love,” Rosie explains. “She met her Tramp.”

Harry's gaze flicks up to Liam, both eyebrows raised. “Your daughter is quite the film buff.”

“She's something, all right,” Liam mumbles. Louder, he adds, “Rosie, honey, c'mon. Leave Harry be, all right? We're just going to walk to the park and come straight back so I can get dinner started.”

“But Daddy--” Rosie starts, gearing up for a fight. Climbing to his feet, Harry effortlessly defuses it. “It's all right,” he says. “I don't mind. It's a nice night for a walk.”

Liam raises a skeptical eyebrow – it's not stopped drizzling all day, and even the pockets of light from the street lamps can't keep the gloom at bay as dusk settles in – but Harry just smiles.

Rosie keeps up a nonstop stream of chatter the entire way to the park, while Jackson just sort of halfheartedly stomps in every puddle they cross, splashing cold water on Liam's trousers. Harry gamely keeps up with Rosie's endless, winding stories, murmuring politely in all the right places. It's not long before they're turning the corner to the park, and a small part of Liam is a little disappointed they've made it already. A much larger part of him is tired and cold, and ready to be in bed with this entire day behind him.

The park isn't all that big, and it's obvious at once that Lady isn't there.

“Maybe she's in the bushes,” Rosie says, and then she's streaking off across the wet, slippery grass, shouting for Lady. Jackson takes off after her, both of them heedless of Liam's “Be careful!”

“You seem to have a bad habit of losing things,” Harry says, and when Liam glances over, he's watching where the kids are now crawling through the muddy grass on their hands and knees, still calling for Lady. He doesn't look at Liam, but the corner of his mouth curves into a teasing lilt. “Kids, footballs, dogs...”

“Well, you're two for three so far in finding things,” Liam points out. “Though the kid was with the ball, so I'm not sure we can count those as two separate instances.”

Harry laughs, finally turning towards Liam. The orange glow from the street lamp only catches half his face; the deep dimple carving his cheek, his even white teeth, the bright flash of one eye.

Liam opens his mouth to say – something, he's sure, when Jackson comes barreling back, nearly bowling Liam over. “She's not here, Daddy,” he says, clearly near tears again. Liam's not sure how he has any left. “Daddy, she's not here.”

Liam kneels down and the wet ground squelches under him. Jackson throws his arms around Liam's neck, face pressed to Liam's chest, and Liam hugs him back, lifting him with a grunt. He's getting too big for this, but Liam knows how it feels, losing something you thought for sure would always be there.

He hitches Jackson up higher on his hip, pressing a kiss to his temple.

“We'll take the long way back, okay?” Liam says. “We'll find her, don't worry.” He's starting to, though. Lady's been gone for an hour at least, and there's no telling how much ground she was able to cover in that time. If she got lost, twisted around too far from home, Liam's not sure how likely it is she'll be able to make her way back on her own.

It's fully dark now, but with his arms occupied holding Jackson, Liam hasn't got a spare to hold onto Rosie's hand. “Rosie, love, stick close to me, now. Don't want to lose you, too.”

“You won't, Dad, I'll be so careful,” Rosie says, and Liam's hit with a rush of gratefulness when Harry offers up his own hand to Rosie.

“So you don't lose me,” he says, smiling wide, teeth gleaming in the dark. “I'm not very careful at all.”

They make their way slowly back home, shouting for Lady the whole way. By the time they make it to their street, Liam's starting to feel a little sick with worry. The kids aren't going to take it well if Lady doesn't come home. Liam won't, either, but he doesn't have extra emotion to spare to think about that right now.

“Lady!” he calls, trying not to let any desperation leak into his voice. “Lady!”

The house comes into sight, the front porch light casting a warm, homey glow, and Liam's stomach sinks. Jackson is sniffling into his neck and there's an edge to Rosie's voice as she hoarsely calls out Lady's name. They're both getting cranky with tiredness and hunger. Add a missing dog to the mix, and Liam estimates they're about five minutes from a full-blown meltdown.

That's when a shadow detaches itself from the side of the house, tearing across the grass with a loud yip.

“Lady!” Rosie squeals, ripping her hand free from Harry's to run towards the dog. Jackson starts to fidget, kicking at Liam, and Liam sets him down hastily so he can run after his sister.

There's a lot of barking and laughter and excited shrieking, and so much mud that Liam feels a bit faint.

“Guess that makes me three for three,” Harry says, voice pitched low, almost teasing, and Liam nearly startles. He turns towards Harry, and the relief hits him then. Lady's here, she's safe, and his kids will go to bed tonight, still believing the world is a good place.

“Thanks,” he says, smiling for what feels like the first time all night.

“It was nothing,” Harry tells him, hands in his pockets. “Really, I didn't do anything.”

Liam shakes his head. “No, it was--”

“Daddy!” Rosie says, crashing into his legs. “Daddy, can we have spaghetti for dinner? Please, like Lady and the Tramp? Please, Daddy?”

“I want meatballs!” Jackson adds, stomping a puddle with both feet, tears forgotten. Liam takes a step back, out of the worst of the splash zone.

“Fine,” he says. “We can have spaghetti. But we're having a side of salad.”

Jackson makes an outraged noise, but Rosie, ever the opportunist, turns her attention to Harry, smiling sweetly. “You'll come to dinner too, won't you?” In a stage whisper, she adds, “You can even have my salad.”

Liam turns his snort of laughter into a somewhat believable cough. “Rosie, Harry has his own, clean house to go home to, he doesn't--”

“No, no, no,” both kids chorus, talking over each other. “Harry, you have to come! You have to!”

Harry's smile hasn't faded, but he glances at Liam, one eyebrow raising in question.

“You're more than welcome,” Liam tells him. “But it's your funeral, mate.”

-

Harry apparently has no sense of self-preservation, because he follows Liam inside to complete and utter chaos.

“Boots off,” Liam calls. “Coats hanging up, please. Rosie, love, can you grab me a towel for Lady?”

Rosie gets one boot off before she goes tramping up the steps, and Liam watches with resignation as the dirt and wet slowly spread.

“Sorry about the mess,” he tells Harry, holding Lady tight by the collar to keep her and her mud-covered paws from ruining the rest of the house.

“I don't mind,” Harry says, still stood in the doorway because the front hallway is narrow and there's a lot of wet dog blocking the way. “It's nice.”

Nice is… one word for it. Rosie comes barreling back down the steps, bath towel in hand, and Liam reminds her again to take her boots off as he starts to towel off the dog.

“I want hands and faces washed, please,” Liam tells the kids, lifting Lady's paws one by one to wipe them clean. Her tongue lolls out of her mouth and she pants happily in Liam's face. Wrinkling his nose, Liam tries to turn away from her awful dog breath. He nearly tips over when Harry's hand comes to rest on his back, but it's gone just as quickly as Harry squeezes around him.

“I'll go supervise the hand washing, yeah? You look like you've got your hands full, here.”

“Cheers, mate.”

Liam gets Lady clean(ish) and back into her kennel before making his way to the kitchen. He's expecting pandemonium, possibly mud dripping from the walls and ceiling, and he's pleasantly surprised to find that Harry's gotten both kids washed up, their faces scrubbed clean of all traces of dirt.

“I'm impressed,” Liam says, turning on the tap to wash his own hands clean. He smells an awful lot like wet dog, and grimaces. “You have to teach me your tricks.”

Harry actually winks at him. “A magician never tells.”

When Liam just stares at him, he laughs and says, “Yeah, all right, I bribed them. Said I would eat part – only part, mind! - of each of their salads if they got cleaned up before you were done with the dog.”

Liam can't help grinning back at him. “You're a natural at this parenting thing.”

Still smiling, Harry says, “I like kids. Your Rosie, especially – not a shy bone in her body, is there?”

“If you think she's a talker,” Liam tells him, crouching down to dig a couple of pots out from the cupboard. “Just wait until Jackson warms up to you. Kid can talk a mile a minute once he gets going.”

Harry takes one of the pots from him, slipping it into the sink and filling it with water before Liam can ask.

“Oh, you don't – Harry, you're a guest. You don't have to help cook.”

“'S all right, I don't mind,” Harry says. “I used to love cooking, but I don't do it as much now that I live on my own. Can never make it through the leftovers before they go bad, you know?”

Liam's never been on his own, really, but he nods anyway. “Well, listen. I'm not going to turn down the help, if you insist.”

Liam likes the way even the smallest of Harry's smiles reach his eyes. “I insist,” he says.

-

Rosie and Jackson set the table (with Harry's help, because even though Rosie swears she'll be “so careful, Dad, I promise not to drop a single plate,” they're eating off the ceramic dishes tonight and they're chipped enough as is), and Liam pretends not to notice when they each shovel a bit of salad onto Harry's plate.

The kids get milk to drink, but Liam reaches for the red wine on top of the fridge he hasn't yet found an occasion to open. He lifts a brow in question, but Harry shakes his head.

“Just water, please.”

With a shrug, Liam pours them both a glass of water instead, settling in at the table.

Dinner is a messy affair. What Jackson and Rosie lack in dexterity, they make up for in enthusiasm, which means that there's spaghetti sauce everywhere by the time they're done eating.

“How did you get sauce in your eyebrow?” Liam asks, grabbing Rosie by the arm and licking his thumb before he starts to scrub at it. She tries to shake him off, squealing in outrage.

“Go on then, you street urchin,” Liam says, giving up as she wriggles away. “Dishes in the sink, please!”

There's an answering crash that probably means the dishes have just gotten more chipped, and Liam winces. “Should have gone with the plastic.”

“Mmm,” Harry hums, twining spaghetti around the tines of his fork. Unlike Liam's barbarian children, he hasn't inhaled his meal. “Trying to impress me with the fine china?”

“You keep seeing me at my worst,” Liam protests. “I'm trying to make up for lost ground.”

“If this is you at your worst...” Harry starts to say, but then Jackson and Rosie come thundering back from the sink.

“Can we watch TV?” Rosie asks, all wide eyes and pouty lower lip.

“Puh-lease?” Jackson adds, little hands clasped together.

Liam takes a slow slip of his water. “You can watch one show,” he agrees, raising his voice to be heard over their shouts of triumph, “and then both of you are having baths. No arguments!”

They thunder out of the room like a herd of elephants, Rosie's victory cry of “Bubble Guppies!” nearly drowned out by Lady's excited barking.

“Inside voices!” Liam calls after them, as if he ever had a hope.

Bubble Guppies, huh?” Harry asks, nibbling at a bite of salad. He's already had more than his fair share, but he doesn't seem to mind. “Does that have more or less murder than Frozen?”

“About the same,” Liam says, and manages to keep a straight face for five entire seconds. They both crack up, and it's – it's nice, sharing a meal like this. Sort of what Liam imagined a family would be like, if it didn't have any of the parts missing. He clears his throat. “You, uh. You might like it though. Seems like maybe you've got a bit of a thing, for mermaids.”

Harry cocks his head to the side, and follows Liam's gaze when he tips his chin at Harry's forearm. His sleeve is rolled up to his elbow, revealing even more ink, and Harry looks down at it, blinking like he's as surprised as Liam was.

“Believe it or not,” he says slowly, glancing back up, “I did not think this one through when I got it.”

“You don't say.” The mermaid on his arm is stylized, and sporting anatomy that Liam doesn't think mermaids normally have.

Harry's lip twitches, but his eyes have already given him away. “I'd cover it up, but I like the reminder.”

Liam waits for him to finish, but he just takes another bite of salad. “Reminder of what?” he prompts after a moment, twirling his fork through the remains of his own spaghetti.

“Of who I used to be,” Harry says, and now there's no trace of a smile in his eyes at all. He doesn't look sad, exactly. Just… tired. Thoughtful, maybe. It occurs to Liam that he doesn't know Harry at all, really. “Or some shi-- something like that. It's not important.”

Liam suspects that's a lie, but Harry hasn't asked him the question Liam's been waiting for all night. If he's not going to pry, then Liam isn't, either.

-

Harry helps with the washing up, even though Liam insists he doesn't have to.

“Seriously, Harry, you've been a big help tonight. I couldn't ask you for more.”

“You don't have to,” Harry says with what Liam's beginning to think of as his trademark grin. “I'm offering. All you have to do is accept.” Rinsing off a plate, he hands it to Liam to dry. “Actually, you don't even have to accept. I'm doing it, and you can't stop me.”

“You're the world's strangest supervillain,” Liam tells him, because he thinks it'll make Harry laugh.

He's right.

By the time Harry leaves, the kids are stomping upstairs for their baths and Lady has quieted down in her kennel for the night. Liam has a new number in his mobile, and possibly his first real crush since he was 17.

-

The house is still a mud bath, but Liam's got to work and hasn't the time to clean it before dropping the kids off at school.

“Your nan will be here at the end of the day to pick you up,” he reminds them, smacking a kiss to each of their foreheads as they pile out of the car. “So be on your best behavior.”

He does it at least twice a week, but Liam still hates the mornings he has to drop the kids off before a shift. Cranking the radio, he taps his fingers against the steering wheel as he drives to the station, singing along to every top 40 hit he knows the words to.

Work drags, but that's not unusual. It's a small town where not much happens; not even being a firefighter offers up a lot of excitement. Liam's grateful for it, especially when they get an early morning call a few hours before his shift is over. It's a rollover accident, and Liam's stomach clenches at the sight of twisted metal and broken glass, scattered all over the road.

The boy is fine, somehow, only requiring minor stitches. They stick around until the tow truck comes and dawn creeps over the horizon before heading back to the station. Liam gets off at 7am, an entire twenty-four hours after he started, and crashes until his alarm goes off to pick the kids up from school.

“Daddy!” Rosie squeals when she sees him, running down the crowded hallway at school to wrap him up in a hug.

“Walking feet, button,” he reminds her, but by then she's already in his arms. Jackson throws himself at Liam a second later, like it's been weeks instead of a day. Liam squeezes them both tight.

Rosie and Jackson are trying to talk over each other to tell Liam all about their days when they get home. They pile out of the car as he tries to listen to both of them at the same time. Harry raises his hand in a wave as he steps out to collect his mail.

“Hi Harry!” Rosie bellows at the top of her lungs. Even Jackson offers him a shy wave, curling and uncurling his fingers. Liam sort of expects Harry to disappear back inside the house after the exchange, and he's pleasantly surprised when Harry instead meanders down his front walk.

He's wearing a brown polo, but somehow his tattoos are still visible through the fabric. Up close, Liam can make out a distinctly butterfly-shaped tattoo just below his sternum, the tips of its wings stretching across Harry's abdomen. Liam drags his eyes up just in time to catch the amused lilt of Harry's mouth.

Before he can say anything, Rosie launches into a story about – well, it's hard to follow, she's talking so fast, and Jackson keeps interjecting, but Harry nods along like it's all very serious business.

“All right, monsters,” Liam says when Rosie pauses to take a breath. “Inside, shoes off, coats hanging up. What do you want for a healthy snack?”

“Biscuits!” Jackson yells.

“Cake!” Rosie screeches.

“Emphasis on healthy,” Liam repeats, hands on his hips. “And where are your inside voices?”

“We're outside, Dad,” Jackson says, his own small hands propped on his hips. It's the kind of attitude he'd normally expect from Rosie.

“Yeah, Liam,” Harry adds unexpectedly. Maybe it's the rare sunlight, bleeding through the clouds, but Liam could swear his eyes are sparkling. “Look how outside we are.”

“Shut up,” Liam tells him, but quiet, so the kids don't overhear. Harry's laugh is an outside laugh.

Rosie and Jackson start to make their way to the front door, but get distracted by what appears to be a game of tag along the way. Liam just shakes his head.

“Were you guys out of town?” Harry asks, and when Liam turns towards him, head cocked, he adds, “Sorry, if that's – I just noticed the lights weren't on last night. Wanted to make sure things were okay.”

“Oh,” Liam says, oddly touched that Harry would notice. Or care. “No, I uh, I had to work last night. I'm a firefighter, so it's generally, you know, 24-hour shifts. The kids stay with their nan while I'm at work, so it's pretty quiet around here.”

Harry blinks at him a moment. “A firefighter, really,” he says at last. “Well. You certainly are full of surprises, aren't you, Liam?”

Liam's not really sure what to say to that, but Jackson's finally reached the front door, pulling on the handle while Lady barks her head off from inside. “I should – there are dogs to let out, healthy snacks to prepare.” He feels like he should offer an apology, but he doesn't know why.

Harry just nods. “Of course.”

-

For an entire week, things are normal.

Or, well. As normal as things can get, with six-year-old twins and a hyperactive dog underfoot, but it's at least the sort of chaos Liam has grown accustomed to. Naturally, that's when he gets called into work to cover a shift for someone who's out sick. His mum agrees to get the kids from school and keep them overnight, and Liam's so busy thanking her he nearly runs a red light. Before ringing off, he promises to find an actual babysitter and take her out to a nice dinner to make up for it. It's not nearly enough thanks for all she does for him, but she won't accept anything more grand than that.

He's halfway to the station when he realizes.

“Oh fuck, the fucking dog,” Liam groans aloud. He usually has his sister swing by and let her out, but she's on a business trip to London. He could call his mum back, but he's taken enough advantage of her as is. Liam resigns himself to coming home to a mess and a very unhappy dog before the idea occurs to him. Reaching for his phone at the next red light, he scrolls through his contacts, hitting the call button before he can talk himself out of it.

It rings two, three, four times before Harry picks up with a cautious, “'lo?”

“Harry, mate, it's Liam.”

A pause, and then: “Yes, I know. You gave me your number, remember?”

“Right, right. Hey, um, listen, I feel terrible asking, and please, like, pretend I groveled a lot more first, but I'm in a hurry, and --”

“What is it?” Harry asks. Liam can't read anything in his tone at all.

“I have to go into work and I don't have anyone to let the dog out.”

He can hear Harry breathing over the line. “Where are the kids?” he asks.

“At their nan's. I just, I got called in unexpectedly, and I completely spaced on the damn dog. Usually my sister helps out, but she's out of town, and I can't – she just needs to be let out a few times, and fed tonight before bed. I'll be back in the morning, so if you can't, I mean, I don't want to impose, or anything, but--”

“Liam, slow down. It's fine, I don't mind. I was just going to have a quiet night in, so you're not imposing at all.”

Liam closes his eyes for a moment, breathes deep. “Thank you, Harry, seriously. You're a life saver.” He tells Harry where the spare key is hidden under a paving brick in the back, and where he keeps the kibble, and thanks him another five times before ringing off.

-

He gets the first text when he's helping with the washing up after dinner at the station, his phone buzzing in his pocket. Drying his hands, he fishes it out of his back pocket, the worry already starting to spiral – if one of the kids is sick, or hurt, or--

The text is from Harry. Frowning, Liam thumbs open the lock screen to read the message.

H: Three madonna albums? Really, Liam?

Typing back as fast as he can, Liam sends off a quick reply.

L: Are u going thru my records????

It takes Harry a few minutes to respond.

H: I'm doing this pro bono. The least I can do is snoop through your living room

H: Do you own a record from this century?

H: I take it back. I found one. The wiggles on vinyl, Liam. Are you serious?

L: It was a xmas gift!!! kids wanted a record 2 play

He doesn't realize he's been smiling down at his phone until Samuels elbows him in the side. “What's up with you, bro?”

“Nothing,” Liam says, slipping his phone in his pocket. He manages to ignore the string of messages Harry sends him for an entire hour, watching telly with the guys, though after the credits flash across the screen, he couldn't have said what actually happened during the show.

He ends up falling asleep with his phone in his hand like a bloody teenager, a smile still on his face.

-

When Liam gets home in the morning, an excited Lady greets him at the door, barking happily. He lets her out into the back garden before filling her bowl with a fresh scoop of kibble. That's when he notices the old vase sitting on the kitchen table, filled with freshly cut, purple-blue flowers that Liam strongly suspects are hydrangeas.

-

Maybe it's the hint of spring in the air, but Liam doesn't think he's imagining the increase in Harry sightings.

On Saturday, it's warm enough that the kids can wear jumpers and leave their coats at home. They're buzzing with energy, bouncing off the walls, and there's no way Liam can contain them enough to do even half the errands they need to run today.

“Who wants to go to the farmer's market?” he asks after he's finished cleaning up from breakfast, wiping sticky syrup off chubby cheeks. “If you're good, you can each pick out one treat.”

The suggestion is met with cheers, and Liam grins. By the time they walk the several blocks to and from the market, and the kids scour every booth for the treat of their choice, they may be tired enough for a nap in the afternoon so Liam can get some housework done.

Rosie wants to wear one of her nice dresses, insisting she's a princess, which Liam agrees to with no small amount of reservations, as it's going to end up ripped, stained, or most likely both by the end of the day. Jackson wants to wear his Halloween costume from last year.

“I don't know, bud,” Liam says doubtfully as Jackson tries to squeeze into the Buzz Lightyear suit that fit him perfectly in the fall. It's hard to believe he's grown so much. “I think you might be too big.”

At the first sign of a sniffle, Liam digs through the costume trunk and pulls out a pair of orange cat ears. “I could put some stripes on these,” he offers. “And you could go as a tiger!”

Liam's not actually sure how a trip to the farmer's market turned into a costume party, especially since Halloween is a good six months away, but Jackson brightens at the suggestion.

By the time Liam's sharpied some messy stripes onto the ears, and dug out some glue to reattach a few missing plastic gems from Rosie's princess crown – “Sorry, sorry, fairy princess crown, I stand corrected” – the kids are finally ready to go.

“I'm dressed as an off-duty fireman. Now scoot,” Liam says when they insist he wear a costume, too. He clips the lead to Lady's collar and then they are finally, mercifully out the door.

“I want to invite Harry,” Rosie announces as they walk past Harry's house. It's a nice day, but he's not out, the windows dark and the house quiet.

“Sorry, love,” Liam says, stopping to let Lady sniff suspiciously at the tree she passes literally every single walk. “I don't think he's home.”

“I'll ring the bell!” She's off before Liam can stop her, Jackson at her heels. Liam checks his watch as he waits for them to come back – it's not as if the farmer's market stays open all day – and he's about to call for them to quit making a nuisance of themselves when Harry's door swings open.

His short hair's a mess, like he's just rolled out of bed, and he blinks down at the kids before fixing his puffy eyed stare at Liam. “Is it – I could have sworn it was April.”

“We're going to the farmer's market,” Liam says. “So naturally, costumes were required.”

Harry still looks half asleep, but his mouth does that amused quirk thing all the same. “Naturally.”

“You'll come with us, Harry, won't you?” Rosie asks, grabbing him by the wrist and tugging.

“Won't you? Please?” Jackson echoes. Liam can't see from here, but he's nearly certain both kids are giving Harry their best puppy eyes. It's incredibly effective, at least in Liam's experience.

Harry hesitates. “Don't have a costume, I'm afraid,” he says at last.

“Neither does Dad. He says he's an off-duty fireman, but that's not a costume at all,” Rosie tells him, clearly still offended.

“All right, you two, enough. C'mon, we haven't got all day. Stop harassing the poor man. Harry can come with us another time.” Lady's started to pull at her lead, anxious to continue her walk. Liam tries to convey with his eyebrows that Harry is under no obligation to come with them another time, but that half-truths are the most effective way to deal with stubborn twins.

Harry must misinterpret the message, because he says, “Okay, give me, like, two minutes. Two minutes!”

The kids cheer while he disappears back inside. It's only about four minutes before he comes back, wearing a beanie over his hair and slipping shades over his eyes, and Liam's genuinely impressed.

“Sorry,” he says as Harry falls into step next to him, the kids racing ahead, “if we interrupted your lazy Saturday.”

Harry just smiles. “Been meaning to check out the farmer's market. Don't get out as much as I used to. This is nice.”

Liam would guess that Harry's not much older than he is, which doesn't leave a lot of time for 'used to,' but he figures people in glass houses, and all that. They stick to a leisurely pace, ambling down the pavement as Lady stops to sniff at trees and shrubs every few feet. The kids orbit around them, more like wild asteroids than planets.

It really is a gorgeous day, the sun peaking through the clouds, and it seems half the neighborhood had the same idea, as the market is bustling with hoards of people.

“Okay,” Liam announces as they approach. “Buddy system, please. Find a hand to hold.”

Jackson slips his little hand into Liam's, and Rosie grabs hold of Harry's. Liam tries to catch his eye to make sure Harry's okay with the arrangement, but the dark shades do a good job of hiding them.

They stick close together as they pick their way through the crowd, and the kids groan every time Liam stops to purchase more veggies.

“Daddy, no,” Rosie says as Liam stops to examine some sun-ripened tomatoes.

“Where do you think spaghetti sauce comes from, button?” he asks her, tweaking her nose.

She frowns. “A jar?”

“That's it,” Liam declares, fighting a smile. “We're going on an all vegetable diet, starting today.”

The kids howl so loudly they set Lady off, and Liam has to hastily shush them, taking it back immediately while Harry laughs his head off. They get more than a few dirty looks, and Liam hustles them along, until Jackson spots a stand selling baked goods.

“Biscuits!” he shouts, dragging Liam closer. Harry and Rosie follow in their wake, Lady's tail wagging with excitement at the commotion. At the stand, Liam hitches Jackson up on his hip so he can see better, his eyes growing round as they take in all the choices.

“You can pick one, Jack,” Liam reminds him.

“I'd pick the chocolate eclairs,” Harry tells Rosie as he kneels down, whispering loud enough that Liam can easily overhear him. “They're the best, trust me. I used to be a baker, you know.”

Rosie eyes him with suspicion. “No, you didn't.”

Harry huffs. “Did too! They sacked me cos I kept burning the pies.” He glances up at Liam, cheeks dimpled, and Liam laughs.

“Never realized you had such a sordid past, mate.”

With his sunglasses still perched on his nose, it's impossible to say if Harry's smile reaches his eyes. His lips thin a moment, but then his dimples reappear so quickly Liam thinks maybe he imagined it. “All right, fine,” he says, pushing back up to his feet. “I quit because I couldn't stop eating the pastries. Had to run fifty kilometers a day, just to keep my figure.”

Liam shakes his head, still laughing. “You're so full of it.”

Rosie keeps her narrowed eyes on him another moment before turning back to the pastry display, and then her gaze lingers on the chocolate eclairs. Liam's firm one treat rule means that both kids have to agonize over their choices for another few minutes while Harry bites his lip against a smile and Liam shuts down several pleads for more, please, Dad, please.

It's not until Liam threatens no treats that Rosie finally makes her mind up, picking the eclair. Jackson picks the same thing, either because he wants to be like his sister or he can't stand the thought of her picking something better than he did, Liam can't tell.

Thanking the woman running the stand profusely for her patience, Liam purchases the two eclairs, handing them over to the kids one by one. As an afterthought, he requests extra napkins.

As soon as he has his treat in hand, Jackson opens his mouth to take a big bite, then promptly sneezes all over it. Liam winces.

“Need a tissue, bud?”

“No,” Jackson says, then sniffs loudly. He bites into his eclair, sneeze germs and all.

Liam pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.

It's probably just allergies.

-

It's not allergies.

It hits Jackson first, his nose red from sniffling, coupled with a ragged cough that leaves him hoarse and miserable. Liam tries to keep Rosie away from him, quarantined from the germs, but in the time it takes him to go down to the basement to switch out a load of laundry, she's managed to sneak Lady up the stairs, the three of them curled up on Jackson's bed.

“You're going to get sick too, love,” Liam warns her, a laundry basket balanced on his hip.

“I don't care,” she says, stubborn. Lady wags her tail, but doesn't move from her spot at the foot of Jackson's bed, even though she knows better.

Liam throws his free hand up, and goes to phone his mum to drop off more cold medicine.

-

The first day they're both sick is absolutely miserable. The kids go through an entire box of tissues until their noses are red and raw, and Liam reads them every book they own until his voice is hoarse, but it doesn't help. As soon as he coaxes one of them asleep, the other is up, coughing and sniffling, crawling into Liam's lap for a cuddle like they're toddlers again.

By day two, Liam figures out he isn't hoarse because of all the reading.

On day three, he has to crawl out of bed, swaying a bit at the sudden lightheadedness. Jackson's energy level is up as Liam pours them cereal for breakfast – eggs would be better, he thinks, but eggs require energy and he used up most of his stumbling down the stairs – and Rosie is too competitive to stay sick while her brother is on the mend.

They're both still coughing like a couple of chain smokers, though, so Liam puts on a film and bans them from going outside. He settles himself in the armchair to supervise, and he's just gotten a blanket pulled cozily over his lap when the doorbell rings.

It takes him a long moment to get to his feet, and Liam sort of drapes the blanket over himself like a toga. It's just that he's been getting chills, and the medicine he had instead of breakfast hasn't really kicked in yet.

He doesn't have anything left in him to feel surprised that it's Harry at the door.

“Liam,” he says, blinking owlishly. “You look like shit.”

“Cheers, mate,” Liam says. It comes out barely more than a rasp, and Harry winces in sympathy. For a reason that Liam can't fathom, there's a biscuit tin clutched in his hands. Liam leans against the door frame, not trusting his legs.

“Can I – I was just popping over to drop off some biscuits, I finally got around to baking, been meaning to since that day at the market, but I could – d'you need a hand with anything? I'm not, like, I really don't mean to be rude, but you look awful, Liam.”

“I'd say it looks worse than it feels, but I feel pretty rotten,” Liam admits. “I'm good, though, I mean – well stocked on medicine and Kleenex and all that.”

Harry nods, still clinging to his biscuit tin. “And the kids? Are they sick too?”

Liam manages what's maybe a smile. It takes a surprising amount of effort to make his face do anything. “They're already through the worst of it, I think. Guess it's my turn now.”

Chewing on his lower lip, Harry's gaze drops to his biscuit tin, then back up to Liam. “Look,” he starts. “I know, we're not, like--” he huffs out a breath, sounding irritated. “You've been a really great neighbor, Liam. I consider you a friend, even. The least I can do is watch the kids for a bit while you get some sleep.”

“Oh, no, Harry – you'll wind up sick, too. Believe me, mate, you do not want to catch this.”

“I have a very strong immune system,” Harry says. “And seriously, look at yourself. You can barely stay on your feet. I can get you references, if you want, but I swear, I can handle a couple of kids for a few hours while you take a nap. You can be Superman again when you wake up, yeah?”

Liam shivers, pulling his blanket-toga tighter around his shoulders. “Always liked Batman, myself.”

Shaking his head, Harry's lips do that quirk thing again. “Fine, Batman, whatever. Even superheroes need rest when they're poorly, all right? C'mon, Liam. Up to bed now.”

“Bossy,” Liam mumbles, but he lets Harry steer him up the stairs to his bedroom, falling onto the mattress face first.

He's awake just long enough to register Harry pulling the duvet up over him, tucking it around his shoulders, before he's out, mouth open in a snore.

-

When Liam wakes up, it's dark and he's completely disoriented. It takes a few sluggish moments for him to remember – oh, god. He left Harry with the kids and fell asleep.

Rolling to his feet, Liam grabs for a jumper, pulling it over his head as he fights another wave of dizziness. He stops in the bathroom long enough to splash water on his face and blow his nose, which doesn't make him look any less closer to death, even if he feels marginally better after sleeping the day away.

Stumbling down stairs at half his usual speed, Liam braces himself for the worst. His offspring are terrors under the best of conditions, and abandoning them to the neighbor (albeit, a neighbor they love who came bearing biscuits) while they're getting over the flu is a recipe for disaster.

Liam reaches the bottom of the stairs and takes a moment to orient himself. It's possible he woke up in the wrong house. There should be shoes and toys and an endless mess scattered about, but not only can Liam see the floor; the floor is shining it's so clean.

There's shrieking laughter and music coming from the living room, so Liam slowly makes his way through the hall, his socked feet slipping on the hardwood. He pauses again in the doorway to the living room, but that's less to catch his breath and more to soak it all in.

He must really have been dead to the world, because the kids and Harry are making no small racket. They've got the Playstation going with the Rock Band game Rosie and Jackson had begged and begged for as a Christmas gift, Rosie banging away at the drums while Jackson shreds the guitar. Well, as much as a six-year-old still working on his fine motor skills can shred a guitar, but his little tongue is poking out, caught between his teeth, so he's clearly giving it his all.

Harry's in the middle of it all, head thrown back as he sings into the mic, his ringed fingers curled around the plastic handle. His voice is halfway decent, more grit to it when he sings than when he talks, but the whole rockstar image he's got going on is kind of ruined by the way he's on his knees to keep from towering over the kids.

Still, he's fun to watch, putting on a real show for his tiny audience. Liam waits until the song winds to an end, Harry managing to hit an impressive long note before the music fades, and then starts clapping.

“Daddy!” Rosie yelps, abandoning her drum kit and hurling herself towards him. Jackson follows suit, leaving Harry kneeling alone in the middle of the living room, a pink flush to his cheeks that Liam isn't sure is from the exertion.

“That was something else, mate,” Liam tells him, giving Rosie a one-armed hug while Jackson pulls at his jumper.

Harry slides his hand through his hair, but only manages to ruffle it up more. “Shoulda seen me at my peak. I just do small gigs now, living rooms mostly, you know how it is.”

Liam laughs, and it barely hurts his throat. He must still wince though, because Harry's face creases with concern.

“All right,” he says, clapping his hands once. “I helped you monsters beat the high score. Now let's give your dad some peace and quiet while I get dinner together, okay?”

Rosie and Jackson agree with varying levels of enthusiasm, and Liam follows Harry into the kitchen, stopping once along the way to blow his nose.

“How are you feeling?” Harry asks, digging around Liam's cupboards and coming up with a pan on the first try.

Liam considers the question. “I feel like death warmed over instead of actual death, so I think, you know, it's a small improvement.”

“Hmm.” Harry starts to search through Liam's cabinets, crowing victoriously when he unearths a box of mac-n-cheese. He putzes around the kitchen, filling the pot with water and lighting up the burner before turning his attention back to Liam. His eyes look too sharp, but maybe it's the way Liam is having a hard time focusing on anything, his head fuzzy with sleep.

Harry steps in close, studying Liam with a critical eye. “You still look like death,” he decides, pressing the back of his hand to Liam's forehead. It feels cool against Liam's skin, and Liam lets his eyes slide shut, just for a moment.

“Bed rest for you, I think,” Harry adds, quiet but firm, and Liam drags his eyes open again.

“I'm not an invalid. It's just a cold.” He promptly sneezes six times in a row, barely holding back a whimper as it makes his throat throb.

“Uh huh. I'm sure,” Harry says, and when his steady hands find Liam's shoulders, urging him towards the chair, well, it's just easier, isn't it, to go along with Harry. “Sit there and don't move, all right? I've perfected the art of bribing your children, so I guarantee we have at least fifteen – um, make that ten – minutes before they come bursting in here demanding food.”

“Okay,” Liam says agreeably, and slumps forward to rest his cheek against his crossed arms on the table. Harry's cool fingers trail over the back of his neck, and he squeezes once, just a gentle thing, before they slide away.

-

Harry stays until the kids are in bed, and Liam means to thank him another twenty times, but he's out before he can, snoring loudly. With a full night's sleep under his belt, Liam wakes up not quite 100%, but mostly there.

He's well enough to get the kids to school, at any rate, and himself to work, even if it's not his top performance. When he gets home, there's grocery shopping to be done, and laundry to catch up on, and a thousand other things that piled up while he was sleeping and being miserable.

Liam gets so caught up in everything that at first, he doesn't notice the messages that buzz through. Guilt hits him like a punch to the gut when he finally reads them.

H: Liam. You and your demon children got me sick.

H: Oh god. Is this how you felt? This is awful, mate. I don't know how you survived.

H: I'm dying, liam.

Liam doesn't bother texting back, just hits the call button, pressing his phone to his ear and gnawing at his lip. It rings and rings before going to voicemail. Harry's probably asleep, then.

Still, Liam circles back to the soup aisle, tossing a couple extra cans of chicken noodle in the cart. He throws in another box of Kleenex and some cold medicine before checking off the rest of his list, and by then he's nearly late picking the kids up from school.

“Daddy,” Rosie says in her sweetest voice as Liam buckles them in. “Can we get ice cream?”

“Not today, darling. We have to get the groceries inside, and then we need to take Harry a care package.”

“A care package?” Jackson parrots.

Liam kisses the crown of his head. “He's poorly. Remember how nice he was when we were poorly? Now it's our turn to be kind.”

“I want to make him a card!” Jackson says immediately.

“I want to bake him some biscuits!” Rosie yelps.

“God help me,” Liam mutters.

-

Nuance is lost on six-year-olds, so Liam doesn't even try to talk them out of their well-intentioned ideas, even when it means spending an extra hour throwing together a care package for Harry that should have taken five minutes. Liam's got a roll of the pre-made dough in the freezer, so the biscuits are as easy as sliding a pan in the oven as soon as it's preheated.

The cards are another matter altogether.

“Where's the macaroni?” Jackson demands. “I want to put macaroni on mine.”

Rosie, meanwhile, is squirting glue all over hers, a horde of glitter at her elbow. Liam already knows he's going to be finding glitter weeks and weeks from now. “Dad, what's Harry's favorite color? Do you think he likes blue best?”

“I don't know, love. I'm sure he'll like any color you pick for him.”

“Dad, the macaroni.”

Rummaging through the cupboard, Liam pulls out a box of Farfalle pasta. “How 'bout some bowties? Bet Harry would love that.”

Jackson looks suspicious, but he accepts the offered pasta. Liam breathes out in relief. Less than thirty seconds later, he's breaking up a fight over the bottle of glue.

-

The biscuits are still warm from the oven, and the kitchen is still a mess, but Liam hustles the kids out the door, Harry's supplies shoved in a Tesco bag.

There's a small spat over who gets to ring the doorbell, and Liam allows one round of paper, scissors, rock before he threatens to do it himself. Rosie pouts as Jackson presses the bell, and they all wait as the seconds drag on with no answer.

“He might be asleep,” Liam says after a minute. “We can leave the cards in his mailbox, and--”

He's cut off when the door suddenly swings open and Harry blinks at them blearily through the screen door. The bags under his eyes are a dark, bruised purple against his pale skin, and he sniffs hard, rubbing at his nose.

“Harry!” Rosie squeals. “We made you get well soon cards!” She and Jackson each hold up their offerings, dripping with glue and glitter and pasta, matching gap-toothed smiles on their faces. Liam lifts his hand, gesturing to the Tesco bag. “There's also some soup and cold medicine to get you through it. Oh, and some biscuits, for when you can taste food again.”

Harry's mouth opens and closes a few times, and he turns his face away, coughing into his elbow. “I don't know what to say,” he says once he's facing them again, his voice barely more than a croak.

“It's nothing,” Liam tells him. “Seriously, mate. After what you did for me, this is like, the least I could do.”

“When you get better,” Rosie says, “You have to come over and play Rock Band again, okay?”

“Yeah!” Jackson pipes up. “Dad says he's gonna beat your high score! You have to come play with us again!”

“All right, all right. Give the man some room to breathe, okay? You can each give him your cards, and then I want you back home and choosing a quiet activity to do before dinner. That means no telly.”

Liam opens Harry's screen door, nudging the kids out of the way, and Harry takes the offered cards, holding one carefully in each hand. “Thank you,” he says, so quiet Liam almost misses it. He clears his throat with a hoarse-sounding cough that makes his eyes water, and manages to repeat himself a little louder. “Thank you. Really.”

Holding up the Tesco bag, Liam asks, “Where do you want this?”

Harry looks at it a moment, gaze going a little unfocused. “Um,” he says at last. “Um, the kitchen's fine.” He stands back from the door, letting Liam in, and Liam turns back to the kids.

“Back home, you hear me? And will one of you let Lady out, please? I will be there in five minutes to check on you.”

Liam lets the screen door bang shut behind him as he follows Harry inside. It's not much bigger than Liam's place, but it's decidedly cleaner without the toys and dog fur everywhere. Harry leads him back to the kitchen at a snail's pace, his socked feet shuffling against the floor, coughing most of the way.

“You can just leave it on the counter,” he says when they reach the kitchen. It's a big, open room that looks like it's straight out of a magazine. Other than the glitter coated cards that Harry hangs on the fridge with care and a single dirty bowl in the sink, there's no sign that anyone lives here at all.

“You don't cook much, huh?” Liam asks, glancing around with open curiosity.

Harry shrugs one shoulder. “Don't like cooking for one. Also, like. Been on the verge of death for the last twenty-four hours, so I haven't been up to much else besides that.”

“I really am sorry, for getting you sick,” Liam says, then hesitates. “Do you want – I could actually make you some soup, or something? You look terrible, Haz.”

Facing the fridge, Harry fusses over the cards, arranging them just so. “Liam, I'm joking. I'll live, yeah? You should go home to your family.” Apparently satisfied with his interior decorating, Harry finally turns towards him. His eyes are still a little wet – Liam remembers how painful the coughing could get with a pang of sympathy – and the last thing Liam wants to do is walk out the door and leave him to fend for himself, but he's right. Liam can't stay.

Liam swallows. It's terrible timing, but then, timing never been Liam's strong suit.

“Okay. Okay,” he repeats, licking his lips. “Um. Listen, I'm going to ask you a question, okay, and if I-- if I've misread the situation, or you just don't – you can say no, okay, and it won't change anything, I promise.”

Slowly, Harry's eyebrows draw together. “What are you on about, Liam?”

“Do you – when you're not actively dying, I mean, and when I can get my mum to babysit the kids, um – do you want to get dinner, with me? In like, a romantic way. Like – like a date, I mean.” Liam rubs a hand over the back of his neck, forcing out a laugh. “Wow, that was terrible. I used to be a lot better at that.”

“I should hope so. Dunno how you ended up with kids, if that's the best you can do,” Harry says, and there's that familiar teasing lilt to his mouth despite the weariness on his face.

“I'm out of practice!” Liam huffs.

Harry looks at him for a long moment, his expression suddenly unreadable. “You didn't misread the situation,” he says at last. “But this would change things, Liam.”

“Is that a no?” Liam asks, stomach dropping. Hurriedly, he adds, “I know that it's, like, it's a package deal, with the kids and all, and it's asking a lot because they will always, always come first, so it's okay if you – I mean, I'm not going to hold it against you if that's more than you--”

“No, Liam. That's not it.”

“Then what is it?”

Harry drops his gaze, leaning against the counter. “It's… it's complicated. It's got nothing to do with you or the kids or anything, it's just--” He exhales sharply through his nose. “You have no idea what you do to me, Liam.”

“You could tell me,” Liam suggests, and it's enough that Harry's mouth twitches, fighting a smile. He's coughing a second later, his chest rattling something awful. “Shit, I'm a terrible person, keeping you up when you clearly need to be in bed.”

“Was my mothering this overbearing when you were poorly?” Harry asks as Liam steers him towards the living room. He sinks down on the couch as soon as he reaches it, his entire body slumping.

“You were worse,” Liam tells him, but Harry's already out, mouth open in a snore. Liam drags the blanket off the back of the couch and drapes it over Harry's shoulders. He brushes his fingers through Harry's hair just once, just because he can, then lets himself out the door, readying himself for whatever disaster he'll find when he gets home.

-

Liam doesn't hear from Harry for a week. A week of complete radio silence, and Harry's windows dark every night, no sign of life at all. Liam tries not to think about it, about the way Harry never really answered his question, but it's those moments between the time his head hits the pillow and sleep takes him that it's hard not to.

He drops the kids off at school and picks them whenever he's not working, reassures them that Harry's on the mend between cooking and cleaning and laundry, and even manages to beat Harry's high score in the rock star game the kids love so much.

Liam's seriously starting to rethink his strategy of giving Harry space and sending off a cursory check-in text, just to make sure he's still alive, when the doorbell rings one night after dinner. The kids are engrossed with whatever's on the telly, but Lady starts barking her head off, yapping at Liam's heels the entire walk to the front door. When he swings it open, he's not sure what's more surprising – that Harry's standing there on his front stoop, or the flowers in his hand. In the golden glow of the porch light, Liam recognizes them all not by name, but by sight – they all appear to be hand-picked from Harry's garden.

“Hi,” Liam says dumbly, nudging Lady away from the door. Her barking is less frantic and more excited at Harry's familiar smell, and she quiets fairly easily.

“Hi,” Harry says back, thrusting the flowers at Liam. “Um. Sorry, if that's overkill. I just, um. I really mucked things up before, so I wanted to make sure I did it right this time.”

Liam accepts them, eyes flicking between the brightly colored blooms and Harry. “D'you mean about me asking you out when you were on your deathbed? Because in retrospect, I probably could have done that better.”

“Yeah, well.” Scuffing his shoes against the cement, Harry shrugs. “I did some soul searching, or whatever, and – if I'm not too late, if you haven't, like, changed your mind, um. My answer is yes. We can – dinner. Romantically. A date.”

For a moment, Liam just stares at him. Then he laughs, leaning heavily against the door frame. “Mate, you're worse than I am!”

Looking a bit ruffled, Harry says, “Seven o'clock Friday? I'll pick you up.”

Liam grins. “It's a date.”

-

Harry shows up at his door ten 'til seven on Friday, hair slicked back and fiddling with the silk cuff of his shirt.

“You clean up well,” Liam says, grunting when a pint-sized human smacks into the back of his legs.

“Harry!” Rosie chirps, peering up at him from behind Liam. She doesn't say anything else, just tugs on Liam's shirt, and he hefts her up with no small effort.

“What is it, darling?” Liam asks her.

Glancing at Harry again, she curls one small hand around her mouth, and whispers directly into Liam's ear. “Daddy, he looks like Prince Charming!”

Hastily, Liam turns his surprised laugh into a cough. “I know, love.” Booping Rosie's nose, he sets her back down. “Go on, help your aunt Roo with dinner. You and Jackson are to be on your best behavior, understood?”

“Yes, Daddy,” Rosie says, shooting Harry one last wide-eyed look before scampering off to the kitchen.

“I'm not sure I want to ask,” Harry says, an amused smile on his face.

Slipping out the door, Liam nudges Harry's shoulder. “Seems I may not be the only one who fancies you.”

Harry laughs, bright and loud.

Apparently determined to be a gentleman, he opens the car door for Liam. It's not until they've driven a few blocks and Harry's fingers have yet to still, tapping out an uneven rhythm on the steering wheel, that Liam cottons on. He reaches across the console until his fingers bump the back of Harry's hand, sliding them up to slot between Harry's. Harry darts a quick glance at him before fixing his eyes back on the road, but he lets Liam hold his hand, his palm clammy with nerves.

“It's been awhile since I've, you know,” Liam says to break the silence that's fallen between them. It's not an uncomfortable silence, exactly, but there's a weight to it.

“Held someone's hand?” Harry asks.

Liam laughs. “Well, yeah, I suppose, if you don't count the kids. I, um, meant like, the whole, dating thing. So sorry if I'm a bit rusty.”

Harry squeezes his hand. “Bit like riding a bike, innit? It just comes back to you.”

Squeezing back, Liam says, “Yeah, I hope so.”

Harry drives him to a place in the city that Liam's never been to. It's small and quaint, white lights strung up overhead and candles flickering on every table. He holds Liam's hand all the way through the restaurant, and the tension in his shoulders drains when they're finally seated at a table tucked away intimately in the back.

“You have to try the shortrib macaroni,” Harry says, sinking into his seat and cracking open a menu. “It will change your life.”

Liam reaches for his own menu, skimming over the appetizers. “Come here often, do you?”

Across the table, Harry's eyes look mischievous. Or maybe it's just the way the candlelight hits them. “You're fishing.”

Liam purses his lips. “It's a simple question!” When Harry just shakes his head, Liam asks, “So why'd you decide to say yes, then?”

At Harry's sharp looks, he grins. “Now I'm fishing.”

Balling up a napkin, Harry throws it at Liam's head right as the waitress comes to get their drink orders. Harry hastily clears his throat, sitting up straight in his seat like he wasn't just caught red-handed. “Just a water for me, please.”

Liam orders a beer because it's so rare that he gets to indulge. As soon as the waitress is out of earshot, Harry changes the subject, asking after the kids. It's the one subject Liam can't resist talking about.

“...terrors, as usual. Rose has got it in her head that she'll die if we don't adopt a kitten, but Jack's got his heart set on turtles, wants this massive aquarium, and… what? Why're you laughing?”

“Liam. I cannot believe it took me this long to notice. You named your kids after Titanic, didn't you?”

Liam does not flush. “Their names are Jackson and Rosemary,” he says, fighting a smile. “So any resemblance to film characters that their mother may have liked is just, uh, it's coincidence--”

“You're so full of shit, Liam Payne.” Harry's laughing, eyes crinkled and dimples creasing his cheeks, and it's the best night out Liam's had in a long, long time.

They've polished off most of their food, Liam still nursing his beer, when Harry excuses himself to go to the bathroom. As he's coming back, a young girl with thickly-lined eyes stops him. Liam can't make out their murmured conversation, just the worried crinkle of Harry's brow, the movement of his lips. The girl offers him something – a napkin, maybe – and Harry produces a pen from nowhere, scribbling on it before handing it back.

The entire exchange lasts no more than a minute, and then Harry's ambling back to the table in his usual slow gait, sinking into his chair. He doesn't offer an explanation, and Liam doesn't ask, pushing his uneaten chips around his plate.

“Do you want another drink?” Harry asks, nodding at Liam's near-empty glass. His own ice water is still half full, though the waitress has refilled it several times.

Liam shakes his head. “It's tempting, but my tolerance is shit these days. If you think a hangover is bad, imagine dealing with twin terrors on top of it.”

Harry winces in sympathy. “Point taken. Dessert, then? They have this cheesecake that's--”

“Actually,” Liam interrupts. “Sorry, but – it's getting kind of late, and we still have to drive. Maybe a raincheck on dessert?”

“Oh,” Harry says, the smile dropping from his face. “Yeah, yeah, of course. I didn't mean to--”

Reaching across the table, Liam grabs his hand. “Harry. Believe me, if the circumstances were different, I would be – I'd be wining and dining you, okay I would--”

That makes Harry wheeze out an unexpected laugh. “Oi. What do you think I'm trying to do to you right now?”

Grinning, Liam asks, “So that means you're interested in a second date, then? Because if you make me wait another week for an answer, Harry, I swear--”

“Yes, yes, I'm sorry, all right? Whenever you want, I'm ready. Promise.”

Harry flags the waitress down to ask for the cheque, and after a short but intense squabble – Harry wins, but only because Liam vows to pay for the next date – they're on their way, slipping out the door of the restaurant and down the pavement to where Harry's car is parked.

They're halfway down the block when the bloke approaches them. Liam doesn't think anything of it at first – too preoccupied with Harry's hand in his, the curve of his mouth as he pulls Liam along – and the bright, sudden flash catches him completely off guard.

“What?” Liam manages, blinking away the spots at a second flash of light. Harry swears, and Liam registers the sound – shutter click, shutter click, shutter click – before Harry's dragging him forward, nearly shouldering the bloke out of the way with a snarled, “Piss off, mate.”

Liam stumbles after Harry to the car, focusing on his feet rather than looking behind him to keep from tripping. Whoever it was snapping their picture – because that's what it was, Liam's figured out, now that he's had more than half a second to process – seems to be satisfied, because they're not following them.

“What just happened?” he asks, pulling open the car door as soon as Harry gets it unlocked. “Harry, what was that?”

“I'm so sorry, Liam,” Harry says once they're in the car. “Fuck.” He slams his head back against the headrest, eyes closed and fingers curled around the steering wheel hard enough that his knuckles are white. He hasn't even put the key in the ignition yet.

“What's happening?” Liam repeats, feeling like a broken record. His heart is racing, thudding against his rib cage.

“I thought they were over me. I thought – fuck, fuck, we weren't even in London.”

“Harry,” Liam says more sharply. “What's going on?”

“I'm going to take you home, and I think – maybe you should stay off the internet for a few days. This'll blow over, I promise. It always does.”

What will blow over? Harry, why was some nutjob taking our picture?”

“I'm sorry,” is all Harry says, finally starting the car. He's quiet the rest of the drive, chewing perpetually at his bottom lip. He doesn't look at Liam even once, and Liam stops pushing, lets the silence settle between them like something tangible.

By the time Harry pulls up in front of Liam's house, he's no less tense than he was outside of the restaurant. Liam hesitates, his fingers resting on the door handle. “You okay?” he asks, even though the answer's obvious.

“I'm fine,” Harry lies, offering Liam a poor impression of his usual bright smile. He glances in Liam's direction, but doesn't quite manage to meet Liam's eye. “I'll, um. I'll call you, yeah?”

“Sure.” Liam waits a beat, but Harry doesn't offer anything else, so with a murmured “good night, then” Liam climbs out of the car, shutting the door gently behind him.

-

Liam doesn't hear from Harry for days. He promised he wouldn't make Liam wait for an answer again, but even when Liam reaches out, he gets nothing in return. Harry doesn't respond to his texts, doesn't answer his calls, and he's never outside when Liam is, even though the newspaper that appears on his front stoop faithfully disappears inside each day.

Liam's got half a mind to show up unannounced, start banging on Harry's door, but he's got the kids to drop off at school and a shift at work and a dog to walk and so many commitments, he's not sure where to slot in Harry's on-again, off-again antics.

Harry's antics, period, because he still hasn't offered an explanation.

No, that comes about thirty-seven minutes into Liam's next shift. He's just started his rundown of the daily checklist, inspecting the fire engine and hoses, when Samuels waltzes into the garage bay, whistling a jaunty little tune.

“Payno,” he says, and when Liam looks up, his smile is all teeth.

“Samuels,” says Liam, nodding at him.

“Have a good weekend?” Samuels asks, and there's something about his tone that makes Liam stand a little straighter.

He shrugs, eyes on the hose knobs he's meant to be checking. “Sure. It was all right.”

“Just all right?”

“That's what I said,” Liam manages, keeping his voice even and light.

“Huh,” Samuels drawls. “Well, we had a bit of excitement 'round ours. The missus was doing the grocery shopping, and you'll never guess what she found.”

Liam doesn't look up. “Discount crisps.”

Samuels laughs. Pulling out a glossy magazine, he shoves it in Liam's face, finger jabbing at the page. “Even better. Recognize that ugly mug?”

Taking a step back, Liam glances down at the mag. It's full of paparazzi shots of people he doesn't recognize, but presumes are famous or who would care? Liam doesn't, until his gaze snags on one photo in particular. His stomach drops.

Snatching the magazine from Samuels, Liam ignores his indignant 'hey!' of protest. Up close, it's even more obvious what Liam is looking at. His mouth goes completely dry. “I,” he says, but can't come up with a single word to follow. Shutting his mouth, he walks out of the garage bay, ignoring Samuels' shouted, “Oi, you wanker. Give it back!”

-

The rest of Liam's shift does not go any better. He spends most of it avoiding Samuels – not an easy task, given the small size of the station – and trying to keep the growing paranoia at bay whenever he walks into a room, only for the conversation to abruptly cut off. It's just in his head, he tells himself. The guys aren't whispering about him. Probably. Maybe.

What little sleep he manages to grab barely takes the edge of exhaustion off, and after an early morning call, his shift finally comes to a merciful end. Running on fumes, Liam pulls up out front and kills the ignition. He sits there for a long time, keys in hand, his gaze unfocused but his mind far from blank.

When he finally pulls himself from the driver's seat, he doesn't take the familiar route to his front door. Liam doesn't hesitate at all; at least, not until his feet come to a stop at Harry's door with nowhere left to go.

“I'm sorry,” Harry had said, but not for what. No, he left Liam in the dark, gave him no warning at all about the storm that was coming. Liam lifts his hand and bangs his fist on the door with every bit of feeling he's got in him.

It's a lot of feeling, but apparently not loud enough for Harry to answer. Liam bangs a few more times before he gives up, sagging against the door in defeat.

“God damn it, Harry,” he mutters. Weary to the bone, he trudges home, circling round the hedges that separate their yards. Inside, Lady greets him with her usual excitement, yipping and wriggling and jumping on him like he didn't blow a bunch of money on obedience classes, and Liam sinks to his knees, scratching her behind the ears.

It's not until he lets her out into the back garden, stifling a yawn, that he remembers what Harry said that night in the car. He promised this – whatever this is – would blow over, but Liam made no promises to stay off the internet. It takes a good five minutes to track down his ancient laptop (he eventually finds it shoved up on the top shelf and buried under several Harry Potter books), and his leg won't stop jiggling the entire time it takes to boot it up. Fingers fumbling over the keys, it takes Liam a few tries to type harry styles in the search bar.

Liam doesn't know what to expect when he hits search, but it isn't link after link, image after image, or an entire Wikipedia page. The top image, of course, matches the photo from Samuels' stupid magazine, the headline screaming “HARRY STYLES' NEW MAN?” above the shot of Liam's wide, confused eyes and Harry's ducked head. Their clasped hands are visible too, Harry's grip white-knuckled in the bright flash. Liam swallows thickly and scrolls past it.

He clicks the next link, and then the one after it, and the one after that. He can't stop clicking, can't stop reading, even though it makes his skin crawl. The story isn't clear at first, but Liam slowly pieces it together headline by headline.

ROCK STAR OR ROCK BOTTOM?

THE DIRECTIONS' STYLES BACK IN REHAB

TOUR CANCELED AFTER FRONTMAN HARRY STYLES HOSPITALIZED

The pictures are even worse. Harry is pale and glassy-eyed in most of them, his hair hanging in wild tangles down past his shoulders. Liam almost doesn't recognize him. He scrolls back further, until he finds images of Harry with fuller cheeks and a brighter smile, the one that takes up his whole face, crinkling his eyes. He looks happy. He looks young.

Liam finally has to shut his laptop, breathing deeply through his nose.

-

Possibly the best thing about being a dad, Liam reckons, is that he doesn't have the time to wallow in self-pity or regret. His kids don't care that his entire world has just been tipped on its head. They want dinner, and biscuits, and shoes that light up when they walk because Freddie from school has shoes like that, and why can't we have light up shoes, Dad?

“If you're good, maybe Santa will bring you a pair for Christmas,” Liam says, stirring the eggs. It's breakfast for dinner tonight, a house favorite.

“But Christmas isn't for forever,” Jackson whinges.

“We want them now,” Rosie adds.

“Do you want butter or margarine on your toast?” Liam asks.

Both kids are prickly all night, and it takes twice as long as usual to coax them through their bedtime routine. Liam has to threaten to ground them before they'll brush their teeth, but three bedtime stories later he's mostly forgiven. Shutting off the light, Liam tiptoes downstairs, where there's washing up to do and a dog to let out and laundry to fold, amongst a million other things.

Liam gets as far as rolling up his sleeves and turning on the faucet before he glances up, eyes snagging on Harry's kitchen window. It's been dark since that night, but now there's a cheerful glow around the edges of the curtains.

Slowly, Liam turns off the tap, excess water dripping from his fingers. Wiping them against his trousers until they're mostly dry, he lets himself out the back door, Lady trotting out behind him. She busies herself sniffing around the tree trunk she's sniffed a thousand times before, tail wagging happily. Liam can't look away from Harry's window.

There's the wooden fence Rosie once climbed between them, and Harry's carefully pruned flowers, and his less careful past that's caught up to him. It's not an insurmountable distance when Liam leans down and scoops up a few pebbles, tossing them one by one so they plink against Harry's kitchen window.

After only a few throws, the curtain twitches. Harry peers out the window, backlit by the kitchen light, his hair sticking up in its usual disarray. His eyes widen when he realizes the source of the noise, and that he's been caught out.

His face disappears from the window, and for a moment, Liam thinks he's going to retreat further inside and pretend he never saw Liam. Then the back door opens with a low creak and Harry's ambling out onto the patio, rubbing his arms like he's cold.

“Rocks on the window, Liam, really? What are we, teenagers?” His tone is light, almost teasing, but he keeps his arms crossed over his chest and there's a defensive hunch to his shoulders.

“You didn't return my messages,” Liam says, and Harry winces. Before he can reply and say something that will make Liam's teeth grind, Liam adds, “And anyway, the way I see it, we both had to grow up too quick. Maybe we deserve to have some teenage hijinks.”

“Teenage hijinks,” Harry repeats. “Think I've had my fair share of those, mate.”

With a slow nod, Liam says, “Yeah, I, um. I read about that. I read quite a bit about you, if I'm being honest.”

Harry's complete lack of a reaction is somehow worse than whatever Liam was expecting him to do. “Right.”

Liam shoves his hands in his pockets because he doesn't know what else to do with them. “You should have told me.”

“I know.” Harry sounds hollow, and that's not – it isn't fair.

“I don't think you do,” Liam says, picking each word with care. “One of the guys from work showed me the photo. My face, right there in the middle of a magazine. I was so – god, Harry. I came knocking on your door first thing when I got off work, just about ready to rip your head off.”

Harry swallows audibly. “Liam, I'm so--”

“Wait,” Liam interrupts. “I really need you to hear me out before you say anything. I was mad, all right, and I was – I was hurt, that you wouldn't – that'd you just – it sucked, okay. But the more I read, I just. I wished I hadn't read it. I wished I'd heard it straight from you.”

Fiddling with one of his rings, Harry says, “It wouldn't have changed anything. However you heard it – the truth was always going to ruin things.”

Liam snorts. “The truth? Harry, most of what I read was a load of rubbish.”

“Maybe,” Harry allows. “But the parts that matter – those are true.”

“Which parts are those?” Liam counters. Lady wanders over, settling on her haunches next to him, and he takes a deep breath. “The number one albums? The sold out tours? Because that – none of that matters to me, Harry. I fell for you before I knew about any of that.”

Harry's laugh sounds almost like a sob. “Don't – you can't just say shit like that, Liam! How could you fall for me, when you don't even know me? Did you miss the parts about the cheating scandals, the drugs, my rehab stints? The tabloids didn't get it all right, sure, but they got enough of it. They ripped me to shreds. Do you even know--” he cuts himself off, sucking in a sharp breath. “Do you know what it's like, to walk in a room and realize that everyone there knows all your deepest, darkest secrets? That they've seen you at your very worst, splashed across the front page of the papers? I've spent the past few years picking up the pieces of my life, and then you come along, and--”

He shakes his head. “I don't know how I managed to stumble across the one person on the planet who didn't recognize me, who didn't watch me crash and burn. I knew this thing between us was too good to be true, but I wanted it anyway. Maybe it was selfish, not telling you who I was, but I got to feel like a person again. You have no idea how fame strips you of every-- fuck.”

Liam waits a beat, but Harry's run out of steam, lips pressed together and still shaking his head.

“Do you know why?” Liam asks as Harry runs his hand through his hair with a jerky motion, leaving it somehow even messier than it was before. “Do you know why I had no idea who you were?”

Harry opens his mouth for a moment, then snaps his jaw shut. “I don't know. You've been living under a rock?”

“Because when I was 17,” Liam says evenly, “I knocked my girlfriend up, and I've been dealing with that ever since.” When Harry just blinks at him, Liam continues, “Must've been around the time you released your first album. Managed to miss your whole career, I guess.”

“Jesus, Liam.”

“Don't – I don't want you to misunderstand me.” Liam hasn't felt the need to explain himself to anyone in years, but Harry, he thinks, deserves to hear it. “I – we were both so young, when I got her pregnant. Just stupid kids, really. I wanted to do right by her, and we did the whole – the whole nine yards, the backyard wedding, the white dress, with a fairly obvious bump by then.”

Liam goes quiet for a moment. He can still remember the way his hands shook when he slipped the ring on her finger. His mum's sniffling was audible from the front row, not quite drowned out by the frantic pounding of his heart. “We got divorced right before their first birthday,” he says when he finds his voice again. “She never wanted a family, felt so trapped, and I – I mean, we were 18, you know? Had no clue, no clue what we were doing.”

“I'm sorry,” Harry says, quiet but sincere.

“Don't be. We were miserable together.” It comes out sharper than Liam means it to, and he takes the time to slow his breathing, to steady himself before he continues. “After the divorce, she moved to New York to follow her own dreams, but we still, you know, there's phone calls and holidays. The kids know she loves them, even if she isn't around as much.”

He shoves his hands in his pockets, rocking back on his heels. Lady presses her warm weight against his leg, and he frees one hand to reach down and scratch behind her ears. “So, that's my story. I wouldn't want to relive any of those nights, that first year, when I was either trying to soothe a crying baby or fighting with their mum, but – I wouldn't change it, you know? Because I got this out of it, in the end. And I'd never, ever give this up.”

Harry bites his lip. It's a bruised red when he releases it. “Thanks for telling me.”

“Yeah, well. I wanted you to know, that you're not the only one with baggage.”

“It's not the same though, is it?” Harry hasn't taken a step back, hasn't moved at all, but Liam's suddenly hyper aware of the space between them, the fence that splits their lives. “It's not just me who gets hurt because of my baggage.”

“That's not – Harry, that's not the point I was trying to make.” Liam takes a step closer, dislodging Lady. “You're right, okay, I have no idea what it was like, going through what you went through. I got a taste of it today, and I hated it. You didn't deserve any of the shit they said about you.”

“Don't be naive, Liam,” Harry says. He sounds tired. “They weren't nice about it, but a lot of it was true.”

Liam presses against the fence, the wood biting into his palms as he leans over it. “I'm going to be honest with you, Harry. I really don't care about your past. You've been nothing but a kind, decent person since I met you. People are more than the things they've done, all right? That's the point I was trying to make.”

Harry stares at him. “God,” he says. “You're so – mate, I appreciate it, I really do, but you're not thinking this through. What if pictures of Jackson and Rosie end up in the tabloids, huh? The paps clearly aren't done with me. Do you really want your kids linked to someone like me?”

Liam shrugs. “Rosie will get a big head, I guess.”

“I'm being serious.”

He looks it, eyes narrowed and lips pressed into a thin line. Liam sighs. “Obviously nothing is more important to me than my kids, okay? But there's room for you too, Harry. It's not as black and white as you're making it seem. You're not an awful person.” If Harry's resolve is crumbling, he hides it well. Liam pushes harder. “Look, I'm not asking you to marry me. I'm asking you to take me out on a few dates and see where this goes, and maybe re-evaluate things if the whole, like, tabloid thing gets out of control.”

Harry purses his lips. “That's so bloody reasonable. Why do you make it so hard to say no to you?”

“Because I want you to say yes.” There's a twitch at the corner of Harry's mouth, and Liam has to bite back his own grin. “So is that a yes? If you leave me hanging, Harry...”

“Fine,” he says, and he's definitely fighting a smile. “Fine, you lunatic, it's a yes, if you're going to be so damn persistent about it.”

Laughing, Liam leans further over the fence, reaching a hand out until he can grab a fistful of Harry's shirt to drag him closer. Harry almost trips and Liam steadies him, placing his free hand on Harry's hip. He squeezes gently, just to see the way it makes Harry's eyes crinkle even more.

“Well, if that's sorted,” he says, and the fence between them doesn't really matter when they both lean in, meeting halfway. The first touch of Harry's mouth against his is soft, almost tentative. Liam keeps his fingers curled around Harry's shirt, holding him close; sneaks the fingertips of the hand he still has resting on Harry's hips beneath his hem to touch warm skin.

Liam feels a little dizzy when they break apart. “I've kind of wanted to kiss you since the day you first showed up on my doorstep with Rosie,” he confesses, barely more than a whisper. “But I've wanted it to matter since the night you helped us find the dog.”

“Liam.” Harry blinks at him, mouth parted in delighted surprise. “That was smooth. I thought you were out of practice!”

“I'm just being honest! That's, um. That's gonna be a rule, by the way. I need you to be honest with me, if we're doing this. And you can't just shut me out when things get hard. That's another rule.”

Harry nods. He's close enough that Liam can see each individual eyelash. “That's fair. All my cards are out on the table now, anyway.”

“Good,” Liam says, and Harry's mouth is still right there, so he kisses him again. It's less gentle this time, Harry's lips parting easily, and Liam slides his hand up to cup the back of his neck, fingers trailing over the short hair at his nape.

“You know,” he gets out between kisses, because it's sort of hard to stop kissing Harry, now that he's started. “The one thing I am kind of disappointed about is that I met you after you cut all your hair off. I would have liked to run my fingers through it at least once.”

“Liam,” Harry nearly groans. “I'll grow it back out, if you like.”

Liam nips at Harry's bottom lip, then sucks gently on it when Harry hisses. He's decided on kissing his way down Harry's neck when the distant creak of the back door opening registers.

“Daddy?”

Pulling back at the sudden interruption, Liam rubs a hand over his mouth. Harry clears his throat loudly, smoothing out his wrinkled shirt, and when Liam turns around, a sleepy-eyed Rosie is standing in the doorway, eyes big and watchful.

“What is it, darling?” Liam asks, walking towards her and kneeling down so that they're at eye level. He tucks a loose curl back behind her ear.

Rubbing her eye with a little fist, Rosie says, “I had a bad dream.”

Liam scoops her up, grunting at the weight. He presses a kiss to her temple. “All right, Rosebud, let's get you a glass of water and then back to bed, all right?” As Rosie curls sleepily into his shoulder, tucking her head under Liam's chin, he turns back towards Harry.

“Later?” he mouths a little apologetically, and Harry winks at him.

Rosie's quiet as Liam carries her inside and up the stairs, and she crawls back under the covers without protest. “Daddy,” she says in a whisper as Liam tucks the duvet up under her chin. “Are you and Harry going to get married?”

Smoothing a soft strand of hair back from her forehead, Liam settles himself on the edge of the mattress. “It's not like the films, love. Harry and I like each other a lot, but I don't know what will happen.”

Rosie considers this, her furrowed brow looking like a miniature version of Liam's. “Was it true love's first kiss?” she asks at last.

Liam doesn't like lying to his kids, so he tells her the truth. “I don't know. I think it might've been.”

“I hope so,” Rosie mumbles sleepily, her eyes slipping shut. Liam lingers just a little longer, until her breathing evens out, before tiptoeing from the room to his own bed. He's still smiling, even before he checks his phone to see a new message from Harry.

H: Friday at 7? xx



 


Liam's alarm goes off entirely too early.

With a groan, he slaps his hand out, fumbling a few times before he connects and the beeping mercifully cuts out. He rolls back over, tucking himself into the warmth of the body next to him.

“Mmm,” Harry mumbles. “Time'sit?”

Liam just grunts, burying his face in the back of Harry's neck. His soft hair tickles Liam's cheeks, curling nearly to his shoulders. Slipping an arm over Harry's waist, Liam pulls him in until their hips are flush, nuzzling the warm skin behind his ear.

The knock on the door comes about three seconds before it bursts open.

“Dad!” Rosie yells. “Harry! I can't find my copy of A Wrinkle in Time and my book report is due today.”

Harry sits up, dislodging Liam's arm. “Did you check the coffee table in the living room where you left it yesterday?”

There's a pause, and then Rosie thunders from the room. “Thanks, Harry!” she shouts over her shoulder.

“You're a better dad than I am,” Liam says, squinting one eye open. Harry smiles down at him, his fringe falling over his eyes before he pushes it back.

“Nah,” he says easily. “I just have a knack for finding things.”

Downstairs, Lady starts barking to be let out. It's still not enough to rouse Jackson, heavy sleeper that he is. Liam should get out of bed and wake him for school, get the kids' lunches packed while Harry makes breakfast. They've got the routine down, more or less.

He lingers though, stretching his arms above his head with a wide yawn. Harry doesn't seem to be in any hurry either, trailing his fingers over the newly exposed skin of Liam's stomach, edging the bottom of his t-shirt up further. His touch still sends a thrill up Liam's spine.

Mouth curving up wickedly, Harry murmurs, “I bet we have five minutes at least before we get interrupted again.”

Liam laughs. “I'm not a bloody teenager, Haz.”

Leaning down, Harry presses a kiss to the corner of Liam's mouth. “Well, it was worth a shot.” He doesn't pull away immediately, lips skating along Liam's jaw, sucking gently at Liam's pulse. Then he smacks a loud kiss to Liam's cheek before he climbs over Liam and out of bed, but Liam grabs his wrist before he can get far.

“Wait,” he says.

Harry looks back over his shoulder, waggling his eyebrows. “Change your mind?”

Five minutes isn't nearly enough time for Liam to get Harry's clothes off with any kind of satisfactory ending, but there's something else that's been on his mind. Sliding open in the drawer in his bedside table, Liam roots around until his fingers close around the small velvet box that's been shoved inside for weeks now.

Harry watches with wide eyes as Liam pulls it out, swinging his legs around so he can sit up. He thinks maybe he should be down on one knee, and possibly have more rose petals strewn about the room, or some romantic music instead of the sound of Rosie belting out some top 40 hit from the radio from downstairs. The look on Harry's face tells him that none of that matters.

“Liam,” Harry says as Liam opens the box. “What is… what are you doing?”

Liam grins at him. “Asking you to marry me. I, um, I've been trying to come up with something romantic, but--”

“Yes,” Harry interrupts before Liam can finish. “It's a yes.”